I could never find a planner that fit. I wanted something that had monthly calendar pages, but also had pages that showed my week at-a-glance and allowed me to put in deadlines and plan my day. I wanted two-page spreads, but I also wanted enough room to write in to-do lists and notes that came up while I was sitting in conferences. The more I searched for a system, the more I realized that the system I wanted did not exist.
After spending my first year in med school with my head barely above the water, overwhelmed and completely confused ninety-percent of the time, I knew that I needed an organizational system that would change, grow and adapt with me. And after a few weeks of Google searches, I came across this article on BuzzFeed about bullet journaling. The rest is history (and therefore, in my planner).
But what is bullet journaling?
A system created by Ryder Carroll, much of his creation began when he realized that nothing he was looking for could be found in a store-bought book. This is also what prompted me to started looking and thankfully, I stumbled upon his website which got me to exploring his system! His premise is that bullet journaling is a purposeful productivity, it is mindfulness disguised as productivity, and while keeping us focused, also provides an outlet for our creativity. I find that it also is a safe space that can help relieve mental exhaustion by providing one’s mind a place to rest.
How did I start?
It was hard. But articles like these encouraged me to keep at it, to keep experimenting and to figure out what worked for me, even if it was a more functional setup. My planner situation at the time was a store-bought planner that didn’t have the space I needed to lay out my monthly/weekly/daily deadlines and I wanted to create a space for those things. I started with a list of what I needed (a monthly layout, a weekly overview, and a daily log), chose a blank notebook (I started with a charcoal grey Leuchtterm 1971) then let my system evolve from there!
What problems did it solve for me?
I was having so many issues with medical school as the year moved forward, with 15 classes a semester, we took an exam in every class every day on top of daily recitations, weekly case presentations (per class!) and then of course, regular exams and group projects (Fishbone diagrams, I’m looking at you). Like many medical students, I was overwhelmed. I knew something was going wrong, my time management was off and I was missing assignments or forgetting readings which caused me even more stress! And while setting aside time for planning didn’t seem ideal when I was so strapped for time already, in hindsight, it is really what I needed to make sure that I maintained focus and also stayed productive without losing my mind.
The first thing it fixed for me was my panic. Forcing myself to settle down at the end of every week (Sundays for me!) and flip through my syllabi and class schedules to write or adjust things in my planner became an enjoyable ritual. I would stream my favorite show, make a cup of tea and sit in my chair while I cross-checked my schedule with any announcements that spoke to changes in deadlines or in our schedules for the week. These little Sunday rituals became my source of calm and helped me ground myself before the start of each week, helping me to mentally prepare for the onslaught of work that would inevitably come.
The second thing it fixed was my haphazard brain. I am constantly worried about missing something. This system provided me a simple way to triple check myself constantly. On my monthly spreads, bright red would scream that there were exams coming up, while purple denoted short quizzes or assessments. Blue was for written assignments and lectures that would require advance preparation while black was meant to signal me to tasks and homework I needed to complete. Green was a special color, designated to fun events like sem-ender parties or the planned dinner outing with classmates. I kept my color code consistent throughout my self-created planner so that the monthly spreads could be copied directly into my weekly overviews and my weekly overviews would relate directly with my more detailed daily task lists. The daily tasks list was my favorite part of each week as on the left it detailed the daily assignments for each class and on the right I would note reminders and to-dos throughout the day like “Print out lecture slides for tomorrow” or “Professor wants a copy of our PowerPoint slides for the case” or “Check if the deadline has been changed later.”
The third thing it fixed was a need for a creative outlet. In addition to my class schedules and assignment deadlines, I took ideas from other bullet journalers like a daily memory log (a sentence a day for each day of the month), productivity charts and mood trackers and incorporated them into my monthly sections. I left pages blank in the back of each of my journals for me to write in. I scribbled about things I was grateful for on parts left blank and filled the others with decorative stickers or memorabilia. Looking through them now, I can look at an old stain and remember where I was that day or see the crinkled edges of the journal and recall when it got wet as I was running through the rain.it is clear that they’re not only a detailed record of my assignments but a curated collection of memories and fleeting moments.
How did I make it work for me as a student and even post-graduation?
The best part about this system is that it is flexible, adaptable and it’s completely customizable. Post-graduation, I no longer needed as much detail because I didn’t have nearly as many deadlines or as many assignments, so I recalibrated, keeping the monthly and weekly overviews, but removing the daily logs and adding more creative spreads that allowed me to practice more writing, jot down random ideas and keep some more memories! Today, my bullet journal serves mostly as a guide and a really fun hobby – it helps me keep track of my Step studying and adapts to my needs as the weeks move forward and my exam date approaches.
What is my current set up?
These days, I find that preparation for the Step exams and studying takes away from the time I have to create so in the past year, I’ve gone from using blank dot-grid notebooks to pre-made planners with a lot of flexibility. The advantage to this is that I no longer have to complete every single spread for each month and week from scratch. After a lot of research, my current planner of choice is the Jibun Techo in A5 Slim which I find to be the perfect size to carry around in a purse, backpack or messenger bag. I love its layout, it’s got a monthly spread and a vertical weekly spread, which I love because it gives me an overview of my week while simultaneously letting me see what my day will look like. Not to mention that the paper is absolutely luscious.
What are my favorite tools?
I am a self-proclaimed pen snob, so even when taking notes, I’m picky about what I use and the paper that I write on. In my bullet journal, I am currently loving the Unistyle Fit which allows me to take three colors on-the-go! I also discovered this amazing correction fluid that is off-white, which means that my mistakes no longer glare at me from inside the pages of my meticulously maintained system! And finally, for the inevitable changed plans, I love the Tombow 2558 pencil in graphite grade B because it comes with the best little on-pencil eraser that I have ever experienced in my life and writes so smoothly, it’s satisfying.
After the initial fear and anxiety and then the additional insecurities about my lack of creativity and artistic ability, I am proud to say that I have been happily bullet journaling for the last four years. There may be a little bit of a learning curve, and I would be lying if I did not tell you that it is a rabbit hole that you may never claw yourself out of; but the system that began as a way to organize my to-do lists quickly became one of my favorite hobbies.
Bullet journaling gave me more than my sanity back, it re-revealed my passion for medicine in the form of lists, memory logs and gratitude pages. Each completed notebook is a testament to how far I have come and how hard I have worked, and these days, when exam preparation gets stressful and the self-doubt and deprecation grow more and more pronounced, my old filled notebooks serve as the reminder I need to keep moving forward. I have to say that even after all these years, at the end of a long day of Step prep and an even longer and sometimes sad week, the ten minutes I spend with my notebook is still the ten minutes I look forward to the most.
Interested in learning more? Bullet journaling became such a release for me that it became a permanent fixture in my life. You can find my journals and spreads featured on my Instagram: @outofpost and on my YouTube channel where I nerd out about my favorite things or if you want a virtual pen pal, shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can talk about medicine, stationery and anything else that’s on your gray matter!