All the best advice about bullet journaling says you don’t have to be neat or artistic or organized to create an effective journal. In fact, the original Bullet Journal Method created by Ryder Carroll, who has a book and a website and a $249 course teaching the technique, ignores artistry altogether. But let’s be real. The bullet journal pages you’ve seen on Instagram and TikTok are intimidating because only an artist could have made them. And with that intimidation comes the fear of ruining the notebook you paid $25 for.
That’s why many people get bullet journal paralysis. They hesitate to write anything at all for fear it’ll be ugly and sloppy, and thus their notebook collects dust. (Note that I use “bullet journaling” in a generic sense. When I refer to Carroll’s method specifically, I capitalize it.)
Or maybe bullet journaling failed you for other reasons, like you found the supposed mindfulness aspects to be time wasters. As Anna Russell put it in The New YorkerThe New Yorker, “You get the sense, in some of the more beautiful posts, that it took more time to make the to-do list than it would have to complete the to-dos.”
There is a better way. You can get nearly the same benefits of bullet journaling using a method that’s:
- Do not intimidate
- Allows for corrections and changes along the way
- Doesn’t require lengthy transfers of useful notes to a new section or notebook each month
- Won’t cost you any additional money if you already own a computer or mobile device
The trick? Go digital. And I’m not even talking about buying a specialized bullet journal app, because you can get better results with the right to-do list or note-taking app.
If you’re committed to writing your bullet journal by hand, you can still do that and digitize your notes—I’ll explain how in a moment. But by going digital you give up almost nothing, except the tactile feel of paper, and you gain so much more.
A Brief Overview: What Is a Bullet Journal?
Here’s a very brief overview of bullet journaling: The original namesake Bullet Journal Method uses a paper notebook, where you create an index in the front and use the rest of the pages to write down and organize everything you have to do and need to remember for each month. There’s a formula for creating each page, which Ryder Carroll explains clearly in his original 2013 video about bullet journaling.
Since that first conception, people have riffed on the idea so that now it can include pretty little sketches, calligraphy, and other designs that look so beautiful they ultimately discourage nonartistic people from trying.
At its core concept, the bullet journal is a wonderful tool for getting organized by doing what nearly all organizational techniques do. They get ideas out of your head and onto paper so that you are no longer burdened with having to remember them. Journaling in general also helps people process thoughts and emotions, articulate goals, and review what’s happened in the past.
But there are reasons to do it electronically instead of on paper.
Why Apps Are a Better Place to Bullet Journal Than Paper
Digital journals are superior to paper ones in so many ways. I’m not saying paper is bad or wrong to use, but there are clear advantages to working electronically.
- You can edit and reprioritize cleanly and simply without crossing out your work or rubbing an eraser across the page.
- You get reminders. A paper notebook can’t pop up a notification on your phone one day before you need to make a cake for your kid’s birthday reminding you to buy ingredients, but an app can.
- Electronic files are easy to rifle through and they’re searchable. Good luck finding an idea you wrote down in a notebook two years ago. In a digital journal, you can jump back 10 years in a second or two, search for keywords, and browse through old notes without ever leaving your computer or mobile device.
- You can upload photos, images, PDFs, and other files to your notes, which you can’t do with a bullet journal unless you start gluing and stapling inside your pages.
With digital journals, you typically get access to templates, or you can make your own, plus you get stickers (or icons) that never run out the way physical ones do. Everything you need is always there unlike your favorite pen that you’ve misplaced or the journal that’s down to its last page.
Which App Should You Use for a Digital Bullet Journal?
What a lot of people don’t realize is bullet journals are not at all different from to-do list apps. Proponents of bullet journaling think they’re different, but that’s because they aren’t up to speed on what to-do lists apps are these days. I’ve been testing and writing about to-do list apps for nearly ten years. I know them inside and out. If you write your to-do list strategically and use one of the best to-do list apps, you’ll quickly realize that it’s more than just a digital checklist of things you need to do.
