I’m not a bullet journal purist. In fact, I probably shouldn’t even be called a bullet journalist. But I’m a rebel and I decide to call myself a bullet journaler anyway.
Whenever I’m around other bullet journal enthusiasts, I feel like I need to justify why I’m different than everyone else. I know, that’s dumb. So I’m not going to do that anymore. I’ve found that writing out what my actual bullet journal system looks like has helped me understand more about why I do the things I do and how my system has evolved over the years. I’ve tried a lot of different planner and task management systems over the past 15 years (probably more than 15 years, but let’s not focus on that too much as it reminds me of my age!). As I try different systems I figure out what I love about that system and bring those things with me to the next. Eventually, I end up with a hybrid system of journaling and planning that works for my life.
I hope by sharing my system with you, that you’ll find nuggets of value here that can help you develop your own hybrid bullet journal and planning system too.
My Bullet Journal Hybrid System
I’ve actually developed my own hybrid system that takes elements of bullet journaling and combines it with a traditional traveler’s notebook system and thrown in a bit of “commonplace book” for fun. It works for me and it’s helped me become more organized, productive, and given me mental space to be more creative than I ever thought I could before. For details about my current set-up and the exact journal, pens, and supplies I’m using, be sure to visit the page for My Setup.
- Tekukor A5 Dotted Journal – after testing more than 30 journals, this is the notebook I picked. In fact, I just finished my first journal and bought another. I love this notebook because the paper is really good quality (it’s 100gsm, so nice and thick) and the construction of the book is solid. Plus there are 3 bookmarks, a back pocket, and an extra wide elastic closure band. And the price is right!
- In the picture above you see my leather notebook cover. I picked that up from Galen Leather – a brother/sister team who makes the most beautiful hand-crafted leather goods from their hometown in Istanbul, Turkey.
First, let’s start with explaining the different types of things I just mentioned above then I’ll tell you about my own hybrid system.
A traveler’s notebook is a leather cover that has elastic bands on the spine to hold smaller paper notebooks in place. Each notebook (officially called “inserts”) has a specific purpose. One might be a calendar, one might be for drawing or sketching, one might be for tracking habits or expenses. The possibilities for insert topics are endless. All those individual inserts are held together in a single cover that is closed with an elastic or leather band around the outside.
How is my journal like a traveler’s notebook?
I have a leather cover for my bullet journal – it’s by Galen Leather and I love the amazing workmanship of this leather journal cover. Inside I have a couple of pockets and carry a small cahier-style notebook that is “The Measurement of Things” – house-specific measurements, clothing sizes, car tire size, etc. It’s not in an elastic band, but it’s in the notebook cover and I carry those two things together.
But I think why I identify with the TN method is more of a mindset thing, rather than the physical system. I keep multiple journals. None of them are small like inserts in a TN, but there are a few key areas of my life that require a journal of their own. Some of them include:
- Primary Bullet Journal – this is where almost everything goes on a daily basis
- Travel journal – day trip, big dream vacation, weekend adventures – they all have a place in this journal
- Learning journal – for taking notes at conferences or online classes I take
- Project journal – I have one journal specifically for everything it takes to make Stationery Nerd a success
- Work Bullet Journal – I keep a notebook on my desk at work for task management
So maybe my individual notebooks aren’t housed together in a single traveler’s notebook cover, but having multiple notebooks feels very much like a TN system to me.
The picture below is a traveler’s notebook that I made myself out of a scrap of leather along with homemade traveler’s notebook inserts (see my tutorial for how to make your own TN Inserts). However, if you’re just starting out with traveler’s notebooks, I highly recommend the shop where I bought my first notebook. It’s from ZLYC on Amazon and they have an awesome set of traveler’s notebooks in standard and passport size and it comes with a leather pen holder. The leather is soft and smells divine – a great deal for a very good starter notebook system (it even comes with notebooks!).
