Nuts & Bolts 2: A Deep Dive Into How I Use My !Not Artistic! Bullet Journal To Organize My Brain

In Autumn 2016 I decided to once again research planning systems in an effort to find something, anything, that would work to help me organize my brain. I had seen essays about bullet journals but was intimidated by how artistic they all were. Colored pencils! Drawings! Washi tape! Cute stickers! Planning system as scrapbooking!

It turns out I needed to figure out three things to make the bullet journal system work for me.

Disclaimer: This post describes how I use my bullet journal (bujo) but for an official description of bullet journaling, its origins and capabilities go to the official bullet journal site. 

1. A bullet journal (bujo) is a way to organize a notebook. That’s it.

2. The Index is key.

3. How you use your bujo is an ongoing process that may change over time.

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1. A bujo is a way to organize a notebook.

The artistic element we’ve all seen in gorgeous bujos is part of the organizing principle ONLY IF being artistic helps you use it. The system works perfectly well when used in a non-artistic manner because at root it is a way of using bullet points to organize tasks and lists.

As you'll see, I don’t use colored pencils or washi tape or stickers. Frankly I think artistic bujos are FABULOUS. But it’s not how I use mine. I hope these photos show any of you who feel intimidated by artistic bujos that the system doesn’t need art to work.

If using washi tape will make you happy, then use it. If colored pencils help you distinguish between kinds of tasks or you just like the variety as it hits your eye, then use that as part of your system. If you love a sticker like a gold star to make your day or flag certain events, then use stickers. If not, then don’t.

Expensive Leuchtturm notebook? That’s my notebook choice (1917, dotted). Inexpensive off the rack spiral bound notebook or composition book? Works just fine. The notebook doesn’t need to be bujo compliant. You can turn any notebook, or even stapled together sheets of scrap paper, into a bullet journal.

Fancy fountain pens? Sure! Cheap ballpoint? That works! I use Straedtler pigment liners together with my fave ballpoint Uni Jetstreams. Just be aware of the quality of the paper in the notebook you’re using and use a pen that won’t bleed through the paper.

Use what you want and let the rest go.

2. The primary organizing principle is an INDEX.

The Index is how you find what you’ve written in the bujo. It allows you to use the notebook as a planner--with yearly, monthly, weekly, and daily log options depending on how you want to organize your task and record keeping. The Index also allows you to use the bujo as a repository of notes-to-yourself, lists-of-stuff, lecture notes or travel diary, world or plot or character discussion, project plans, and indeed anything that comes to mind that you want to jot down at the time you want to jot it down.

In other words, a bujo used in this manner will be a record of what is going on with you, like a diary but without the confessional aspect (unless that you want that there too). This dual function combined with the ease of finding things because of Index is why I have found it particularly useful. That’s why I jokingly call my bujo my secondary brain.

The Index tracks where everything is so you can find it again later without having to page through the entire notebook plus that other notebook it might have been in when it doesn't show up in the first one.

I place the Index at the front of my notebook. The Leuchtturm notebooks have a section lined for the Index at the front. It could go at the back too. There's no law about this!

Here is my Index from my second bujo (January 2020 +).

It may look as if I have a bunch of skipped pages but in this case all unlisted pages are part of my ongoing weekly log lists, which make up the bulk of the content in this bullet journal.

When I start a new bujo, I do transfer some pages over to the new notebook from the old (in other words, copy them into the new one). For example: “Book/Film/TV Recs” and “Ideas for Posts/Essays/Talks” and “Projects/All Possibles” and “The Big Dreams.”

I also have quite a few inspirational quotes, mental health reminders, and aspirational sayings, etc, that I write into the new bujo, with space to add more as I go. I like to be able to pause and contemplate words of wisdom or a reminder to myself. It might not be important to everyone but if it is for you then the inside flap or any set of interior pages is a good place to put such quotes and miscellania.

Note the mention in the Index where I started a page for my Patreon and then decided it would be better to give the Patreon its own dedicated notebook. After using my first bujo for some months I decided to get a dedicated (larger size) notebook for the Sun Chronicles universe; now when I need to scribble project notes to myself or work out a scene breakdown on the page or make a list of possible ship names, etc, I do that in the Sun notebook so it’s mostly all in one place. 

Here is the Index of the Sun notebook:

Pre pandemic when I traveled I would only take my task bujo and in that case I make notes in there as I am traveling and when I return home transfer anything specific to its dedicated notebook.

At the moment I have four working bujos: my task bujo (my secondary brain), my Sun Universe bujo, my newly started Patreon bujo, and my development bujo (proto worlds & stories). In other words, you can have as few or as many as is workable for you.

I don't personally find the bujo perfect as a world building/story development frame but it does help me keep track of things better than a bunch of scraps of paper that I haven't collated or cross referenced, or 28 files that aren't properly labeled or linked in any way. I can still make a "world notebook", which serves a different purpose from an ongoing "jot down ideas, names, references as they come to me" bujo. Next month I plan to do a post on my Crossroads Universe world notebooks (2 big 3-ring binders).

Note: If I had a more complicated daily life I might keep a "daily life" bujo separate from a writing bujo, but in my case it makes sense to combine them into ONE BUJO BRAIN. So for example, I use the Patreon bujo to make lists of what I want to do and to keep track of what I've posted, but the daily/weekly reminders ("Write Nuts & Bolts 2 & schedule for Jan. 6") stay in my main bujo so I only need to look at it to know what is on my current plate. I also have a large (17 x 22) "month at a glance" desk calendar for recording appointments, etc. It helps me to have a big picture for a whole month for scheduled things, both daily and writing life.

