How to set up a bullet journal
So, you’ve poured over gorgeous bujo spreads on Pinterest, you’ve treated yourself to a snazzy new notebook, and you’re ready to get started. How do you go about setting up a bullet journal for use?
Well, you’ve heard me say that bullet journaling is supposed to be quick and easy. It’s supposed to make your life easier.
That’s all true, but a little bit of planning ahead now will save you a lot of time and headaches later.
The first time you ever use a bullet journal, it’s worth taking a bit of time to think about which areas of your life you need help to organize.
Put aside an hour or two to set your bullet journal up for success, and it will make things smoother down the line. The more you plan, the more organized your bullet journal will end up being.
Of course, you can always add or take away pages later through a process known as ‘migration’ (more on that later), but here are some tips for the beginning stages of setting up the bullet journal:
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Video by the original creator of Bullet Journal®, Ryder Carroll.
How to set up your bullet journal index
So, I’m assuming you’ve already got your bullet journal essentials such as your notebook and pen!
The first step is to create an index.
The index should take up the first couple of pages of your journal. Therefore it’s the very first thing you’ll set up in your new bullet journal.
What is a bullet journal index?
A bullet journal index is similar to the content list at the beginning of a book. It tells you what you can find on page 3 to page 203. An index records where all of your pages are and what’s on them. You can organize your index to whatever style suits you best.
A simple and classic index page by happilyeveafter__ on Instagram.
Why an index is helpful
An index allows you to keep track of exactly where a page is in your journal.
Instead of flipping through the whole notebook to find “Grandma’s Secret Chocolate Cookie Recipe” you jotted down on the phone last week, you can look at the index to quickly find the page.
How to set up your index
Creating a bullet journal index is as easy as writing “Index” at the top of the first page of your journal and leaving the next couple pages blank.
As you build pages, you add the page name to your index with the page number next to it.
You can’t really set this up in advance, because bullet journals develop as they go on – you won’t know what will be on what page number until you get there!
Do I have to write page numbers in my bullet journal?
Well, page numbers are how the index works and how we find the information we need.
One reason why the Leuchtturm 1917 is one of the most popular notebooks for bullet journaling is because it has pre-printed page numbers!
But if you’re working into a different journal, don’t stress. It’s not as much as a hassle as you think!
I often just write numbers on the right-hand page to save time. And you don’t have to number the entire journal up front as part of your bullet journal set up – maybe just 20 or 30 pages at a time.
Top Tips for Setting up Your Index
1. Make sure you have space
The worst thing an index can have is not enough space. Check the number of pages in the journal and make sure you leave enough room in your index. Four pages should be plenty. You won’t need to include every single page in the index – just things like collections and the start of a new month.
But don’t panic – if you do run out of room, just flip to the back of the book and continue it there.
2. Organize the index your way
A bullet journal index can be linear like a book index or categorical. You can list every page in the index as it is created.
If you prefer to keep your pages together with their specific categories, you can structure your index with different categories like “Projects” or “Calendars.” Each page will go under its category with the page number.
3. Be specific
Use specific names to label your pages in the index. For example, instead of saying “meal ideas,” using “meal planning August 1-7” will be clearer and make it easier to find the page.
4. Use creative bullets
If you like, consider creating your own bullet system for collections or lists that are unfinished, completed, or have been moved to another page or another journal.
But remember, you don’t have to do this if you’re not feeling the spark of creativity! Minimal bullet journals can work just as well.
Bullet journals can be fun and practical ways to get organized. Instead of floating lists or a hundred journals with only three pages used, you can keep track of everything in one place.
A bullet journal index allows you to keep your journal organized the way you want, so don’t stress about it – do what feels most natural to you.
Although mostly bullet journals are free-flowing and develop over time, there are some pages that will help you feel more organized if you make them up front.
These are the sections of your bullet journal you want to plan out beforehand when working on your bullet journal set up.
Once you decide what pages you want to include, you can then start organizing the bullet journal by putting them into the right order, and starting to number them and add them to your index.
An important aspect of setting up your bullet journal is to choose signifiers. These are the cornerstone of a bullet journal, as they allow you to make notes in the journal without writing a lot.
Writing traditional journal pages is not practical in this type of journal since there is rarely sufficient space for it. Instead, you choose symbols, known as signifiers, to represent each note you make.
Here are some examples:
❤️ – Use a heart signifier for anything you like or love in the bullet journal, such as an inspirational quote you want to remember.
⭐️ – Use a start or asterisk symbol when you want to mark something important, such as an appointment you must remember.
? – The money symbol is perfect for anything related to your budget or finances.