A commonplace book is as old as they come. Leonardo Da Vinci and Benjamin Franklin were known to keep these types of notebooks. There’s really no system or rules when it comes to these types of every day, everything notebooks. The idea is that you carry this notebook or journal with you and everything goes into it. From grocery lists and notes about life to poems and project lists. You can also copy book passages that inspire you into your journal (which is one of the original uses).
“We should hunt out the helpful pieces of teaching, and the spirited and noble-minded sayings which are capable of immediate practical applications and learn them so well that words become works.” ~Seneca (4 B.C. – A.D. 65)
The idea is that everything going on in your head should also be put into the journal so you can refer back to those notes in the future. Have you ever seen those old accounting books kept by farmers where they record how much they paid for everything at the mercantile or feed store? I love the idea of having a record like that to look back on when I’m 90. I think the modern day bullet journaling system is very much like a commonplace book.
How my journal is like a commonplace book
I record the most mundane, ordinary and boring stuff in my journal but I also record really epic stuff too. I write my grocery list in my journal as well as notes from books I’m reading or plans I’m making for a new business venture or keeping track of places I want to travel and setting goals for the new year. Whatever is in my brain usually finds it’s way into the journal at some point. In that sense, it’s very much a commonplace book even though the modern version of these old notebooks is often just called bullet journaling.
Ryder Carroll coined the term “Bullet Journal” sometime in 2010 (at least that’s when he purchased the domain name, anyway) and originally shared it as under Creative Commons license sometime in 2012. Then around 2014 when he actually filed for trademark protection on the term “bullet journal.” Then in 2017, he filed for a trademark to protect the actual notebook/journal that he also called “bullet journal.” You can learn about the original method at the official website BulletJournal.com. But in a nutshell:
… the Bullet Journal is as a framework. This framework consists…methods designed to help collect and organize specific kinds of entries. The power of the Bullet Journal is that you can mix and match these modules to best suit your needs. The four core modules: The Index, Future Log, Monthly Log, Daily Log.
Why do I care about what year Ryder came up with the phrase “Bullet Journal?” Because I’ve been doing some form of bullet journaling, list keeping, life-organizing system for at least the past 15 years – before it was ever called bullet journaling (or anything official, actually). And a LOT of other people have been doing it longer than me. So don’t get caught up in the term or the official system that holds that term. But to make sure we’re all on the same page with definitions, let’s look at what Ryder calls those four modules.
Let’s quickly review what those modules mean:
- Index – this is a table of contents where you write the page numbers of sections in your journal that you want to find again
- Future Log – this is just an annual calendar where you write upcoming events so you have them all at a single glance.
- Monthly Log – a list of all your appointments for the month
- Daily Log – a list of tasks, events, notes, and projects you need to focus on for an individual day
Some other important elements of the official bullet journal system include:
- Key – there’s a whole series of different types of bullet points to use for different things on the list. For instance, a dot is a task, a box is an event, a triangle is a note, etc. The key can be whatever system you want/need it to be.
- Collections – these are whole pages (or 2-page spreads) of special things. Might be a project planning page or a list of all the books you want to read or a home improvement list or a travel packing list or a pantry/grocery plan, etc. Collections fall in between any other normal page. So if you have a daily log and then suddenly you realize you need to make a list of all the movies on Netflix you want to watch, you just turn to the next blank page and begin there.
- Rapid Logging – just means to write a list of things in a bulleted list in a daily log format
- Migrating – this is where you move unfinished tasks or notes from one day (or week) to the next so you only ever have to look at the current day (or week) of tasks and not flip back to previous pages.
There’s a great book that combines the original Bullet Journal system along with some more decorative planning ideas. Dot Journaling by Rachel Miller is one of my favorite how-to books and I’ve incorporated many of her ideas. I highly recommend looking it up at your local library or picking it up on Amazon.
How I use the Bullet Journaling System
So this is where I tell you that I don’t really use any of the modules or elements of the bullet journaling system… except for two things.
