How Bullet Journaling Helped Me Plan My Future While Staying Mindful of the Present

Pages from the author’s personal bullet journal.

As an international student getting my master’s degree in Popular Music Studies in Liverpool this past year, I knew I needed to organize my time, budget, school assignments, social life, and goals. But I needed more than that. I needed a way to record and process my experiences and notice the things that were important along the way. 

I’d visit pop music sites like The Cavern Club and Penny Lane, only to find myself scrambling for a scrap of paper to write down the scent of a beer-soaked dance floor or the exact color of Paul McCartney’s “blue suburban skies.” The floor of my purse was a mess of crumpled observations, overheard slang, and addresses I wanted to remember.

RELATED: How to Keep a Spiritual Journal (With Writing Prompts to Get You Started!)

A few months after I crossed the pond, my brother FaceTimed me to show off his new bullet journal. There, in the first few pages was his “year-at-a-glance,” the months carefully organized and hand-drawn. Next was the table of contents. Then, a key to define the symbols he used throughout the notebook — a box for scheduled items, a check for completed tasks, an arrow for rescheduled events. 

Bullet journaling is a notebook-keeping/day-planner system created by Ryder Carroll that organizes the user’s life into manageable sections, such as daily assignments, errands, monthly goals, meditations, and more. While Carroll’s system is specific to goal-setting and task management, its format is easily customized. For example, I began my journal with a page for the books I wanted to read throughout the year. However, I soon realized that it was easier to track my reading by the week, so I created space for books in my weekly pages. 

Gradually, as I flipped through the pages of my “BuJo,” I paused more and more to reflect on my life and the world around me. I didn’t just log my volunteer hours at the riding stable for the disabled, I also wrote about seeing an autistic rider’s sibling wave to her from the gallery and the importance of small acts of kindness. I drew the view from my favorite coffee shop so I’d remember the feeling of community and warmth in a space I loved. I saw myself making time for new friends, and them making time for me. 

I saw which goals I didn’t make time for and which things I did. As Ryder says, the bullet journal is “best described as a mindfulness practice disguised as a productivity system.” This new mindfulness meant that I sought out new ways to actively engage with the world. I’d get an extra sticker from my favorite ice cream place, and seeing it in my bullet journal transformed it into a reminder to be attentive to the little things that bring me joy. 

Casper Ter Kuile, author of “The Power of Ritual,” suggests that spiritual practices and rituals involve “intention, attention, and repetition.” Because my bullet journal required my continued, thoughtful attention, I began to recognize it as a spiritual practice. It was a space I returned to, again and again with the intention of organizing and paying attention to my life. And it helped me turn my papers in on time and remember the bus schedule. Win, win!

So, how to start your own bullet journal?

Begin by articulating your goals and intentions

I set smaller, specific goals to reach bigger achievements, like my goal of running a 5k. Once you’ve identified your goals, Ryder suggests you break them down into manageable, articulated steps. For me, I made weekly charts that tracked how far or how long I ran each day and how I felt. I scheduled prep races and charted my daily, weekly, and monthly progress toward them.

Pages from the author’s personal bullet journal.

Pick a template

You can find Ryder’s bullet journal system at the official website, but you can also create your own. An FAQ thread on Reddit and this blog were two sources that helped my baby BuJo find its way. I started each month with an overview, then dedicated a page to each week, followed by a page for my goals, observations, and reading list.  I also left room to glue in ticket stubs or write weekly reflections. 

Allow the process to be imperfect!

Some of the journals I found online were beautiful, perfect, artistic and… downright intimidating. Remember that bullet journals are meant to be a process. Maybe yours is a work of art. Maybe it’s made up of pages of clunky tracking charts that only you can understand. But if you routinely show up to this space to honor your life and your goals, in whatever form that takes, you’re doing it right. 

My first few months were scattered and messy, but one thing I love about looking back at my bullet journal is seeing how that mess has evolved into a system that reflects my own unique journey. As Annie Dillard wrote, “how we spend our days is how we spend our lives.” Bullet journaling is not only an invitation to organize your life, but also an invitation to practice paying attention to it. 

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Neleigh Olson

Neleigh Olson is a writer, researcher, and Thoroughbred exercise rider based in Lexington, Kentucky. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Kentucky and an MA in The Beatles, Popular Music and Society from Liverpool Hope University. Her work has appeared in "The Lascaux Review," "Writers Resist," and "Pacifica Review" among others. She is aided and assisted by her very opinionated ride-or-die tabby cat, Ike.