BuJo 101: How To Use a Bullet Journal Key

This post explains how to use the rapid logging keys used in the bullet journaling system, designed by Ryder Carroll

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This post aims to shear the confusing fluff from the bullet journal key, baring only the naked essentials. It’ll explain what a BuJo key is, how to make one, and how to use one.

The bullet journal key is a page or separate sheet in your BuJo that reminds you of the bullet codes, signifiers, and color codes for your rapid logging system. To use the key effectively, you’ll have to develop, evaluate, and readjust its symbols to fit your specific lifestyle.

What Is a Bullet Journal Key?

A bullet journal key is a page where you reference all of your bullet codes and signifiers for rapid logging. It’s like a translator for the “BuJo language” that New York-based designer Ryder Carroll invented and could either be affixed to your notebook or loose like a bookmark.

Here’s a basic setup: asdf sample key

What Are Bullet Codes?

Bullet codes are small symbols that accompany each short-form notation. Coupled together, the code and notation create what’s called a bullet – a single log entry in your bullet journal.

The purpose of a bullet code is to immediately show you whether this bullet is a task, an event, or a note; and if it’s a task, what state it’s currently in.

Bullet codes are crucial to the whole rapid logging process. They’re also frequently called icons and symbols. You might see the term “signifiers” associated with bullet codes, too, but signifiers are distinct according to Carroll.

Bullet codes usually go right before the notation, like this:

Take Jake to the doctor

What Are Signifiers?

A signifier is basically an additional bullet code you could doodle next to the first one. It gives even more information about the bullet, “signifying” whether it’s a priority or an unforgettable idea.

Signifiers accompany the original bullet code, like this asterisk:

*□ Take Jake to the doctor

What Is the Original Bullet Journal Key Used by Ryder Carroll?

Ryder Carroll wanted to keep his bullets as simple as possible because of his ADD (Attention-deficit Disorder). And this is why his system works so well – it was designed by someone who actually lives the struggle to focus.

These are the bullet codes he uses:

  • a solid dot “•” for tasks. The dot morphs into “✕” when the task is complete, into “” if it needs to be migrated, or into “” if it needs to be scheduled into the future. Crossing the entire bullet out indicates it’s canceled
  • a hollow circle “⚬” for events
  • a hyphen “−” for notes

As for signifiers, the inventor of the BuJo uses only two:

  • an asterisk “*” for bullets that are urgent
  • an exclamation mark “!” for inspirational points he doesn’t want to forget

Not the Same as a Bullet Journal Index

Don’t confuse the bullet journal key for the bullet journal index – the two are separate things. The BuJo index catalogs the monthly logs and scattered collections within your notebook, making them easier to locate. The key, however, references only the rapid logging icons and color coding.

Steps to Using a Bullet Journal Key

1. Determine Your Rapid Logging Icons

Before anything else, decide on the rapid logging icons – those bullet codes and signifiers – you think you’ll need for classifying your bullets. At a minimum, your BuJo should use three distinct bullet codes: one for tasks, one for events, and another for notes. You should also incorporate at least one signifier to mark what’s important.

Task bullets should be classified by icons that can easily “morph” from an initial state to another. You’ve already seen Carroll’s default bullet code for tasks, which is a solid dot “•”. A dot can easily change into many other symbols.

Here’s an alternative example of a functionally complete set of rapid logging icons:

  • for open tasks, a “□”
  • for completed tasks, a “■”
  • for migrated tasks, a “⊟”
  • for scheduled tasks, a “⊞”
  • for canceled tasks, crossing out the entry
  • for events, a “→”
  • for notes, a “−”
  • for a priority signifier, a “!”

You could incorporate any symbol imaginable – as long as its purpose is INSTANTLY recognizable.

Useful tip #1. Choose simple icons that are quick to doodle. This is one component of bullet journaling where you DO NOT want to get overly creative. Think about it. If you have to doodle a fancy icon every time you jot down a quick notation, you’ll soon grow tired of rapid logging and eventually stop altogether.

Useful tip #2. Use specialized icons for repetitive things in your schedule such as routines. For instance, you could use a simple dumbbell icon as opposed to tediously writing out “gym workout” every time. Don’t create too many of these special icons, though! Otherwise, you’ll only end up overwhelmed by your key.

Useful tip #3. Color coding is a great way to group relevant bullets according to topics or projects. For example, you could label all work-related bullets in one color and home-related ones in another. Color coding lets you be as specific as you want.