I use the Daily Log with rapid logging and I use Collections. That’s it. My daily log isn’t completely the same as the official system but this is what I do for almost all of my bullet journal:
- Write today’s date at the top of the page
- Use “rapid logging” to capture my tasks and notes as they occur throughout the day
- As things are finished on the list – I just a green highlighter to mark things as “done” (more on that later)
- When tomorrow arrives… write the new date on the next available line of your journal and begin a new list. No need to start the next day on a new page if your page isn’t filled up yet.
That small part of the Daily Log module is the only part I use. There are other elements of the daily log that I don’t use.
Maybe I should just tell you what I DON’T use and why
Calendars and appointments — I don’t keep track of appointments or events in my journal. I live and die by my Google Calendar and can’t imagine going analog for that complex, ever-changing, highly segmented planning system. In Google Calendar I have 5 different calendars for different areas of my life – with 3 being essential to my daily life. Events change regularly and get moved around almost daily. I keep all my work, personal, business and holiday events on individual calendars. I can’t take my focus off that digital tool, if I were to put it in an analog system, things would get lost and fall through the cracks.
Bullet Systems and Keys – when I’m in rapid logging mode, I don’t have the time or mindset to worry about what the shape of the bullet point I’m writing that goes along with the task or thought that’s being written. The bullet shape isn’t the most important thing, so it doesn’t matter to me. Sometimes it’s a dot, sometimes it’s a box, sometimes it’s a dash, sometimes it’s nothing at all. So I don’t use a bullet key system. At all.
Finished Items – so if I don’t use the key for bulleting, how do I know if something is done and I can X it off the list? Easy. I just highlight the line when the task is finished. I’ve been using a green highlighter for “marking things off the list” for as long as I can remember (20+ years). Why green? I don’t remember. Why highlighter? So I can still see the task through the highlighting in case I need to refer back to it again (marker would obscure the text).
Migrating Tasks – oh c’mon! Really? Who has time to write down tasks, then write them down again when you don’t finish them? Oops! Was I a bit judgy there? Sorry. I don’t migrate stuff. At least note regularly and at least not as a matter of routine. It’s completely normal for me to be flipping between several pages at a time and that’s OK with me. It’s super easy to see which task on the list need to be dealt with because they are the un-highlighted items on the list. If something is on the list and it’s a dozen pages back and is in danger of being forgotten but it’s not important enough to be added to a current list… then it either gets crossed off and deemed not important and never getting done…. Or it gets moved to the long-term master task list.
Drawing, Doodling, Designing, or making things pretty — I don’t draw out calendars and decorate them with pretty doodles. Some days I wish I had the talent to make those gorgeous layouts but in my journal, those are not the main focus of my pages. My journal is about being productive and managing tasks I need to accomplish. Yes, I’ll add quotes and pretty paper or notecards when I want to. But those instances are rarer than the norm. If I need to have a complex layout on a page to track something, I’m more apt to design it on the computer, print it and glue it onto a page — drawing lines and charts is not my thing (usually).
I know that the full bullet journal system works great for a lot of people, but for me, it just doesn’t fit my life.
Remember, I’m a nerd first and foremost. I probably slide a bit into the geek category because of my love for technology and gadgets (but only if they’re well researched, analyzed and obsessively compared against their competitors before I purchase them). So it’s normal for me to take bits and pieces of various systems to create my own based on the research I’ve done on a variety of topics. Nerds like research. We thrive on learning as much as we can about a topic and then living our life according to the best possible method we can devise (or at least that’s what I like to think of as a nerd).
My Hybrid Bullet Journal System looks like this:
I don’t prepare anything in advance and I don’t worry about creating spreads or monthly prep or even future logging. Here’s how I use my system to keep me organized, on task, and have a way to record what’s happening in my life:
- Appointments — I use Google Calendar for ALL appointments. I don’t copy down appointments or write dates in my bujo at all. I rely 100% on my digital calendar for that part of my life. The ONLY time an appointment reference makes it way into my journal is if there are tasks associated with that appointment and then it becomes part of my task list for the day (or previous day).