Get creative when choosing signifiers for various notes and lists you add to the bullet journal. There are lots of examples out there, but this is one section where you can really make it your own.
Not everyone feels the need to do this, especially once they are more familiar with their bullet journal. But for beginners, this is a must.
After you have decided on your signifiers, you may want a quick key that shows you exactly what each signifier or symbol is being used for.
This is a beautiful example of a key from greyzonepages, but you don’t have to include this many signifiers – I only have about four!
Putting it near the beginning of the journal, typically after the index, makes it easy for you to reference as needed.
Another cute idea is to write your key onto a separate piece of card which you can use as a bookmark. This has the double purpose of saving your place, and having your key nearby for reference!
Bullet journals are created as you go along. So you can’t flip ahead to fill in appointments on future dates like a traditional journal.
The ‘future log’ is a place to jot down future appointments and things to remember.
Leave a couple of pages blank at the front of your journal for your future log. You can write down the date and appointment as you make it. Some people divide this section into months, or even draw out mini calendars to make things more organized. Others simply keep a running list.
As you get ready to set up a new monthly spread for each new month, you can refer back to your future log to fill in pre-booked appointments.
Setting up your collections and lists
One aspect of bullet journaling is the flexibility of keeping track of your responsibilities, tasks, notes and ideas in different specific manners or ways.
One of the many ways people organize their information that they keep in a bullet journal is by creating and using pages called ‘collections’.
Normally you would make a collection in a bullet journal when you find a reoccurring theme or task that you routinely log in your bullet journal.
Ok, maybe I’ve lost you. But think of a ‘collection’ as another word for ‘list’. This can be a list of any information, tasks, events, ideas, favorites, or goals you might have.
For example, do you struggle to remember birthdays? Create a collection of the birthdays of your friends and family for easy reference.
Another common bullet journal collection idea is your New Year’s Resolutions or personal goals. Or how about a list of movies to watch, favorite bands, places to travel, recipes to try, things to feel grateful for…
A list of books you’ve read is a popular collection idea, like this one from studyquill.
Collections basically make keeping track of repetitive things much cleaner and take up less space in your precious bullet journal.
Collections can be one of the most fun and creative parts of bullet journaling. A lot of people who are really into the arty side of bujo create new collections as a hobby, accompanied by beautiful sketches and decorations.
But don’t forget: bullet journals are primarily designed to make life easier! So don’t feel any pressure to do this if you don’t want to.
In fact, when you are first setting up a bullet journal, I recommend not making any collections at all. When you feel the need to make one, you’ll know.
And of course, collections can appear anywhere in your bullet journal. They don’t have to all be together in the same section. That’s what your index is for!
Trackers are basically a kind of collection or list, but for something you want to keep a record of over time.
Here are some common types of tracker to think about:
This can really be about any type of habit you are trying to keep record of, such as exercise, healthy eating, drinking enough water, eating fruit every day, sleeping, studying and other habits.
If you have squared or dotted paper in your bullet journal, it’s very easy to set up. Simply use the squares in your journal to outline boxes for the amount of days in the month for the habit you are trying to track. Label each pixel or box as a number to indicate the date of the month.
You can keep track of your ability to perform tasks and help create habits by coloring in a box every time you complete that repetitive daily task.
You will need to refer back to your tracker page often, so here’s a useful hack: putting colored washi tape on the edge of the page. This will make it stand out so you can easily flip back to it.
Your Year in Pixels
The ‘year in pixels’ is another cool tracker which looks very effective and is fun to fill out! It is often used for mood tracking, but of course you can use it for other things too.
To set up a year in pixels, make a giant box filled with 365 individual boxes to indicate every day of the year. Make a key of different colors which indicate different moods.
Every day, fill in a box with the color that corresponds to how you’re feeling. After continually tracking your mood every day, you will have a nice overview of your mood fluctuations in a colorful artistic fashion.
It can be interesting to see your moods laid out clearly like this. You can look for patterns, such as whether changes in your moods correspond with your monthly cycle, the weather or any other events.
A lot of people with mental health issues such as depression find this a useful tool to explore patterns in their health with their therapist.
Not bothered about tracking your moods? Some people have adapted the pixels idea to track things such as general health, pregnancy or energy levels.
Have a lot of books you need or want to read over the year? Keep a list of books and checkmark boxes next to those books to keep track of your reading progress!
This is useful for students with a long reading list, or anyone who needs a little push to read more. I find that it always motivates me to read more when I can see my progress written down on the page!
You can additionally add a daily reading section to your habit tracker as mentioned above.
