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:
- Table of Contents. (I have 3 pages for this, just in case I need them. I usually use 2).
- Future Log (set up exactly as in the video). 2 spreads.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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/