It’s no secret I’m a big fan of bullet journaling. My writing bullet journal is my number one tool for achieving my writing goals.
Also, I love the smell of a fresh notebook and an excuse to play with markers.
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I hear from a lot of people who want to start a bullet journal but feel too overwhelmed to start. It doesn’t have to be hard, but looking at the art-installation-worthy Instagram posts can sure make it seem that way.
So today, I’m sharing how I set up my bullet journal – step-by-step so you can follow along. Though I’m setting mine up for the new year, you can start yours anytime you like. There’s no reason to wait!
If you don’t know what a bullet journal is, my introductory guide to bullet journaling is a good place to start.
Ready to make your bullet journal? Let’s do it!
Step 1: Gather Supplies
First off, gather your supplies.
Really, any notebook will do. My first time, I used a spare composition notebook to make a planner (before I had even heard of bullet journaling).
But you’ll be using this thing for a while, so I think it’s worth splurging on something that will hold up to being tossed around in a bag for months.
This year’s model is a little Clairefontaine notebook. It has silky smooth pages, and it’s slim, so I won’t be dragging around unused pages all year.
Whatever you get, I do recommend looking for something with either dot grid or graph paper inside. It makes it a lot easier to draw boxes, shapes, and get nice layouts.
Things to write with
Like notebooks, any writing utensil will do. I used a cheap Bic when I started out with my composition notebook.
Now I prefer a gel rollerball or a fountain pen. They cost more upfront (mine ranging from $9 to $50), but they last for years, and the ink refills are cheap.
You may also want to add some color to your toolkit – I like fineliners, but I’ve also used cheap highlighters and markers picked up at back-to-school sales.
That’s it. A notebook and something to write with is all that’s required. Sure, you can add extras: stickers, stencils, washi tape, markers that cost more than my fancy latte, and the like. If those make you happy and fit in your budget, great!
Otherwise, skip it. I usually do. Even after this many years as a bullet journal evangelist, my supply kit is still pretty small.
So let’s jump right in and get started.
Step 2: Let go of perfection.
Do you have empty notebook syndrome? It’s ok. Lots of other writers also have beautiful notebooks sitting on their shelf unused because they are too precious to use.
But an unused notebook is an unloved notebook. They’re much nicer when they’re used. Yes, my old notebooks look ragged – they’re worn from being drug to coffeeshop writing sessions. They’ve probably got stains from the coffee, too. And they’re full of Big Audacious Plans and, more importantly, the checkboxes and scribbles that let me make those big audacious plans into reality.
My old bullet journals are a physical manifestation of work, accomplishment, and creation. None of which would happen if I was too scared to actually use them.
So. Let’s start on the right foot.
Open up the cover and write your name big and large. I recommend adding a phone number and email address. I also usually put in a note that I’ll give a reward for a lost bullet journal.
Write neatly, but don’t aim for an artistic masterpiece. The point is to start with being yourself – imperfect handwriting and all. It’ll make it easier when you inevitably make a mistake later.
Congrats! This isn’t just a notebook – now it’s a bullet journal. It’s a little bit less perfect, and that’s great.
Step 3: Number the Pages
Not exactly scintillating, but it’s really necessary. Put on a podcast or your favorite streaming show. You’ll be done long before the podcast is over.
(Or you can buy a notebook with prenumbered pages.)
Step 4: Index
The very first pages of your notebook are dedicated to your index. Three page spreads are usually enough. You can get fancy with headers. Or not.
My 2020 Clairefontaine notebook comes with a table of contents preprinted. In the past, I’ve made the index myself. You can also print and tape in the index in my free printable bullet journal pages.
Right now, your index will be empty, but it will soon fill up like the old one shown above. Then it becomes a handy reference for finding things in your bullet journal.
Step 5: Future Log
Create a place to park future dates and to-dos. I like a simple design – each spread shows six months, so it takes two spreads to cover the year. That’s the layout I used in my free printable bullet journal pages.
Go ahead and add any dates that you already know – like a conference you want to attend or the dates of your critique group meetings. You can also use this as a place to put reminders of future tasks – like remembering to contact bloggers about a blog tour in September. You’ll be adding more to this as the year goes.
And don’t forget to add the future log to your index so you can find it later!
Step 6: Calendex
If you don’t know what a calendex is, check it out on my earlier blog post on collections.
Strictly speaking, a calendex is optional. Lots of people do a normal monthly calendar instead. But I’ve found that the calendex helps me get a handle on my workflow.
It can take a little while to set up, so now’s a good time to put that podcast back on.
How to draw a calendex: This is probably the most complex layout I use, but it’s not that hard to do.
