12 X 12 Bullet Journaling

HUGE thanks to 12 x 12 member extraordinaire Michelle Cusolito for sharing her inside tips and resources for keeping a bullet journal. Michelle was my inspiration for keeping one in 2016. It made such a big difference, not so much in terms of how much I got done (I don’t think…), but in terms of how I felt about myself and my accomplishments. I didn’t keep one in 2017. I don’t know if I was any less productive, but I’ll tell you this: I was a LOT more stressed and overwhelmed. So back to the bullet journal I go. Thanks again, Michelle!

Several years ago, Kate Messner posted about bullet journaling and shared pages from her journal. Around the same time, I also saw Erin Dionne posting about how much she loved her bullet journal. I was intrigued and decided to see if it would work for me. If you are unfamiliar with bullet journals, I strongly encourage you to watch the introductory video on the Bullet Journal website so my post will be clearer to you: http://bulletjournal.com/. It’s only 4 minutes long. Come back when you’re done. I’ll wait. ?

First things first:  you do not need a special journal for this. There is an official “Bullet Journal” you can buy. Other people swear by Leuchtturm journals. When I first started using this system, I used a cheap little notebook I bought at Staples while I figured out if I really wanted to use the system. I didn’t want to invest lots of money on a fancy notebook I wouldn’t use.

Once I learned how valuable the bullet journal was to me, I switched to a more durable notebook. Right now, that’s a 5” X 8” Moleskine with lines. The hard cover protects the pages and the small size is easy to carry around.  I’ve used the same one for two years, which really is a symptom of me not using it as effectively as I could have. I had some big stretches when I didn’t really record daily tasks (more on that later), so I didn’t fill it up. I think most people tend to use one notebook per year.  I’m on the last few pages now—just enough for the 12 days of Christmas for Writers. My Moleskine works well for me, so I’ll stick with it.

(The only real advantage I can see to using an actual bullet journal is that the table of contents/index page is built in and all of the pages are numbered. But it takes only a few moments to do that yourself.) If you get a lined notebook, make sure you can set up the monthly calendar page, which means you need 30 or 31 lines. (That first year, I simply used the top and bottom space as lines when the notebook didn’t have enough).

I set my notebook up the same as it’s described in the video, so I won’t repeat that here. I don’t use all of the different symbols- I simply use bullet points for each new item and either check it off or put an arrow to move an item forward. If an item is extra important, I put a star. That’s it.

I have customized my journal to include some pages that are important to me.

Here are my pages, in order:

  1. Table of Contents. (I have 3 pages for this, just in case I need them. I usually use 2).
  2. Future Log (set up exactly as in the video). 2 spreads.
  3. Accomplishments/Celebrations, 2 spreads set up just as the Future Log. These are the pages you may have heard me mention in the 12×12 Facebook Group or in the 12 Days of Christmas for Writers if you know me from either of those places. I included these pages after trying to complete Day 2 of the 12 Days of Christmas one year and I had a hard time remembering everything. I list every little accomplishment on these pages as they happen. Finish a draft? Update my website? It all goes in. (This is a picture of a page from my 2016 journal. All of my 2017 entries have stuff that I’m not comfortable sharing publicly because people’s names are listed, etc.)

I strongly encourage you to add this to your bullet journal or whatever system you use. It will help you feel better about your accomplishments all year long instead of waiting for an end of the year wrap up. It could even be a file in your computer or in Evernote if you prefer to work digitally.

  1. Picture Books Completed (“Shitty First Drafts”) and Picture Books Revised. I’m a slow writer, so I put this on one page. I never fill it. If you’re prolific, leave more pages.  
  2. Also one page. (Some of you will need more than one page). I list every expense and where I have a record of it (email receipt, paper receipt, etc).
  3. Picture Books Read. 2 spreads. For several years I’ve tracked the books I’ve read, especially when reading mentor texts. This has become cumbersome and I no longer feel this is useful to me, so I’m dropping these pages this year. I will replace them with a page to record specific books I want to return to for specific reasons.
  4. Books Read. 2 Spreads. I record all other books I read here—MG, YA, Adult. I tag them with labels so I’ll remember a little detail about them (MG-F for Middle Grade Fiction, A-NF for Adult non-fiction). I’m not sure these pages are helpful to me any more, either. I’m evaluating whether I want to keep them.

