What’s a type-A planner girl to do when she needs to fix her brain so she can write again but can’t handle the rigid structure of an actual plan? Well, that’s when a type-A planner girl has to get creative. And that’s why I just spent one year in a sort of bullet journal.

A thick Moleskine notebook with monthly tabs held up in front of a book case with the text "One Year in a Sort of Bullet Journal"

For me, 2023 was a rebuilding year. I mentioned a lot of this in my thirty-eighth birthday blog post, but I hit burnout so hard at the end of 2022. In true Marisa form, I tried to strong-arm my way through it–like I could just overwork myself out of burnout.

That was a very stupid idea.

So at the end of 2022, I knew a more intuitive approach to planning was in order. Some years I need a structured planner that allows me to outline goals and time block. Some years, I need a space to write a to do list and get my jumbled thoughts on paper.

This past year was all about the latter.

I decided a bullet journal was the best option for me in 2023. But know that I didn’t do the standard bullet journal. Instead of following Ryder Carroll’s method or doing something that would look at home on Instagram, I just made a super messy notebook and didn’t look back.

What I Used for a Sort of Bullet Journal

My goal was to find a notebook that would last me the whole year. I almost made it with the 400-page extended large Moleskine. I wasted some pages at the beginning of the notebook by creating a future log I never touched and recording a some-60 card tarot spread for the year that I never referred to again. So, the last recorded day in this bad boy is December 19.

Other supplies I used were washi tape, highlighters, stamps, markers, pens, watercolors, scrapbook paper, glue, and a Zip photo printer. Honestly, I probably used more stuff, but like, I don’t even know what I used most of the time because I was just a feral paper scrap hoarder who glued anything into this notebook with reckless abandon.

What I Learned from One Year in a Sort of Bullet Journal

Every planning system I try teaches me something about myself, even if it only teaches me I can’t use a certain system. This year, I learned that I may like recording my day more than planning it.

Here’s a look at the lessons from this sort of bullet journal.

001: Sometimes time doesn’t matter.

I used to be all about time blocking. You can see how I got into it with this post on how to use highlighters in the Passion Planner. (Side note: I miss the Passion Planners with the card stock covers.)

When I was teaching, I got writing stuff done in weird little pockets of time between class and office hours. Now, I’m at home full-time, and even if I have client work to do, I can do it when I want to do it. So I gave myself permission to chill on the time blocking. This lessened a lot of the anxiety I had been feeling and made the days feel bigger.

Part of my burnout recovery was realizing that I needed to free myself from deadlines as much as possible. And while, as a writer, I’ll never be free of them completely, I don’t have to give myself arbitrary deadlines in the form of blocks of time when I need to complete certain tasks.

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I really liked that freedom and it’s what I needed at that time. However, in the interest of full disclosure, for 2024, I’m using the Hobonichi Cousin because it has daily and weekly pages. Those weekly pages are getting time blocked from Hell to breakfast, baby!

002: Recording matters as much as planning.

I’m a future thinker and I like to strategize about the best way to do things. This means that I tend to live in my head, simply fantasizing about how great things are going to be. I don’t really notice the present as much as I should, and I definitely don’t take time to think about the past.

(Yes. I’m working with my therapist about this. I’ll thank you to stay out of my personal affairs that I have put on the internet of my own free will.)

I used my sort of bullet journal as a place to record what was happening. So there are pages where I’ve journaled about events or conversations or tarot spreads. There are pages with receipts or photos of food I consumed or people I saw.

Now, when I flip through it, I don’t just see a record of work I did. I see a life. It’s kind of cool.

003: Using up art supplies feels really good.

I have hoarded many art supplies. I have stuff in my art stash that I’ve been holding onto since high school. That’s twenty years of art supplies, gang.

This journal gave me space to use it all up.

It’s worth noting that I don’t really know what I’m doing when I use shit. I just use it. So the pages with watercolors on them look bad. The washi tape is just there for the sake of it being there. It doesn’t matter. It’s my notebook, not a masterclass in art technique.

004: Paper figures better than brain.

I struggle with remembering brains are for idea making, not idea storage.

So when I’m going through something, I tend to hold it in my head and try to play with the idea like clay until I can shape it into a way that can be constructively expressed. Only, the feelings and ideas aren’t going to sit still in my brain while I do that. They need to go some place where I can come back to them when I’ve had some time to think.

At the risk of sounding vague and inviting inquiries that will go unanswered, I went through some shit with some people this past year. Here’s the basics: I made a couple of boundaries. They were taken as insults. Then I got high school mean girled by some former friends at a writing conference.

Writing all the stuff down that happened was a good way for me to see what was actually happening, rather than getting caught up in trying to intellectualize my feelings or getting swept up in someone else’s.

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005: The tarot always knows, baby gooses.

