My Bullet Journal Evolution, 2016-2021

Since there are so many things that Bullet Journaling can do for you, I’ll be upfront about what it CANNOT do:

  • Bullet Journaling cannot tell you what you want in life.
  • Bullet Journaling cannot help you stop procrastinating
  • Bullet Journaling cannot help you gain an additional 6 inches. Anywhere.

Now that we got that straight, I’d like to share with you how I was able to harness the Bullet Journal system, build a daily writing habit, and use it to achieve big goals. 

Scrolling through the fountain pen community on Instagram or the /r/fountainpens subreddit will often lead to exciting, creative uses for writing instruments. Bullet Journaling is one of those activities that is oft enjoyed by pen enthusiasts. It’s a form of note-taking, planning, and journaling that can be customized to fit your workflow.

Ryder Carroll invented the Bullet Journal method and published it online back in 2013. My story with Bullet Journaling started in 2016.

I don’t recall exactly how I found Bullet Journaling - I probably stumbled across it in my daily scouring of fountain pen and stationery social media. I recall there was a phase when it seemed Bullet Journaling and adult coloring books were poised to launch pens and paper into the mainstream. Instead of staying in the lines, I wanted to blaze my own path toward a fulfilling, purpose-driven lifestyle.

Five years before Bullet Journaling, in 2011 I experienced a breakthrough in logging my weight and exercise daily. In the span of a year and a half, I dropped 70 pounds and prepared my body to run one half and one full marathon. To track my progress, I used a simple Field Notes dot grid memo book. 

As with building any new habit (or breaking an old one), enthusiasm can only sustain you so far. There needs to be a reward cycle in the process to keep the momentum going. Writing it down in a log does that for me. A completed page of daily entries is like weaving a section of tapestry. Eventually, the daily, incremental effort snowballs into an entire notebook filled with entries. I was showing up on paper every day to create the resulting fitness level I desired.

So, I entered Bullet Journaling with the idea that, if I could apply the same daily logging and planning to other areas of my life, I could grow in any dimension I desired. My only limit would be my imagination. As promising as it sounds, Bullet Journaling doesn’t guarantee you’ll ace every test or fly into space with Jeff Bezos anytime soon. 

In this article, I'll use my 5+ years of Bullet Journal experience to show you exactly what the system is capable of doing if you stick with it and make it work toward your needs. These photos are from real pages in my notebooks and are censored for sensitive information. My hope is that you will find the inspiration to start (or continue) your journey, embrace the imperfect mess, and use it as a tool to make yourself a better person.

Year One - 2016

I started off low stakes. Looking on Instagram, I saw BuJo layouts that ranged beautifully minimalistic or decorated to the nines in washi, stickers, and stamps. It’s easy to get bogged down in aesthetics, fretting over color-coordinating tasks, matching font styles, evenly measuring columns, and so on. I didn’t want to get drawn into the “perfectionism” trap, nor did I want to feel woefully unskilled compared to the hardcore planners and journalers on Instagram. So, I got down and dirty, opting to use a ballpoint pen and a Field Notes memo book to get a feel for how the system would work for me. 

I looked up the resources available on the Bullet Journal website to follow the basic structure of the system. My first notebook had an index, hand-numbered pages, a future log, monthly pages, lists for blog/content marketing ideas, and daily logs.

My first foray into daily logging looked like a simple to-do list. I used to write these on post-it notes and rewrite them over the next day if I didn’t complete the previous day’s tasks. Bullet Journaling has a similar concept whereby you can “migrate” your task ahead to a future day or back to the monthly page or the future log for later scheduling.

Rereading over my 2016 notes, I see the beginnings of journeys that have changed me for the better over the next 5 years. That year, I was heavily involved in a major software migration that improved the health and productivity of my day job. I also developed the first handmade Tomoe River notebook for my side business on InkJournal.com. Most importantly, I corrected the course and started aggressively repaying my massive amount of consumer debt and student loans - over $70k. Read on to see the progress made over the next five years.

