Having trouble getting your shit together? Yeah, me too. And so does just about everyone else, no matter how effortless their lives look from the outside. For most of us, the ability to get (and keep) our shit together is a hard-earned skill, not an innate talent.
I’ve obsessed over productivity systems for years, looking for a way to keep my depression, anxiety, and crippling perfectionism from cockblocking my ambitions. Then, sometime in late 2016, my good friend and highly accomplished professional badass Tracy (of Fanserviced-B and Snailcast fame) introduced me to bullet journaling and Hobonichi planners. The combination has gotten my disorganized mind under control, allowing me to better juggle daily obligations while working towards larger goals. A lot of you asked me about my bujo practices when I showed a few pages of my planner on my Instagram story recently, so let’s do this!
This post contains affiliate links, which enable me to earn a small commission on purchases made using those links. Affiliate links are marked with an asterisk(*).
Just the tip: Planning for success when you’re your own worst enemy
Life is messy. It’s full of professional, personal, domestic, and social obligations all pulling us in different directions all the time. If you have goals and ambitions beyond the basic daily grind, things get even more complicated. Adding motivation-killing depression and paralyzing anxiety spirals into the mix turns productivity into a pipe dream.
For just about anyone, keeping multiple plates in the air without letting anything important slip through the cracks or mixing too many tired metaphors takes concerted effort and a more or less consistent system. That’s what bullet journaling has given me.
At the most basic level, bullet journaling is a more sophisticated to-do list that breaks down larger goals into smaller, more easily digestible tasks. Working backwards from the overall goal, you can spread out the actionable smaller tasks over whatever period of time you have to finish the project, doing a little at a time. I call this “just the tip,” because instead of feeling overwhelmed by the contemplation of going balls-deep into a big project, you can ease yourself into the work by completing just one small task at a time. Giving just the tip at first, just to see what it feels like. This is the actual wording I used when giving this advice to a dear friend recently. In my defense, she started it by making a reference to going balls-deep into her projects.
Checking tasks off has an added benefit for those of us who deal with intense anxiety: it creates a record of all the times we have successfully finished something in the past, which can ease the ever-present worry that we won’t be able to do something in the future. I have a few other tricks for using my planner to deal with my anxiety, which we’ll get to a bit below.
If you look at the actual bullet journaling website I linked above, you’ll see there’s a lot more to it than to-do lists and checkboxes, like different bullet symbols to denote different task types and statuses. The beauty of bujo lies in its customizability. Personally, I keep mine as simple as possible and just use checkboxes, since one of the main challenges I’ve had with other productivity systems is finding one that doesn’t become a complicated burden in itself. I highly recommend not feeling like you have to learn the entire “official” bujo system before you begin. Start simple and add more nuance as you need it, when you need it.
As with skincare, the important thing is to start and then keep going. You’ll refine your approach along the way, but you won’t get anywhere if you get too discouraged to start or continue. There is no objective right or wrong. There is only done and not done.
With that being said, the questions that I got revolved around my choice of planner and my bujo practices, so next I’ll go into more detail.
How I do bujo in my Hobonichi planner
It’s entirely possible to do bujo in a different, perhaps simpler, perhaps cheaper planner, and entirely possible to do it with a plain notebook, too. Again, it’s all up to you. I prefer this one for several reasons. One, Tracy recommended it. Two, I need day planner capabilities but also want plenty of blank free space for lists, notes, musings, gratitude journaling, and to stick in notes and cards from friends. Most day planners offer only limited space per day, while blank notebooks would require a lot of work to manually set up as calendars. And three, Tracy recommended it, and she knows what she’s talking about.
The Hobonichi Techo Cousin A5 offers what I think of as structured flexibility, which is perfect for me. The yearly, monthly, and weekly views give me a place to store important dates and appointments as well as plan ahead to hit deadlines and complete long-term projects. Meanwhile, each day gets its own full page to do whatever I want. The unstructured nature of the day pages makes them awesome for bloggers, freelancers, and anyone else juggling a lot of different projects that all need to take up some head space but that shift in priority over time. Sometimes I fill up most of a day page with a list of notes for a single article or blog post (like this one). Other times, I end up with multiple sections dealing with different things I need to remember.
My basic system is simple. At the beginning of the month, I use the blank monthly start page to write down my overarching goals for the month–both personal and professional–and reflect on lessons learned in previous months that I want to carry forward into the future. This sets my intentions, which sounds cheesily motivational speaker-y but does wonders to help me focus.
Turning to the weekly view, I plan out my week by making a checklist of deadlines and projects that need to be completed. I further populate the weekly view with appointments and meetings as they come up. This isn’t meant to plan my days out to the minute, just to give me a clear picture of what needs to be done and when, and what times I’ve reserved for other people. From there, each evening I create my lists on the daily view page for the next day, planning out individual tasks to keep me on track to hitting deadlines and milestones.
