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Journaling for Freelance Writers - How Traditional and Bullet Journals Can Help You Improve Your Life, Your Writing, and Your Business - All Freelance Writing

Around the New Year, we tend to focus on goals a lot here. But I often leave it there and get back to general freelance writing advice, tips, and occasional much-needed rants. I don’t often go into how we can achieve the goals we’ve set for ourselves.

This year, I don’t want to leave you hanging – especially if, like me, you’re making significant changes to your freelance business, or launching a new one.

In this post I want to talk about something new I’m trying – using journaling as a tool to help me get my sh*t together, change my life, and build a writing career I’m happier with.

Now, I don’t know how this will turn out. I’ll report back at the end of the month. But so far, so good.

I’m using five different journals. (Yes, you read that right.)

  • A primary bullet journal
  • A blog-only bullet journal
  • A standard journal
  • A dream journal
  • A sketch journal

The last two are more about helping me retain dreams and daydreams, and also express myself in more creative ways to inspire my fiction and poetry. They aren’t as relevant to freelance writing and blogging, so I won’t go into them in detail here.

The other three though… they’re important. And they’re already helping me feel a little like my old ambitious self (in work get-sh*t-done-at-work sense at least). Let’s start with the standard journal as it’s the simplest to work with.

How Keeping a Journal Can Help Your Freelance Writing Career

Jenn's Personal Bullet Journal, Blog Bullet Journal, and Traditional Journal

My main bullet journal (blue), blog bullet journal (red), and traditional journal

To say my emotions and stress levels have had an impact on my work in recent years would be a severe understatement, especially this past year. While I’ve gotten a surprising amount done, most of it’s been behind-the-scenes.

With a lot of what I was going through this past year, I’ve felt incredibly isolated. The problems were of a nature that I couldn’t really discuss them with most people in any detail. So I felt more distant from friends and even family, like my sister. And the one person I could talk to openly about all of it kept shutting down conversations. So when I’d try to talk to someone about it and try to fix anything at all, it felt like I was talking to a wall, or worse… just talking to myself. That wore me down terribly. And I felt like I had no outlet.

Journaling helps.

I use my standard journal to write about how I’m feeling on any given day. News. Politics. Relationships. Work stresses. Health struggles. But also joys, adventures, and reminders that I’m not as bad or worthless or helpless as certain circumstances and people can sometimes make me feel.

And while it might be just the start of a new year, it’s already helping me in my business. That simple act of getting things out – of having a place that’s all my own to say whatever I need or want to say (no matter how sappy or vicious or stupid or selfish) helps a lot.

How?

  • Committing what you want out of a day to a bound journal, in pen, feels like taking a bit of a gamble on yourself. You’re betting you can do or achieve something. So place your bets.
  • Write letters you know you’ll never send. It might not sound productive. But when you feel like you’ll never have real closure, or you feel like there will always be unanswered questions, or you just need to say things you know you probably shouldn’t… it’s an outlet. It takes away any power those thoughts have over you because you’ve given them the attention they’re demanding, at least for a little while. And if those emotions are impacting your writing or other work on a frequent basis, “a little while” might be all you need to push through and have a decent day. On a side note, I find this also makes me appreciate the lost art of letter writing. Years ago a friend in France and I would email (like normal modern human beings), but he and I would also send hand-written letters regularly. There’s something magical about that, and I miss having someone to do that with. So this has been a fun exercise in that sense, and perhaps it would be something you’d enjoy too. Write to someone to say something you don’t have the nerve to actually tell them. Write a love letter. Write to someone who’s passed away or who you’ve lost in another way. Write to a famous historical figure. Write to your younger self. Write to an imaginary friend. Just write.
  • When the world is stressing you out (meaning you turned on the news that day), use your journal as a way to vent some tension before it impacts your work. Don’t get me wrong. I’ll rant about these things on Twitter. That helps too, and that’s not going to stop (it’s why I broke off a separate site-specific Twitter account for the more tender-hearted among you). But when I really need to dive deep into something, or sort through my thoughts on an issue unrelated to work, I don’t really have a public site where I can do that. So I’m putting it in the journal.It’s that space… just having that private space… that helps get certain thoughts out of my head and onto a page so it doesn’t leech into everything else I do. The next time you want to scream, go ahead. Get it out. Then put it in your journal.

Maybe nothing’s bothering you. Maybe you’re not stressed, or depressed, or anxious about anything. A journal might still help. Think about the things most likely to distract you, and write about that. It might be as simple as keeping a journal of all your writing ideas so you can set them aside for later instead of diving into them at the expense of what you need to get done today.