For example, the Toodledo app has sections for writing down tasks, as well as one for tracking habits, writing freeform notes, and creating outlines. Then there are note-taking apps that look exactly like the blank pages of any journal but which contain features for making to-do lists, adding stars and other icons, and even in some cases doodling and sketching. In short, a to-do list app covers everything a bullet journal does, and offers more.
Here’s a closer look at some of the apps I recommend using instead of a paper bullet journal.
Every single thing you would do with a paper bullet journal you can also do in Microsoft OneNote (free). This app lets you create blank notes that are more like canvases than word document files. You get a wealth of icons, including checkboxes and stars, that you can add anywhere on the page. As you can see from the image, OneNote has sections where you can organize different kinds of lists and ideas. There’s no need to create an index because you essentially have one visible to you at all times from those sections at the left.
Aside from being free, the other huge advantage of Microsoft OneNote is that it works everywhere. No matter what kind of device you have, you can create and access notes.
iPad Apps: Notability, Notes X Plus, or Penultimate
If you want to preserve the feeling of writing by hand and sketching with a pencil and you have an iPad, try a note-taking app that reads handwriting and perhaps even smooth lines as you draw.
Notability is one option. There’s a free version with limitations, or you can pay a reasonable $11.99 per year (or $2.99 per month) for extra features such as handwriting recognition and smoothing, math conversion technology, and iCloud syncing. You can get fantastic free templates for it to guide your journaling. While Notability is best on an iPad, it’s also available on Macs and iPhones.
Next are Notes Plus X ($9.99) and Notes Plus ($9.99), also for iPad and iPhone. The key difference between the two is Notes Plus supports older versions of iPadOS and iOS, should you need it. This app comes with some nice features that reduce distractions so you can focus on your work.
Last in this group is Penultimate, another note-taking app for the iPad that supports sketching and stylus input. It’s useful for people who also use Evernote, as it’s owned by the same company and you can easily store your notes there. It’s free to download, though you don’t get the full experience of being able to search your notes and save them to all your devices unless you have a paid Evernote account, which is expensive.
If you explore digital journaling, you’ll come across plenty of other app suggestions, especially for the iPad. I’ve tried many of those other apps, and I don’t feel confident recommending them because they’re finicky to use, or light on features, or something else about them doesn’t result in a high quality experience. I do have a few more recommendations for note-taking apps and devices that go beyond the iPad.
I already mentioned Toodledo, but let’s get into it. It’s primarily a to-do list app, and to be frank, it could be improved in a few areas. But when I think about which to-do list app would be best for people who want to make a bullet journal, Toodledo is it. It has a ton of features for creating to-do lists and adding detail to them. You can write down additional thoughts, like your goals, in Toodledo’s notes or outline sections. If you are someone who enjoys spending a lot of time customizing your tools, then you’re going to love this app. It’s available on the web, and as a downloadable app for Android and iPhone. There are no desktop apps for Windows or macOS, but the web app works fine as long as you’re online.
What do you do? Yo Use?
I don’t use the Bullet Journaling Method, but I have consistently kept a daily journal for more than seven years and I’m fastidious about using a to-do list, grocery shopping list, list of ideas, etc. What do I use for them? For a long time I was an Evernote user, but after I got frustrated with it, I switched to Joplin, and the majority of my notes go there. For my daily tasks and lists, I use Todoist and I couldn’t imagine using anything else.
Those two apps work for me in part because I’m not a doodler. My notes are all typed. Plus I like compartmentalizing my daily journal and ideas from my tasks and other lists. If Joplin doesn’t speak to you, you might consider a few other alternatives to Evernote with a different look and feel.
keep it up
Have I not convinced you that digital is the way to go? No problem! Pen and paper work better for some people, and that’s fine. Even I keep a good pen on hand (alongside other high-quality necessities for remote work) to jot down ideas and take notes. Digital notes aren’t the end-all-be-all.
If bullet journals haven’t worked for you in the past, however, and you’re still hungry for everything they promise, then make a digital journal instead. Pick a time every day when you’ll write in it, set a reminder for that time, and keep it up. It takes a few months to make the habit stick.