The next morning, I check that day’s page to remember what I need to do. Then I check tasks off throughout the day, use the rest of the blank space to make notes or brainstorm on paper, and at the end of the day, do a little gratitude journaling in whatever space is free before planning my to-dos for the next day.
One of the ways my anxiety manifests itself is in freaking out and getting discouraged when I don’t get everything done in a day that I planned to. My thoughts can spiral quickly into “there’s no way I’ll ever get this done, I’m so behind, fuck, I might as well not even fucking try, what is even the point.” This is, in fact, generally how I end up falling behind on anything.
Life happens. Things happen. Sometimes we think things will take less time than they do and run out of hours in the day to complete things. Bujo technique has us marking a task with a different symbol to denote that it wasn’t completed yet. What I do is make a note on the day’s page about the thing I didn’t complete and then put that on the next day’s page, right at the top. It’s a sort of visual reminder that not finishing one thing isn’t the end of the world. Just make a point to finish it at the next opportunity. Over time, too, I get a better grasp of how long things take or how many tasks I have the bandwidth for in one day, reducing the amount of times I end up doing this.
So far, it’s all pretty simple: calendar and to-do lists, right? But the thing that intrigued people who saw my planner were the other things I do with it. Namely, my grid trackers.
Grid trackers are fucking fantastic, both for record-keeping and for motivation. You can use them to help you with just about any goal. You might make one to mark days that you did your skincare routine, or days that you worked out, or days that you worked on creative projects–whatever you want. You can do them for each week or month or, as I do, each year. I have three in my Hobonichi:
I saw the Year in Pixels concept on the bullet journaling subreddit and thought it was genius. You create a color code to denote different moods, then fill in the box for the day with your mood that day. When a depressive slump hits me, I tend to think that everything is bad all the time and always has been. Having that colorful record in front of my eyes of all the days and weeks and sometimes even months that things were not bad at all reminds me that actually, everything is not bad all the time and never has been.
On the right is my creativity tracker. One of my goals for this year (and for every year, really) is to always be doing something creative. So, just like with the grid tracker, I created a color coded system to denote different categories of creative work, and fill that in at the end of each day, too. (On days when I’ve done more than one thing, I just choose the color that goes with whichever project was higher priority.) I find the creativity tracker keeps me motivated simply because I hate to see an unfilled space–the desire to be able to color in the day’s square will get me thinking of something I can do, which can pull me out of a slump at least enough to work on that one thing. Then the satisfaction of completing that often snowballs into doing another the next day, and so on.
These grid trackers make a handy tool in the constant fight to not let depression or anxiety drag me down, as you can see. They can also keep me on track with even more important goals. This year, I want to very mindfully use my time with my son to really teach him and help him grow, day by day. So I created one in the back that addresses that.
I didn’t make a complete color code for this one yet, since I don’t know exactly what categories all the things I could teach my son will fall under, so I’m making that up as I go. So far this year, I’ve taught him one basic kitchen skill, explained corporate hierarchies to him, and given him a basic rundown of how sugar consumption affects insulin production and how insulin production affects the way your body feels. That’s pretty good, I think.
Finally, I started a list on one of the back pages of the planner to record any major milestones or accomplishments I or my son achieve throughout the year. Another fun feature of my depression and anxiety is the tendency to think that I suck at everything and can never do anything worthwhile. Having a running log of things I’ve done that I do consider worthwhile will help me pull myself out of those thought spirals. I’m also trying to teach my son the art of remembering what he’s capable of and drawing on that for the future, so it will help me help him, too.
Those are the basics of my personal bujo style and how I use the Hobonichi planner. The Techo Cousin A5 does also come with other extra pages in the back, including but not limited to these:
I don’t feel the need to complete all the back pages if I don’t want to, which leads into the next part of our discussion…perfection.
Aesthetic journaling and expectations of perfection
The Internet is cool. There’s a community of fanatics for just about everything. We all already know about the skincare and K-beauty communities, of course. And it should come as no surprise that bujo has its own enthusiast community and its own superstar bloggers and Instagram personalities. The bujo subreddit’s front page is full of the gorgeous original illustrations with which people decorate their month layouts and their incredibly elaborate and wittily conceptualized trackers. IG hashtags like #bujoinspiration are similarly full of dauntingly flawless examples of bullet journaling art. The bujo community is apparently full of people who have mastered calligraphy, illustration, and productivity. Fuck, man.
