On Learning To Love An Ugly Bullet Journal

The popular self-help planner doesn’t need to be pretty.

Author by Julianne Adams
Art credit: Megan Schaller

A “bullet journal” is what you get when you cross a regular ol’ day planner with My Little Pony. If you’re a habitual Instagram scroller or Pinterest user, then you’ve probably seen one. To the untrained eye, “BuJo” are like orderly scrapbooks. For the initiated, those “scrapbooks” are a life-saving collection of carefully planned to-do lists, personal goals, and musings.

You should know that bullet journals, at least the ones on social media, tend to be pretty — kaleidoscopic works of art, even. You should also know that mine is not pretty. In fact, it’s heinous. If I tried to upload a BuJo photo to Instagram, I’m pretty sure my phone screen would crack. And once I accepted that my bullet journal was destined to be an eyesore, it became the one thing I couldn’t live without.

Bullet journals were originally designed for brevity — “bullet” refers to bullet notes. “Bullet journaling is a way to track to-do’s with a notebook in a simple and succinct way,” explained Whitney Baker of Life By Whitney, an Instagram account with over 60,000 followers.

The innovator of bullet journals, Ryder Carroll, developed the bullet system as a personal tool over many years. In 2014, Carroll took his system public with a Kickstarter for a journal specifically designed for the BuJo concept. While Carroll still sells this particular journal, bullet journals can be made from any notebook.

Hallmarks of BuJo include an ever-expanding index and a taxonomy of shorthand symbols for to-do lists. The bullet system adapts to a wide range of needs: People use charts to track everything from water intake to anxiety; weekly calendars share space with exercise and meal plans.

Bullet journals also fall under the wellness umbrella. The likes of BuzzFeed have praised the self-help tool in long-winded listicles touting the mental-health benefits of journaling.

Hannah Rose, a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in Havre de Grace, Maryland, first discovered bullet journaling through her own therapist. “I told her that I seldom make time to journal,” she said, “so she suggested bullet journals.”

Rose’s journals feature gratitude lists and affirmations. “I absolutely believe [bullet journaling] ties into multiple mindfulness concepts,” she said. “With bullet journaling, we have the capacity to leave out our negative self-talk and instead just write down the main thoughts or feelings that are coming up. Mindfulness teaches us how to cultivate non-judgmental self-awareness, which I believe bullet journaling can help with.”

In spite of bullet journals’ supposed simplicity, what stands out most about bullet journals on Instagram and Pinterest is how intricate and meticulously crafted they are. They feature pastel color schemes, cursive lettering, and even miniature watercolor paintings. For her own journals, Baker learned brush lettering, a hand-written font created with felt pens or watercolors. She also drafts her designs before implementing them. Despite her pristine creations, Baker estimates that she allots only 5-10 minutes every day or two for journal updates — although sometimes she gets carried away and spends more time. 

Jannette, whose Instagram account Jann’s Scribbles has more than 20,000 followers, said she spendson average 15-30 minutes to set up” her journal. “And then, throughout the week I log items in it as they come along,” she said, coyly admitting that her journal does include some “elaborate pieces that take a bit longer.” A recent weekly spread from Jannette includes a heading spinning out into yarn that rests in the arms of a happy kitten.

When I first read about BuJo, I was in the process of moving to a different country for school, a prospect that taunted my anxiety like catnip. The journal seemed like a great way to stay organized, keep track of my mental health, and express creativity. Bullet journals, I decided, would be a magic bullet for all of my problems.

As a newfound #bulletjournaljunkie, I scoured the internet for anything related to the BuJo lifestyle. I read blog posts by veteran bulleters, and discovered a multitude of calendar layouts and systems for collating notes on goals and daily events: A capsule glance of a month with a calendar on one page and a mood chart on the other; a weekly schedule on one page with goals and to-dos in coordinated colors on the next. I saved links to the prettiest designs and features I planned to emulate. And I spent weeks looking for the bulleters’ journal of choice: a medium-sized notebook from Leuchtturm1917, favored because it has page numbers and an index but otherwise lacks structure. A simple old notebook wouldn’t do for my grand designs.

After a month of planning for my planner, I was ready. I decided to include a brief monthly calendar, followed by weekly calendars and a graph charting my exercise and sleep. My color schemes would align with the seasons. I brainstormed the symbols I would use to track progress on my to-do lists. I bought brightly colored markers and special decorating tape. Everything was perfect. Until I set pen to paper.

Upon commencing my BuJo, I remembered two things: I am artistically inept and have an inferiority complex. The cursive monthly headers I’d envisioned came out as chunky blobs. My weekly calendars looked like Rorschach tests. I routinely neglected my mood charts and forgot to write brief daily notes in my journal. I couldn’t even remember what my dinky little symbols were supposed to represent.

In comparison to the journals I’d seen online, my bullet journal was, well, ugly. So I gave up. I just didn’t see the point of investing time in something I hated so much. My bullet journal quickly became nothing more than a place to write down angsty feelings. Sometimes those feelings were about how ugly my journal was. 

After I abandoned my bullet journal, though, my life became even more discombobulated than it had been pre-BuJo. I began missing appointments and leaving emails unanswered. The anxiety I’d felt over forgetting to record my exercise was replaced by anxiety over not being able to remember when I last exercised. 

Desperate to keep myself organized and free up some mental space, I returned to the bullet journal. This time, I was committed to the core ethos of BuJo: The bullet journal is whatever the heck you want it to be. I wanted my journal to be manageable and ugly — well, not “Frankenstein’s Monster” ugly, but “hairless cat that some people find attractive” ugly. And I achieved my goal, if I do say so myself.

I still color-code each month in my weekly calendars, but I do a few months at once to save time. I leave space for journal entries between calendar sections. And I date everything. By combining my schedule and journal in one notebook, I always have a space to jot down my feelings, and that’s been good for my mental health.

Is this even a bullet journal anymore? I don’t know. And I no longer care. It’s mine and I can do with it whatever I please.

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