Following these entry pages, I set up the rest of the pages and use the journal as described in the video, with one exception. There were times when my life was so crazy, that taking the time to do a daily task list made no sense. An example of this was in the weeks leading up to my transatlantic move. Writing a daily task list and migrating any unfinished items to a new list each day was a big fat waste of time. So, during that time, I simply made a big on-going list. I checked off items as I completed them and added others as they came up. The fact is, my focus each day was to tick items off my “get ready to move list.” That was all I could manage.

When things aren’t nuts (Try not to let yourself think it’s always too crazy to take time to do this), I keep a monthly task list as described in the video and a daily task list. The monthly list starts with anything I previously put on my Future Log.  Then I add any other “big” things I want to finish that month. For example, finish a revision and send a manuscript to my critique group.

Each day I try to set a focus to keep my day from getting derailed. (It’s really easy to be busy and get lots of things done, but not the things you most needed to do). So, for example, on a given day, my focus might be to review critique notes from my last meeting and determine which notes I want to use and which notes I will discard. Maybe that day’s focus will also include working on those revisions if I can manage that. I try to make my daily task lists reasonable. That is to say, I consider what appointments, meetings, and other commitments I have and try to make my list one I can reasonably complete. That way, I don’t waste loads of time migrating unfinished items to the next day’s list.

If you fall off the wagon, so to speak, and don’t use your bullet journal for some period of time, don’t beat yourself up. Just go back to it and start using it again. Don’t try to recreate pages you “should” have made.  I fall off the wagon far more often than I should. For example, in September I only listed daily tasks for 4 days. In October, I didn’t list ANY. Why not? It doesn’t matter. In November, I set up my pages again and got back to work.

Two final notes:

  1. I participate in Julie’s 12 Days of Christmas for Writers every year. I don’t put my daily responses on a blank sheet of paper. I put it all in here. So for my current bullet journal, the final pages are dedicated to the 12 Days.
  2. I beg of you… unless one of our goals for the year is to set up a lovely, scrapbook style bullet journal, or you are looking for a new creative outlet, do not get sucked into the Facebook group for Bullet Journals. I think it’s called something like Bullet Journal Junkies. All that will do is make you feel bad about yourself. My journal is an ugly mess. But guess what? It’s functional. It makes me more productive. A pretty bullet journal does not make me a more productive writer. Make the journal your own and don’t worry about what others are doing.

I hope this helps. Please ask any questions you have in the comments. I’ll try to pop in and answer them when I can.

Michelle Cusolito is a former naturalist, teacher, and curriculum developer. She grew up in Southeastern Massachusetts and has lived in Cebu, Philippines and Dublin, Ireland.  She has also camel trekked in the Sahara desert in Morocco, hiked the Inca Trail in Peru and participated in a Hindu wedding in India. When she isn’t mucking around in the world, she can usually be found in her office or local coffee shop weaving these experiences into stories for children. Her debut, FLYING DEEP, will be published by Charlesbridge on May 22, 2018. It’s available for preorder now. Learn more about Michelle and her book at  http://www.michellecusolito.com/

This Post Has 69 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for this, Michelle! I’m a pretty organized person in life but I find it very difficult to manage all of my writing tasks and keep them ordered/structured. I have SO many journals all begging to be used. I’ve looked into the Bullet Journal before but thought it sounded too cumbersome to try it. Your post definitely made it seem manageable so I’m going for it!
    Thanks again!

  2. Bullet Journaling reminds me so much of my days in marketing & advertising, where every week, I’d have present all the clients’ stats to the team. It was a way to keep track of the many campaign pieces, know where they were in the creative cycle, and know what was needed in the future. I’m going to give this a try for one quarter and see how effective it becomes for me, without becoming an unwieldy task within itself. Michelle, thanks so much for jotting all this down! Hope you’re enjoying a cuppa at Bewleys ever now and then, too!

  3. Thank you, Michelle, for sharing the advantages of bullet journaling. I need to do this! My organization is icky. You’ve brought me hope 🙂

  4. Thank you Michelle for the tips and insights. The one about not getting sucked into the “cutesy” is specially important to me. That’s basically the reason I haven’t started doing one yet.

    1. Yes. If that’s not your focus, it’s easy to get sucked into that. For some people, making a beautiful journal is part of their creative expression that helps them meet their goals. I’m not one of those people. I have other creative outlets. It’s important to know what you want to accomplish.

