how to start a bullet journal for beginners
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So you’ve decided to finally take the plunge and start bullet journaling – Now What? This post covers everything you need to know on how to start a bullet journal for beginners and will help you go from feeling overwhelmed to pure journaling + planning bliss!

how to start a bullet journal for beginners

When I first learned about bullet journaling a few years ago, I have to admit it really confused me. Indexes? Keys? Symbols? It was so complicated, I felt like my brain might start melting.

It seemed pretty chaotic for something that was supposed to help you be more organized, productive and mindful in life!

I really wanted to jump on the bandwagon right away – especially being a List-Brained Thinker™ and all. I published my post on Lists of Lists for Journaling all the way back in April of 2013. I am addicted to a little list making app called Workflowy which I have been using almost daily since 2015.

You would think someone like me would have taken to bullet journaling like a fish into water. Alas, it was not like that at all.

It’s sad + true: my eyes completely glazed over when I was trying to grasp on what the heck I was supposed to be doing to start a bullet journal. It seemed overwhelming to even figure out how to set up the journal.

Further adding to all the confusion was the minimalist technique outlined and explained on the official bullet journaling website didn’t seem to match up with all the pretty journal spreads you see in YouTube videos or on Pinterest and Instagram.

For example, on the official bullet journal website, you see these very simple + minimalistic journal pages. They aren’t decorated at all – no colors, no tape, just black ink on dot grid paper – they definitely aren’t fancy.

Meanwhile, spend 10 seconds on any other website and some of the bullet journal pages are just amazingly impressive with all kinds of crazy good artwork and designs. A whole rainbow of colors. Washi Tape! Stencils! Markers! Highlighters! Doodles!

When I looked at all the pretty journal spreads, I felt that undeniable sense of imperfection all of us creative types are prone to from time to time. You know, that pesky inner critic who says “You’re not good enough at drawing” and “Your handwriting is horrible.”

And if that was not enough to make all those thoughts of self doubt creep in about starting a bullet journal, then I started to think about generally how disorganized and bad at keeping a planner I really am. It always starts with the best of intentions but 99% of the time most planners I started always fell to the wayside after a few months {sometimes even weeks if I’m being honest!}

Anyways, the reason I’m sharing all this with you is because if you are feeling overwhelmed or unsure about starting a bullet journal as a beginner: DON’T STRESS IT! I am here to take you by the hand and walk you through step by step to help you feel confident and happy with your bullet journal.

If I can dive in deep with bullet journaling AND make it work and stick with it long term – the odds are favorable for you too!

We’ll break it down piece by piece, explain all the terminology + the logic behind the method so you can start a bullet journal in no time.

Photo by Estée Janssens on Unsplash

This is a VERY long post, so I’ve broken it down into the following sections for you:

Introduction to Bullet Journaling: What One Is, How It Works, What Makes a Bullet Journal Unique + Different From Planners and Other Journals

Bullet Journaling Supplies: I’m going to write a more in-depth post of all my favorite bullet journaling supplies, but this section will cover the basics. Good news: You only need a pen and a notebook, the rest is just a bonus!

Bullet Journal Setup: A Page by Page, Step By Step overview on how to set up and start the bullet journal for beginners.

Beginner Ideas for What to Put in a Bullet Journal: You can use your bullet journal for almost anything, from planning out your goals to meal planning to even keeping track of your daily health habits.

Beginners Tips + Advice: Things I Wish I Knew When I First Started Bullet Journaling!

Are you ready? Great – let’s get started with the basics!

Introduction: What is a Bullet Journal? How Do You Use It?

So what is a bullet journal anyways? How do you use one?

The Bullet Journal is an organizational + mindfulness journaling method created by New York based designer Ryder Caroll. It’s where planning and journaling finally come together in perfect harmony a flexible system that you can completely customize to your needs.

At its most basic, it’s a notebook that you can use as a calendar, planner + journal where a good bit of what you write is in list format, hence why it’s called the bullet journal.

Here’s What You Can Do With a Bullet Journal

There are all kinds of different ways to use a bullet journal, so let’s go over some of the most common ways people use a bullet journal.

