Bullet Journals: Cultivating Intentionality for Beginners

Matthew Ward
Oct 14 · 9 min read
Photo by Jan Kahánek on Unsplash

I do something called Bullet Journaling.

I’ve done it for several years as a way to stay organized. If you look this up and you’ve never heard of it before, you’ll probably be overwhelmed by how complicated it is.

But it only looks that way. Once you do it for a few months, you start to see how simple and beautiful the system is.

The word “journal” is a bit confusing.

It’s not a place where I write my feelings or whatever.

A bullet journal is more like a highly efficient planner designed to help you achieve large, unmanageable goals by breaking them into simple tasks.

I couldn’t imagine writing a novel without this method anymore.

What does this have to do with intention?

Intention is one of those concepts that got a bad reputation from New Age gurus of the ’90s. I can almost hear Deepak Chopra saying something like: “Set an intention for the day and it will be manifested.”

That’s not quite what I’m referring to. One of my favorite writers, Anne Dillard, wrote in The Writing Life:

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim.

The concept is so obvious that it’s easy to forget.

We often think that as long as we have long-term plans and goals, the meaningless tasks of the everyday don’t really get in the way.

But, without intention, your days will fill with these meaningless tasks and activities, and then, all of a sudden, you’ve spent a whole life doing essentially nothing you consider valuable.

Okay, so we can answer the question now.

Intentionality, to me, is simply taking stock of the way in which you spend your day so that you end up spending your life the way you intend.

Bullet Journals: A How-to for Intentionality

This is why I opened by referring to the Bullet Journal method. The design of that system forces you to rethink what’s important on a day-to-day, month-to-month, and year-to-year basis.

It has you “migrate” tasks. When you do this, you ask yourself: is this vital? Is this important? Why?

If the answers are: no, no, I don’t know, then you remove it from your life.

Don’t overthink it.

As soon as you start making excuses, you start filling your life with stuff that doesn’t matter to you. This means you’re committing to living a life that isn’t meaningful to you.

Make sure you’re intentional about how you fill your day.

Let’s take a simple example before we get into the nitty-gritty details.

Maybe you’ve always wanted to learn to play the piano, but you’re too busy; somehow, the day just gets away from you.

In your daily log, start tracking an hourly log to find out if you’re doing things that aren’t intentional.

You have some Twitter feeds that focus your news articles. This was meant to save time in the beginning. But now you realize a bad habit has formed where you go down the comments rabbit hole and the trending topics and on and on.

The first hour of your day is shot, you’re filled with rage, and you haven’t even read any actual news articles yet.

You relax with some Netflix at night. But you started that one series that everyone loves. You just don’t get it. It adds no value to your life.

But you keep going because you “might as well finish it” now that you’ve started it.

And there was that time you wanted to know how hard it would be to make French Onion Soup from scratch, so you looked up a Youtube video on it. The sidebar recommended Binging with Babish and Alex French Guy Cooking and French Cooking Academy (all excellent, by the way).

All of a sudden, you’ve subscribed to a dozen great cooking channels giving you hours of video every week. You feel compelled to at least watch a few, because, hey, you subscribed. There’s like, some sort of obligation there, right?

Maybe that last one wasn’t you (hint: it was me).

But you get the point.

Bullet Journal Habit Tracking

Little things become habits really fast.

Habits expand to fill those gaps in your day.

If you were to ever stop and take stock of this, you’d find several hours a day you could have been learning piano.

That Netflix series alone commits you to 60 meaningless hours of your life: gone forever. Sixty hours can get you through the beginner stage-easily.

Ask yourself, was that worth it?

In twenty years, will you think it was worth it when you still haven’t even sat down at the piano, and now it feels too late? (It’s not too late; this is just another excuse.)

And maybe you’re thinking: but turning my brain off after a stressful day, watching something I don’t care about is exactly what I need to sleep better.

Getting frustrated learning the fingering of a B-flat scale is the opposite of relaxing (seriously, that’s a messed up scale compared to literally all the others).


You’ve answered the why.

The Netflix series does have value to you. You’re now doing it with intention.

Don’t cross that off your list.

Maybe it’s that Twitter hour in the morning you can cut back on. Maybe right now isn’t the time to learn an instrument, and that’s okay, too.

Intention is what matters.

I’m not advocating everyone to use this method.

This was actually just an extremely long-winded introduction to say I’m getting intentional about a few things I haven’t questioned for a while.

Every year, I put up a Goodreads tracker on my blog to show my progress on reading 52 books a year. For something like five years, I’ve read 60+ books a year.

As a young, immature writer, this was hugely important to my development.

As I learned about prose style, genre conventions, story structure, characterization, dialogue, etc, I was constantly testing it against a huge variety of books. I saw people who followed convention, people who didn’t, if it worked, and why.