Bullet Journals: Life’s Little Instruction Manuals

"A goal without a plan is just a wish." - Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Now let’s dive into my two primary journals – my bullet journals. I have to give Princess Jones credit for this. I’d seen them on Pinterest and such for quite some time, and I was intrigued. As much as I love Todoist (and will continue to use it), I’ve always loved going old school with pen-and-paper planning. Yet something seemed a little disorganized for me.

This year I decided to give bullet journaling a try. And while I’ve been working with mine for only about a week, I’m already in love. It’s like having a little instruction manual someone forgot to give me when I was growing up. (Thanks mom.)

What are Bullet Journals?

A bullet journal is basically your brain committed to paper.

Really. It’s you.

  • Your thoughts
  • Your to-do lists
  • Your ideas
  • Your notes
  • Your creativity

No two bullet journals are going to look the same.

You start with an index and a key. Your index (and I recommend leaving several pages blank for this – my mistake with my first one) lets you track what page everything is on for easy reference later. Your key lets you lay out symbols and colors and what they’ll represent for you. No rules.

That’s all there is too it. You number your pages. You write up whatever you want, from a daily diary entry to a monthly plan to a juvenile doodle of a client who’s being a royal PITA. You add that page to your index so you can find it later. And you move on.

Why I Have 2 Bullet Journals

I went into bullet journaling planning to use just one for personal and business tracking. But I realized when I was 80 pages in and hadn’t gotten to any of my blog planning and trackers yet, I was in trouble. Because I have so many sites, I decided to bump them to a separate “bujo.”

My first is my fun one. It’s colorful. I doodle on my pages (even have a two-page spread for daily doodles to encourage myself to do that more). I track my general work there, but also a lot of personal things. I use that journal for:

  • Tracking my TBR lists (both fiction and nonfiction);
  • Tracking the list of movies I’d like to see;
  • Tracking my workouts and weight, plus laying out training programs ahead of time;
  • Tracking general habits;
  • Creating a monthly meal plan;
  • Housing my bucket list;
  • And so much more.

Here's my January Habit Tracker as an example of how you might use a bullet journal. I blurred out my habits simply because some are personal or health-related. But mostly it's things like tracking daily walks, whether or not I drink enough water, if I remembered to take my vitamins, if I spent at least 20-30 minutes on housework or home improvement projects, if I set aside time for reading that day -- things like that.

Jenn's January Habit Tracker in her Bullet Journal - All Freelance Writing

My January 2018 habit tracker

The second bullet journal for my blogging lets me do things like:

  • Map out my monthly editorial calendars for each blog;
  • Keep a one-page post tracker for an at-a-glance view of my overall blogging each month;
  • Map out blog business plans and development plans;
  • Manage blog to-do lists beyond posts (from routine maintenance to bigger back-end projects).

You can do anything you want with these, and that’s what makes them both fun and helpful.

You can make your bullet journal as colorful and creative you want. Or it can be barely legible b&w chicken-scratch if that works for you. (My personal one is the bright, colorful one; my blogging bujo is minimalist so updates are super quick.)

Sound intriguing, but you’re not sure where to start?

Setting Up Your Bullet Journal

If you want to give bullet journaling a try, here’s what you’ll need:

  • An unused journal
  • Something to write with

Yep. That’s it.

For your journal, I highly recommend a dot matrix journal.

You could also use a grid. Or if you have a lined journal lying around already you could try it with that first to see if bullet journaling even appeals to you.

You could get the official bullet journal. Or you can use any one you’d like.

I was in AC Moore (an arts & crafts chain if you aren’t familiar with them where you are) and they had journals of all sorts at 2 for $10. Super cheap, lots of options to play with – I saw lined, dot matrix (what I got), and grid versions there.

So I decided to start there with a cheap hard cover notebook (just in case I hated this and decided to scrap it after a day or two). I love them so much I went back to buy more so I’m set with matching ones when I use these up. I think Princess said she found her latest at Target. Check Amazon. There are plenty of sizes and styles available. Do what works for you.

Now for your pen (and sure, you could use a pencil if you don’t want to commit to pen on paper yet)…

You can have fun with these. I picked up a set of 52 gel pens to add color to my main bujo. Normal ones, metallic ones. Glitter ones. You can also use colored pencils to color code. Or crayons. Or watercolor (if your paper is thick enough – I like watercolor pencils when I’m in one of those artsy-fartsy moods but don’t feel like working on one of my “real” paintings).