  • Use it as a calendar with weekly, monthly and yearly spreads
  • Use it to plan your schedule or to plan projects
  • Keep a regular record of your life through daily or weekly logs
  • Keep track of things like your mood, sleep schedule, daily health habits or even just your favorite songs, books or movies.
  • Organize your thoughts + find focus and clarity
  • Set goals and outline the steps to make them happen
  • Set schedules + plan for housekeeping + or meal planning
  • Keep track of classes, assignments, and school events for yourself or household members
  • Start a daily gratitude log
  • Start a daily creative practice
  • And More!

I really do believe almost anybody can start a bullet journal and find it to be a wonderful addition to their life. It doesn’t matter how old you are, how busy you are, if you’re on a tight budget or even if you hate writing. You can do this!

What Makes a Bullet Journal Different From Other Planners + Journals?

There are hundreds of different kinds of planners + journals out there. While any sort of notebook can easily be used for bullet journaling, not every planner or journal is necessarily a bullet journal.

There are a few key distinct elements that go into a bullet journal that make it unique from other systems.

1. Index + Page Numbering System:

One of the first things many people do when setting up their bullet journal for the first time is to number each page and to set up the index.

The index is typically the first 1 or 2 pages in your journal and acts as table of contents to everything in the journal. It can be very useful because it can help you easily identify and find pages and sections of your journal later down the road.

You don’t have to fill the entire index right away – just dedicate a page for it and fill it in as you go along in creating different sections and pages.

This is a great feature that most planners lack simply because it allows you to quickly reference and flip to any page of your journal anytime.

2. Rapid Logging

Remember when I said I’m a List-Brained Thinker™? This is probably why I so very much love the rapid logging part about bullet journaling!

Rapid logging is all about writing down things quickly in lists. You don’t need to write in full complete sentences – just a word or phrase will do.

There are a couple of advantages to rapid logging. First of all, it saves a lot of time. Absolutely there are times when it makes sense to pour your heart out in meaningful journal entries {and there is space for that in a bullet journal!} – but for the “meat and potatoes” so to speak, you do most of the journaling in a list based format.

The second advantage to this method is you can quickly see what you need to do or have going on and can prioritize your tasks and your schedule. This can help you be more productive!

3. Bullets + Signifiers

The bullet journal also has a system of symbols and signifiers – aka “bullets” to help you organize and prioritize lists that you make. Most of these bullets can be classified as one of three things: Tasks, Events, or Notes.

While the traditional bullet journaling method uses dots, open circles, and dashes to identify if something is a task, event or note, you can use alternative symbols that make sense for you.

In addition to the 3 basic bullet symbols, there are also signifiers which can provide a little more information about something on your list. An asterisk * is used to signify something is a priority, and an exclamation point ! is used to signify inspiration.

The bullet symbol part and signifiers were the most confusing for me, so if you can’t remember whether to use a dot or circle or a dash or an exclamation mark, don’t stress out over it. Use what works for you, or go with a color coded system instead!

Many people also opt to create a bullet journal key in the beginning or end of their journal. This helps them remember what symbols or colors they designate for different types of things they write down in their lists.

4. Collections + Modules: Sections of The Journal

The majority of your bullet journal pages are organized in collections, also known as modules. For simplicity’s sake, I like to call them sections.

Here are some examples of different sections a bullet journal might include:

  • Future Log / Yearly Calendar
  • Monthly Log / Calendar
  • Weekly Log / Calendar
  • Daily Log / Calendar
  • Custom Logs: Health + Wellness Trackers, Budgeting, Household Management, Creative Projects, Sketches, Detailed Journal Entries, Notes, etc.

One of the nicest things about the bullet journal is you can completely customize it to your needs.

I have friends who have used their bullet journals for everything from work + business planning to using it as a way to document their favorite things and as a daily record.

5. Migration

The concept of migration really confused me at first but it’s actually quite simple – and it’s going to make you feel a LOT better about yourself if you’re the kind of person who seems to never actually accomplish all the things on your never-ending to-do list!

At the end of each week or month, look back at your entries and see which tasks you may have not been able to complete. Most people have things they weren’t able to do and rather than beat yourself up about it, you can simply “migrate” this item to the next week or month.

