You know that friend you have who just STOCKPILES notebooks like that's the one item they need to get through the apocalypse? Yeah. That's me. I'm that friend. I started that black bullet journal with the sparkly Hell Yes 2020 stickers in ... July of 2018. I really wish I was joking.
I did not come to Bullet Journaling via the usual means (... ie. Pinterest or Instagram, these days). I was handed a small booklet by my psychiatrist the day I was formally diagnosed with bipolar and told to get in the habit of filling it out. Being the Type A perfectionist who actually LOVED homework and bubble-sheet tests as a child, I took to it like a duckling to water.
It helped me not only because having concrete information is always useful but because one of my major issues (as a person, but also in my romantic relationships) is that my mood episodes affect my perception and having a written record of the last time I felt happy was a good thing. (It only FEELS like three weeks since you were happy, Mer, it's really only been two days. Depression is a jerk. Do not ever underestimate it.)
That was given to me in February of 2017. When I knew it was running out, my sweetie, Paul, began explaining how big of a Thing bullet journaling is. How varied it can be. How there are spreads and trackers for just about anything and artistic ways to do it all. There are also incredibly simplistic ways to do it. I began experimenting and, over the past two-ish years, I've figured out what works for me in my personal life. But I also spent the past few years trying to figure out better ways to organize my work-life. ADHD is a demon that makes it necessary for me to have used day planners since seventh grade, but they've never worked better than maybe 70% of how effectively I felt they really could. So I started playing with that too.
Recently, while discussing how UTTERLY EXCITED I AM about how I've refined my system to work at about 90% of potential, Paul mentioned how a lot of posts or videos about bullet journaling don't talk about How They Got There. I've also had several friends ask me, in the past few weeks, what I do and how mine work and what they look like, so I figured I would share a little.
My system is For Me. It will not work for everyone, but one of the best parts of bullet journaling is poaching the ideas you see that WILL work for you and using them. Cobbling together a collection of trackers and systems to create a journal that works for you is the objective, not making it pretty. Mine are NOT that pretty. Some people have incredibly gorgeous journals and I encourage you to check out Pinterest if that idea appeals to you because you will be gobsmacked by some peoples' creativity.
I am creative, but after a couple of years of experimentation, I've realized I'm much more concerned with function and efficiency. This is how it's all evolved.
A few months after I started bipolar medication, I was feeling more stable than I ever had in my adult life and I took the win. I dove back into my desire to write (which had become a near-impossible feat the way my moods were cycling prior to medication).
We all begin writing in a new notebook thinking it's going to be The Book That Changes Your Life. Right? Just me? Well, I began this notebook with incredible optimism. I had lists of goals. I had projects divided into tidy columns. I have timelines. And then...
To be perfectly frank, I got pregnant. We like to pretend that personal lives and professional lives can live in separate bubbles, but they never can. When I miscarried a short time later, I sank into a pretty bad depression. It was nothing compared to some of my depressive episodes (I'm looking at YOU, 2010), but I was devastated. We wanted that baby. We were excited. And then... we were heartbroken.
It took me about a year to really get back to a place where I could focus on my writing. (I mean, we also bought a house that winter, I painted the house myself, we moved, got a demon kitten. Life did go on.) That summer I tried again. I tried trackers, and found that the system I'd devised didn't really work for me in this context.
You've probably noticed that I like stickers. A lot. Yes, I am a five year old. Yes, it works for me. I don't care how professional it looks because these books are For Me. As any planner or bujo you, dear reader, will be For You. The most important thing Paul drilled into me -because he's been bullet journaling for a lot longer than I have, and his look like a different SPECIES of notebook than mine- is that you MUST be willing to adapt, and that no system works for everyone so you must experiment and learn what works for you.
By the end of the summer, I realized I needed a more comprehensive accountability system. I needed PLANS. I needed a SCHEDULE. I ... had this really adorable idea that structuring my days like high school would help me stay on task.
It worked to a point. This is what it looked like the first few months.
The 5 Questions thing was something else Paul introduced me to. Apparently it has military origins, but it's insanely helpful in approaching problems or failures in a constructive way. Eventually I decided to do it less frequently, but for the first few months that I did it weekly, it taught me a lot about what threw me off and what derailed my plans, and what actually worked to get back on the rails.
In October 2018 I attended Can*Con and -after being on the fence about self-publishing a project for YEARS- I made the decision to self-publish... on January 4th, 2019. Because I am a crazy person, apparently. But it WAS mostly done so it was just getting all the formatting, covers, etc. done. It did get done, but what I tracked and how I organized my pages slowly shifted. I needed more space for some things. I dropped things that weren't working for me. The whole "school classes" idea was abandoned.
I published the second book in my series in May. I will not lie: it was a terrible plan. But it got done. And by the time it was done, I was burnt out and struggling to show up every day.
Around that time I realized I also needed to consolidate my actual day planner and my work bullet journal. Some days I wouldn't even open my day planner. I forgot a couple appointments. *BIG CRINGE*
I'd used planners for decades, but it was time consuming to split my life into two books, to make sure I had all my appointments written down in both places and... I liked my work bullet journal better. I took a few months to undertake my new mission: to combine the two. To effectively have one book that managed my daily and weekly life and work meetings, appointments, tasks and responsibilities. I needed to find a way to keep my to do lists manageable, visible, but also separate.
I have all my personal goals, big tasks, chores, and all my personal and medical trackers in a large book that almost never leaves the house. (The black "Cosmic Child" book above is 2020's Personal Bujo.) Over the course of 2019, my term goals in my work bujo (I do three four-month terms: January 1 to April 30, May 1 to August 31, and September 1 to December 31.) and monthly goals became second nature. I reflexively do regular check ins with myself and alter goals if my health dips or life gets busy.
When planning, I tend to start with my bigger, longer-term goals: yearly, 3-year and 5-year goals. (I know a lot of people like to do 10-year goals but... I don't find them productive at all. For me. Do them if you love them!) Then I try to breakdown those goals over the course of the upcoming year to see just how bonkers it seems in context. They always seem bonkers. Results may vary.
Then I break down those goals into term goals...
And then further into monthly goals, which are then organically broken down into weekly and daily goals. The separated Life and Work to do lists and goals lists on my weekly layout are helpful and I keep them deliberately small-ish to not induce my own self-destruction that tends to result from me taking on too much and breezily thinking It Will Be Fiiiine. (Narrator: It is never fine.)
I have a lot of charts and things mostly because if I don't write something down, I will forget it in 17.4 seconds. I also find it helps me to start big and break it down. It helps to maintain some semblance of realistic expectations, be it how many hours a day you'll need to work, or how many words a human being can reasonably copy edit in a 40-hour work-week.
A lot of the lovely photos above of pristine pages are from my new work bujo that begins today! (The blue note book pictured at the beginning of the post.) Happy New Year to me! But that first notebook I mentioned? The one I began so optimistically in 2017? The one I kept coming back to, as I desperately tried to find a system that worked for me? It served me so very well, and my use of it ended yesterday, its pages all full of weekly spreads, lists of goals, pages full of brain dumps and more organized info, its spine broken twice over.
There's nothing quite like Finishing A Notebook. Especially not when it's seen you through publishing your first two books. I may not have taken over the world, but I definitely regained control of my own world since the summer of 2017. All it took was time, and flexibility, and a little self-reflection... and a kick-ass bullet journal!