Hi! My name’s Vanessa. In all honesty, my story isn’t incredibly unique or life-changing, but it’s still mine and I’ll tell it anyway. I’m a high school student from California, and I first discovered what a “bullet journal” was in the early summer of 2017. My family and I were about to move from Shanghai, China to Southern California so that I could attend high school back in the US, where I was born.
Shanghai, China, where Vanessa is from.
On a day that I probably should have spent packing boxes and bags, I fell down a rabbit-hole of Youtube videos and Instagram tutorials explaining what a bullet journal is and how to set one up. I was intrigued. I don’t think I started a bullet journal that year because I was overburdened by any kind of work that I needed to sort out, but really because it seemed like the perfect balance of creativity and productivity for me.
I had always loved visual art, but had never quite considered myself an “artist,” and I was always one of those kids who bought a ton of planners and eventually hated all of them because I never filled up all of the pre-set boxes, so the idea that I could build and decorate my own productivity system was extremely attractive to me.
I started off as I think many, many early bullet “journalists” do: imitating @AmandaRachLee spreads with varying (I do mean varying) degrees of success and citing Pinterest for most of my ideas. I started posting my initial spreads to my “art” Instagram (of which all early posts have thankfully been archived) just so I could document my monthly doodle themes.
Vanessa's first recreation of @AmandaRachLee's journal spread.
Fast-forward a few years: my style has changed significantly, but my motivations really haven’t. Because I’m still in high school, my bullet journal is still my main source of productivity, and as college applications approach, it’s become more crucial than ever. I plan out my homework, my schedule, and my extracurricular activities using a combination of weekly and daily spreads, and while they help me get my work done, my bullet journal is definitely also a creative (and sometimes emotional) outlet for me.
Early 2018 spread by Vanessa.
It helps me feel less overwhelmed to be able to see and organize all my tasks, often school-related but sometimes not, in order to prioritize them, and the fact that it’s based in a plain notebook means that I can flip to the next page and lay out everything that’s stressing me out. It also satisfies my creative side; the latest evolution of my style has me doodling in the open spaces, lettering my favorite lines of poetry and the songs most recently stuck in my head, and playing around with my favorite color combinations.
Bullet journal Vanessa's go-to method for organizing her thoughts and tasks.
To me, the bullet journal community on Instagram is honestly so much fun. Everyone has a distinctive style, and I think it’s inspiring just to scroll through my feed or Explore page and see all the different layouts, color schemes, and styles that come from the most creative people. Although bullet journaling is, at its heart, a productivity system, Instagram is a great place to be able to show the world any creative aspects you’ve integrated into your spreads.
The Great Wave off Kanagawa, a favorite recreation of many bullet journalers on IG.
The online community has also helped me start conversations and work with people located in so many different countries across the world, and I think building online relationships like those really makes you feel connected to places outside of your own “bubble.” However, I will acknowledge that there are a few negative aspects of the “#studygram” community, sometimes involving a lack of credit given where it is due and also the prevalent idea that you have to make your journal more aesthetically pleasing than practical (which is absolutely untrue and a distinction I try to make clear). In general, though, if I become frustrated with something online, I always try to remind myself that I’m not in it for Instagram.
Vanessa's trip to Tokyo, Japan.
I use my bullet journal because it genuinely helps me organize my priorities, and I think as long as we remember the reasons why we started journaling in the first place and we don’t let the online aspect get in the way of that, we can keep the community a really fun and positive place. I’ll always put my own work above my Instagram; I am grateful for the following I’ve built over the better part of two and a half years, but I don’t feel like I owe anything to them that would come at the price of my academic or personal life, and I think that’s the best way to maintain a social-media-personal-productivity balance.
A balance of fun and creativity. Something Vanessa held close to heart in her journal spreads as it evolved over the years.
I know I’ll definitely keep using my bullet journal in the future. I’m not sure what I’ll end up doing in a few years, but I know that my journal has served me well so far and I want to continue adapting it to the changes in my life. I love notebooks and stationery, and I love the feeling of physically writing things down and checking them off, so bullet journaling has ultimately been a really great multifunctional outlet for me.
Vanessa's spread in 2020.
If anyone reading this wants to start a bullet journal, I would advise them to focus on the productivity over the appearance; your journal will never help you get more done if you spend all of your time trying to make it look perfect, so don’t worry! The only person it has to work for is you.
Thanks for sticking around until now! Happy journaling! :”)
Xx Vanessa / @vanessajournals
California, USA, where Vanessa now resides with her family.