How to set up your bullet journal monthly spreads and calendar pages
Since your bullet journal is being used primarily as a way to plan and organize your life, it naturally consists of calendar pages. These are often known in the bujo community as ‘monthly spreads’.
Calendar spreads vs logs
The first thing you should understand is that in the calendar pages, you might have both Logs and Spreads. These are not the same thing, though for a more simplified bullet journal, are sometimes located on the same pages.
The calendar spread is what you see with any calendar program, app, or planner. The monthly calendar spread shows you the current month with a box or line for each day.
You should set this up at the beginning of each month and fill in any pre-booked appointments from your future log. You can then add new appointments and deadlines throughout the month as you make them. You’ll find yourself referring back to this page often to see what you’ve got planned that month.
Mine is very simple. I simply write the numbers of the month down the left hand side of the page, and the first letter of the corresponding day next to it. I also like to highlight weekends and holidays to make them stand out. See below for more info!
But some people prefer the traditional ‘boxy’ calendar layout, and that’s fine too.
Some people will also have a weekly spread with larger spaces to see your week at a glance, and daily spreads for things like events and daily tasks or to-do lists.
With the Calendar Log, it is simply a list of things that will happen on that day, week, or month. You typically want to list the log items first every time a new month begins, then use that to fill in your monthly calendar spread.
You could also use this log for general monthly goals or to-dos.
Not everybody has both of these pages. Remember the bullet journal mantra – it’s supposed to make life easy for you! So if you can’t see the use of both types of page, you don’t have to make it.
And not every month has to be the same. Why not experiment with a new monthly spread layout this month, and something different next month?
Monthly calendar spreads and how to create them
Each of the twelve months of the year are usually given a single page in a bullet journal. You will need a lot of space because this is an important reference page.
This is how I set up mine:
At the top of a monthly page, write the name of the given month. Below number the lines 1-30 or 1-31 (or 1-28!), depending on how many days are in that month.
Next to each numbered date, write the letter abbreviation for the day of the week it is. Use M for Monday, T for Tuesday, W for Wednesday, H for Thursday, F for Friday, Sat for Saturday and Sun for Sunday.
If you prefer, you can use the first three letters of each day.
This one-page spread allows bullet journalers to quickly get a visual overview of the upcoming month.
Since you only have one line for each day of the month, use this space wisely. It’s okay if you leave some days left blank, depending on what your schedule looks like and whether or not anything noteworthy is planned.
Monthly spread by viacalligraphy.
Pro tip for setting up your monthly spread
One interesting possibility for bullet journals involves printing out a monthly calendar and gluing it into your journal. There are even cute calendar stickers you can buy just for this purpose!
This little hack appeals to people who like every month to look consistent on the page, and who don’t have much time for writing things out each month.
In fact, there are all sorts of stickers and stencils you can use in your bullet journal to make things easier.
As long as you’re not gluing in items on every page, a few key items stuck in sparingly shouldn’t disrupt the thickness or cover of your bullet journal.
Daily logs are the heart and soul of the bullet journal.
It’s not something you need to think about now while planning how to set up your bullet journal, because you can’t prepare these in advance. But I’ll have to give it a quick mention now so you know what’s coming!
Basically, daily logs are what you’ll fill in every day. In pure bullet journal style, everything you need is in one place. Appointments that day, your to-do list, your dinner plans, funny things you hear or see and want to remember… jot it all down in the daily log.
I recommend that you don’t set up daily logs in advance, because you never know how much space you’ll need.
Instead, each day simply turn to the next blank page, write the date, and start taking your notes.
Daily logs are often called ‘rapid logging’, because they’re supposed to be written quickly.
The daily logs are where those signifiers and key you created earlier will really come in useful. Since you will be logging a lot of different kinds of information in one place, the signifiers help you sort out what’s what.
Most people use a simple check box or a bullet that can be crossed out for to do list items. After that, the choice is yours for other things you want to log.
So while you’re setting up your bullet journal, make sure you have a think about any additional pages you want to include.
This is entirely up to you and determined by your main use of the bullet journal.
For example, if you are in school, you may want pages with your class schedule or other notes about your degree. People it for personal use will have some pages dedicated to household chores, meal planning or finances.
The true joy of a bullet journal is that it is endlessly adaptable to your needs! Don’t feel limited to the pages and trackers listed here. You can create a page for literally anything you want.
I hope this post has helped you understand the basics of how to set up a bullet journal. Remember, there’s really no right or wrong, and you can always add pages at a later date if you miss something out.
So grab a notebook, and get stuck in! Happy journaling!