  5. Thanks for this post, Michelle. I started my bullet journal back when I saw Kate Messner’s post about it, too. I use a Leuchtturm 1917 with dots instead of lines. I like not feeling constrained to lines. I set up facing pages with the monthly dates and tasks and use it for everything else, including notes from webinars, conferences, and workshops. In the past, I haven’t set up a daily task list, I’ve just turned to my monthly task list and checked things off there. I may try to go to a daily task list for 2018. I think I also need to set up the accomplishments pages since I often struggle to feel like I’m accomplishing anything. Thanks for being a good role model for this! I also write the time period that each journal covers on the spine in sharpie and shelve them like books, so I can refer back to a particular time period and review the table of contents to find something. Let’s hear it for getting things done in 2018!

    1. That’s great, Jilanne! I love that you’ve made it work for you.

      It’s funny… I write all of my drafts long-hand. I prefer to work on unlined paper for the reason you described. I often write in random ways- up the side, diagonally, whatever. Sometimes I doodle. But for this, I want to keep it simple and organized. It really is a no-frills affair. I have not managed to put the dates on the spines, yet, but I should do that.

      I don’t keep my workshop and webinar notes in my bullet journal. I keep a separate notebook for that. That’s a symptom of the fact that I have HUGE handwriting. I would have no room for bullet journaling if I put that stuff in it. 🙂 I manage to keep my writing fairly small for bullet journaling, but if I’m writing fast, trying to keep up with note-taking, it gets crazy big.

  6. Thank you, Michelle. I would definitely use this idea to not lose my focus. I also need time-driven goals and I can see that this journal would help me tremendously.

  7. Love this! Love my bullet journal and have been using one for several years! I definitely say make it work for you. I see some people who make it all fancy-schmancy, but mine is plain-jane, but it is my “brain.” Super helpful!

  8. This looks intriguing, Michelle! I am a total list maker…but my problem is that I start numerous notebooks and use them for lots of things and then can’t find notes on something important. Also, I use backs of envelopes and scraps of paper! What a mess! So I can see that having one journal that kind of keeps tracks of important stuff…like deadlines and project that needs to be done…might help me organize my life a bit. Thanks so much!!!!

  9. I am so excited for your post. I’ve been trying to find an organizational method for my writing and to-do’s for two years and I think this will work very well for me! One question: do your daily to-do lists go right after the monthly task list spread for that month? Thanks!

    1. Yes. So I make that January calendar page the way it’s shown in the bullet journal video. The opposite page is the January Tasks page. Then I flip to the next spread and start my January 1 task list on the left side page. I continue until the end of the month. When it’s time to do the February calendar page, that goes on the next blank left-hand page. But this is just what I do. You might like a different set-up.

  10. Thanks so much for sharing. I had heard a lot about bullet journals, but had never taken the time to figure out what they are all about. I think I will incorporate some of the ideas within the system that’s already working for me.

  11. I also started keeping a bullet journal after reading about it from Kate Messner. At the time I was planning a statewide reading conference, so it helped tremendously to keep me on track. I still keep one, but I don’t think I focus enough on my writing in it. Thanks to your post I have a renewed energy and will add some of the pages you suggested. Thank you so much, Michelle. I’m looking forward to reading Flying Deep.

    1. Oh, wow. A state-wide reading conference is a good reason to use a bullet journal. I’ll bet you had a constant task list running. I hope you find it helpful for your writing, too.

      Thanks for keeping and eye our for Flying Deep. (In case you’re interested, all books pre-ordered through my local indie will be signed by me AND Nicole Wong, the illustrator. I haven’t announced it, yet, but there will also be swag. 🙂 The link is on my website. https://www.facebook.com/groups/122633751263332/ )

  12. One of my biggest problems is having my day be hijacked by and I don’t get the writing tasks done that I have set for myself. If this helps keep me writing I’m willing to give it a go!

  13. Thanks for sharing! I make lists too on various pages and in assorted notebooks but without any real organization. All the while thinking that my different thoughts needed to be in different places. I’m excited to implement this for my writing. Thanks again!

  14. Thank you! This looks very interesting. I fear I am like Vivian and start lists and notebooks for different things and backs of envelopes seem to be my go to. This will definitly be an aspiration and resolution effort!

    1. I used to be the same way. Now I carry my bullet journal with me most of the time and it really helps. In a pinch, I use the “notes” feature in my phone, but I need to be careful to transfer it to my bullet journal later or it becomes one more random note.