Or you could simply use a favorite pen. Or a cheap ballpoint pen. Or a mix of pens. Or whatever the hell you want.

Here’s where I recommend starting though:

They sell smaller packs than the one I linked you to here, but if you want some variety, this is a good one. It lets you use fine points for writing and detail work, and brush-like pens for bolder borders, doodling, and making key things stand out.

The reason I recommend these isn’t just the diversity of options though. I originally tried using a fountain pen in my bullet journal and found the ink bled through the pages. I tried a ballpoint pen and found the indentations they can leave in the page would sometimes be an issue if I was drawing on the page behind it or creating fine grids for trackers.

These gave me nice clear lines and text without causing any problems that would affect the opposite page. I usually use these along with watercolor and / or India ink brush pieces, but they’re perfect for bullet journaling.

Once you have your bullet journal and something you can happily scribble with, setting things up is easy (though admittedly, it can be time consuming if you get creative and want to track a lot – I spent 3 days setting my main one up; and I spent less than 3 hours setting the blog bujo up in comparison).

Create your index page at the front of the journal.

I’d suggest making this 2-column. You can go through it quicker than you might think. I’d also suggest leaving 1-2 additional pages blank to continue your index. If not, that’s okay. You’ll just continue your index mid-journal and add the continuation page at the end of your main index so you know where to find it (I also use the bookmark ribbon in my journal to mark the second index section).

Then you can create a key. Here’s what mine looks like, along with a page of periodic planning reminders (pardon the sloppy handwriting; I wasn’t creating this with the intention of anyone else seeing it). My planning routine was modeled after the one found at Page Flutter. You'll find some other great bullet journal spread examples there too.

Bullet Journal Key & Planning Routine - All Freelance Writing

My main bullet journal's key & planning schedule / routine

Then you just set up whatever pages you’d like. I browsed around online for hours looking at inspiration and getting ideas for what I wanted to add to mine. Start with what comes to mind, then spend some time looking at others’ if you need similar inspiration. Once you get the hang of the idea that you can do whatever-the-hell you want in your bujo, it’s quite freeing.

Bullet Journal Page Ideas

Here are most of the pages I’ve included in my bullet journals to give you some ideas to get started.

General Pages

Let's start with the basics. These are just general lists, plans, and life trackers. Here's an example -- my 2017 year-in-review page. As you can see, it's nothing fancy. Just sloppy quick writing to get it all down and any excuse to add a little color. You can get far more artistic with these than I have with more elaborate artwork, using rulers for better lines, etc. But with only a few days to get things set up if I wanted to put these into practice on January 1st, I didn't have time for that (though I plan to in future monthly spreads, which I'll share later).

This is a good one to start with. You just look back on what went well, what didn't, what you learned, and what you need or want to change moving forward.

Big things for me in the New Year (as you can see here) are getting my health back in order (getting hormones balanced and the weight that nightmare put on back off, feeling better and less stressed in general, rebuilding flexibility since I've severely slacked off on yoga while I've been wallowing in misery like a dolt lately)... rebuilding savings (wedding, then new house, then losing a lot of work time when I was sick, then the house turning into a money pit, then 13 months of chemotherapy & multiple surgeries for a pet... life comes at you fast, and it did a number on savings around here; thank goodness we had that to work with for so long, but now it's time to rebuild)... and just doing more of what I want to do from now on (I've been spending too much time worrying about others who happily take, exploit, and use, and it's drained the joy out of a lot of things I probably shouldn't have shared with them in the first place... so I want to get that back as much as I can -- poetry, art, language, adventures, etc).

2017 Year in Review in Bullet Journal - All Freelance Writing

(Note: This spread is not my design. It's based on the one here on Pinterest, even with their basic icons. I was in a rush to get my base pages set up before the first of the year, so I haven't had much time to get creative with my journal yet other than the daily doodling and my separate sketch journal. I don't even take the time to "pretty up" the penmanship. I highly recommend spending time on Pinterest or Instagram if you want to see how beautiful these can look when you have the time to sink into that. I'll do more of that in coming months and will share some of my own spreads you can use as templates. But spend some time seeing what's out there. The possibilities are endless.)

