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9 Tips to Start a Bullet Journal in the New Year

If one of your New Year’s resolutions is to be more organized, or even just to get your sh*t together, then bullet journaling may be for you. The bullet journaling method is a pen-and-paper organizational system created by Ryder Carroll, similar to a mixture of a day planner and a to-do list, that involves using components such as an index (similar to a table of contents), trackers (for things like fitness, finances, and other daunting adulting tasks), and planner spreads for each month and week. Over time, the bullet journal has evolved to allow room for creativity as well as functionality, and frequently also doubles as a sketchbook, a diary, or even a scrapbook.

 

I started bullet journaling in my sophomore year of high school after being inspired by a friend’s journal, and I’ve kept it up ever since. Through keeping a bullet journal, I’ve been able to improve not only my art, but my organization and time management skills as well. Journaling has been especially helpful at keeping me on task in this humdrum time of being kept at home due to the pandemic, where the days all blend together and my responsibilities feel miles away. I’ve LOVED keeping a journal these past three years, and since it may feel daunting to take on such a big task, I wanted to take the time to share a few tips that I’ve picked up along the way. 

 

Before I begin, though, please remember: your journal does NOT have to be perfect! There really are no rules in bullet journaling, and it’s important to find and prioritize the techniques that work best for you. 

Any old supplies work!

Yes, even that old notebook you’ve had lying around forever or those pink, strawberry-scented highlighters from the elementary school book fair. Honestly, all you really need to start your journal are a notebook and writing utensil of your choice. Though having nice supplies can definitely motivate you to use it, they definitely aren’t necessary to create a beautiful, effective bullet journal. But when you’re ready to invest, bullet journalers swear by notebooks from Muji, Moleskine, and Leuchtturm (which come in plain, lined, gridded, and dot-grid paper), as well as Pilot and Muji pens, plus Zebra Mildliners (highlighters with a more pale, mild color) and Tombow Dual Brush pens.

Think about what you want out of your journal, and tailor it to fit your needs.

Are you hoping to use it to track your mental health? Look into lots of different styles of trackers, especially creative ones that help keep the task engaging with coloring or drawing. Determined to stay on top of your tasks? Use lots and lots of planner spreads, including ones that plan your day down to the hour if need be. Want to improve your drawing skills? Invest in a blank paper journal that you can also use as a sketchbook.

You don't need to be good at art. 

At its core, the bullet journaling system is merely an organization system. If you look at examples from Ryder Carroll, the creator of bullet journaling, you’ll see that it’s first and foremost meant to be functional, not necessarily frilly, so art and decorations can come later.With that being said, your journal is still an amazing place to get creative and customize with embellishments like stickers, drawings, washi tape, and more. Be as utilitarian or as creative as you like! 

Experiment!

Your first experiences with journaling will probably involve testing out lots of different spreads and formats to see what’s most effective for you. When I started journaling, I only kept one big to-do list for each month before I realized that all my tasks just wouldn’t fit in one list. Try out a bunch of spreads to see what works, and ditch what doesn’t. 

Make it a significant part of your routine.

Though the tips I’ve shared so far are important to keep in mind, they won’t help you if you don’t use your journal at all. My friends who have tried and later given up on bullet journaling say that their biggest pitfall was not being able to remember to use it regularly. I had trouble with this too at first, but over the years I’ve found that it helps to a) practically force myself to pay attention to it by always keeping it open in my line of sight and b) set aside a certain time every weekend to draw my new spreads for the next week. Despite this, it doesn’t need to take up too much time in your life, so don’t feel like you have to go out of your way to use your journal when you don’t need to.

Use online resources, but...

Look no further than the Internet and social media for journaling inspiration! There are entire treasure troves of bullet journaling inspo online in the forms of blogs, instructional videos, Instagram accounts, Pinterest boards, subreddits, and more. Some online creators even offer free, printable templates, which can be a great way to get started on making spreads, especially if you don’t feel very confident in your art skills. Moreover, bullet journaling communities as a whole are very kind and beginner-friendly, with entire forums dedicated to offering encouragement and advice and helping newbies get started with their journals.

...don't compare. 

While it can be fun to while away the hours scrolling through pages and pages of bullet journal inspo online, it only takes a moment to start feeling bad about your own spreads after comparing them to professionals. If it works for you and makes you happy, then that’s all you need :) 

Make it fun!

Making bullet journaling enjoyable for yourself is probably the best way to get into the habit of using it regularly. One of my biggest motivators to use my journal is the fact that I get to really express myself with it, and I’m always looking forward to setting up my new spreads on the weekends and experimenting with new layouts, color palettes, and more.

Don’t feel discouraged if journaling doesn’t work out.

It’s okay! Different things work for different people. There’s always the options of using a ready-made planner, or a reminders app on your phone. And who knows, maybe you’ll even come back to bullet journaling in the future when you’re ready to take it on again- that’s what happened to me!

BONUS: more places to shop for journaling supplies

Daiso ($): this Japanese dollar store equivalent carries loads of cute, affordable stationery, from cat stickers to shiba inu washi tape to A5 brown paper sketchbooks. Most items here are ¥100, or $1.50.

Muji ($$$): a slightly pricier option, this Japanese department store carries stationery in a more sleek aesthetic (think brown paper journals, snow-white pens and notepads, and clear plastic pencil cases and file organizers). If you’re a fan of more neutral colors and are okay with splurging a bit, definitely look here. 

Michael’s ($$): sells all sorts of arts and crafts supplies, including a decent selection of stationery, but can be expensive- so go armed with lots of coupons!

Amazon (prices vary): carries a variety of nice stationery from lots of different vendors. My artsy and journaling friends have expressed satisfaction with stickers they bought from Amazon, and I recently picked up a five-pack of green, black, and gray washi tape from them as a Christmas gift to myself that I can’t wait to use (by the time this article is published, it will probably have arrived- yay!).

Jetpens ($$$): this San Jose-based online store is known for its high-quality stationery, especially pens (everything from your standard ballpoint and gel pens to fancy fountain and brush pens).

AliExpress (prices vary): AliExpress is super popular with the online journaling crowd, with sticker packs selling for as low as $0.30. However, buying from it may be a gamble, as quality and shipping times can be unreliable (like Amazon, countless different vendors operate out of the platform, and orders ship all the way from China).

Sites like Etsy, Redbubble, and Society6, as well as Instagram shops (prices vary): Many artists and bullet journalers often design their own stickers and other accessories to sell online- support small businesses! (Some shop owners will even offer custom discount codes, so look out for those as well!)

Alison Sun (she/her/hers) is a second-year Computer Science major (for now) at UCSC who tries her best to be a bright and sunny presence to those around her every day. When she's not toiling over Python, you can find her bullet journaling, rereading her favorite romance novels, or dancing to Twice's "Fancy" at her desk. If you're reading this, she would like to remind you to go drink some water.
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