Work/Life Balance

3 Ways My Bullet Journal Helps (& Doesn’t Help) Me Be More Organized

By | Tuesday, March 07, 2017

One of the first things I ever wrote for TFD was a post about what a bullet journal is, and how it can (potentially) help you be more organized. I’ve lived most of my life wishing I was neater, or more inherently organized than I actually am. A bullet journal seemed like an aspirational idea — something for people with handwriting that organically looks like calligraphy, who have a natural appreciation for neutral palettes and color combinations that are subtly interesting. If you put a box of markers in front of me, on the other hand, I will find every way to put as many colors on one page as I possibly can, in my handwritten letters of wildly varied sizes depending on the circumstances under which I’m writing. (While you can journal on the subway, speaking from experience, I’m not sure I recommend it.)

What I’ve figured out is that I wasn’t giving myself enough credit. I’ve been an on-and-off diligent bullet journal user for just about six months now; I found a system that works for me, even if it’s not *exactly* what you’d see on bullet journal bloggers’ Instagrams (or anything even close to resembling them). For those who aren’t aware of what a bullet journal is, this tutorial is a good place to start. Basically, it follows a specific system for note taking, to-do lists, calendars, etc. that is tailored to your needs, and you fill in the pages with whatever you need them to be as you go. There are no predetermined definitions for pages — you simply number them, and fill in the index with what you’ve put on each page if you need to refer back. (The “official” bullet journal notebook is the Leuchtturm1917, though I personally prefer the less-expensive-but-still-nice dotted Moleskine.)

Like most people who use the system, my bullet journal has become a combination of a planner and diary, and I use it to organize both personal and work-related things. The sections of my bullet journal break down basically like this:

  • Index page
  • To-do lists
  • Calendar
  • Daily log (basically how I was using my “regular” journal before)
  • Habit tracker (which I totally copied from Boho Berry)
  • Credit card debt tracker
  • Random lists and notes, such as “books to read” or “Germany packing list”

What I’ve learned is that, while I benefit from using a system for organizing my thoughts and lists (and truly, it’s fun coloring in different pages, and has turned into a kind of hobby), I can’t depend on something external to completely fix any of my work and life-related problems — my procrastination, for example, or my tendencies to be very prone to clutter. But I can use it to continuously sort through my priorities and decide what’s most important to me.

1. To-do lists:

How it helps: Unlike a lot of ~organized~ people, I do not start off my day with writing out a to-do list. My work life breaks up into two basic parts: TFD and non-TFD. When it comes to getting things done for TFD, I keep a running series of digital sticky notes open on my desktop — photos I need to request, posts that need to be edited, etc. — so that I always know what needs to get done when I log on in the morning. Non-TFD work is my series of side hustles (mostly copywriting and ghostwriting projects at this point) that take up a different amount of time each week, depending on the work I’m finding, and how much time I already need to commit to TFD. As most of the side work I do doesn’t demand hard deadlines, I generally write out a list of tasks for the upcoming few days. That way, I don’t feel like I’ve let myself down when I see the same uncompleted tasks written down for several days in a row, without being completed.

How it doesn’t help: This is important: I have not magically stopped putting off the things I don’t want but need to do simply because I am better about writing them down. I do not personally see the point in using most of the “signifiers” explained by the originator of the bullet journal — marking a task as simply completed or not completed works well enough for me. But some people get a lot out of the bullet journal logging system, and more power to them!

2. Indexing & calendar:

How they help: The thing about bullet journaling that works so well for me is that there isn’t any rhyme or reason to the page order. Mine is messier than most, and that works just fine for me, because it is still organized — because I’m good at remembering to record page number assignments in the index. If I need to find a page quickly, I simply refer back to the index. I also like having my basic calendar written out each month, so that I can quickly refer to it if I need to look up a specific date.

How they don’t help: I have no qualms with my indexing system, but as for calendars, I still mainly apply on my Google Calendar on both my desktop and my phone. I need alerts and reminders for things like calls and tasks, and obviously, that’s not something I can get from a paper planner. This means that my bullet journal calendar typically falls by the wayside each month.

3. Habit tracker:

How it helps: This is basically a grid I set up at the beginning of each month to help keep track of the good /healthy habits I want to make a bigger part of my life. These habits include things like cooking from scratch, doing yoga, going to a dance class, drinking no alcohol, or spending $0 on food out. Filling in the little squares each day I do them is just a small way to feel good about myself.

How it doesn’t help: Honestly, this is mostly just a fun 20-minute project that I do at the beginning of the month. Making the graph can be a nice way to relieve stress, and it’s fun to look back at the colorful pages. But it still doesn’t motivate me to follow through with habits and activities that I don’t really want to do in the first place — meaning things like “go to the gym” end up with no colored-in squares, so I eventually just take them out of the running entirely.


All in all, I think a lot of people would get the same things from a bullet journal that they do from a traditional planner, and maybe many people wouldn’t like the “extra” work a bullet journal requires. For me personally, seeing date or week pages in a planner that I’ve left completely empty feels disheartening, so having this journal-planner hybrid that I fill in as I go along is better for my productivity and mental space (and also likely wastes less paper in the long run!). Even though I really like mine, I don’t recommend taking up a bullet journal habit specifically, because it depends on personal preference. But from keeping mine for a while now, I do recommend both taking up a daily short-form journaling habit, and having an organizational system that is all yours. I think anyone would benefit from a little more planning, and maybe even a little more coloring — I know I have!

Holly is the Managing Editor of The Financial Diet. Follow her on Twitter here, or send her your ideas at!

Image via Unsplash

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