And here are the general pages I currently have:

  • Index
  • Key
  • Future Planning (a calendar covering at least a quarter so I can put future appointments and important dates somewhere – I don’t recommend a full year as you’ll likely move to another bujo before that long)
  • Birthdays & Holidays
  • To-Read (nonfiction)
  • To-Read (fiction)
  • Movies to Watch (you could do a series episode tracker too)
  • Places I’d like to visit (from local-ish towns to creepy spots to foreign countries)
  • Bucket List
  • My Ideal Day (what does an ideal schedule look like for you?)
  • Gratitude List
  • Sh*t to Let Go Of
  • Motivational Quotes
  • Yearly Goals
  • Brain Dump
  • To-Cook (recipes you’d like to try)
  • Mood Tracker
  • Self-care Ideas (for those miserable days)
  • The Un-do List (things to stop doing – like checking Twitter before I get out of bed)
  • Rants (I don’t know where I saw it, but someone’s example bujo had a 2-page “Fu*k This / Fu*k That” spread, and not only did I need that, but I will likely need several.)
  • Level 10 Life Trackers (I’m not big on these kinds of things, but it’s an excuse for pretty glittery 3-D bar charts and a “big picture” view of how I feel about my life.)
  • High-energy Tasks (things to do when you’re feeling ambitious, productive, and / or peppy)
  • Low-energy Tasks (things you can do quickly and easily to accomplish something even on days when you don’t give a sh*t)
  • Savings goals & trackers
  • A year-in-review for 2017
  • A rainy day list
  • My daily affirmations
  • An “I’d Rather Be…” page (when I need to let myself procrastinate a bit)
  • “If I Ruled the World…” (this is a fun one and makes you think about what’s going on around you in a new way)
  • An “Ought to Do” List (things you don’t want to do but know you should, like cleaning your closets out)
  • Boredom-Beaters (I don’t handle boredom well, so when I get angsty because of it I can pull something off this list instead of wondering what to do with myself)
  • Painting ideas
  • Life Plan (I break this down over 6 pages to cover 10 yrs, 5 yrs, 3 yrs, 1 yr, 6 mos, and 3 mos – these then guide my monthly and weekly planner goals and task lists to inch me closer to the longer-term goals)
  • Monthly logs
  • Month-in-review Pages
  • Weekly logs
  • Daily thoughts (like mini journal entries of 3-5 sentences)

Health-Related Bujo Pages

I’m putting a big emphasis on my health right now, trying to get out of this rut I’ve been in, in large part due to stress. So I’m tailoring my food choices to support my hormone balance (what stress screws with terribly for me), and I’m trying to get back to regular workouts.

I went from working out 4 hours a day to doing next to nothing in the past couple of months because I’ve been in such a bad place emotionally. So I’m trying to change that. Essentially, all the damage that was done physically from the issues I had when I was sick… I’m trying to proactively change that by cutting out stressors and focusing more on me and my own needs.

I highly recommend tracking health-related things in your bujo. It won’t only help you feel better personally, but it will put you in a better position both physically and mentally to conquer your work to-do lists.

Here's an example spread -- one page for tracking the number of miles I walk and / or run, and the other for tracking the number of days I walk at least 30 minutes, regardless of distance. The mileage tracker was modeled after this running tracker I found on Pinterest. This is a tracker I'll likely change & get more creative with the next time around. If you're into Harry Potter, you might enjoy this one more.

Bullet Journal Miles Tracker - All Freelance Writing

Here’s what I’m using my bullet journal to track to help me do that.

  • Hormone-healthy foods (I don’t “diet,” but rather focus on making sure I get foods that satisfy what I need nutritionally; there are only very limited things I try to cut out – like soda, candy other than rare treats, and for this month only potatoes, because I’m trying to break the habit of over-relying on them as a comfort food)
  • A weight-loss tracker
  • A measurements tracker
  • My 4-week walking program to ease me back into things
  • An 8-week follow-up 5k training program when I’m ready to run again
  • A yearly overview of my exercise tracking
  • A miles-walked/run tracker
  • A daily walk tracker
  • A “diet plan” (again, not a diet really; I just list a selection of healthy breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and snacks I enjoy so when I’m not sure what to have or add to my grocery list, it’s easy to make good choices)
  • Calories burned (exercises I enjoy, and other physical tasks like yardwork and housekeeping, and how many calories they burn per hour at my current weight – which can be updated as that comes down; this way when I want to burn a few hundred extra calories, I can choose activities from a menu of sorts)

Writing-related Bullet Journal Pages

I also have some bujo pages specific to my writing. Ones in my main journal include:

  • A list of poetry forms I want to experiment with
  • A list of story ideas for novels, short stories, or flash fiction
  • A list of poetry ideas or inspiration
  • A blog post tracker / planner (I set this up here before doing a separate bujo for blogging, but I like having that at-a-glance view with me at all times so I know which posts I have to schedule each day, and I can see if there are certain days I tend to slack off so I can adjust my schedule moving forward)

Here's my master blog post planner and tracker for the sites I'm updating regularly now or will be soon. It was modeled after the one found here. I use it as a planner (colored dots for each blog when a post is scheduled). And then to also use it as a tracker, I simply put a line through the dots for posts that are completed.

