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Bullet Journaling—My Secret to Productivity, Creativity, and Balance

When I was stressed and overwhelmed, I discovered Bullet Journaling and it changed everything. Here's how I use my Bullet Journal to stay on track and achieve my goals.

By
Rachel Cooke
5-minute read
Episode #599
The Quick And Dirty

The "right" way to Bullet Journal is the way that works best for you. Some tips to help you define that:

  • Identify something you want to achieve, create, or change
  • Set up and organize your journal around those outcomes
  • Define a simple process that holds you accountable
  • Get creative

Five years ago I started my own consulting business—cue the terror, stress, exhaustion, and overwhelm. I wanted to succeed and I was willing to work for it. But professional success at the expense of my family or health wasn’t worth it. I struggled initially to juggle, and sometimes even see, all the balls in the air. I spent a lot of time feeling like I was failing at something, be it working, mothering, friending, or exercising.

I tried all of the productivity and organizing apps, but nothing changed the game for me. And then one day—be still my analog-loving-heart!—I discovered the Bullet Journal® and it changed everything.

What is Bullet Journaling?

Bullet Journaling is hard to define because it’s really whatever you need it to be. Five years ago, I needed a solution that would help keep me productive, creative, organized, and balanced. And the Bullet Journal became that for me.

A Bullet Journal is a means of planning, capturing, dreaming, organizing, tracking, and more. It's also literally just a notebook—any notebook—and a pen.

A Bullet Journal is a means of planning, capturing, dreaming, organizing, tracking, and more. It's also literally just a notebook—any notebook—and a pen. For me, the practice of handwriting ideas helps seal them into my mind in a way a technological capture doesn’t.

Creator of the method, Ryder Carroll, says “It’s helpful to have one source of truth. That’s what the Bullet Journal is for me.”

I rely on this system to help me:

  • Get everything out of my head
  • Translate big ideas into bite-sized actions
  • Keep all of my priorities prioritized
  • Capture and curate ideas across any arena I can imagine
  • Tackle the big stuff before getting lost in the small

In the game of Bullet Journaling, there are no rules. The key to doing it “right” is knowing what you want to achieve (be it productivity, changing a habit, sticking to a budget, etc.), and then building the journal and a process that supports you in getting there.

There are countless YouTube videos on how to set up and work with a Bullet Journal. My advice is to start simple, see what works, and make changes as you go.

How I set up my Bullet Journal

As I mentioned, five years ago I was overwhelmed and out of balance. Different parts of my life seemed to be competing versus collaborating. And my goal was to find a way to feel productive and successful across them all.

I began by jotting down everything that was bouncing around my brain—every to-do, every anxiety, every ambition, idea, and wish. And when I looked at the giant brain dump, I saw five clear categories emerge: business, personal development, health and wellness, home and family, and service.

In January of this year, the Modern Mentor podcast became the final item in what I now call my Critical Six. I know that as long as my goals and plans ladder up to these six core priorities, and all six remain nourished, then I’m coming out on top.

If you opened my Bullet Journal, what would you see? Generally speaking, the following:

  • Index - This helps me find and manage all the pages
  • Running to-do list - A chaotic, not-at-all organized space where I can brain dump anything I need to do
  • Critical Six – the priorities that total my success
  • Goals - I set quarterly, monthly, and weekly goals that ladder up to my Critical Six
  • Daily plans - This is where goals turn into actions
  • Weekly reflections – I look back on what I’ve achieved to both celebrate wins and plan ahead in a way that builds
  • Collections - These are lists to capture and categorize everything I want to do, learn, write, celebrate. My collections include:
    • Gratitude and celebrations
    • Podcast ideas
    • Books to read
    • Inspiring quotes
    • Marketing ideas I want to test
    • People I want to connect with
    • Products I want to offer my clients
    • Activities for my kids
    • Volunteer opportunities
    • Meal ideas
    • Workouts

How I use my Bullet Journal to achieve my goals

The Critical Six was my starting point. It’s the framework that guides me.

Again, there's no right way to use your journal—it's up to you to figure out what you need from it. But I’ll give you a summary of how I use mine.

Annually (or more frequently as needed)

At the beginning of every year, I establish a commitment to myself in each of the Critical Six. This way, as I move into monthly and weekly planning, I know what I’m striving for. This is where I dream big and challenge my ability to be creative.

In May 2020, I did a reset. Because boy, did May call for a reset.

RELATED: Everything's Changed—Is It Time to Reset Your Goals?

Monthly

At the start of each month, I review my Critical Six and identify one or two major goals across each priority. Then, pulling from my running to-do list, calendar, and collections, I plot out the client deliverables due, the podcast episodes I’ll write, the activities I’ll try with my kids, the meals, and workouts I’ll conquer.

This takes me about 30 minutes and it gives me a templated structure for the whole month ahead.

Weekly

Each Sunday afternoon (okay, sometimes Monday morning), I review my plan for the month and determine what needs to happen during that week. And remember, I define “needs to” not just by hard deadlines, but by what will keep all of the Critical Six in balance.

I then set up a page for each day of that week, and I plot out all of the must-do's—those are the meetings, the deliverables, the appointments, and so on.

I also reserve about 30 minutes on Friday afternoon to review and reflect on the week. I consider what went well, what I learned, and whether or not the week felt balanced. I also identify anything that didn’t get done, migrating it to the following week. I use this time to grab any musings or ideas I captured on my phone throughout the week (because no, I don’t carry my journal with me everywhere) and get them into my journal.

Daily

I get up early and plan each day in my Bullet Journal. I migrate anything left undone from the previous day. My must-do’s are already in there, so my job is to fill out these other categories:

Top Three—these are the three most essential things I must do today. If I do these and nothing else, I’m a winner

  • Workout: Cardio? Weight lifting? Jogging? Something is going in that box!
  • Social: I require of myself one touchpoint with a friend or family member per day—could be a call, an email, a text—but I name one person I’ll reach out to
  • Schedule: This is an outline of my day—it’s all of my must-do’s plus anything else there's room and energy for plotted on a timeline

And there you have it. The secret to my success costs me approximately $8 per quarter. Of course, the real investment is time. As author and speaker Seth Godin said, “You don’t need more time in your day. You need to decide.” And I decided. Feeling whole is worth every penny of my time.

About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.