In other words, when I started this practice, it was extremely useful. It had value to me. I did it with intention.

Recently, I’ve re-evaluated this practice. I’m getting rid of it.

Self-Imposed Stress

I found myself stressing about reading books I don’t enjoy just to check off an arbitrary counter. I’m obviously going to still read, but it will be more intentionally chosen and at whatever pace fits that book.

And let’s face it. I’ll probably still get through 40+ books a year. I’m just not going to have the stress associated with it anymore.

I get that I’m being a bit hypocritical or even egotistical with this because I will continue to recommend other writers do the high-volume method at first.

I think most writers greatly undervalue the process of critical reading for the improvement of their writing. Quantity trumps quality until you reach a certain threshold.

Another intentional practice is that I’m cutting out forced blog posts and only doing ones that I think add true value to the blog.

All of my most read and liked posts were one-off things I was inspired to write anyway.

I’ve gotten intentional about a few other personal things that don’t need to be discussed here. But I thought I’d give a bit more explanation about some of the changes.

What is a Bullet Journal?

I know, after all this, I still haven’t told you how to do this. I first urge you to not search for these online. They will only stress you out.

People draw fancy title pages and set up highly organized pages with themes. They use tape and stickers and markers and fountain pens.

People have fancy multi-colored spreads with professional drawing skills and calligraphy.

Ignore all of this!

A bullet journal can and should be easy. I use no colors, special pens, drawings, or even rulers. It’s one notebook and one pen. Simple as that.

My version has three parts: Monthly Pages at the front (Future Log in traditional lingo), the month at a glance, and then the daily pages.

Month Level

The organization is simple. As things come up or as I set goals, I add these to the Monthly Pages. Think of this section as a calendar planner for the year.

For example, if I want to finish writing the rough draft of a book in May, I find the box marked “May” and add a bullet point: “Finish rough draft of Book X.”

Notice 3 VERY important things. I didn’t use a ruler to make the lines straight. I didn’t count out the dots to make sure they are all perfectly the same size. I didn’t use any fancy lettering/colors.

Bullet Journals are tools to get time back in your life, not to waste time.

As I learn about things that will happen in the future (including setting goals), I just jot it into the “Future Log.” Easy as that.

Note: I usually have a dozen or more items each month, so I write much smaller than that. This is a blown-up fake sample so you get the gist of the types of things I’d list.

When May comes around, I go to the first blank page of the notebook and write numbers down the side for each day of the month.

Now I transfer all the stuff I wrote in the May box onto the days for a concrete finishing date. Maybe I think I can be done by the 28th, so I write “Finish rough draft” on the line marked the 28.

The “Month at a Glance” page has everything from appointments to goals. It lets me divide the month into manageable goals, and I can make sure it all seems doable.

(Again, no fancy pants stuff here.)

Day Level

Lastly, every morning, I do the “dailies.” This is just a daily to-do list. I look at the month at a glance and transfer anything for the day onto the list, and then add goals for the day that are needed to hit all the monthly planned things.

Maybe I need to average 800 words/day to get to the rough draft deadline. One of my goals for the day will be “Write 800 words in Book X.”

Sometimes you can see you won’t get to everything. If that happens, the brilliance of the system is “migration.”

Maybe, I’m traveling and I know I won’t get to writing 800 words. I put a forward arrow to mean I’m going to do that in the future. This “crosses it off” the list and gives me peace of mind to complete the other things.

But as soon as I do that, I make sure I actually transfer that to some time in the future. Maybe I put “write 1600 words” for the next day, or just up the words to “1000 words” for a few days until the number gets made up.

I can also put a backward arrow meaning it got migrated backward to the Monthly Log. This just means the whole project gets shifted to a future month.

I know that seems like a lot to take in but once you do it for a month, you’ll see that it’s very simple and effective.

A year-long goal gets planned into monthly chunks. When the month arrives, it gets broken into weekly/daily chunks. When each day starts, this gets converted into a to-do list.

This means large, seemingly unmanageable projects become easy to conceptualize at different levels of abstraction in a visual way.

What I Use

I used to use the Leuchtturm1917. It’s a great size and the dots are faint enough to let you ignore them if you want. But they’re there if you need them.

I didn’t like how much it ghosts through to the next page, so I shifted to Peter Pauper Press’ “Essentials” notebook. It’s better but still lacks in other areas.

There will be no perfect notebook for you, but I suggest doing some research if certain things are going to bug you.

I just use a normal extra fine black pen (the Precise V5 Rolling Ball).

That’s it!

No need to go crazy like everyone else seems to think. This is a life project, not an art project.

Originally published at https://amindformadness.com on October 31, 2018.

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Matthew Ward

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Poetry, short stories, novels, writing advice. For more information visit: amindformadness.com

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