If you're just starting your bullet journal journey, it's nice to know from a seasoned user what their 'must haves' are. Luckily, there are a lot of people with strong opinions out there, and it's easy to find them.
Unfortunately, their answers are as individual as they are - ranging from basic tools to specialized equipment.
I'm going to break some of these down for you. At the end, I have my own super-simplified, cost-conscious recommendations for my Top 3 Bullet Journal 'Must Haves'.
Common Bullet Journal Must Haves
One of the first things you'll notice is different people advocate for different brands of products. Some planners swear by Leuchtturm notebooks, while others prefer Scribbles That Matter or *Dingbats.
For writing instruments, some have done extensive testing to find the pen or marker that flows the way they like to scribe. Tombow Dual Brush markers and Sakura Pigma Micron pens are two popular choices; others prefer an elegant fountain pen or a more basic Sharpie Pen.
Another hotly-contested subject in the bujo sphere is the perfect notebook or grid size. The A5 notebook size is very popular in the United States, but the B5 and B6 sizes are popular overseas.
Hobinichi planners print a slightly smaller grid than the typical 5mm size, but you can find plenty of planners and grid paper that don't follow that standard and print larger grids as well.
My Bullet Journal Must Haves
All these choices can be confusing - do I buy a $30 notebook because some stranger online said it's the best? Do I have to use all these tools? What size grid should I use?
Instead of pushing you to buy one specific product over another, I've written a concise answer to this question on Quora that gives you just my top 3 must haves.
There’ve been quite a few helpful answers already, but as the inventor of a smart grid ruler that makes Bullet Journaling easier and more fun, I feel like I should chime in on this so you can learn from my beginner’s blunders (and whoo boy, did I make some doozies!).
In the interest of time and money, if I had to boil down my must-haves to only my top 3, here’s what they’d be:
1. A notebook with quality paper.
Whether you like lined, grid, dot grid, pre-numbered, or blank sheets; field guide, A5 8“ x 5.5”; or Letter 11” x 8.5” size; 50, 180, or 250 pages for your BuJo (Bullet Journal); I highly recommend not skimping on the paper QUALITY.
I learned (the hard way) how frustrating it is to fill a whole page, flip it over, and not be able use the other side because the sheet is thin enough to see what you just wrote. Which is why many Bullet Journal enthusiasts recommend Leuchtturm1917, Moleskine, Rhodia, Midori and other brands of notebooks with good paper - because the only other option would be to paste a piece of paper over the 2nd side before using it. (Which, unless you like to tote around a glue stick, isn’t easy to do when you’re in transit. It also makes your cheap notebook more of a hassle than an easy-to-use tool.)
Need more reasons? An expensive pen can’t make up for cheap paper. Poor-quality paper rarely holds up to much erasing or abuse. I’ve also found stickers, glue, and sticky notes typically don’t stick to cheap paper very well.
So, do you have to buy a $20 notebook? The short answer is - No. I’ve found notebooks as cheap as $5 with decent paper (craft, book, and outlet stores are great places to look for them). However, you’ll want to do your own testing, which brings me to #2…
2. A pen that writes smoothly, dries quickly, and doesn’t bleed through.
Another super colossal annoyance of mine? Dragging my hand over freshly-written text or lines and smearing it. Or, worse yet, trying to draw or write, but finding the pen and paper completely incompatible - the ink skips, you need to press down hard to get the ink to show, it doesn’t write much at all, the ink color is too light or too dark, etc. And even if you use quality paper, some inks still bleed through practically anything (I’m looking at you, permanent markers and dye inks…).
To help decide which pen(s) you like best, test them on a page in the back of your notebook. If you label each test with the brand/name/model of the pen and a short sentence regarding how the pen-to-paper feels to you, you’ll be able to refer back to it when you can’t remember why you’re not using a particular pen and were wondering if you should try it … [ yeah, no, I’ll never admit to gapping out and forgetting something like that…. 😉 ]
From purely an ‘essential’ view, if you find the right pen you technically don’t need any other writing utensils (although the artist in me loves me some rainbows). This is especially true if you don’t have to pre-sketch your grid layouts in pencil before tracing over them in pen (making two passes over the same marks). It’s easy to avoid double the work if you have …
3. A small (smarter) ruler.
Some, but not many, BuJo enthusiasts recommend a ruler as an essential Bullet Journaling tool.
Maybe it’s because, like me, they find it isn’t useful for anything other than being a straightedge (ironic, for a tool meant for measuring)?
Imagine this: You’re baking a cake. The recipe calls for a cup of flour, but the only measuring tool you have is a teaspoon.
Or how about this: You need to pound in a nail. All you have is a screwdriver.
Now picture this scenario: You’re trying to make evenly-spaced rows and columns on a sheet of paper printed with a grid laid out in 5mm increments - using a ruler that measures in inches and centimeters.
Can you bake that cake using only a teaspoon? Pound in a nail with a screwdriver? Measure Pinterest-perfect evenly-spaced rows and columns with a regular ruler? Sure you can. Inconvenient tools won’t stop you from accomplishing a task, but they can make it take a lot of extra time and effort.
“Make it Better” and “Question Everything” are running themes in my life, so I thought - since I’m using paper that uses measurements in 5mm increments, why am I not using a ruler that measures in millimeters? Even better, why not have it show me a visual representation of breaking up the page into halves, thirds, quarters, fifths, and more? I could use it like a stencil to make two sets of marks on the page and then draw lines between them with one pass. Best of all, I’d have a template to show me my options instantly rather than wasting hours measuring and calculating every layout! (I mean, a BuJo is for SAVING time, not wasting it, right?)
I figured someone else must have come up with something, but I couldn’t find anything as cost-effective or simple as I wanted it to be. So I got to work and made it myself. (You can make something similar by creating your own grid spacing cheat sheet, but if you’re interested, I wrote more about the invention process on my blog. Inventing The Grid Tool - An Unexpected Journey)
I tuck it inside an envelope glued to the inside cover of my BuJo or stick it between the pages to act as a bookmark.
It’s handy for making grids, trackers, and layouts on-the-fly (did I mention I’m a project management and quantified-self geek?) and for creating regular Monthlies, Weeklies, and Dailies. Because I’m human (read: not perfect), I sometimes forget things, so having a portable smart ruler to help me out while I’m on-the-go has saved me from stressing about planning ahead in my BuJo. That peace-of-mind alone makes it my #3 essential BuJo tool.
What about X, Y, or Z?
Although my list of must-haves is austere, I’m not a complete minimalist. In fact, I use color in my BuJo all the time. I also use many other handy tools - washi tape, markers, stencils, stickers, ribbon bookmarks, date stamps, etc. (you can see some of my favorites in the photo, above). But my top three are the must-haves I ALWAYS throw in my bag when I exit my abode.
If you made it this far, check out my full answer over on Quora, and if you think it's a good one, I'd appreciate if you'd please give it an UpVote.
If you're interested in getting that 3rd must-have for yourself, head over to my Etsy Shop, where you'll find The Grid Tool in several sizes to meet your needs.