In the bullet journal system, this is done by placing a carrot symbol > next to the task you didn’t complete, and simply writing it down again in the new weekly or monthly log.

Doing this one simple thing is a great way to prioritize your tasks AND be mindful of all the things you might be putting on a to-do list to begin with. Sometimes we get ambitious and plan way more than would be humanly possible!

6. Mindfulness + Intention

The last component of a bullet journal is the mindfulness aspect. I think this is probably one of the best side effects of having a bullet journal is it really does make you more mindful of where your time goes and to really focus living in the present moment.

Of course, I might also argue that ALL journals can help with practicing mindfulness – I know I am always 100% present in the moment of creating in my art journals and junk journals!

What Supplies Do I Need for Bullet Journaling?

I am going to cover more in-depth all of my favorite bullet journaling supplies in a future upcoming post, but for now I’m just going to cover the absolute essentials and a couple of “nice to haves”.

Of course, please, DO NOT feel like you have to run out and buy anything fancy or special. You could even make your own bullet journal from a junk journal – I have a great video tutorial on my easy peasy no sew journal binding technique!

Seriously, you only really need a notebook + a pen. The rest is just a bonus!

1. A Bullet Journal Notebook

You could bullet journal in ANY kind of notebook – a cheap composition notebook from the dollar store {which I personally am in love with for all kinds of journals + glue books!} and a pen is seriously all you need.

Now, that being said, many people use what are known as dot grid journals to use as their bullet journal notebook.

There are some advantages to dot grid journals, with the main one being the dots make it easy to draw things without necessarily needing a ruler and the dots don’t distract too much from the actual content written on the page.

Of course, you could also use graph paper/grid notebooks, or lined notebooks or even 100% blank notebooks. This all comes down to personal preference. Many people prefer notebooks that offer thicker paper so pens and markers don’t bleed through to the other side.

If you do plan on going super artsy in your bullet journal, you might want to opt for something with heavier paper that is more durable for mixed media. If you plan on painting in your journal, you’re going to want pages thicker than 120 GSM so your pages don’t get all wrinkly.

See my post on best journals for art journaling for my top picks for journals that can handle ANYTHING. The Canson XL mixed media journal is always a good option.

2. Pencil, Pens + Markers

Once you have the book, the next thing you need is something to write in it with.

If you’re someone who already loves all things journaling + paper, you probably already have a nice arsenal of pens.

My favorite pens for bullet journaling are Micron pens and Pilot G2 Gel pens. There’s bazillions of others, but the Micron + Pilot are what I usually have on hand and what I end up using the most.

The Micron Pens are more expensive and don’t last nearly as long, but I can always trust them to not smear and you could dump a whole cup of water on something you’ve written and it’d still be there.

Pilot G2 pens are by far a great value and they really do last a very long time compared to other brands. However, they are only water resistant and not waterproof. That’s not a deal breaker for me, but I did want to mention it. They are by far one of my favorite day to day pens I use all the time, but they do smudge sometimes!

Markers + Highlighters are fun to use and an easy way to add some color to your journals. You can get these cheap at just about any store and do not think you have to get anything fancy in that regard either. If you have to decide between markers and highlighters, I definitely recommend the highlighters.

Honorable Mention: These Sharpie Art Markers. They are not quite as waterproof/smudge free as Microns but they are Sharpie, and like most people I have a special place in my heart for all things Sharpie markers!

Bottom Line: Don’t get hung up on having all the popular markers and supplies. It’s easy to buy stuff and then never use it. You honestly only need ONE pen to write with and the best pen is the one you have nearest to you!

3. Optional Goodies

In this section I’m going to share some optional things you might want to consider getting to make your journal experience more fun or pretty – but again, you don’t NEED these things.

Stickers: Easy way to add some images + fun things to your pages. Planner stickers abound everywhere, but I actually get most of my stickers for free from different friends, family members + neighbors who collect them in their junk mail for me.

Washi Tape: Yes, I love all things washi tape. There are a bazillion flavors and styles. You can get a nice variety pack with a hundred different styles for under $20. Don’t be afraid to go cheap – you’ll always want more washi tape.

