I’ve been using a paper planner religiously since I was in sixth grade. I started out with planners purely for the purpose of planning my assignments; however, those initial middle-school habits of tracking things I had to do at home eventually blossomed into a (borderline-obsessive) love and appreciation for planners.
Today, my planner remains one of my most prized possessions—I refer to it almost as many times a day as I refer to my phone. In fact, this is one of the reasons I stubbornly cling to a paper planner; I already stare at my phone screen enough and don’t want to rely on it for keeping my schedule and to-do lists as well. I have used everything from the cheapest planner I could find at Target to the classic Mead planner to the Emily Ley Simplified Planner to the beautiful Rifle Paper Co. planners—I like to switch it up year to year.
Of course, my planner experience hasn’t always been perfect. There have been periods of time where I felt enslaved to the to-do lists contained within my planner’s covers (hello, third-trimester pregnancy nesting!), causing myself undue stress.
Over time, though, I’ve made a few tweaks in my thought patterns and in how I actually use my planner in order to master my planning, rather than allowing my planner to master me. First, I learned to let go of my perfectionist tendencies, like needing to get to every item on the to-do list and making sure I had an equal number of to-dos every day (yes, I really did worry about that!). Now, I cross out to-dos I couldn’t (or didn’t want to) get to that day. Sometimes I scribble out entire bad days! I've learned to comfort myself with the knowledge that every new day—and new week—is a beautifully fresh start.
I’ve also discovered new sources of freedom and peace by using my planner to track more than just my daily “to-dos,” appointments, and social engagements. I use it for the things that matter most—spending time with and taking care of my family and taking care of myself and my own mental health. Especially as we near the crazy holiday season, I find myself relying on my planner more and more to help me set my priorities, carve out time to be with my family, and give myself time to rest.
If, like me, you are one of those people who loves to put everything on paper (and needs to in order to remember anything), I highly recommend implementing some of the following routines with your own planner.
Daily gratitude item
Recording one thing or event that has filled me with gratitude and joy each day on the last line of my planner has been a practice that really helps turn my thoughts outward. It has had the twofold benefit of making me search for small things throughout my day for which I’m thankful (whether a belly laugh shared with my two-year-old or a phone conversation with my mom), and of giving me something to look back over and read whenever I am feeling down. I have especially enjoyed reading the progression of my daily gratitude items, noting that I tend to notice more grace-filled details in my days now than I used to.
Scheduled quiet time for self-care
No matter your profession or position in life, quiet alone time is likely hard to come by, and I’ve found that it generally won’t just “happen” unless I make a plan for it to happen. During certain seasons, I've scheduled time early in the morning before my daughter wakes up to pray, read, or journal. During other (more sleep-deprived) seasons, I’ve scheduled time during my daughter’s nap or later at night for my “me time.” For me, that first step of actually planning out time for personal time is essential. It gives me something to look forward to when I glance at my day in my planner, and it helps ensure that this personal time actually comes to fruition.
The week’s weather
After one too many times having to change my entire day’s plans due to adverse weather I had not thought to check beforehand, I decided to make a very small change in how I planned my upcoming week every Sunday evening. I started noting the weather for the upcoming week in my planner before making any concrete plans.
I find it fun and easy to doodle a little sun in the corner of sunny days, clouds on cloudy days, and rain drops on rainy days. Then, I also find it helpful to add the day’s forecasted temperatures under my small doodle. This saves me some time in the long run and enables me to more effectively plan outings and engagements for a week at a time.
Most paper planners have a notes section in the very back of the book. I used to wonder how to use these sections—until it dawned on me that this was the perfect place to record my recent reads, as well as books on my to-read book list.
I used to keep a dedicated journal specifically for recording book lists, but I found that it was simply too difficult for me to keep track of and remember to use another, separate journal. Since incorporating these lists into my single, all-purpose planner, though, I haven’t forgotten to record a new book.
My child’s milestones
Speaking of keeping everything in one easy-access place, I have started writing my daughter’s milestones—large and small—in my planner as soon as they occur. Whether it’s a new word learned or something funny she did that I want to remember, I write it on the side of that day’s entry and circle it. Then, perhaps every month or two, I go through my planner and record all the beautiful little memories in her official “baby book.” This baby book might not be in easy access to record something on-the-fly, but my planner always is.
Quality time with your significant other
Right along with quality alone time, I tend to struggle finding time to give my husband the amount of quality time we both want and need together. As we’ve learned, our chances of actually spending time together greatly increases if we have something written in the planner. While it does not always happen, we both greatly benefit from asking ourselves how we would like to spend time together in the near future (whether that be a date night or watching a movie together on the couch) and then putting it in the planner to ensure it happens.
Catch up with a friend or family member
Whenever I realize that it’s been a long time since I’ve talked to certain friends who live far away, I like to make a plan to catch up. It’s too easy to let weeks (and months) go by without taking the time to stay in touch with close family members and friends, and I am certainly guilty of this. I find it helpful to make a list of all of the people I want to catch up with (whether over a phone call, by letter, or even over text) and then add them into my planner, one by one, in the coming days (or weeks) so that I don’t overwhelm myself.
Budgeting is not my strong point. But I try my best to record our expenses and purchases in a budgeting app—an app that I would most likely forget about if it weren’t for all of my budgeting reminders in my planner. At least once a week, I like to make sure I update our family’s budget, as well as discuss any potential issues or budgeting decisions with my husband.
Planners are also great places to help set up (and successfully finish!) no-spend challenges or to record days when expenses or bills are due. I especially like to write those occasional, easy-to-forget expenses (like quarterly taxes due or Amazon Prime membership fees) in my planner as soon as I know what those due dates are.
There is no “one right way” to use a planner. In fact, there are almost infinite ways to use one. While I will always primarily use mine to keep track of important events and appointments and to write daily to-do lists, I am grateful that my planner has the ability to house so much more than just my plans. I feel that my planner is best serving me when it allows me to better care for myself and my family by helping me remember what is most important in my life and freeing up pockets of my time to take care of small but significant things.