Building Habits with a Bullet Journal

It’s what you do every day that changes you. From authors like Cal Newport to podcasters like Tim Ferris to motivational speakers like Tony Robbins, generally everyone always mentions that the key to excellence is building good habits.[1]

When I was fine-tuning how to build life-long habits, I came across the Bullet Journal.[2] I’m all about small changes for large impacts and this system was exactly that for me. I’ve been using it for just over a year and a half and can see improvements throughout my professional and personal life.

Note: I do have to apologize for the lack of imagery in this post. My intentions were to publish with spreads but due to a random series of events (and poor planning), this didn’t happen. You can find some pictures in the announcement Twitter thread.[6]

Why a Bullet Journal?

A Bullet Journal (or any journal) is an under-rated tool for better decision making and habit building. My journal takes my big dreams and forces me to break them down into daily habits. It also forces me to review things repeatedly to ensure I stay focused.

I started using my journal for work-related tasks but now it also monitors my social life, my bodybuilding goals, and ideas for creative projects. Over time it has evolved to become my second brain.

Below I’ve detailed how my journal is laid out. It should be enough information for you to get started on yours.

Bullet Journal 101

Spreads

People in the BuJo community call the way you lay out a particular page a spread. My journal uses the following spreads:

Dailies

Dailies are my To-Do lists and they follow the basic Bullet Journal guidelines for daily entries. I write them in the morning and they list the top three things to do that day (sometimes just one).

There’s a few other things I do that are unique with my dailies. I would not attempt to integrate this right away into your own journal:

  • I mark ideas with an exclamation mark which I then mark into my indexes (more on that later)
  • Future research is marked with a question mark for quiet moments in the day
  • I mark notes with an underline with the origin (usually the speaker in a meeting)
  • I usually write a few sentences about my day about my emotional and mental health as well as any major decisions[3] in any sphere of my life

Dailies help me focus on what’s important, define what’s the minimum for a successful day, and keeps anxieties about “not doing enough” at bay.

Weeklys

As you use your bullet journal you will find you prefer different spreads for different areas of your life. I don’t use weekly spreads for my work but I do use weekly spreads for my main hobby.

Since I don’t need to make daily decisions for bodybuilding (it’s more of a consistency sport), I keep workouts tracked on a weekly basis and include a weekly review to keep note of any changes in body composition or sensitivities to food. This is generally how I pick up on trends.

Monthlys

My monthly spread tracks my social outings, happy moments, competition numbers, and lists my low-priority tasks.

I live a social life despite being fairly introverted. I need time by myself in order to feel “balanced” so I try not to go out twice in a row or more than twice a week. The lines on the left next to the dates mark the weeks of a month and it makes it easy for me to ensure I’m not over-extending myself.

My happy log covers the next three pages with three bullets for each day. I originally tried a gratitude log but I got too repetitive so I started listing the things that made me happy. It gives me the same warm fuzzies and keeps me positive.

The next pages are bodybuilding focused: detailed tracking of my measurements, diet plans, and macro targets to ensure I’m hitting my body recomposition targets during off- and on-season.

All these pages end with a review where I note things to adjust in any my plans, bullet journal revisions, and an overall review of how the month went.

Indexes!

The key to my bullet journal are my indexes. Some people find that the issue with a daily bullet journal is that “important things” get lost in the daily spreads. I solved this by creating indexes at the front of the book.

I have an index for blog ideas, product ideas, and books I want to read. As I’m writing my dailies, if I feel I’ve written down something I would later want to reference, I write down the main subject and the page number of the daily in the associated index.

This keeps my floating ideas together and I can always reference the original thought in my daily spread.

Special Spreads

When I got a handle on my foundational spreads, I started doing one-off special spreads to force myself into a new way of thinking or encouraging me to change my mindset.

I’ve done the following spreads for fun:

  • Yearly Review: I noticed I am horrible at celebrating when I’ve accomplished something so I forced myself to pinpoint one great thing I did per month for the past year.
  • Hiking Review: I converted my trail memos and numbers into a spread after I finished hiking the Kungsleden as a souvenir for my trip. Again, to celebrate an accomplishment.
  • 90-day Letter: I write a letter to myself every quarter with what I want to accomplish over the next three months and follow up on my last letter. Boring redundant letters are generally a good sign.
  • Sketch Notes: I occasionally spend a few hours trying to summarize a book into a spread that I can keep for later reference. This is incredibly helpful for learning.
  • Annual Value Check-up: I am very attached to my values and keeping them top of mind so I review them yearly to ensure I’m keeping myself accountable to who I want to be.

Ditched Spreads

I tried the following spreads but they didn’t work out:

  • Yearly: I couldn’t find a way to make this spread productive and I always forget to review it on a regular basis
  • Weekly To-Dos: Items put on this list ended up never getting done or leaving everything to Saturday. Now I always make sure to simply do it on a specific day or move it to my monthly spread.

How to start

Your journal is yours so you should only do what works for you. I would advise you don’t spend too much time looking at the #bulletjournal hashtag if you know you get distracted easily by what others are doing.

Clarifying what you need from your journal and writing them down in the front can help you stay focused. I use my bullet journal to:

  • keep me on track with my goals and keep myself accountable
  • make it easier for me to remember things to follow up on
  • keep my ideas in one place and make it easier for me to create more

If a spread isn’t doing one of those three things, I don’t use it or keep it.

When you’re starting the only spread you should have is a daily spread. Try it for about a month and then start adding in other things one by one. Once you feel comfortable with a new spread, try adding another one. This will keep you from being overwhelmed too quickly.

Your journal will eventually morph into something unique and you’ll find yourself not being able to part with it. My journal comes with me everywhere and I don’t start a day without it.

FAQ

What journal do you use?

You can buy a Bullet Journal from the creator of Bullet Journal or you can use whatever you want. I use a Leuchtturm1917 Whitelines Dotted Paper A5 notebook,[4] write with Muji 0.5mm Black Ink Ball Pens,[5] and keep a tiny ruler in the back flap of the journal.

The journal I use has non-distracting grey grid paper and I like the orange band that keeps it closed. It also comes with labels for archiving your journal after. I like all these things.

Don’t overthink it.

Do I have to have this particular spread? How do I know which spreads are right for me?

It’s your journal. Do whatever you want. If you don’t know whether or not it’ll work, try it until you know.

Don’t overthink it.

What if a spread doesn’t work?

Browsing instagram may give you some ideas. I always use a moment like this to revisit why I was creating a new spread or what I was trying to achieve. It’s okay to change spreads halfway or ditch a spread if it’s not working for you. Life will change. Your journal should change with it.

Don’t overthink it.

What if it’s ugly?

It’s a journal. It’s okay to mess up… I have entire pages crossed out from failed spread experiments. I simply flipped the page and continued on.

Happy journalling!

Oh, and: don’t overthink it.


↩︎ [1] If you're interested in learning more about creating good habits, I recommend these books which cover habits, practice, and learning: The Power of Habit↗︎, Deep Work↗︎, and Make It Stick↗︎

↩︎ [2] Find more information on bulletjournal.com↗︎

↩︎ [3] Read more about decision logs on Farnam Street↗︎

↩︎ [4] You can buy the notebook on Amazon↗︎

↩︎ [5] You can buy the pens on Amazon↗︎ or Muji

↩︎ [6] Find more pictures in the Twitter thread↗︎

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