3. How you use your bujo can (and probably should) change over time. Flexibility is the system’s strength.

The other reason the bullet journal works for me is its inherent flexibility.

I love lists. A bujo helps me consolidate all my scattered lists, keep track of what I haven’t done yet, and organize how I might want to tackle undone tasks in a way that helps me not feel overwhelmed -- because when I feel overwhelmed I freeze up. For example, if I have eight writing related tasks I want to get done in January, each of which involves subsets of tasks, I can split those out and separate them into different days and weeks, and that makes the job feel more doable. By writing it all down, I don't have to think about it every single day, wracking my brain over what I might have forgotten; I can just look. I add tasks to the log as they come up.

Over four years I have adapted what worked best for me and changed up my organizing method as I have needed to, dropping elements that didn’t work or adding back in elements that hadn’t worked before but work now.

Your life isn’t static and thus your bujo needs aren’t static.

So: The Index keeps track of WHAT is in the notebook and makes it easy to find it.

What about lists and logs?

A basic list might look like this one from 2017:

Or this (also 2017 although I would have added to the rec list through the end of 2019):

Over time you can check off things on the list so you can see you are getting somewhere. In the case of an Accomplishments list, you add to it and can use that list to remind yourself that you have achieved goals.

Other pages are notes and ruminations, anything you want to put in there, basically.

Lecture notes (from Sirens Conference 2018, a lecture by Dr. Kinetra Brooks):


By combining the lists and notes aspect of the journal with a task-logging/calendar element, I can somewhat keep myself on track.

A major aspect of the bujo’s flexibility is that you create your own calendar rather than buying a planner with a built in calendar.

I start with a yearly log at the front of the bujo. It’s a good quick glance at major upcoming events or deadlines. With the bujo I started in January 2020 I expected the notebook to cover three years so I put in 3 years of a yearly log. As it happens I will fill the notebook after two years, but it's handy to have the third year there anyway for future reference.

You can also create a "Master List" for the year of projects you expect to complete (or hope to complete) during the year that includes projects you know are due as well as wish list items. Again, if it's helpful, do it. If not, don't.

It’s easy to google bullet journal monthly, weekly, or daily logs and find many how-to examples and posts. I’m not going to replicate that information here. For me the key was trying out different things and finding what worked for me.

Again, no need for artistic layouts--but absolutely use artistic layouts and decoration if that works for you (I’m so impressed by what people do with their notebooks).

First, a short trip into SYMBOLS AND SIGNIFIERS.

A core principle of bullet journaling is (natch) the bullet list.

Some people use an elaborate system of logging symbols and signifiers to differentiate between tasks, events, logging, this and that. It looks super cool and amazing (like using colored pencils to color code information) and I would totally do that if I could but I can’t keep up.

Originally I made a key at the front of my first bujo:

By now, however, I really only use four:

A dot means a task or event or a “thing”.

An ‘x’ over the dot means I completed the task (event/thing).

An arrow over the dot means I have pushed the task over to a new list. I used this more the first year or two and rarely use it now but it can be useful as a reminder.

A star or asterix emphasizes a task that is Super Important and often indicates something that MUST get done that day or something I have been putting off and need to deal with asap. Occasionally I will “star” an achievement just because.

The bullet lists combine with whatever calendar organization you decide works best for you.

My task and calendar lists have evolved over the last four years.

I have never needed a full page or two page spread for a "single day" daily list. Others might.

In the beginning I used a combination monthly two page spread with what was more or less a weekly spread with tasks broken down into days.

The monthly spread included a monthly calendar with events and appointments written in and on the facing page a list of tasks.

This was then followed by 2 - 4 pages of what was essentially a NO FRILLS weekly spread split into days. Sometimes I tried to keep 7 days to one page and other times I just went with whatever.

In April 2017 I tried to add a full page monthly habit tracker. I filled it out fully that month. Intermittently the next month. Then tried again the next year:

At this same time I realized I didn't really need a full page for the dated month (because I have the desk calendar) so I combined that page by adding the monthly task list to half of it.

In 2018 I stopped using the monthly spread altogether. In fact, in 2018 and into 2019 I have a number of lacunae in my bujo where I did not record anything. This reflects the huge upheaval going on in my life then, which included the endless dragging out of the end of my marriage (it's okay! I'm good!) as well as the inevitable struggle with depression and anxiety that went along with it.

During this time I eventually switched a new log spread. In this case every week I created a one page task list accompanied by a limited habit tracker. Then I would use the other side of the two page spread for the day by day logs. This is the format I have been using up until December 2020 (this year).

Note: When the pandemic started I added a reading progress log (on the lower left). That's helped me focus on reading.

However in November 2020 when I calculated how many pages I had left in my current bujo, I realized I could not fit all of 2021 into this bujo if I kept with that format, which uses 8 pages per month.

So I adapted by returning to a slightly different form of the monthly spread, in this case a two page monthly spread that includes a Habit Tracker (!), the book progress boxes, and a monthly goal log on a two page spread.

This monthly spread is followed by four pages of daily logs (about 15 days per each two-page spread). This therefore equals 6 pages per month and means I can fit all of 2021 into this bujo and still have extra pages for miscellaneous material. I just did not want to split a bujo in the middle of a year.

That is where my bullet journal stands now. If all goes as planned this bujo will last me through the end of 2021 and I will start a new bujo in January 2022.

I find my bujo to be a friendly companion, as it were. And a great travel partner (from 2017):

I hope this has been helpful because it surely has been long!

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