Bullet Journal Blog Post Planner and Tracker - All Freelance Writing

My master blog post planner and tracker

Then there’s the blog bullet journal itself. You could use something like this to manage your niche blogs, your freelance writer blog, or blogging work you do for clients. Mine currently includes:

  • My Blog “Empire” (a cutesy way of looking at all my current live blogs, ones in development, and how they’re interconnected and grouped to help me diversify my business)
  • Overall year-in-review
  • 2018 Blogging Goals
  • 2018 Yearly Trackers (total blog income; traffic trackers for my “Big 3” blogs; etc.)
  • Planning Routine (just like the one I showed you above for my personal bujo)
  • Blog Bucket List
  • Another Brain Dump Page (ideas for new blogs, revenue streams, people to interview, etc.)
  • Routine Blogging Tasks (things I do for all of them, like a weekly maintenance checklist)
  • Future Planning
  • Master Post Planner / Tracker (copied over from my main bujo)

Then I move into site-specific pages. For example, for this site I have a lot of them:

  • An overview of the blog (mission, readers, main topics covered, etc.)
  • 2017 year-in-review (traffic, income, content, SEO)
  • 2018 Goals
  • Social Media Strategy
  • 2018 Trackers (traffic, income, email subscribers)
  • Affiliate Programs (ones I’m promoting or considering)
  • Competitive Analysis
  • Revenue Streams (current and potential)
  • Master Task List (bigger things that need to be done; not for post planning)
  • Post Promo List (what should be done every time a post goes live)
  • Series Ideas
  • Blog Post Ideas (I left several pages for this because I come up with ideas constantly)
  • SEO Tracker (for just my main target keyword phrases)
  • Content Audit (I left several pages for this too – a chart for listing all posts and deciding what to keep, improve, revise, get rid of, merge, etc.)
  • 6-month Goals (This is the “what’s coming up in the near future, and what should I be thinking about?” list; I use small sticky notes for the upcoming 6 months so I can keep rotating these without having to create new pages – plus, if I mess up January’s goals and it affect’s February’s, I can swap in a new sticky note instead of scratching it all out)
  • Monthly Planners
  • Monthly Editorial Calendars
  • Monthly Post Trackers (did I publish as expected… remember to create an image and promote that post… do on-page SEO?)
  • Weekly Planners
  • Weekly Trackers (social media followers, email subscribers, traffic, etc.)
  • Individual Post Planners (One-page places to outline your post ideas, list sources, etc. by hand)

That’s a big list. I know it might be a little overwhelming. But remember, I’m a planning and organization junkie. This is how I work best. It’s what I need right now.

You do not have to include all these things in your bullet journal. You could choose just a handful. Or you can make it as complex as you want. You do you.

That’s the key with journaling in general. They’re for you, and only you. They’re a place for you to say the things you’d never say in real life. They’re where you can vent some steam. They’re where you can keep your craziest ideas and deepest thoughts.

And as a freelance writer, they might also be just what you need to stay organized, decrease stress that can negatively impact your business, and explore the fears and challenges that currently hold you back.

Here's a free printable with some of the most important bullet journal spreads for bloggers I mentioned above, along with some additional spread ideas to help you track and plan your freelance writing work.

Bullet Journal Ideas for Freelance Writers and Bloggers - All Freelance Writing

Bullet Journal Ideas for Freelance Writers & Bloggers - Click the image to access the free printable .pdf.

I’ll update you at the end of January on how the 5-journal approach is working for me. But now I’d like to hear from you. Do you use any kind of journaling either directly in your freelance writing business or to help you in other ways that indirectly impact your work? Tell me about it in the comments. And if you have ideas for bullet journal spreads that might work for freelance writers and bloggers, I hope you’ll share those ideas too. I’d love to know how you’re using them.

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Jennifer Mattern is a professional blogger, freelance business writer, and indie author. She runs numerous websites & blogs including All Freelance Writing, NakedPR.com, and KissMyBiz.com.

Jenn has 19 years experience writing for others, around 14 years experience in blogging, and over 11 years experience in indie e-book publishing. She is also an Active member of the Horror Writers Association.

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