Planner Stencils: Many people like to use stencils for drawing different icons or boxes and borders in their journals. If you’re not especially keen on drawing everything freehand, these can be a great tool to use, although the stencils are generally better in theory than they are in practice. I have yet to find planner stencils I love, but if I find any I will let you know!

Ruler: So rulers aren’t that exciting, but they are practical! If you struggle to draw straight lines and you are going to be driven crazy by wavy/wobbly lines, a ruler is your best bet. You can get one at the dollar store, don’t listen to the people who try to convince you to buy a $20 ruler, okay?

Actually, come to think of it – you really could buy all your bullet journal supplies at the dollar store. I’m always amazed by how much awesome stuff Dollar Tree has in their stationary department. Just last week I bought a pair of Westcott scissors that normally sell everywhere else for $8!

Did you know you can also order online at and then pick it up at the store? If you have friends, neighbors or co-workers who also like to bullet journal you could definitely split a case of supplies!

Bullet Journal Setup For Beginners

Now that we have our supplies, we’re ready to set up the journal! In this post I’ll go over with you page by page how to set up your bullet journal as a beginner.

As we go along in creating these pages and sections in the bullet journal notebook, make sure you number the pages as you go along!

First Page: Cover Page

This is the very first page of your journal as soon as you open it up. I find that making this a cover page is a good idea, and of course you can customize the cover page anyway you like.

If you want to keep it minimalist, just write down the current year. Some people like to use a favorite quote or their word of the year on their cover page. You could write your name or cover it with artwork. You could even skip the cover page all together and leave it blank go straight to the index. It’s really all up to you!

Next 1-2 Pages: The Index + Key

The next one or two pages of your journal should be reserved for your index. An index is like a table of contents for all of the different sections in your journal. Indexes can fill up surprisingly fast, so that is why sometimes I like to dedicate two pages for the index.

To make the index page, Write “Index” or “Table of Contents” at the top. As we go along in creating the additional sections of the journal, we will come back to the index to write down the section names and the page numbers of each section.

Many people also like to include their “key” on this page. A key is where you can keep track of all the different symbols and bullets you use in your rapid logging. Another clever thing to do is make your key fold out on the front cover so you can easily reference it every time you use your journal.

Some people choose to use the traditional dots, circles, and dashes while others use their own custom symbols. You could even choose to go with colors instead. It’s completely up to you!

One thing about indexes to remember is you DON’T have to put every single page in your journal in the index! The index is there to help you find things you want to reference quickly again. For many people, recording every single page in the index would not only be tedious, they would never use it!

Now that you have the first 1 -2 pages in journal, this is where the fun begins!

Everything after this point is COMPLETELY modular and customizable. You can set up the different sections in your journal any way you’d like and makes sense for your journaling + planning style.

If the complete freedom to organize different sections of your journal seems overwhelming though, this basic bullet journal set up guide will help you get started on the fast track – you can always experiment with different structures in your next journals!

The Future Log/Yearly Calendar

The first section I like to create in a new bullet journal is the future log, better known as a yearly calendar.

If you’re starting your bullet journal at the beginning of the year, you’ll probably want 4 pages for this section, with three months written on each page for a total of 12 months. However, if you’re starting somewhere in the middle of the year, don’t feel like you have to include the months you don’t need.

The future log/yearly calendar is your place for long term planning or to make note of important events like holidays, birthdays, trips, and more. You might also jot down a monthly theme or goal for each month section.

The nice thing about putting this in your notebook first is you can easily find it and glance at your year anytime – no flipping through pages.

Once you have the future log section complete, make sure you write it down in your index as the first section at the beginning of the book.

Monthly Sections

After the yearly log, I like to jump right into the monthly section for the current month in my bullet journal setup. This part of the bullet journal is technically called the “Monthly Log” but because I usually include several different things for each month, I call it the “Monthly Section”.

You only need to start with one month right now – and that is the current month you are starting in! So, for example, if you’re starting your bullet journal in April, your first month would be April.

The Monthly Log can be as simple as writing the name of the month at the top of the page and then numbering down the sides for each day of the month.

