Lessons from Bullet Journaling
20-something miseries, being a writer

12 Lessons I Learned from 12 Months of Bullet Journaling

It’s official: I’ve maintained my bullet journal for a full year! When I first tried bullet journaling a few years ago, it fizzled out into insane scribblings within a few months, but I am proud to report that my current bullet journal is still fully functional and I use it nearly every day. If you’re new to bullet journaling, it’s basically a planner that you design yourself. This is ideal for me, because even though I desperately need organization in my life, I tend to feel intimidated or oppressed by traditional planners. My bullet journal is an explosion of colors and mess-ups and random ideas, and I love every inch of it.

I’ve met a lot of people who say they would love to bullet journal, but they “just couldn’t.” Sure, the bullet journal isn’t effective for everyone, but I assure you that everyone can do it. You just might need a little push of motivation and encouragement, which is exactly what this post is for. These are the 12 most valuable bujo tips I’ve learned in the last year. Enjoy!

1. Just start, even if you don’t feel like you know what you’re doing.

Honestly, this is when you’re typically you’re most creative and fun, because you are free to try anything. But I know it doesn’t necessarily feel that way. Starting a bullet journal can feel a bit like staring out at the Pacific Ocean and being told to “just swim.” You have no idea where you’re going or what you’re doing or if you’re going to be able to keep your head above water. That’s where a life raft called Pinterest comes in.

There is no shame in using spreads you find online. In fact, that’s where 90% of my spreads still come from today. The bullet journal is not a creativity contest, it’s a planner. If someone else had a great idea for how to organize their week and you think it would help you too, go ahead and give it a shot! This is the very first weekly spread I made back in July 2018, and it came directly from Pinterest.

2. Feel free to “waste” pages.

The best part of the bullet journal is that you get to design it yourself, so no page is “wasted,” even if it doesn’t turn out the way you want, or if you never actually, ahem, use it. At the start of 2019, I made a big list called “365 Days of Gratitude,” and the plan was to write one thing I was grateful for every day of the year. Yeah, I didn’t even make it to March. It turns out, having one big list all the way at the beginning of my bujo instead of little lists added in with my monthly planning was a bad idea. I cannot for the life of me remember to flip back to the front every day.

Sorry it’s sideways…I am not a technological genius.

3. Don’t underestimate the soul-uplifting power of shiny washi tape and pretty pens.

Cutesy bullet journal accessories have cleared my skin and cured my depression. This is a lie, but still, they are powerful tools for motivation and creativity. Organization can get tedious, so it’s kind of nice to use fun colors and stickers in the process. For instance, when my husband and I were saving for a house, we had to be pretty strict with our spending, which wasn’t always super fun. But I made this house drawing to keep track of our progress, and every time I got to color in something new, I felt awesome.

4. That being said, pretty doesn’t always mean functional.

Last September, in an attempt to keep up with my writing for both my job and my own blog, I made a beautiful spread designed to help me stay on top of things. It was organized, colorful, fun—and totally useless.

Function over aesthetic.

There are several problems with this spread. First, it’s not overly flexible. See all the arrows and whatnot? Instead of giving myself room to adjust and write different things than expected, I tried to nail myself into particular goals for the week, and I’m finding that that just does not work for me.

Second, it gives me way too much space to overestimate my work and blogging abilities, and almost no room for my daily responsibilities. There are so many little things I did but didn’t think of as “tasks” because they weren’t written down in my bullet journal because they didn’t fit. And even though each blog post and work article only takes up one line in this spread, they represent hours of work. This spread was visually appealing, but not very well visually organized.

5. Sometimes, ugly and boring work best.

If the thought of updating your bujo is exhausting and terrible, but you KNOW you need to stay organized if you want to prevent your life from going up in flames, settle for a boring, ugly spread this week. You won’t see many of these online, because no one wants to brag about weeks where their brain is being such garbage that the idea of making a pretty list is overwhelming, but believe me, everyone who bullet journals has off weeks.

I’ve had weeks where I’ve skipped bullet journaling entirely because I knew I didn’t have it in me to make a nice spread, so I didn’t make one at all. I’m learning that it’s far better to make something, even if it’s hideous and disorganized, than to do nothing at all. This is my “spread” from last week. It’s ugly and boring, but I got a lot more done than if I hadn’t made anything at all.

Ugly and boring is better than nothing.

6. If you find something that works for you, stick with it.

When I started bullet journaling, one of my favorite parts was spending an hour or two on Pinterest each week looking for the perfect spread. But this January, I fell in love with one particular spread. Instead of assigning specific tasks to specific days at the beginning of the week, it involved writing down everything you wanted to get done for the week in one big list, then checking them off when you got to them. It gave me the much-needed flexibility lacking from my beautiful but non-functional spread I mentioned. It was sad at first, doing the same spread every week, but I was getting more done. Maybe because I was wasting a lot less time on Pinterest…?

Effective bujo spread

7. Then again, if it stops working, feel free to change things up.

This spread worked so well for me for nearly four months, so you can imagine my panic when I started to realize it maybe wasn’t working so well anymore. One downside of using the same spread over and over is that it can become a bit of a crutch, and when it comes time to switch things up, it’s freaking hard. Now, each week I have to come up with a whole new spread all over again, and that’s vaguely intimidating after relying on one spread for so long. But it also gave me a breath of that same freedom I felt when I first started bullet journaling. I could do…anything. My first foray back into new spreads each week was pretty basic, but it was colorful and fun. I’ll take that.

