How to Start a Bullet Journal, Even if You’re Not Artsy

Chelsea Pennington
Dec 3, 2020 · 8 min read

A super minimalist method to keep your tasks and thoughts organized

If you’re convinced that you can’t do bullet journaling because you’re not artistic or don’t have the time for complicated spreads, I got you. My bullet journal set up is super simple, requires zero artistic talent, and is all about functionality.

Before I continue though, let me answer: what is a bullet journal? WHY is a bullet journal? I think the best resource is to check out this video by Ryder Carroll, who came up with the system to help him stay on track as a person with ADHD. I always find it really encouraging that the original method is SUPER basic. Yes, Instagram has turned it into something all about the ~aesthetic~ but if you don’t want to take it that route, you don’t have to! Bullet journal is a way to quickly and simply plan your day, remember tasks for the future, and make notes on things to do. It’s sort of a diary, to do list, and calendar, all combined into one.

When it comes to creating and keeping up with a bullet journal, there is one phrase that is going to be our guiding light:

Basically, it means that in whatever you’re creating, it matters more that it works and is functional than if it looks good. Back in college, I first decided to try bullet journaling. I spent SO MUCH TIME trying to make it artsy and cute, but it took waaay too long, and also just stressed me out because none of my drawings ever looked as good as I wanted them to (lol). So I gave up.

In 2017, I decided to try again, but I committed to making it NOT artistic at all — it would only be about serving the purpose of keeping me organized. With that goal in mind, I was able to keep up with bullet journaling and transform it into something that really works for me.

And that’s the great thing about bullet journaling. You can start out with the original Ryder Carroll system, or look at all the YouTube videos and BuzzFeed lists of spreads to add, but really all that matters is what works for you. And the longer you stick with it, the more you’ll realize what is necessary, and what is just fluff. For example: I don’t use my bullet journal as a calendar at all. I created future logs and monthly calendars for a loooong time, until I finally realized that…I wasn’t using them. I have Google calendar. I’m married. It’s just a thousand times easier to have a shared digital calendar. This is obviously not how anybody really recommends setting up a bujo, but it’s what works for me!

Setting up a new journal

Since I don’t do any sort of future log, setting up a new notebook is pretty simple. I create an index (which I’m actually pretty bad at using and updating, but I’m trying to get better!). This acts like a table of contents for your bujo. Then you can set up “Collections.” This can be whatever sort of list thing you want to keep track of. I like to write down what books I’ve read, and I have a spread for quotes, though again I’m bad at remembering to actually use it. Once I have my Collections set up, I jump straight into my monthly spread!

Monthly spread

The start of each monthly spread actually has to do with the previous month. I take a page to reflect on the month that just ended, using four categories: accomplishments, how I grew, happy moments, and low moments. I only recently started this section, but I really like taking time each month to reflect on the month that just ended. It keeps me present, rather than always rushing forward. Obviously, you can do totally different questions/prompts, this is just what has been working for me so far.

Next, I start thinking ahead to the month to come. The first section is a Brain Dump. This is a modified version of something that’s in the original bullet journal method. I split it into two sections: Goals and Tasks. To me, Goals are a bigger project, something that I’ll be working on throughout the month, like “edit second draft” or “update website.” These grow out of my yearly goals that I’ve created and refer back to each month. I usually have three, sometimes four goals each month, depending on how much time each one will take.

Tasks, on the other hand, are more bite-sized things that need to get done at some point that month. Things like “figure out health insurance for next year” or “buy Christmas presents.” While my Goals don’t really change for the month, I’m regularly adding to my Tasks list. The point of the Tasks list isn’t really to have everything done by the end of the month; rather it’s a brain dump (hence the name) of things that need to get done at some point. I’ll flip through the previous month and look for tasks that I wrote down but didn’t finish, and then throughout the month I’ll add other Tasks that I think of.

Next up is my Gratitude Journal. This is basically what it sounds like: I make a numbered list for however many days are in the month, and then each day I write down somethings I’m grateful for. I don’t have a set number; I just write down enough to fill up the line, so that by the time the month is over, I’ve got a block of text of things I’m grateful for!

The final piece of my monthly set up is my Habit Tracker. There are a lot of ways to create one, and the internet is full of ideas. I have a pretty basic layout: Habits on the left side, day numbers across the top, divided into squares. I usually break up my “Habits” into three sections: one of habits I want to keep up (reading, devotional, writing, exercise, yoga); habits I want to keep to a minimum (TV, social media, caffeine, desserts); and general things I want to track (if I’m on my period, how much sleep I got, how much water I drank, my mood that day).

It’s useful to have all this in one place, as it lets me see connections. For example, I used to get this sort of restless, anxiety — it’s sort of a hard feeling to describe, but I do not like it! I realized that whenever I felt that way, I tended to spend a lot of time on social media, probably trying to feel productive but not actually doing anything. So I started being intentional about how I spent my time when I felt the weird restlessness, and it’s made a big difference!

And that’s it for the monthly spread! Obviously, you could get all fancy and decorate each page or do stickers if you want. I keep it pretty plain, with just the occasional seasonal doodle if I feel confident I can draw it!

Weekly spread

Then, usually on Sunday evenings, I set up my week. I have one page that is sort of a “weekly overview.” I have a list of Weekly Goals that come from both my Monthly Goals and Tasks I need to do, usually around eight. I choose a word of the week, often a characteristic or mindset I want to embody. Then I have a section called Highs and Lows — at the end of the week, I’ll go back and fill in 3–4 memories that made me feel happy vs making me feel sad/anxious. Similar to some other bujo sections I’ve mentioned, it’s nice to have a designated time to reflect on the past week, as well as to see patterns (do I always feel low after doing a certain activity? How can I change that? What makes me feel happy and how can I do more of it?)

Then I go ahead and set up a page for each day of the week. In the original bujo method, you create just a sort of rolling spread, but I like to be able to plan out my week a little bit. So I just write the day of the week and the day number at the top of the page. If I have something going on (like a specific appointment or call with a friend, not just “work”), I’ll write that first. Then I use this space as a daily to-do list, and will add to-dos throughout the week, if I want to plan ahead that I’ll spend a certain day writing, for example. On the bottom third, I mark out a space for “thoughts,” which is really a small journal entry I write each evening (well, most evenings). Again, taking time to think about the day, even just for a couple minutes, helps me process what happened, how I feel about it, and then be able to refer back later.

And that’s it! It usually takes me less than an hour to set up a month, and maybe twenty minutes to set up each week. If you want to level up but don’t feel artistic, try using stamps or stickers to add some pizzazz. However you want to do it, this is a great basic bullet journal set up that is easy to keep up with and keep yourself organized!

Have you tried bullet journaling? If not, are you thinking about it? What set up do you use? Let me know in the comments!

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More articles by Chelsea Pennington (that’s me!)

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Chelsea Pennington

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I help readers and writers discover and create life-changing stories. Connect with me at ChelseaPenningtonAuthor.com

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +725K followers.

Chelsea Pennington

Written by

I help readers and writers discover and create life-changing stories. Connect with me at ChelseaPenningtonAuthor.com

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +725K followers.

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