Some people prefer the traditional look of an actual calendar, so you of course can also go that route – simply draw 7 columns across and 5 – 6 rows down.

You will also want to dedicate some space on these pages for your monthly task list. This is a section to write down stuff you know you need to in a given month.

Other things you might want to include in your monthly section are monthly habit trackers. There are all sorts of habit trackers, from making sure you drink enough water each day to getting some exercise to keeping track of your sleep schedule or screen time.

You can also include a page or two for monthly goals in this section. Some people are content with just writing down 1-2 goals, while others like to dedicate entire pages with specific actionable steps they are going to take to reach those goals.

Optional: Some people also like to include a monthly cover page for each month they add in the journal, but that is completely optional and up to you. I tend to fill up my journals pretty fast so they never really go beyond a month or two so I generally don’t bother.

Daily Logs

The daily log is the “bread and butter” of your bullet journal, and this is where you record your events, tasks, and notes for the day.

A daily log doesn’t need to take up a whole page – if you only use half the page, just draw a line and write the next day down after that.

Some people like to organize their daily logs in advance as a weekly spread {aka “weeklies”} – this is a good option if you like to see the whole week in advance.

One thing that is important is you don’t get too far ahead of yourself in the daily logs – you don’t know if one day might have a lot of things or maybe not very much at all. Take it one day at a time is a great motto to remember for your daily logging practice.

Start with today’s date at the top of a page and make a list of what you need to do or what’s going on in your brain.

Remember you don’t have to make this complicated – you don’t even need to write in full sentences. If you do want to write about something in more detail, give yourself some space for more detailed daily notes or a journal entry area.

Create Your Collections: Custom Sections + Pages

Example of a custom collection page in a bullet journal showcasing favorite movies. Photo by Emily Park on Unsplash

After you have your basic sections set up, you might also want to think about creating custom sections. These are called Collections in the bullet journal method.

Here are some examples of custom sections you might want to add in your journal. Remember your journal is 100% customizable for what your own goals + needs are – so don’t feel like you have to do all of these. These are just some examples of what you could include.

  • Budget + Finances
  • Meal Planning / Grocery Shopping
  • Cleaning Schedule + Household Maintenance
  • Fitness, Weight Loss + Wellness Habits
  • Creative Brain Storms + Brain Dumps
  • Sketches/Drawings/Doodles
  • Quotes
  • Gratitude Pages
  • Music, Books + Movie Logs
  • Travel Planning
  • Detailed Event Planning
  • Work + Business Projects
  • Mindmaps

Again, it’s completely up to you what you put in custom sections. Think about your life and what makes sense for you! And of course – remember you are allowed to have some fun in your journal, so don’t be afraid to make sections that are silly or just for fun!

One question many people ask is where they put these custom sections. Do they just start a collection and interrupt the middle of their daily log? What about keeping stuff for one month all together? Should they skip pages?

Here’s the thing: Nothing in life is predictable for any of us and a bullet journal definitely DOES NOT have to stay in order once you start. Remember that index we created in the very beginning? That’s why we have it!

If you’re halfway through a month or week and are inspired to start a collection of your favorite songs of the month – simply start on the next blank page and make a record of the date/number on your index page. Yes, it’s really that simple!

If splitting in the middle of a calendar really bothers you, another option is to create the collections pages in the back of the book and work backwards.

And of course, if you really are worried about losing track of where you are in a journal, you can always make use of helpful things like tabs, dividers or even paper clips. None of those are necessary, but if you’re coming from a more traditional planner method, don’t be afraid to use the tools + supplies you already know help keep you organized!

Completing Your Journal

One could argue that no journal is ever fully complete, but there will eventually come a time when your journal is full and you’re out of space for new months or daily logs.

When this happens – don’t panic! You can easily set up a new journal and pick right back up where you left off.

You might have created a section in the journal that covers something for the full year – only to run out of space in your journal three months later. If this is the case, you can always copy it over to the new journal, or simply make a page in the new journal that references where that section is in the previous journal.

Another option, if the idea of copying something over seems tedious is to make a photocopy of the journal page and then add it into your new journal with either washi tape, an elastic band or even a glue stick or stapler.

