Full disclosure: I am a productivity-hack, organization-method, yearly planner addict. I have yet to meet a problem a fresh new notebook and self-help craze couldn’t solve. (That is, until it comes time to stop planning and start doing.) Time after time, I have abandoned my planner several months into the calendar year, eager to try a new system or product.

That all changed when I encountered the bullet journal method. The “BuJo” method promised to not only stop the cycle of organization fads by offering unprecedented efficiency but to double as a diary too. I decided to give it a try, and now a full year later, I am cracking open yet another new notebook: this time, to keep bulleting and knocking out my to-do list!

The basic gist of bullet journaling is that you use a series of symbols to quickly jot down your thoughts in separate categories.

BuJo lingo can be intimidating at first, but once you get the hang of using the symbols, it’s easy to customize the system so that it works for your individual needs. All you need is a notebook and pen/pencil; follow the steps below to experiment with bullet journaling and see if you like it.

01. Write in bullets.

A bullet journal can include just your to-do lists, but it can be used for so much more: a diary, a food log, a record of the places you’ve visited, a fertility tracker, a wish list, and more.

How can something so small contain so much information? The secret is keeping your notes-to-self short and sweet. Condense your reminders so that they only contain essential information. For example, instead of writing out every point you want to make in that email to your boss, simply jot down “email manager re: new hire.” The time and space you save will add up over time.

Bullet journal creator Ryder Carroll calls this process “rapid logging.” If you want to learn more about his specific approach, check out his book and his blog.

02. Write down tasks, notes-to-self, and events.

According to Carroll, the best way to organize your daily lists is using three simple symbols: dots next to tasks, dashes next to notes-to-self, and open circles next to memories. When you complete a task, write an “x” over the dot, or strike-through the entire text if the task is no longer relevant. Here’s a recent list of mine:

• Grocery shopping.

x Laundry.

• Order takeout.

o Called Mom while on a walk today.

03. Organize into “collections.”

The basic BuJo symbols are really helpful for recording daily tasks and memories. However, sometimes this is not enough to capture everything on your mind. This is where “collections” come in.

Carroll suggests using several basic collections to stay organized, but you can create as few or as many as you like. As I mentioned earlier, you might want to keep a running list of movies you want to watch or books you want to read. Each of these lists is a collection.

On the front page of your journal goes the index. It’s basically just the table of contents. Record what page each collection starts on so you can flip back and forth easily. You can either number pages as you go or use a notebook that comes with numbered pages, like my notebook of choice from Leuchtturm.

For example, my index looks something like this:

1: 2020 Overview

3: January 2020

22: Spring Semester Checklist

24: 2020 Reading List

26: February 2020

Carroll suggests keeping future and monthly logs as part of the BuJo system. The future log is for tasks that you want to get to eventually, like thinking about Christmas shopping in July. The monthly log may include a calendar page and a task page so you remember your appointments and what you need to do before the month is out, like send your rent check or get your car inspected before it expires.

The great thing about collections is that you can customize them to suit your needs. In my case, I stopped writing out a calendar page every month, because I prefer to use an online calendar. I also keep a separate collection to stay on track of my reading goals for the year. I have a dozen or so titles jotted down on page 24 of my journal, and I have left page 25 blank so I have plenty of room to record more books later in the year.

04. Use additional signifiers.

Once you have sorted out the basic structure of your bullet journal, you can start incorporating some additional symbols. Carroll suggests using a star or asterisk to denote urgent tasks and an exclamation point for items you don’t want to forget. Personally, I like to use question marks for topics I want to explore later, like so:

*• Call the plumber to fix our sink.

!o Turned in my final paper of the semester!

?- When does the library open on weekends?

Carroll suggests using triangles pointing forwards and backwards to show whether a task has been copied over to next month’s collection (forwards) or your future log (backwards). I like to use an arrow to remind me to copy over a task I failed to complete to the next day’s agenda.

→ Grocery shopping.

> Schedule dental appointment.

< Plan road trip.

Another suggestion from Carroll is to “nest” tasks under bigger project headings, so that you can check off intermediary steps as you complete them. This is a great way to stay on track while working on a large, multi-step project. It might look something like this:

• Host book club for dinner.

     x Send invites.

     ? Food allergies?

     • Plan menu.

     • Grocery shopping.

Other bullet journal users have come up with systems and symbols of their own; just do a quick Google search and you’ll find dozens of blogs sharing and swapping examples and ideas. I highly recommend experimenting to see which symbols you actually use and help you to stay organized.

05. Use the right tools.

While you can purchase the “official bullet journal,” you don’t have to use it in order to use the system. In fact, any notebook will do. I spent a few weeks using an old, half-used notebook from college just to see whether I liked rapid logging or not.

Many users prefer dotted notebooks, which allow you to draw boxes and lines as well as elaborate designs, if you are so inclined. As I mentioned above, I use the Leuchtturm1917 Medium A5 Dotted Hardcover Notebook, because it’s sleek, sturdy, and the paper is thick enough to use with markers. I usually write in it with a thin mechanical pencil, but when I do want to add color, these are my markers of choice. The thin tips and vibrant colors are perfect both for writing and drawing.

Now you might be wondering, why try the bullet journal if it involves so many steps? The answer is that the BuJo system is defined by your needs. No longer do I have to shorten my to-do list so that it fits onto just one page in my pretty but impractical planner. No longer do I have to keep all of my creative ideas and wish list in a separate notebook. The bullet journal contains exactly as much information as I want it to.

Your bullet journal doesn’t have to be pretty; it only has to work. If that sounds like something you might be interested in, I hope you will give this tried-and-true system a go!