Bullet Journaling: A Definition

Updated: Jun 24

Bullet journaling is a method of journaling. It is centred on drawing up a structured journal in a notebook, often with capability for personal organisation - but it can also simply be a method of organising the usual content of a journal or notebook.

It's possible to suggest a more detailed definition than this, and I will. My goal is to explore the characteristic elements of bullet journaling as a pen-and-paper method. Such a description contrasts two other kinds that are already abundant. The first is to describe the broad-scale benefit and purpose of bullet journaling; the virtues of handwriting and reflection are interesting, for instance, but are common to many kinds of journaling. The second is a more granular view of the day-to-day actions of bullet journaling. I want to zoom-out a bit from there, putting the actions into the context of the overall method.

It's hard to say when a journaling method or practice is bullet journaling. After all, people have been using pen and paper in innumerable creative ways ever since these materials were available. Coming to mind is double entry bookkeeping, captain's logs, and the commonplace books used by students since at least Renaissance times. There is also the fact that the person who coined the phrase 'bullet journaling' did it with a highly customisable - if not downright changeable - method in mind. Rampant customisation may have led to 'bullet journaling' being a loose, vernacular term - but it also led to the method's ubiquity. I believe that like Hobbit poetry and many other good things, the natural prerogative in journaling methods is with anonymous contributors.

That commentary aside, I can, indeed, give you some characteristic features of bullet journaling:

  • It is a method, a practice, and a system. It uses a notebook, but that object itself is not the defining part. A bullet journal is simply the notebook used to practice the bullet journal method.

  • It involves drawing up and customising content as time progresses, rather than using a pre-defined template.

  • It uses different symbols to categorise and and define information. The symbols are variations on dot points, and are a node for personal customisation. The symbols are commonly known as 'bullets'. That terminology is what led to the name 'bullet journaling'.

  • The use of 'bullets' is usually - but far from always - accompanied by condensed yet casual language.

  • Bullet journaling makes use of the discrete page spreads in notebooks for organisation and categorisation, and involves drawing up an index for the page spreads. I won't say the index part is essential, because one can forget to write it up, but I would say that an emergent characteristic of bullet journals is that the content tends to be quite index-able. Bullet journals can be good for catching varied themes of information, or writing, because of the organisation of discrete page-spreads

  • The bullet journal method involves looking at different time-scales, starting with the large, then smaller ones, and then coming to the present moment. Recall that you draw up bullet journals as you go - that process links to the 'present moment' idea. To give you an idea, the cascading time scales is most often done by having a page spread to look six months out, then one for the month, and from there using a day-to-day system that may have elements of weekly organisation.

  • Following from the above, bullet journaling provokes reflection on, and migration of, content. Using the bullet symbols can become a technique to facilitate this reflection and migration. So, an emergent trait of bullet journaling is that is provokes drawing up the next part of the content with intention and a grounding in the present.

  • Bullet Journaling is self-adapting. Contrast, once again, drawing up a journal as you go to using a pre-printed planner. In the former, the theme and content is whatever you need as you progress to the next page spread

That's it in a nutshell. These characteristics are generalised, but that's the truth of the thing. Bullet Journaling has become a vernacular term, with the simultaneous blurriness and specificity of the vernacular. Further to that, it's an extension of pen and paper methods, is widely customised, and it's most successful forms are propagated by varied and sometimes anonymous contributors.

Interestingly, some of the above characteristics are emergent. I believe it's hard to point to any one pen-stroke or page and say: that's bullet journalling!. Instead, it may be truer to identify bullet journaling by looking at combinations of small actions, considering the system as well as it's elements.

With such vagueness, it's worth asking: how did bullet journaling become a thing with a name, which is so widely known? (If you were oblivious to it before, you have now read enough to know a bit, and you will encounter a surprising number of people in this same state.) Another way to define bullet journaling is that a designer and entrepreneur, Ryder Carrol, used the term to describe a method of journaling he had been developing. Carrol had refined a series of techniques and, crucially, made them work as a system. He went on to use the name 'bullet journalling' for the method, and made a website to share it, followed by a book. Carrol's efforts became the stem from which the methodologies now known and bullet journaling branched. In all this, Carrol was perceptive in realising that the contribution of others would be valuable; he fostered personal customisation, and embraced open contribution. This approach was necessary for bullet journaling to grow as it has.

The number of forms bullet journals can take is endless, and the current array of popular styles in use right now is manifold. The sort of content that inhabits bullet journals is tasks, reminders, habit-tracking, inspirational notes, reading lists, journal entries, quotes, and just about anything else. The drawing-up of page spreads to structure content creates a multitude of possible forms. Perhaps peculiar to bullet journaling is how individually stylistic it is. Some bullet journals are intensely formatted, with neat tables of things like task lists against time, while others are free-form writing. Some leverage organisation on a single page, while others rely on categorising entire pages spreads to structure content. Some are visual in style, while others are literary. It seems the styles of bullet journaling out there are as unique and varied as the people using the method. This is a beautiful phenomenon, although it doesn't help when trying to tell someone what bullet journaling is in a few words. We are left with a method that is changeable and a bit hard to define; lucid, but fuzzy. I can't think of a better organisational system to inhabit a personal notebook.


Important note: If you're starting out bullet journaling ('Bujo') this isn't the thing to be reading, unless you have a semi-academic curiosity about pen-and-paper systems! As a system, Bujo is pretty flexible and you can make it pretty simple or more complicated, depending on what you want to put in and what you need to get out of it. to give you an example, I prefer to keep a general notebook and not think of it too much like a bullet journal, but I do have some favoured methods to use when I want. This involves little more than a decent calendar page, a spread with the weeks running to-do list and notes, and a monthly log to check-in on things. What I like is that I can free-form journal in-between these organisational spreads. Sometimes I'll just write an essay, like this one, in my Bujo. If you enter unto a more busy time and want some organisation ideas, then a browse on youtube doesn't go astray (see below).

  • The reference to Hobbit poetry is really a reference to a talk called "Trees, Chainsaws, and Visions of Paradise in J.R.R. Tolkien". However, I strongly believe in the point about anonymity.

  • Ryder Carrol's website: bulletjournal.com

  • Popular contributions: rolling future log, rolling weekly, an example with some more vertical style layout

  • For those of you that want to simply explore notebook culture in other directions, try searching the term 'commonplace book' or some variant of thereof.