How much you write + how fast you’ll go through a journal will be unique to you. Something I’ve found really helpful for yearly things is to print them out on separate sheets of paper I attach to each current journal. That way, it’s always there in my current journal as a reference.

Bullet Journaling Beginner Tips + Advice

Now that we’ve covered all the basics, and you have a good idea of what you need to start and how to set up your first journal, there’s a couple of helpful tips that can make your first experience with bullet journaling a lot less stressful.

1. Keep it Simple!

Seriously, do not overthink or over plan your pages and sections too much. Do not feel pressured to write “pretty” or draw anything crazy elaborate unless that’s what you really want to do. Don’t buy a bazillion supplies and then stare at the blank page in a frozen state of panic.

Start your first bullet journal out as simple as possible. Keep it minimalist – you can always add to it later and your journaling style will evolve as you go on and begin to discover what works and what doesn’t.

2. Make it a Habit + Give It Time

Once your journal is set up, you will find that you need to make a conscious effort at first to regularly use it.

What works for everyone to start a new habit is different, but I’ve found that keeping my bullet journal open on my desk at all times is often the best option for me. That way I can add to it anytime.

It’s also important to remember you aren’t going to see magic results instantly overnight. It can take several weeks or even months to start to see progress and understand just how the bullet journal can work for you.

Like any kind of planner system, it’s a process to find out what really works best for you.

3. Review Your Yearly, Monthly + Daily Logs Often

Remember what we covered about the migration aspect of tasks for bullet journaling? This is a technique that helps be more productive and really know what to focus on.

Make it a habit to go back and look at your daily and monthly logs to see what tasks you may have left incomplete. Draw a carrot symbol > next to the things you didn’t complete and then add them to the next day.

Doing this will help keep you reminded of what things you need to do – and it will also help you become more aware of whether something is a priority or even important. It’s also good motivation to make you actually DO the things on that to – do list.

For example, if I’ve written down “clean the refrigerator” and I have to keep migrating it and writing it down for days and days, maybe even weeks… eventually I’m going to actually just clean the refrigerator because I’m tired of writing it down over and over again!

4. Remember That Comparison is the Thief of Joy

When you first dive into bullet journaling as a beginner, it’s easy to want to compare your journal pages to all the millions of other pages out there.

It’s easy to look at all the pretty pages and then look at yours and think, mine is not good enough, or I keep making mistakes/smudges.

Don’t compare yourself to other people! Sure, you can find tons of inspiration – but embrace your imperfections! Learn to work with them to make them your own unique style.

5. Mistakes Happen: Handy Tricks to Make Your Pages Pretty

While I just said don’t compare yourself to others, you probably still might want to make your pages look nice. Here are some tricks that any one can do without being an artists or even good at drawing a straight line:

Start with a pencil first: Many people who do detailed drawings + lettering do their work in pencil first. By writing in pencil first, it’s easy to just outline + trace with ink – and you’re less likely to make mistakes.

Cover Up Mistakes Creatively: If you are writing in pen and make a mistake, there are easy ways to cover it up. You can put a piece of washi tape or a sticker over something, or you can black it out with pen/marker and then write over it with white pen and marker.

Add Some Color: Coloring is fun, and just a few lines or pops of color can really make the whole journaling experience a lot more fun. Writing in different colors can even make you remember stuff better. We had a science teacher when I was in high school who made us copy our notes daily in different colored pens!

Use a Ruler: A ruler is cheap, easy to get and will make drawing lines 100% more accurate. If you don’t have a ruler, you could always use something else with a flat, straight edge as a guide.

Stencils Can Be Great: Stencils are another helpful thing if you struggle with drawing + writing neatly but you still want that creative aspect in your journal. For example, if you want to draw perfect circles, they make circle stencils! There are also TONS of planner stencils you can use for decorative borders, boxes and frames.

Use Printables! If the idea of drawing out all your own spreads seems daunting, you can ALWAYS use printables! Printables are a great way to save time and you can still always customize and personalize your printables with some coloring or doodling if you want.

I hope this overview of how to start a bullet journal for beginners is helpful for you and inspires you to get started. If you have ANY questions about getting started – seriously, anything – just ask in the comments below!

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