8. Don’t worry about making use of every millimeter of space.

This funky spread taught me something very recently about bullet journaling: sometimes wasted space is good. There is a lot of wasted space in this spread, small sections that are completely unusable, but those may be more important than I first realized, because I’m finding myself really enjoying this layout. I’ve done something to this effect twice now, and both times, I accomplished nearly everything on my to do lists. I think the wasted space opens up something in my brain, though I can’t quite pinpoint what. Maybe it reminds me that bullet journaling isn’t about efficiency, it’s about getting things done. Plus, limiting my space for writing tasks each day actually forces me to prioritize, whereas wide open space allows me to way overbook myself.

Spread with wasted space

9. Bullet journaling is great for staying organized around the holidays.

If you’re a scatterbrained, disorganized person like me, the holidays can be hard. Did I actually place that order for Grandpa Jim’s sweater, or did I just dream about doing it? Wait, what was my budget for parents’ gifts again? Shoot, can Etsy get that cute picture frame here in time? This year was my first Christmas with my bujo, and guys, it changed EVERYTHING. I had everyone’s presents here, wrapped, and relatively close to budget price, all before Christmas. It was amazing.

Plus, bullet journaling can help you collect gift ideas throughout the year! You can use it for ideas for yourself too, if you’re like me and want like 9 million things but totally blank when December rolls around and everyone is willing to actually buy you said things. Check out this adorable gift idea tracker I made back in August and used all year.

Christmas gift idea tracker

10. Give yourself space for a brain dump.

If you worry about “messing up” your spreads with random thoughts, but know that if you don’t write them down, you will absolutely forget about them entirely, I give you: the brain dump. I love these. Sometimes I include them in my weekly spreads if I can tell it’s going to be a scattered kind of week, other times I just dedicate a full page to brain dumping and come back to it throughout the month. Literally anything that comes to mind that I don’t want to forget, but doesn’t fit in any other category in my spread, goes in the brain dump. I’ve brain dumped poetry ideas, random mental health ramblings, things I want to remember to do but know I don’t have time for this week, and more. Writing it down means there’s a better chance I’ll actually come back to it in some way, and it allows me to stay focused on whatever I’m actually supposed to be working on.

11. It’s okay to “fail.”

Yeah, this one is really hard for me, but it’s true. You can totally fuck up in your bujo and it’s OKAY. I have misspelled very simple words, made spreads upside down, accidentally skipped pages, and even just stopped filling out my bujo for a few days (or more). May was a busy month, and I ended up totally “failing” to keep up with my mood or habit tracker for nearly half the month. Am I overly proud of that? No, not really, but remember, this is a planner, not a cult. You’re a person, and you’re going to make mistakes, and that’s fine. There are solutions too, if the mistakes really bug you, but I encourage you to accept your mistakes where you can, because it’s just good for your brain in general to accept that you’re a person.

It's okay to fail

If a mistake is driving you nuts and it’s just an isolated issue on the page, you can always cover it up with a fun sticker or some washi tape. If the whole page is a mess, honestly, you can always just tear it out. That’s the nice part about bullet journals, they aren’t pre-made, so you can rip out pages without totally messing up your whole calendar year. I have totally done all of these things.

12. Try coming up with spreads specific to your needs, and keep tweaking them until they actually work for you.

For me, the best part of my bujo is the fact that I can keep track of things I want to keep track of, not just things the planner company thinks I should track. For instance, I make a relatively intricate mood tracker every month. I’ve already made a video on how I make my current mood tracker, but it took time to make it work for me as well as it does now. I started with just tracking my mood in a pretty wheel:

First mood tracker

Then one month I thought it would be fun to try tracking my mood by coloring various objects. There are a lot of these on Pinterest, and my theme for the month was leaves, so I made some mood leaves. I definitely didn’t love this though. My wheel gave me a much clearer picture of how I was feeling day to day, and the leaves were a bit too disorganized for my taste.

Mood tracker

So I went back to my mood wheel, but with a few key alterations. First, I realized that having two different colors for different kinds of happy was just adding an unnecessary layer of confusion, color-wise, so I stuck with just yellow. I also started tracking a few key factors along with my mood, like sleep, caffeine and alcohol intake, my period, and suicidal ideation. This is the mood wheel I use now, and for the foreseeable future.

So that’s it! That’s what I’ve learned during my year of bullet journaling. If you’re considering starting a bujo, I hope these tips help, and feel free to ask any questions in the comments!

Bonus: Some of my favorite spreads!

Trigger log
Trigger log! So helpful for realizing that my emotions have causes, and that’s okay!

I absolutely loved this weekly spread, it was just so pretty!

Review spread
Monthly review spread. So pretty! I used to do these, but then I just sort of…stopped. They were a lot of work and I didn’t feel like I got a lot out of them.

NaNoWriMo Spread
NaNoWriMo spread to keep track of the poems I wrote each day! Very helpful, and so crisp and neat!

How long things take
This is one of the most helpful pages in existence if you have time-blindness like me. Now if I would just use it more…

2 thoughts on “12 Lessons I Learned from 12 Months of Bullet Journaling”

  1. What a great post – I started a bujo last year but fell into the same trap as you mentioned of thinking it had to be perfect and that I was failing if I didn’t do it every day. Think I will dig it out and start again.


    1. That’s great! Yeah, it definitely took some time for me to find a balance between using my bujo as a creative outlet and using it as an actual, functional planner. You can do it though!! Are there any tips or anything you’d be interested in reading more about?


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