I’ve had a couple of conversations recently about how to choose a planner and use it effectively. Today, I thought I’d dig into that subject a little. I’m not going to review or recommend specific planners, but I will share with you what I’m using right now and how it’s working for me.
How we can use planners to maximize our productivity
What is a planner?
From Wikipedia: “A personal organizer, datebook, date log, daybook, day planner, personal analog assistant, personal planner, year planner, or agenda (from Latin agenda – things to do), is a small book or binder that is designed to be portable. It usually contains a diary, calendar, address book, blank paper, and other sections. The organizer is a personal tool and may also include pages with useful information, such as maps and telephone codes.”
Paper planners are not the only option you have. There also are excellent digital planning tools available. I’m not talking about those this week, but if you’re interested, let me know and I can do an episode about those another time.
Do you need a planner?
It depends on your life. If your commitments are fairly simple and you feel like you’re staying on top of things, you probably can manage with a calendar (paper or digital) for appointments and important dates, and a notepad or notebook for to-do lists and brainstorming.
You might need a planner if you have a lot of things to keep track of–multiple roles/life elements, or multi-step projects you need to plan and keep track of, either for work or personal life.
You definitely need a planner if you feel like you’re missing appointments, things are slipping through the cracks, or you’re not keeping up.
Tips for choosing a planner
The best way to select a planner, without getting overwhelmed by all the options, is to decide first what you need it to do for you.
- Is it for home/personal life or business or all of the above?
- How full and complex is your life? If it’s fairly simple, a notepad or blank notebook where you can plan projects and create to-do lists, plus a calendar (paper or digital) for appointments might be enough.
- What do you want to plan? Household things? Personal to-dos? Business/work projects? Events?
- How do you like to view your plans–month at a glance? Week at a glance? Full page per day (useful if you have lots of appointments and to-dos each day?)
- Do you simply want month/day/week pages, to-do lists, and maybe a monthly calendar, or do you want extras, like goal-planning worksheets, motivational quotes, habit trackers, budget-planning sections, or blank pages for brainstorming? All of these and more are available in various types of planners.
- Do you want a utilitarian (plain, businesslike) planner or something colorful and pretty?
After you’ve done that, spend a little time researching options
It can be overwhelming and intimidating to figure out which planner to try. A search on Amazon for “planner 2021” showed over 4000 results! That’s why thinking first about what you want to do with your planner will help because you can eliminate anything that won’t fit those needs.
Different formats of planners
- Hardbound or Softbound
- Disc bound– nice to be able to remove and add and move pages around
- Spiral or Loose-leaf
- Pre-dated or Undated
- “Full” sized, medium, small
- Preformatted vs. flexible design (e.g., various sections you can use the way you want to)
If you can’t get to a store to look at planners in person, check out YouTube and search for planner reviews and walk-throughs. You’ll find lots of videos that will go through the features and design of different planners. Here are some good examples:
- Choosing your 2021 planner – Plan with Laur
- Types of Planners & Planner Layouts – Kristen Murphy
- Choosing a Planner for 2021 – Knockout Print Shop
Know that there’s no such thing as the perfect planner
No planner is going to organize your life and make you productive. You have to do the work and execute the plan. The perfect planner is the one you’ll actually use.
Keep in mind that you might need different planners for different areas of your life. Lots of people use more than one planner–one for daily/weekly overall planning, one for budget planning, one for personal/health goals, one for business. Although I’m generally a fan of consolidation (keeping everything in one place) there are good reasons to consider using more than one planner rather than expecting a single planner to serve every need you have.
Choose one and stick with it for a predetermined period
When first starting out, commit to using the planner for perhaps a couple of months at least and to using it consistently during that period. It takes time to settle in and become fluent with any tool, so you can’t tell for sure if it’s not working for you until you’ve spent some time with it.
If you feel a particular planner is not working for you, ask yourself why. If it has no place for information you need to manage your days, weeks, time, commitments, or projects, then it might be the tool. (Remember, though: the planner is not the boss of you. If you have a preformatted planner you don’t have to use the pages/sections for the purpose or in the way the designers set them up for. Cross out or ignore the headings and labels and use the pages and sections for what serves your needs.)
If the planner isn’t working for you because you don’t use it consistently, then it’s your habits that are the problem, and changing planners won’t fix that. Before you go looking for a new/different planner, try again but be consistent.
That being said, don’t keep using a tool that’s not working for you just because you spent money to buy it or time setting it up.
Tips for using your planner
Create a planning routine (plan when you’ll plan) and commit to following it until it becomes habitual. Schedule time — preferably the same day/time each week — to plan your week. Put that appointment with yourself on your calendar and set an alarm if you need to. Planning for your week shouldn’t take more than an hour –you don’t want to spend inordinate time managing the system.
