Last year, bullet journaling became all the rage on my Instagram feed: gorgeous notebooks, pastel pen colors, and neatly lettered to-do lists with a heavy dose of… perfection. I was curious, but considering my planner style is something like Jot Down Messy Notes on a Random Piece of Paper and Then Cross Them Off, I figured I couldn’t possibly handle the trend.
Enter Rachel Wilkerson Miller, senior lifestyle editor at Buzzfeed, who jumped on the bullet journal train early and became, as she puts it, “low-key obsessed” — which led to the publication of her recent book, Dot Journaling: A Practical Guide. After I spent some time testing out bullet journaling on my own (verdict: looooove), I chatted with Miller to learn more about what it is, how to get started, and why it’ll not only help you stay organized, but also allow you to finally follow through on those I should really keep a journal intentions. Here’s everything you need to know.
How did you stumble across dot journaling?
I came across something called a bullet journal on my friend Jessica’s blog at the end of 2015, and I was like, Awesome, I don’t know what this is, but I’m in! Like, I love journals/planners, I love pens and paper, I love buying stuff… I was sold.
Jotting down short, quick notes is a lot easier, mentally, than thinking you have to sit down and write five paragraphs about your day… it brings a sense of intention and importance to my to-do lists that I never really had before.
But then when I went to the bullet journal website, I couldn’t really understand what a bullet journal was, or figure out what the very simple journal pages on the website had in common with the elaborate, creative, beautiful pages I was seeing when I searched the Instagram hashtag. Because, over time, the Internet has done what the Internet does, and transformed the bullet journal into what I now think of as a dot journal — this really robust and creative and inspiring method of keeping a to-do list, planner, and/or diary in a single (often dot-grid) notebook. Anyway, once I figured the system out, I was off and running with the latter style, and have used mine every day since January 1, 2016.
Is dot journaling different from regular journaling or a straight up to-do list?
Well, it really lowers the barrier to entry for journaling; jotting down short, quick notes is a lot easier, mentally, than thinking you have to sit down and write five paragraphs about your day. (And I say that as someone who had kept a diary for years, but had fallen out of the habit and was having trouble getting back into it for a number of reasons.) It also provides a structure to make your to-do lists more organized and functional; by using page numbers and an index and marking everything with simple symbols, it’s really easy to stay on top of tasks, find important notes, etc.
There are no journal police watching over your shoulder to make sure you never change it up, or demanding that you do overly complicated layouts. You have permission to do whatever you want and to change things up at any time.
The structure makes it easy for you to use a single notebook for both diary-type entries/random thoughts and your to-do list/calendar. Before this, I couldn’t fathom putting my to-do lists and diary entries in the same place, and now I’m like, Wait… why *wouldn’t* you put those things in the same notebook? Your daily tasks, your appointments, your random thoughts, your grocery list, the books you’re reading… all of those things together give the complete picture of your life at any given moment. So it brings a sense of intention and importance to my to-do lists that I never really had before.
All the pen colors, symbols, and layout options seem like a lot of work — is dot journaling actually hard?
It shouldn’t be hard! When I first started, I didn’t let myself do any fancy layouts or colors for the first 30 days; I wanted to make sure I was going to be able to stick with it before I blew $40 on a bunch of pretty pens and washi tape. I also wanted to get a sense of what I actually needed in terms of the functionality of monthly, weekly, and daily spreads. I definitely recommend this “do the absolute bare minimum” approach to beginners.
Also, if you’ve started doing more complicated layouts or you’ve gotten really into color-coding your notes, and you’re finding it’s stressing you out or you don’t have the time, just… stop. Scale it back. There are no journal police watching over your shoulder to make sure you never change it up, or demanding that you do overly complicated layouts. You have permission to do whatever you want and to change things up at any time. If it feels hard, it’s probably a sign you’re trying to do too much, or that you need to make some adjustments to your approach. But your dot journal should serve you, not the other way around.
What materials do I need to start dot journaling?
A notebook and a pen or pencil! I really love the dot-grid notebooks that have been popping up more and more lately — they provide both flexibility and structure — but you can use any notebook you want with any kind of pages you want.
How has dot journaling made your life easier, more organized, or more efficient, both at work and home?
The symbols and different types of layouts — daily, weekly, monthly — have made it easier for me to stay on top of tasks and get stuff done. I’d always sort of used notebooks and lists in this way, but this has helped me make them even more effective. And the index and page numbers have just made it so much easier to find things I want to quickly reference later. If I want to find a poem I copied down, I can just look it up in my index and then go directly to that page. If I want to see all the books I read last year, I know exactly how to find that. I can see at a glance how much I’m working out.
It doesn’t have to take a lot of time, but the time you invest in it — whether that’s five minutes a day or an hour a day — will likely be worthwhile. And… we could probably all benefit from putting down our phones and putting pen to paper for 10 or 15 minutes a day.
The chores spreads have also been incredibly helpful. I can easily see the last time I did a task and know, Oh, jeez, I actually didn’t clean my bathroom “like, last week”… it’s definitely overdue for a cleaning. But then once I clean it and get to to mark that down, I feel extra accomplished! Like, who among us doesn’t like to mark that she’s done something on pen and paper?! Using a to-do list or calendar app will just never replicate that feeling for me.
Who should absolutely start dot journaling ASAP?
Anyone who likes pen and paper to-do lists, anyone who thinks “it’s on my to-do list” is just a figure of speech, and anyone who compulsively buys pretty notebooks and journals but never knows what to do with them.
What do you wish more people understood about dot journaling?
That it doesn’t have to take a lot of time, but that the time you invest in it — whether that’s five minutes a day or an hour a day — will likely be worthwhile. If you want to turn it into a hobby and get really creative with it, you can! If you just want to make your current to-do lists a little more efficient, you can do that too! If you create a journal that matches your needs and fills the space in your life (not someone on the Internet’s life!), and you approach it with intention, flexibility, and a sense of what you want to get out of it, then I think it will feel like time well spent.
And… we could probably all benefit from putting down our phones and putting pen to paper for 10 or 15 minutes a day. Writing things down is a pretty tried and true, universally agreed upon good thing. Like, this idea isn’t new. People have been finding themselves in diaries and making lists to help them get their lives together for hundreds of years.