- Number the days starting at the bottom. So start with 31 at the bottom, left corner of the page, and count down as you move rows up the page. This way, leftover space is at the top, which looks nicer, in my opinion.
- Divide into columns. If you’re using dot grid or graph pages, count the number of dots on your page and divide by 3 (for 5ish-inch width notebooks) or 6 (for full-page notebooks). If you’re using blank or lined paper, you’ll have to get that ruler and measure to divide it up. I suggest doing this after the numbers so you can have the lines begin at the top of the numbers, leaving space for a header.
- Mark off extra days on months. Your numbers go all the way to 31, but some months have fewer days. Cross those out.
- Grab a calendar and mark off weeks. Not everyone does this, but I find it very handy. I put a line in between Sundays and Mondays.
- Add a header!
Bonus tip: If you mess up (August doesn’t have 29 days, even in a leap year), washi tape is your friend.
I usually add a colorful paperclip to this page since I know I’ll be coming back to this one often.
Step 7: Goals and Plans
Ok, we got the boring stuff out of the way. Now we get to the good stuff. **rubs hands together**
Every year I go through a process of reflecting on the previous year and drafting goals for the upcoming year. I usually do this at the end of the previous bullet journal – it’s an excellent way to complete the year and close out my bullet journal.
Then I write my new goals Big and Bold right at the beginning of my new bullet journal. All year long, as I plan my work, I keep those goals in mind. That intentionality is what translates goals into accomplishments.
Walking through a goal-setting process could easily be a whole blog series, so I’ll limit it to just a few tidbits of advice here:
- Definitely do some goal setting.
- Choose a small number of goals to start with. (I’ve been doing this a long time, and my goals have grown with me.)
- Make SMART goals so you’ll achieve them.
- Review your goals periodically and make adjustments if you need to.
Step 8: Collections
I’ve written a whole post on collections you might want to add to your writing bullet journal.
This is where you start to personalize your bullet journal so that it matches your needs and goals. Design your bullet journal to support your goals.
Want to read 20 novels this year? Create a collection with space to list all 20 books.
Want to write that novel this year? Or to write 12 new picture book manuscripts? A collection where you can check of chapters or manuscripts may be just the thing.
Want to finally attend a writing conference? Make a collection to keep track of all the bits and bobs of information – list conferences you could attend, create a budget, jot down the name of potential roommates, packing lists – whatever you need to make that goal happen.
Whatever your goals, making a collection for it is setting an intention to meet your goal and making a way to keep track of your progress.
Here’s what goes into my bullet journal right at the beginning of the year. Since these are useful to most writers, I made templates in my free printable bullet journal inserts.
- Accomplishments – this is where I track all the small steps that add up to big achievements throughout the year.
- Ideas – any random scraps of ideas get noted here. That way, they don’t get lost.
- Blogging – I list blog ideas and write out what I blog on each month
- Critique group – I keep a collection for each critique group. (I have three!) Each one lists pertinent information like meeting schedule and format. Each month I note what I submit and the critiques I have to do. I check them off as I complete them.
- Listing of manuscripts – Writing 8-12 picture books each of the last few years means I need a way to keep track!
- Newsletter – this one is new this year. I send it out quarterly and need a place to park ideas and track progress.
I make sure to go back and add these things to my index.
And now I can add them to the Calendex, too.
Step 9: Use your New Bullet Journal!
Set up is done, and I can now use my new journal. Yay!
At the beginning of each month, I make my magical monthly spread for the upcoming month.
Here’s my January 2020 spread all ready to go.
Throughout the year, I’ll work on filling in the collections I set up at the beginning. Since they’re tied to my goals, that also means I’m making progress on those.
I make new collections as I need them. I’ve signed up for the StoryStorm challenge, so I made a spread for that.
And I’ll keep updating my future log and calendex through the year to help me keep track of important dates and information.
The calendex is also a useful planning tool. Looking at my calendex, I can instantly see that I have a lot of deadlines clustered in the middle of each month. (All those critique groups….) So I decided to shift my monthly blog posts and quarterly newsletters to the beginning and end of months to spread out the workload.
I can also see that I’ll be extra busy with writing challenges some months (Storystorm in January, ReFoReMo in March, …), so I know that those aren’t the months to start working through a new craft book or schedule a meaty blog series.
It becomes even more critical when I’m scheduling work contracts and large projects. I put those in as big blocks like I do the writing challenges so I can instantly see that the month is looking full. Looking at my calendex lets me instantly know when I’m unavailable (or when I need to shift things to make room.)
That’s it! If you’ve followed along, you should have a brand new Bullet Journal all ready to go.