  15. Thanks so much for sharing this. I’ve played around with bullet journals for a while now, off and on. I really like the idea of using it for my writing. I’m going to give it a try.

  16. What a great post to start out the New Year. I have a similar way creating my lists that goes back to my days as an a Studio Manager at Random House and this reminded me of the value of getting my goals and plans in order.

  17. I’ve never heard of this, but now I’m going to carve out some time to watch and learn. I’m not a scattered person by nature, but sometimes my writing goals do get scattered– I have a LOT that I want to do, and I have trouble figuring out what is the best way to spend my writing time and energy. I’m all for the simple-but-durable and I love the advice to keep off the forums for the beautiful-but-pointless!!

  18. Thanks for all the helpful ideas, Michelle! My daughter is a writer and a bullet journaler, so I caught the bug and started my own bullet journal on January 1st. Your ideas about how to customize it for writing tasks and goals are great, and I’m going to put them to use right away.

  19. Thanks so much for sharing this info, i started drafting as I was reading and I watched the video as well. It’s exciting and also daunting for me. But i will give it a go. My life is so busy at the moment: full-time job, kids, evening school plus writing. So I pray this helps me organise my time better with the million to-do(s) I have in my head.

    happy writing everyone —welcome to 2018

  20. Thank you, Michelle! This is so helpful. I’ve been wanting to start a bullet journal as I keep hearing how helpful it is, but I didn’t know if it would be that useful to me as a writer. I love all your suggestions, especially the monthly accomplishments/successes pages. I also love the idea of streamlining all of my random sticky notes and papers into one place. Can’t wait to get started!

  21. Michelle,
    Thanks for taking the time to set this out. I tend to use sticky notes, envelope backs, old receipts at the bottom of my purse etc etc. It’s time for an organization upgrade. I’m going to try this for the first quarter and see if it is something that will work for me. Thanks!

  22. Oh my goodness! I came into this process willing to give it a try but not really believing it would SO change how I organize my days. I’m getting stuff done. It holds me accountable .. in a strange way.
    Thanks again.
    Jane

  23. Michelle, I love the way you shared how you made the Bullet Journal work for you. I also love the idea of adding pages to note accomplishments.

    I noticed how involved you are with the schools. As a retired special educator, having taught over thirty-five years in the public school system, I am encouraged to set goals this year to connect with children in school settings and/or in other settings, and to add these visits in my journal.

    I know by reconnecting with children, I will be encouraged to continue growing as I work towards becoming a published picture book writer.

    Your blog post inspired me!

    1. For some reason I did not get notified about new comments. I’m sorry for not replying.

      I’m so glad it was helpful to you!
      I was the classroom teacher in an inclusion classroom for a decade, so I worked very closely with a special educator. Staying connected with schools and kids is very important to me as I launch my career as an author. It’s great that you’re seeking ways to stay connected, too.

  24. Thank you so much for the bullet journaling idea. I had never heard of it before today. It goes right along with my theme this year which is “Back to Basics” and I believe this will help me keep on track and weed out the things that do not need my time so I can spend time on the things that do. Thanks again!
    Carrie Chan

  25. Thank you so much for this post, Michelle! I’ve been struggling to organize all my writing tasks without falling into the pitfall of using both electronic and analog means, since I’m by nature a list-writer. I’m going to give this a shot! And it’s so good to remember that an organization system is there to serve us, not the other way around!

  26. Thank you for sharing this idea! I have been struggling to find a better system for keeping my writing/illustrating tasks organized and accessible. I think a bullet journal will be very helpful.

  27. I just read through this a second time. After the first time I looked at several YouTube videos and websites with bullet journal ideas. I bought my journal and started it the second week of January. I have found this so helpful. Now, coming back to yours I find the tips you gave specifically for writing so helpful. Thanks for sharing this. I think this is such a practical system that I will really be able to stick to.

  28. Thank you so much for sharing this! I tend to become so frazzled from keeping track of every little thing that I’ll search twenty minutes for my coffee cup just to find it an hour later still left in the microwave. I’m definitely going to make this my year to try a bullet journal and I really appreciate your personal hints and tips.

  29. Thank you so much for sharing this! I tend to become so frazzled from keeping track of every little thing that I’ll search twenty minutes for my coffee cup just to find it an hour later still left in the microwave. I’m definitely going to make this my year to try a bullet journal and I really appreciate your personal hints and tips!

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