Year Two - 2017

In 2017, I stepped up to the big leagues. Since I successfully built the habit of logging in my Field Notes, I knew I could start a full, hardbound A5-size journal and actually stick with it. Leuchtturm1917 is the brand with the strongest connection to Bullet Journaling. At the time, they were one of the few dot grid journals that had an index and page numbers. Ryder Carroll even partnered up with the German brand to produce the official “Bullet Journal” edition notebook. I moved into this particular notebook in January 2017.

As a new practitioner of the Bullet Journal method, this journal provides a helpful reference to the various key symbols, how to log, and indexing tips. Compared with the pocket size of the compact Field Notes, the A5-size Leuchtturm1917 journal felt roomy with plenty more pages to experiment with trackers, collections, and other journaling ideas.

In addition to the dailies, monthlies, and future log, etc. included in the previous year’s notebook, I added a "year in review," several trackers, project pages, inspirational quotes, and notes from books I read during the year. Since the Leuchtturm paper can handle fountain pen ink much better than Field Notes paper, I was able to use a variety of inks and nibs in this journal, resulting in several pages of “Currently Inked” lists.

Looking over the notes and objectives for 2017 - I implemented a major software shopping cart change that became the turning point for the entire business. I also started the Ink Flight monthly box program, exhibiting at the Philadelphia and DC Pen shows. By the end of the year, I paid down about $18k of debt.

Year three - 2018

Diving deeper into the expanding market of notebooks designed for Bullet Journaling, I started January 2018 with the smooth, ivory-colored pages of the Rhodia Goalbook. Although the Leuchtturm1917’s paper could handle fountain pen ink, the texture was toothy and tended to sap the hue of its vibrancy. The Goalbook has an index, numbered pages, back pocket, bookmarks, undated year calendar, future log, and dot grid pages.

This was the first year that I kept a book log and succeeded in reading over 30 books. I dedicated a few pages to recording book notes from the informative titles I read. Here are a couple of noteworthy books I wrote about - Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Joy of Tidying Up,” and Ramit Sethi’s “I Will Teach You to be Rich.”

I also logged watched movies, currently inked pens, tasted beers, and protein snack bars. I tracked social media followers and website sales. I planned my buddy’s bachelor party and laid out the InkJournal table at the DC Pen Show in the same notebook.

For the daily pages, I switched to a weekly, 2-page spread that started with Monday on the far left, and ended with a Saturday/Sunday split on the right side of the opposing page. Each day was listed vertically with the date and day of the week at the top. I abbreviated the logging details to fit in the narrower columns. The idea behind the layout change was to have a higher perspective over planning the entire week.

To help fill up the 224 pages of the Goalbook, I used a number of pages for rough drafts of blog posts, scripts for YouTube videos, and thumbnail drawings for a logo that I made for my son’s travel soccer team. I also wrote the first several drafts of a "best man" speech for my buddy's wedding. 

To conclude the year, I made substantial progress on my long-term debt repayment, paying off another $19k. The InkJournal Ink Flight subscriptions continued to grow and so did my salary at work. The only metric that remained stagnant was my weight. After looking at the various trackers and goals set during the year, I could see why - there wasn’t as much of a focus compared to the various other topics written about that year.

Year four - 2019

Tomoe River has spoiled me for most other fountain pen-friendly papers, including Rhodia. The Taroko Design Breeze notebook has 183 white, dot grid pages with an index and 4 “currently inked” pages in the back.

While the “Breeze” notebook over-indexed on the paper quality, it had no extra bells and whistles present with the Leuchtturm and Rhodia. The Breeze had no hardcover, elastic band closure, back cover pocket, nor bookmark.

I carried forward the same daily 2-page spread format with columns. Instead of having a dedicated tracker page for certain habits, I designed a set of special icons for miles run, pushups, and posts on social media. I found these helpful to track exercise and creative output during the week.

