“As long as our hearts are beating, there is still opportunity.”–Ryder Carroll
“I shall either find a way, or make one.”–Hanibal Barca.
“I couldn’t find a way, so I made one.”–Marisa Porter, creator of Nightowl Journal
Nightowl Journal is a bullet journal.
And it’s a planner.
Actually, it’s a bullet journal with a plan.
It’s my answer to the many wonderful problems I encountered when I embarked on the beautiful journey of bullet journaling.
It’s the natural, almost effortless, creation of four years of growing out of a weekly planner and into bullet journaling.
Inside are 247 blank pages, which is more than most bullet journals have that are just bullet journals. But at the beginning of the bullet journal are goal pages, index pages, quarterly pages, and monthly and weekly pages.
My experiment with bullet journaling in completely blank notebooks taught me one thing —there is absolutely no reason to redraw, or even draw, my own monthly and weekly spreads. None at all. Any decorative, artistic flair I want my planner to have does not need to include counting grids and drawing straight lines. Doodles, stickers, calligraphy pens, fountain pens, all of that is still fair game. And I kept the layout minimalist enough that you can do whatever you want with it and truly make it yours.
I also included a completely blank spread between each month’s calendar so you can do list-style calendars, recaps, gratitudes collections, or whatever you want.
After the months come 26 weeks and then those 219 of those 231 beautiful grid blank pages for all the other bullet journaling things (the rest are between the months).
I was deeply touched with stories like the one about Sandy, who managed her large household with a columnized monthly overview, and who was not only able to press pause on a roller coaster that seemed impossible to get off of, but she also finally made progress on a life-long goal—lettering, by doing it 15 minutes every morning. These 15 minute blocks flowed from her goals pages, which kept reminding her that she had a long-term game.
And because her goals pages reminded her why she was doing what she was doing every day, she realized as time went by that lettering for 15 minutes in the morning was a new habit for her.
And one day, she realized this new habit had replaced two bad habits: picking at the skin on her fingers and mindlessly scrolling social media in the morning.
And then she noticed she could squeeze lemons with no pain.
Concepts like having one place to keep my thoughts and a system of rapid logging without flipping through pages (do you know how many thoughts I’ve forgotten while trying to find the right page?) resonated with me. I was ready to align my actions with my beliefs and goals in a deeper way.
The Bullet Journal Method took the concept of dreaming + goal making that started in me with my first Passion Planner and gave me a how-to-execute-it map. It also gave me freedom from one planner system so that I could carry a notebook with me at all times. This in and of itself was very freeing to me, as when I carried my planner, I could not also carry a notebook, and being able to write lists, ideas, and story outlines is as essential to me as breathing.
I loved the freedom to create goal pages in any dot grid notebook and turning all that blank and beautiful blank paper, after being trapped in a weekly-only planner, was therapeutic.
There were many things about bullet journaling that could have worked really well for me (and now work beautifully for me). The ability to make a packing list if I was going on a trip (instead of doing this separately from my planner), the ability to jot down thoughts and index them (this may have been one of the key ideas that was the most mindblowingly life-changing to me), the ability to keep track of more than one goal at a time (focusing on one thing is such a prison to me), and the room to microjournal about my day all became a part of my habits quickly (I love seeing to-do lists next to what-happened lists).
However, I had so much to ideate, write, and list-make about that I used up my first bullet journal in six weeks.
I was dismayed. All those calendars, (which took me forever to draw, and I had accidentally given the first month 36 days and had to start over), lists, thoughts, goals, ideas….I had to do it all over again.
So everything that worked well for me about the bullet journal method ended up being destroyed by the fact that six weeks after setting up my goals and weekly spreads, the bullet journal had to be set aside. I had to lose the connection I had to those goals and I had to redraw spreads just to write down an appointment.
If that sounds like torture, it was.
My notebook began to give me a heavy feeling.
Yet I know I could not go back to a weekly-only planner.
You can read my whole story here, but suffice it to say, after much trial and error, after trying the Leuchturmme and the Amplify Planner and Zenart and many others, and after stumbling across Tomoe River Paper in the Hobonichi planners and notebooks, I finally had to make the perfect bullet journal with a plan. I couldn’t divorce myself from the new concepts and techniques I had found in the Bujo method, so I made a better dot journal. One that contains six months worth of monthly and weekly layouts designed minimalistically but supercharged by years of organizing thoughts and projects, and still contains 232 blank pages.
Whether or not you’ve read Ryder Carroll’s Bullet Journal book, you’ll be able to goal plan, create yearly goals, break it down to weekly action steps, create a daily (or weekly) habit of planning, and still have enough blank paper for collections, brainstorms, projects, and lists.
There’s no other bullet journal (or planner) like this.
Record the past, track the present, design the future
Recording the past, tracking the present, and designing the future are essential to keep you from turning into an automaton responding to notifications, emails, or even other people.
You can record the past in the generous amount of daily pages in my Nightowl Journal. I recommend micro-journaling. At the end of the day, write three things about the day. They don’t even have to be full sentences.
If you can’t write three, write one.
More about tracking the present and designing the future in the next sections.
Goals, Sprints, and Small Steps
Carroll has a system of goal setting in his book called 5,4,3,2,1. Carroll’s system of goals is one of my favorite, but there’s another step I like to add before it.
Open to pages 4 and 5 in the Nightowl Journal.
We’re going to start with a mind map.
It looks like this spread on the left below.
Make one square in the middle called wishlist. (Or me, or balanced life, or whatever works for you). Then write these 5 words in spokes around the square. Spiritual, relationship, health, work, personal. Then write 1-3 things around each of those 5 areas of your life that you would like your life to look like. I really recommend setting a timer for five minutes, so you don’t spend too long second-guessing yourself. Just write a knee-jerk reaction of what you envision and imagine your ideal life to look like in each of these categories. No self-editing. Just dreaming and imagining.