Rapid Logging — for tasks, lists, errands, thoughts, I just use the standard rapid logging system. A bulleted list of things that come to mind and go down on paper. When they’re done, they get crossed off the list. I don’t even “migrate” tasks forward to other days, I’ll just flip back and forth for the few days until that thing is done.
– Collections and Lists — sometimes I want to keep things together so I create a page for that list of things. For instance, I have a master house list that includes all the home repair, improvement, decor projects I want to tackle over time. When I’m ready for a project, I flip back to that page and pull something off it. I also have lists for various aspects of my business.
- Notes & Quotes – I read a lot. I also listen to a lot of podcasts and audiobooks. It’s normal for me to dedicate a whole page to just writing notes from a certain podcasts/book/article in the middle of a rapid logging section. I just turn to the next blank page and write.
Sticky note, printed pages, scraps of paper – while not technically part of my journal, the front cover of my bullet journal always sports at least one sticky note list and a few printed sheets of paper, folded in half, get stuffed into the front cover of my book. Things get messy around here! Sometimes it’s just too much trouble to actually open the journal to the bookmarked page and pick up the pen that’s sitting next to the journal that happens to be right at my elbow. Instead, I reach across the desk and grab a sticky note. SMH! I have no idea why I do such ridiculous things. But I do and I’m starting to embrace my quirkiness. Eventually, those random slips of paper get transferred into a bullet journal page (but only if they’re important or worthy enough for that amount of effort).
– Other Notebooks and Journals – I know that the concept of a bullet journal is to keep everything in one place. But my brain doesn’t always work like that. Sometimes bigger projects need their own space and don’t feel like they “belong” in my main bullet journal. This idea of keeping multiple journals for various projects is very much something that the Traveler’s Notebook system has taught me. Here’s a list of my current notebooks:
- Work Bullet Journal – I have a work bujo (even more minimal than my personal one) that stays at the office on my desk
- Stationery Nerd Journal – There are a lot of moving parts related to this website with ideas swirling all the time and task lists for completing various reviews for you. That’s why this website has it’s own bujo (mostly just a collection of lists, rather than a daily task system).
- Diary – I call it a diary here because that term is self-defining. It’s just another journal that I use exclusively for writing journaling entries in long form handwriting. No tasks or collections here, just a place to write my thoughts about life.
- Travel Journal – When I travel I want to keep a record of each day of the trip. I take along my HP Sprocket portable printer and a little box of supplies so I can decorate each day’s spread. Right now I’m using a Scribbles That Matter journal for my travel journal.
- Learning Journal – This is just a lined journal that I keep when I need to make notes from a book I’m reading or when I attend a conference where I know I’m going to learn a lot of great information in the sessions. For instance, I just attended WordCamp Ann Arbor a couple of weeks ago and left everything home except this learning notebook.
- The Book of Stuff – back when I was exclusively carrying a traveler’s notebook I had a small insert that I keep lists of things I needed to reference (books I own and want to read, online courses I’ve purchased and need to go through, birthdays, etc.). It slowly turned into a book of other stuff besides just lists. I started to include measurements of things in my house that needed some form of home improvement or decor so when I was in the store I could easily reference those numbers. That little insert is tucked into the pocket of my Galen Leather Journal Cover so it continues to go with me. This saves me from recreating all these things as collections in whatever new bullet journal I’m using.
I was bullet journaling before Bullet Journal was a thing
Oh great, now I have that song in my head – I was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool by Barbara Mandrell.
Ryder Carroll might have coined the phrase Bullet Journal and trademarked the name, but he didn’t invent the concept of keeping a notebook to contain and organize your life. I’ve been doing some form of bullet journaling for the past 15 years or so. I’ve always been a list person and needed to keep things written down so they were cleared out of my head. No matter what system I’ve used or created or migrated to over the years, the result is the same: my life more organized.
I’m sure my system will change over time. It always does. If things get significantly different, I’ll let you know. But this is what I’m doing right now and it’s working for me. Tweaks and changes are part of the process and I love that this type of planning and task management system has the ability to mold to whatever type of system I need in my life at the moment.