View this post on Instagram
You guys! I’ve teamed up with @zebrapen_usa to show you how I set up this month’s overview AND how to use a Level 10 Life spread to set and track goals for this new year! Head over to the @zebrapen_usa blog to check it out! ✨ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . #bujo #bujoinspiration #bujoideas #bujoaddicts #bujospread #bujocommunity #bujomonthly #bujo2020 #bujoinspo #bujomonthlyspread #bujoart #bujodoodles #bulletjournal #bulletjournaling #bulletjournaljunkies #bulletjournalinspiration #bulletjournalideas #bulletjournaljunkie #bulletjournallove #bulletjournalcommunity #bulletjournalers #bulletjournalart #bulletjournaldoodles #bulletjournalist #zebrapen
This is actually why I don’t really have any accounts to recommend that you follow.
For the first year or so of my bujo life, I tried really hard to be an aesthetic journaler, because that’s what I saw and what I admired in the bujo accounts that I followed. I got washi tape and cute stickers and spent time thinking up a consistent color coding for all my pens and tried really hard to write nicely and to lay out my pages prettily. And it became a frustrating, stressful, time-consuming burden, because that is just not who I am. Forcing myself to try to fit that aesthetic standard turned a productivity tool into a productivity sink.
If you have artistic inclinations and talents, you can for sure turn your planner into a gorgeous chronicle of visual inspirations. If you love scrapbooking, you can absolutely create a wonderful log of postcards and photobooth pictures and I don’t know, snippets of restaurant menus or something, and that’s brilliant. But if you, like me, just aren’t aesthetically inclined, then don’t let yourself feel pressured into trying to come up with a way to beautify your bujo. The bujo is for you. Not for public admiration (unless you want it to be, I guess). Use it exactly the way that suits you best, and don’t fall into the trap of comparing yours to anyone else’s and feeling like you’re doing it wrong.
In fact, bullet journaling has helped me ease up on one other major issue that I have: intense perfectionism. It took me a while to realize this, but the concept of perfect really is the enemy of done. (Incidentally, this is why I’m not done with my book edit yet.)
I’ve abandoned so many projects needlessly because I believed they had to be perfect in order to be worthwhile. I found myself tempted to abandon bullet journaling plenty of times too, whenever I felt mine was imperfect. It was in the act of making myself accept any “mistakes” in it and keep going that I finally internalized the fact that it is fucking perfectly okay to not do everything perfectly. It is fucking perfectly okay to not be perfect. It is better for a thing to be imperfect but done than it is for it to be unfinished and perfect only in the mind.
My bujo tools and where I buy them
Now for the final piece of the puzzle: what do you need and where do you get them?
The very basics would be a blank notebook and a writing implement. If you think you’d prefer a setup a little more like mine, however, this is what I get:
Hobonichi Techo Cousin A5 Planner
I’ve used two different versions of the Cousin A5. One is the regular version, which contains the entire year. The Cousin Avec is split into two books, one for the first six months of the year and one for the last six months of the year. The Avec is nice if you’re starting your bujo later in the year or if you’d prefer something more lightweight and easy to carry around.
I buy mine from Jetpens, which is located in the US and ships insanely fast, at least in my experience. They also carry tons of accessories, pens, and other Japanese stationery items.
You can get these books at the official Hobonichi site too, of course. They’re based in Japan, so shipping will take significantly longer. I’ve never shopped directly from this site, but here’s their shopping guide. Personally, I find it intimidating that I’d need a shopping guide, but I think it would be a bit messed up to talk about these planners without linking to the official site, 1101.com.
They’re also on Amazon.
A protective and decorative cover is a good idea as well, both to keep the book in good condition and to extend its utility through the use of pockets, pen holders, and bookmarks. I’ve gotten covers from Jetpens before but also purchased from Amazon. Search for “A5 planner cover”* to see the options. If you like the look of mine, here’s a link to that one*.
My one remaining concession to the concept of aesthetic journaling is the use of multicolored pens. They’re necessary for grid trackers that involve different options rather than a single binary completed/not completed rule. They also help differentiate different lists and sets of notes within the planner. I don’t have any particular system for which color to use and when. I just pick whatever one looks right to me at the moment and that will be different from whatever’s already written around it.
My preferred pens for the last three years have been the Pilot Frixion erasable gel pens. I’m enough of a stationery nerd to derive pleasure from the smooth, vibrant flow of gel ink, and the fact that these are legitimately erasable soothes me when I do make mistakes in the planner. These also last a fairly long time. The ink isn’t archival, so if you plan to keep these journals forever and hand them down to your descendants, they won’t be the right choice, but if you’re less concerned with posterity, they’re awesome. Just make sure the ink is dry before you touch or turn the page.
And that is all 3,100+ words I have on the subject of bujo, productivity, and my Hobonichi habits. I hope this helps some of you, and I’m so grateful to those of you who asked me about mine–it’s surprisingly fun to talk about!
Now we’ll return to our originally scheduled skincare programming. According to my planner, I have a Sulwhasoo sleeping pack review and a Biore sunscreen review coming up, so stay tuned for those. I’ll be checking off my tasks for those in the near future!