Under these areas, envision what you want your life to look like. You might write, “pain-free spine” under heatlh, if you have chronic pain from a western sedentary lifestyle, or you might write, “learn to cook healthy foods at home,” under health if you want to stop wasting money on food that you regret eating. You might also write it under personal because it’s also a financial goal. You might write “get out of debt,” under financial goals. You might write, “find a course on marriage skills (or counseling)” under relationship.
Now you can move to the 5,4,3,2,1 list. It’s a way, for me, of taking the more abstract big-picture concepts and breaking them down into steps or more concrete goals.
Next to this page, create a Ryder Carroll style 5,4,3,2,1 list.
Pick one, or at the most, two items from the mind map that you want the most, or the soonest, or that would make the biggest difference in your life.
Then create a list of what you need to do in each of these for the next hour, in the next two days, in the next three weeks, in the next four months, and in the next five years. Interspersed in this list in the shorter time frames will be things you have to do, like cook or call the doctor.
My fictional person has focused on her travel and writing dreams.
But she also needs to play a game with her daughter and schedule appointments.
What do you want to accomplish in 5 years?
What about four months?
What about three weeks?
About about two days?
What about one hour?
It’s okay to replace the timeframes with ones that work for you, but 5,4,3,2,1 is fun to say and easy to remember.
And you can design the future with the Goals, Springs, and Small Steps like in the next heading.
The goals you wrote will decide what you do in your monthly, weekly, and daily spreads.
The monthly, weekly, and daily layouts are where you take your broken down goals and steps from your goals mind maps and lists and break them down further into little steps.
I do this mostly on the weekly layout page, so I’m showing an example of how I like to balance my week with responsibilities, personal goals, and things like appointments, time blocks, and rest. It’s only a partial picture of what a week actually looks like, so your imagination can fill in the rest.
I like doodles, too, to signal it’s time to do things like my morning keto coffee with my gratitude practice.
The routines and tasks create consistency and focus in an otherwise constantly shifting schedule.
Rapid logging is one of my favorite parts of bullet journaling, and Nightowl is set up with this super power of bujo in mind.
The rapid logging happens mainly on the daily and bullet pages, but it can also be used in the monthly and weekly spreads.
After practicing some of Ryder Carroll’s basic symbols and getting them down, I added some of my own.
Here are Ryder Carroll’s, which I use every day.
On the right, there are more that I’ve created for myself. That’s the wonderful thing about bullet journaling or dot journaling—once you learn the basics, you can customize it for your unique personality, beliefs, goals, and circumstances.
By the way, I love rapid logging prayers. These short cries for divine guidance and help are answered, and because I bujo, I see this. (In contrast, my George Mueller prayer journal never took off, despite many attempts).
“The next time you cross off a task in your bujo, slow down. Take a moment to pause and reflect on the impact of your accomplishmnent What do you feel? If by chance you feel nothing—or maybe nothing but relief—then chances are the thing you’re working on so diligently isn’t adding much value to your life.” –Ryder Carroll
Daily Pages: Quick Overview
Now I’m going to do a quick breakdown of the sections of an easy, beginner daily page. If you want to dive more into the daily layout, check out this blog post of favorite, easy daily logs.
Daily Pages: Gratitude
“Introducing a gratitude practice is a good way to counteract your negativity bias by fostering an awareness of the positive things in your life.”–Ryder Carroll
“No matter how wealthy, healthy, loved, beautiful, or lucky you are, or may become, it won’t matter unless you’re a grateful person. The problem is, most of us are not. “–Ryder Carroll
I like to write down three things for which I’m actually grateful (no fake gratitude, things you actually enjoy), helps you cope with the most difficult day. It’s a good armor against anxiety over time. At the end of a challenging day, I look at these three things and feel a little less overwhelmed.
I also remember the beauty of the moment I had in the morning making the list, while the sun rose one the field near our house and I sip a cup of keto coffee.
It’s a habit I started after reading Atomic Habits, and I’ve never regreted it.
“Very few of us, myself not included, are naturally grateful people. That does not make us bad people, it just means that we suffer more than we need to.”–Ryder Carroll (More on gratitude, the part of bullet journaling that has been most life-changing for me here).
So every morning, I turn on my Soulspace meditation app, grab a favorite pen, open to a clean sheet, write the date, and write three things for which I am grateful on the right side of the sheet.
Daily Pages: Appointments and To Do
On the left, I write three things I want to accomplish indicated by a checkbox and whatever the appointments of the day are indicated by a triangle (as shown above).
Daily Pages: Reflection and Affirmations
Then I draw a horizontal line across the middle of the page and title it “reflection.” At the end of the day, or anytime I feel like it throughout the day, I add 1-3 things that happened that day that were memorable.
I also write affirmations in this space at the beginning of the day. I alternate between this space and the space on the top right.
I glance over my 5-4-3-2-1 lists, weekly lists, and, occasionally, project lists, depending on what is going on in my life.
That’s it. By the time you write your goals, you’re ahead of most of the population. By checking in with them, you inform yourself of how to handle the challenges of daily life and dedicate a part of your day, no matter how small, to those big picture goals.
Everybody deserves to have goals. They usually come from our dreams, which usually come from our identity. Now sometimes, we don’t know who we are, like Flynn Ryder in Tangled. But by practicing gratitude, reflection, and self-care, that identity becomes more apparent over time. It’s okay for goals to change, and remember, it’s easy for God to steer a moving car.