#30inks30days made a home in my journal starting in April of 2019. Originally, I started the social media challenge in June of 2018. I didn’t start recording the pen and ink combinations in my journal until I saw others posting similar layouts in their dotted notebooks. Now, each time that I participate in the challenge, it gets a two-page spread in my current notebook.

In addition to the books, beer, Ink Flight ideas, and blog content, I also added a page for the youth recreation basketball team I coached. I also played around with a bit of washi tape in this journal. I created a vision board with pictures washi-taped on the page. I wanted to visualize a new deck for my backyard, a tropical paradise in Fiji, being the author at a book signing (like Neil Gaiman, pictured), going into space, and living in an ultra-modern fantasy house. Dream big, as they say.

2019 was a busy year. Unfortunately, I didn’t move the needle much in my efforts to lose weight and pay off as much debt. I did manage to run 504 miles, even with hurting my plantar fascia in July. Only paid down $8k of debt that year. With only about $24k left to go, the mountain finally started to look climbable.

Year five - 2020

Ah yes, the infamous dumpster fire that was 2020. After spending the last year writing in Tomoe River paper, I knew I couldn’t go back to using anything else for my bullet journal. Thankfully, more notebook options emerged on the market and I took on the GLP Author as my journal of choice for the year.

Where the Taroko Breeze lacked, the GLP Author delivered, starting with the soft, leatherette cover. It has a great feel to match the smoothness of the Tomoe River Paper inside. An elastic band closure keeps the journal secure. I loved being able to stash things in the inner back pocket again. And the ribbon bookmarks are always welcome to keep my place.

This notebook was pretty close to perfect if not for a few issues I took with the design. First, the page size isn’t quite A5. The width is shorter than most other A5 notebooks. It made my daily spreads more of a challenge. Secondly, the index isn’t made with Tomoe River paper like the rest of the journal. It isn’t made with fountain pen-friendly paper at all. Lastly, the elastic band hung by a thread by the time I was finished with the book. It snapped completely on another GLP Author notebook I used for longer-form prose writing.

The first two months of 2020 were a whirlwind of soccer practices, basketball games, baking classes, and after-school activities. All in the life of a parent, of course. Once March 13th came, however, everything came to a grinding halt. Birthday parties, practices, games, and events were canceled due to COVID. Thankfully, I was able to continue working from home throughout the quarantine restrictions. Although my appointment calendar emptied, I leaned on my Bullet Journal more than ever to navigate through these uncertain times.

Writing down daily tasks and doubling down on productive habits was key to establishing a rhythm to the week. In addition to reading and taking notes, I also created “Inky Prompts,” which is a free, daily writing prompt e-mail subscription for people who like writing with fountain pens. Knowing that my own mental well-being, as well as my spouse’s, was important, I dedicated a page to logging our “date nights” as well as my “staycation days.” To stay focused on the positive, I kept a page of things I was grateful for every day.

After reading “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen R. Covey, I modified my daily spread to include my weekly goals and the roles that I fulfill. This layout ensures that my commitments are being met across all the most important facets of my life. 

2020 was a challenging year. I consider myself blessed just to see the other end of it. I owe my sanity to using my bullet journal daily. It kept me balanced and moving in a positive direction amidst the world upheaval. I paid off the last of my credit card debt - only owing a little over $10k in student loans. My weight ticked upward a bit (I mean, who didn’t gain some while being at home) but I was kind to myself and looked forward to improving this in 2021.

Year Six - 2021 Thus Far

The latest stage in my Bullet Journal journey is with the Endless Recorder dot grid journal. It’s the best of both worlds - a sturdy, hardcover, elastic band closure, and inner back pocket combined with the thin, yet robust Japanese Tomoe River Paper. In contrast to the narrower GLP Author from 2019, the Endless Recorder is full width and feels roomier to layout my daily spreads.

See how I migrated into my 2021 Endless Recorder Journal in this InkJournal exclusive video.

