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How to start bullet journaling for an organized 2021

Declutter your life, your brain and your to-do list with a bullet journal.

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Although it seems the productivity craze of the 2010s has calmed down (thank goodness, because we all need to stop glamorizing hustle culture), some "life hacks" really can help. Bullet journaling, for example, can turn even the most frenzied person into a productivity deity. 

This planning method involves organizing notes, events, tasks and plans into neat collections and logs -- and it might be exactly what you need in 2021 after a turbulent year that squashed everyone's plans and goals. 

What is the Bullet Journal Method?

According to the Bullet Journal Method website, bullet journaling is "best described as a mindfulness practice disguised as a productivity system." 

Ryder Carroll, an author and product designer who was diagnosed with learning disabilities as a child, developed the Bullet Journal Method as a way to organize, plan and focus after realizing no existing systems really worked for him.   

Now fondly known as BuJo by dedicated followers, the Bullet Journal Method might be just the thing you need to organize your life, your thoughts and your to-do list after a volatile 2020.

Benefits of bullet journaling

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Bullet journaling may help you get a firmer grasp on day-to-day and far-out to-dos.

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For some, the bullet journal method is easier to manage than other types of planning because of the emphasis on visual organization, says Dr. Rebecca Mannis, a learning specialist at Ivy Prep Learning Center. 

"This, in turn, can reduce the amount of detail you need to keep in working memory, the part of the brain that is responsible for mental juggling of many details," she says. "It can also make it easier to sequence details so that you can 'right the ship' when your initial plan needs modification."

Overall, bullet journaling can make your task list feel less onerous, and therefore help you tackle procrastination. So if you struggle with being effective and efficient, the bullet journal method might work well for you, Mannis says. 

How is bullet journaling different from regular journaling? 

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Bullet journaling is more of an organization practice than a diary.

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The main difference between bullet journaling and regular journaling is that bullet journals tend to be "more concise and visually streamlined," Mannis explains. 

Rather than an "anything goes" approach, the bullet journal method employs a system designed to keep notes, thoughts, to-dos, events and goals organized.

It's more like very detailed and organized note-taking, versus the thought streams you might write in a regular journal -- a life planner versus a diary.

How to start bullet journaling

Buy a bullet notebook and have at it! 

All jokes aside, bullet journaling is pretty easy -- largely because your bullet journal is unique to you and you can make it into whatever you need it to be. Despite the templates (which you'll learn about in detail below), bullet journaling is far from cut-and-dry. It's a creative yet guided practice that can help you organize all the details of your life into one simple space. 

Here are some tips for starting your bullet journal.

Buy a notebook

Any notebook will do. Although the Bullet Journal Method sells "bullet notebooks," you can buy any you'd like. Find one you love with lined, dotted or graph paper. If you plan to carry it around with you, make sure it's durable. 

Here are a few popular options to get you started:

Important! Leave the first few pages of your notebook blank. You will need these pages to create your index, which is explained later.

Decide what your bullet journal is for

Do you need an overall life planner? A wedding planner, fertility tracker, food journal or a way to keep up with all your friends and family members? Many people use bullet journals for everything -- instead of having multiple notebooks or planners for different things -- but you can choose to create a bullet journal for just one topic, goal or event. 

Get familiar with the key

No matter what you're bullet journaling about, you'll have the most success when you follow the official Bullet Journal Method key. It all starts with tasks, which are denoted by dots. When you complete a task, turn the dot into an X. If you move the task to a collection (more on collections below), turn it into a "greater than" sign. If you move the task to your future log, turn the dot into a "less than" sign. 

A dash indicates a note, while an open circle indicates an event. You can use asterisks to prioritize tasks, notes and events, and you can use exclamation points to denote inspiration.

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Amanda Capritto/CNET

Fill out your future log

Your future log should consist of any goals, events or tasks that fall outside of the current month. When you start bullet journaling, your future log should start with the next month. For example, if you start bullet journaling in January, start your future log with February. Keep track of travel plans, work events, goals and other important things you don't want to forget. Each month, review your future log to see if you can move anything to your current monthly log.

Set up monthly logs 

Your monthly log keeps track of everything important in a given month. You might include weekend plans, deadlines and birthdays to remember. For each monthly log, make a minimalist, list-style calendar to capture important dates, as well as a task page for things you need to do or catch up on from the previous month.  

Create daily logs 

Your daily log serves as your daily to-do list. What's most important here is that you don't make your daily logs too far ahead of time. The Bullet Journal Method recommends creating daily logs the night before or the morning of, because you never know how much space you might need for a given daily log. Throughout the day, log your completed tasks, plus thoughts and notes as they come to you.

You don't have to make your daily logs as pretty as those you'll see all over Instagram -- how much design and creativity you put in is entirely up to you.

Create your index

Once you've dedicated pages to your daily, monthly, and future logs, you can go back to the first few pages (which you should've left blank) and create your index. Indexing your bullet journal is simple. Just count the page ranges for your different sections and write them down, so you can easily leaf through your notebook later. 

For example, if your future log runs from pages 10 to 14, write "Future Log: p. 10-14" in your index. Another option is to use sticky tabs or paper clips so you can easily find each section.

Add collections

For anything that's not a task, event or note, create "collections" in the back pages of your bullet journal. Collections are broad goals you want to accomplish over the course of a year or more, and they can be anything, such as "books to read," "recipes to try" or "places to visit." Keep your bullet journal handy so you can write these items down as they come to you.

Cross off and migrate tasks 

Now comes the fun part: crossing things off of your to-do list. Every day, cross off tasks you completed and organize tasks you didn't complete. For tasks left incomplete, you can either migrate them to another day, to your future log or to a collection. 

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.