Here’s a bullet task entry that uses all of the previous tips:

! 1 pm for a refill

What does it mean? Perhaps the task is

  • a doctor’s appointment, as indicated by the specialized “cross” icon
  • urgent because of the “!” signifier
  • color-coded blue, which might indicate it’s for a specific family member

2. Evaluate Your Key and Adjust if Necessary

Test your key out for the first month to see whether it conforms practically to your way of life. Then, refine it by trimming off any bullet codes and signifiers you’re not using, while tacking on ones you realize are necessary but initially skipped.

This is an important step because your key needs to be efficient to actually do its job.

3. Be Consistent by Sticking to Your Key

Commit to using the established icons and color codes that you chose for your key. The reason why bullet journaling is such an effective productivity tool is because of rapid logging – and the icons play a big role in the method.

Put it this way. The more familiar you are with your bullet journal key, the less effort it’ll take you to rapid log. And effortless rapid logging results in successful, sustainable bullet journaling.

How to Make a Bullet Journal Key

Once you’ve determined what your rapid logging icons are, you can enjoy the relaxing process of creating the official key, or legend, to your bullet journal. Follow these straightforward steps to create an attractive reference:

1. Choose Where to Put Your Key

A BuJo key itself shouldn’t take up the entire space of a page. However, for aesthetics and clarity, I’d put the key on its own page at or near the beginning of your notebook. Logically, it should belong with other important references such as your index. Some notebooks, like the Leuchtturm1917 A5, come with a key template already.

If you prefer to make your key into a loose bookmark, you could create it on a perforated leaf in your notebook if it has one, then tear it out. Or, you could use a separate card. It could then be stored inside one of the inner cover pockets.

Some BuJo’ers like to use their key as a flip-out. If this setup sounds appealing, you can attach a separate sheet containing the key to the edge of a leaf in your notebook. As a foldable extension, it conveniently “flips out” whenever you need it and folds away when you’re done with it.

2. Make the Legend by Listing and Labelling Your Icons

Make a sensible legend of all the icons you plan on using. Most bullet journal doers like to list their icons and accompanying descriptions in one or two columns.

A useful tip. Keep your bullet journal key as clean, simple, and organized as possible. If you’re incorporating many icons with various states, plenty of color codes, and multiple signifiers – I suggest rethinking why you feel you need so many.

If you can’t live without them, then it’s best to divide your legend into at least two columns, if not three. List the basic icons in one, the more specialized in another, and perhaps the color codes in yet another.

3. Add the Artistic Flair (Optional)

Although the rapid logging icons themselves should be simple, have at it with the negative space around the key.

I prefer my bullet journal key to be minimalistic, so I’m naturally drawn to aesthetically lightweight designs. The following keys created by others show how less is definitely more:

Great Examples of BuJo Keys by Others

That Header, Though!

This aesthetically pleasing key was created by Becca Courtice, a hugely popular Canadian artist. The botanical header is an amalgamation of relatively simple shapes that, with enough practice, any of us can master. Notice how, even for an artist of her talent, she decided to keep her rapid logging icons super simple. All credit goes to @thehappyevercrafter

Black, Terracotta, and Gold

Minimal yet elegant, this key caught my attention for its trio of earthy accents, which perfectly offsets its clean white backdrop. All credit for this beautiful work goes to @Manayin. Despite being in French, her website gives insight into her other like-themed spreads.

The One-size-fits-all

This is what the key of a full-time entrepreneur/mom/workhorse looks like. Nothing fancy here; only pure functionality. I like the fact that Whitney condensed her complex life into one streamlined system, codified by plenty of specialized icons as well as colors. Credit @lifebywhitney


Official Bullet Journal Website – Learning Section – bulletjournal.com

Leo Cai

Leo Cai

Leo Cai, the one solely responsible for the inception of this Mickey Mouse operation, has at least garnered the acceptance of Casey Cai - his wife. He used to view himself as an avid writer back in high school, with grandiose dreams of making a living using words. That never culminated because, as he himself puts it, "It's more practical to stock bakery shelves while striving to become a professional photographer".

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We’re Leo & Casey Cai, and Journaling Diaries is our outlet for sharing what we’re learning from the lightweight, nearly disaster-proof hobby of journaling. So far, we’ve found that journaling isn’t merely a shameful tool for hard times or a poor memory. It’s enriching & fun. Whatever, whichever, however – as long as it involves journaling – we’ll be covering it all here. Thanks for stopping by!

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