At the point of this writing, 8 months and 100 pages are already complete and “in the books” for 2021. This year, I refocused on mission statements, things that I love, and things that I live by, dedicating pages on these topics. Besides reading books, I became more interested in listening to a diverse selection of podcasts from Wall Street Journal, Brene Brown, Gary Vee, How to Citizen with Baratunde, and the Wizard & the Bruiser.

At the mid-year mark, I evaluated my “Key Performance Indicators” (a.k.a. KPI’s), which are measurements of progress toward my bigger goals. I dropped the quarantine-15 and shed my final car payment. By the end of the year, I plan on being completely debt-free (except for the mortgage) and finishing the biggest writing project that I’ve ever attempted.

As my Bullet Journal continues to evolve, I’d like to share a few observations that I made while reviewing my notes and progress over the last 5+ years. 

First and foremost - allow yourself to mess up and for your journal to be a sloppy mess. You may think that my notebook looks very fancy with all the fountain pen ink colors and neat handwriting (thank you). However, your pages do not need to look great to get the job done. Mine did not at first. I wrote it in a ballpoint pen. Not exactly Instagram-worthy, was it?

Each task item on your daily log is a small promise you make to yourself. Being able to "X" out most of your tasks each day is immensely satisfying and builds confidence in your capabilities. Sometimes, not all the day's tasks can be finished. Life happens; plans change. Don't beat yourself up over missing a day. Remember, you're not aiming to be perfect - you're showing up daily to grow and be great.

Flexibility is key to evolving with the process. In your growth and personal evolution, you may decide to take a different course or expand your perspective to include new responsibilities, goals, and interests. With a swift pen stroke, your Bullet Journal can take a new direction that best suits your organizational needs.

While the act of Bullet Journaling doesn't guarantee instant success, fortune, or peace of mind, it is a tool that acts as an extension of your mind. Your journal can store important information like an external hard drive. You can use it to schedule and prioritize your daily tasks. You can chart your progress and refine your methods with periodic reviews that monitor KPI's related to your goals. Not to be overlooked, the act of writing in itself is calming and beneficial to mental health.

Even if I was retired with zero commitments, responsibilities, or need for appointments, I would still keep a Bullet Journal and make sure to fill each day with meaningful activities to grow, contribute, and savor life's adventures.

4 comments

M

Hi Tom, love your article, and seeing your penmanship evolve ;) I’ve been spending this year, 2021, in a Hobonichi Avec, and while I love the paper quality, and having the days laid out well in advance, I miss the opportunity to track random things like I used to. I have a separate diary, but it’s not the same thing. For next year I’m debating the next Hobonichi vs. a bullet journal, and whether keeping work/life separate makes sense in the covid world. Any recommendations?

Chris Saenz

Hi Tom — what an awesome article … I really enjoyed reading about your bullet journal journey … and WOW I started bullet journaling in 2016 too! The most helpful thing I have done is look back over the past books and see the progress and path … it’s amazing and uplifts me when I look at a broad view by reviewing past bullet journals. I jumped into a soft cover Moleskine for my first one then the very next book was a Leuchtturm 1917 hard cover/dot grid where I’ve stayed since. Many times I’ve thought about jumping into a Tomoe River bullet journal but instead I have done lots of experimenting with A5 books including TR for my long form journaling. I no longer care at all about what my BJ looks like in terms of beauty and I only add in “pretty” when I have the time and want to … so I very seldom post any pics of my BJ anymore. (although admittedly, some of my pages are really pretty randomly lol) It is such a powerful tool for the way my brain works. I live a retired lifestyle for the most part and just like you said at the end it’s a vital and powerful way to focus and achieve … and to get stuff out of my brain and onto the page where I can relax more knowing I will not forget and I will not completely stray from my intentions. 2021 was our year to step out of our final debt … that journey has been amazing and much documented in the numerous BJs. Anyway, this article is great and I thank you for writing it. Great ideas and will serve as a notebook reference for me as I continue to experiment with the notebooks. Thank you!

Nathan

Wow. Congrats on your progress with everything and for taking the time to write the retrospective.

marta traughber

I loved your article. It was interesting and I got some good ideas too.

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