What will you do during that time?
- Look at the coming week–what appointments do you have? What deadlines fall during that week? Fill those in on the calendar section or write them on the applicable day.
- What prep do you need to do for each appointment/deadline/etc? What supplies do you need to buy? Write those down in the appropriate place so you can take care of them in time to be ready.
- What errands do you need to run? Can you batch them and/or dovetail them with an appointment? Write those down.
- Look at your goals and projects and what the next steps are. When will you schedule time to work on those? Write it down.
- Try block scheduling–block in chunks of time for similar tasks: errands, housework, cooking, creative work, self-care, etc.
Make it part of your morning or evening routine to spend a few minutes going over the plan for the day (or the next day if you’re doing it in the evening) and tweak it if necessary.
Be realistic. Leave room in your plan for the unexpected to happen, and don’t plan more for a day than you realistically can accomplish.
Write down your top three tasks for the day, and plan to do those first. (If you have a lot of appointments or other commitments on a day, maybe you have time for only ONE top task.)
Keep your planner with you and visible at all times.
- When you’re first getting used to using it, you need to have it where you’ll see it and consult it regularly until you’ve established the habit of using it.
- Put it where you’ll be–desk? Kitchen counter?
Set boundaries around planning time
- Spend hours decorating your planner pages if you want to, but recognize that as a creative outlet, not planning.
- Don’t confuse planning with accomplishing. It’s easy to spend hours planning days/weeks/projects in detail and in technicolor and never get around to actually doing the work.
- I read this quote in a book I happen to be reading right now:
“The pain of hoarding ideas and never executing them is soul crushing. It’s better to give things a try and see what happens than to always wonder if you could have written that book.” (applies to any goal or project that you find yourself procrastinating by planning) ~ from The Busy Woman’s Guide to Writing a World-Changing Book by Cynthia Morris.
What I’m using right now, and why
I’ve used a digital task manager (OmniFocus) for years. It was important because I worked in an office and was out and about a lot and needed to be able to access my plans for home and work wherever I was. This is no longer the case, though, since I’ve been working from home and almost always here. I decided to switch to a paper planner for awhile. I still have my full project/task list in OmniFocus and still use my digital calendar.
I’m using Michael Hyatt’s Full Focus Planner, simply because when I decided to switch to a paper planner I already had this one on my shelf (I bought it a year or more ago.) This is the planner he developed based on the productivity approach from his book, Free to Focus, which we talked about in episode 250 as part of our recurring Productive Reading series. I’m using this only for my personal/family/TPW projects, tasks, goals, etc. I manage my legal practice projects and tasks separately.
What I like about it:
- It has quality paper that I like writing on.
- Daily pages have a section for my top 3 tasks, plus a place for other tasks. There is a column for the day’s schedule marked off by hours/half hours, so I can write in appointments or block off time for specific types of work, plus a page for notes that I can use for whatever I want. I can jot down anything significant that happens that day, or a note about something I want to do later in the week or month, or notes from a phone call, or whatever.
- It has sections with prompts for a weekly review and sections for goal-setting.
- It has two ribbons for bookmarks and an elastic band to keep it closed. There is also a pocket on the inside back cover to keep notes, receipts, whatever.
- The planner is a moderate size (about 9 x 6 inches) which would fit in my bag to take with me and doesn’t take up a lot of room on my desk.
- Its daily pages are undated, so I can date them as I go. The fact that it wasn’t set up for a specific year means that when I pulled it off my shelf after a couple of years it was still usable.
What I don’t love about it
- The planner is hardbound. It doesn’t want to stay open to the page I want (I use a big binder clip the hold the prior pages together so it’ll stay open on my desk, but then I can’t flip back to a prior section easily.)
- It doesn’t have sections for certain things I might like to have in there, like meal plans for a week or habit trackers.
- No place for a weekly task list. Sometimes I think of tasks I want or need to do that week that don’t necessarily need to be done on a specific day. I’d like to have a page where I can list them as they come to me and then either add them to a day when I’m ready to do them or just cross them off the weekly list as they get done.
- You can’t add, remove, or move pages, so not as customizable as some other planners.
What do you think?
Do you use a planner that you love? What are the most important features you look for in a planner? Please share your questions or thoughts in the comments section below this post or on The Productive Woman’s Facebook page, or send me an email.
Resources and Links
- Full Focus Planner
- Makse Planner
- Free to Focus, by Michael Hyatt
- TPW250-Productive Reading
Helpful YouTube videos to check out:
- Choosing Your 2021 Planner
- Types of Planners + Planner Layouts
- Choosing a Planner for 2021
- How to Actually Use Your Planner
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