I did a lot of tarot spreads that I recorded in this sort of bullet journal. And going back through each of them has been BONKERS. I pulled cards for the week ahead and for conflicts and writing and for what I needed on my burnout healing rollercoaster journey.

Sometimes the cards resonated in the moment, sometimes they didn’t. But looking back through my notebook, all the cards make sense now.

So, even though I wasted precious pages in the front of the notebook on a big spread that I never referred to again, I’m glad I did my smaller spreads through the year.

My Favorite Sort of Bullet Journal Spreads

Look. I’m going to call these spreads for search engine optimization purposes. But you and I both know that these are just fun pages where I used art supplies and had a good time, right? Right.

These are some of the first pages in my sort of bullet journal. I printed this year-at-a-glance calendar from Jashii Corrin so I could always know what dates fell on what days of the week. The next page has my word of the year, which was peace, along with some memes I printed using my Polaroid Zip camera, which I believe is just now called a Zip, if you’re looking to purchase one.

I did tons of tarot spreads in this bullet journal, and I love how they’re hanging out with memories and photos. I used these little Currently cards, which I believe I got from the Awesome Ladies Project, but I might be wrong about that. These pages are a mess, but I love seeing what was going on and having some pictures to go along with the words I wrote.

This page is only significant because of the tag in the upper left hand corner that says boundaries equal peace. I can’t remember what I wrote on it initially, but I marked it out and wrote over it. Not because I wanted to, but because I felt I needed to in case a person I was setting boundaries with saw it. (You can see how toxic that relationship truly was if I was afraid to be truthful in my own notebook.) I wish I didn’t change it, but here we are. The next photo shows what’s under the tag…

How’s this for a tarot spread about setting boundaries with people who take too much from you? My word for the year was peace, and this spread from the second week of the year is truly where I made it happen. Yeah, the rest of the year involved work on that end goal too, but damn. I fucking did it early and didn’t even realize it.

I like this spread. You can see how much junk food I’ve eaten, and there are some movie ticket stubs from when I went to see Women Talking with my mom. And thanks to my friends, Kenna and Keith for giving me a guest check book. It’s so fun to use for journaling and such.

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If you’re a Saturday Morning Donuts recipient, you should know that the page on the left is the day when I dropped my new iPhone in an art gallery toilet. The page on the right has one of those little library check out card envelopes with pics and details about our wedding anniversary date inside. (Sorry. You don’t get to see it. Those are my memories, dammit.)

A friend of ours stayed with us for a night when they were back in town, and it was fun to watch my 40-something husband and all his 40-something friends turn into 15-year-old boys for the evening. I didn’t snag any photos of the chaos, but I did get some photos when they were too tired to Kung Fu at each other.

This spread is what the majority of the notebook looks like. It’s more functional with some memories recorded here and there.

I love having ticket stubs in the notebook so I can see what movies I saw and when. On the right, there’s a cut out from a handout I made for a Camp NaNoWriMo presentation I did at the Bethany Public Library. I always love doing a little public speaking.

Sometimes, I use markers. I’ve also been recording when I finish books in my sort of bullet journal, which has been cool to look back on.

Sometimes I just slap a whole-ass beer label in the notebook, baby! And sometimes I draw a notepad in the notebook.

More ticket stubs. Check the next photo to see what’s underneath.

I love The Gaslight Anthem, and it was so much fun to see them live. I really needed that show they played at The Tower Theater. Also, there are some cassette tapes stamped on these pages, and that’s because last fall, I was in the habit of listening to a whole album all the way through each morning. And I recorded which album I listened to on the day in question.

There isn’t anything particularly special about this spread. I just like the way the guest check paper, washi tape, and flower cut outs look together.

On my birthday weekend, I took a few photos of the day. Chris got me a first edition of Ramona Quimby, Age 8, and had donuts delivered to the house. Naturally I cried when I opened the gift. (The book, not the donuts.)

Over Thanksgiving, I made some watercolors out of old eyeshadow. They’re fun to play with, even if the quality of the paint isn’t ideal. They’re super shimmery, but also very messy.

Would You Use a Sort of Bullet Journal?

So. What do you think? Would you use this type of notebook? Do you think a sort of bullet journal would work for you? I loved the process of keeping it, and it definitely helped me deal with some burnout and bad relationships.

2 Responses

  1. Hey Marisa! I’ve contemplated using structure planners to using bullet journals but I always give up drawing all the spreads. I do like your idea of writing stuff down when you feel like it and not worrying about what looks good. I did get another staology notebook which I’ve been thinking maybe deserves to be used this year ha ha thanks for the ideas and all the awesome pictures!

    1. I love Stalogy notebooks so much! And I think the key to finishing a bullet journal is to not worry about the consistency of the look of it. Just do whatever feels right on that particular day. Good luck!

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