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A Fresh Approach: How to Use a Planner Effectively

I’ve used planners off and on throughout the years. But in the last few years, I’ve just been using my smartphone to keep appointments in, so I haven’t been using a planner regularly.

But I felt like something was missing. I needed a place to see everything all at once: work, home, kid activities, social life, etc.

I also found that I didn’t feel as in charge of my life as I did when I used a planner. I wasn’t being thoughtful enough about how I spent my time. More than that, I wanted to be mindful of the small and big things I was trying to do better like avoid sugar, spend quality time with my family and friends, keep a better workout schedule, make date nights a priority, and many more.

So how to use a planner effectively? I decided to start using my planner differently. 

My set-up:

Special days

The first thing I do when I get a new planner is to write down “special days:” birthdays mostly and anniversaries–all kinds–like when my friend was cancer-free for a year.

Trips/vacations

If we are lucky enough to have a trip planned, I put that in my planner with gusto! Stickers and colors make me want to come back to my planner every day. I put reminders to myself to appreciate the time away, and even a little section the week before to remember all the things I need to do BEFORE the trip: errands, packing list, pet care, etc.

Vision board/goals

If I’ve done a vision board, I put a small version in my planner. After I have turned my vision board into actions, I make sure there are reminders to do those things every week/month or whatever the timing is for each category.

So, for example, last year, I decided to start a gratefulness practice. Every day I tried to write down three things, from a beautiful sky or a car that always starts, to a great friend’s thoughtfulness. I say “tried” because I wasn’t always consistent. But without this in my planner, I probably wouldn’t have done it at all. 

What to track and how

Tracking habits, like water intake or working out, is pretty common. But last year, I decided I would track/remind myself to do a fun family activity every month, and to do something to just take care of myself every two weeks or so.

Like many moms, I’m not versed in taking care of myself. I literally needed to create a list in my planner of “Ideas to Take Care of ME,” which included: reading in a coffee shop, drinking hot tea while taking a bubble bath, running in the woods alone, etc. 

I also decided to track my moods daily to see if my ups & downs had any pattern. I used color coding, so it was more fun. Now I think of my planner as a friend–my conscious–who reminds me to BE grateful, DRINK the water, MOVE the body, and anything I want to work on every week, day, or month.  

How to use a planner effectively: Project pages

If I have a project, I pick a page that will keep all my notes, ideas, and TO DOs. I use these pages for work as well, but they are great for home projects.

A few months ago, I decided to make my bedroom more less cluttered, change colors, and frame some photos from a trip out west. I didn’t want to spend much, so paint, purging stuff (even furniture), and a few small changes like throw pillows would be the extent of the project. 

I took pictures of items I liked when I was out in stores or online, listed them on the project page, and then I was able to look at all the ideas at once and decide what to buy.

After reviewing my last year’s planner, I can also report that I keep pages like:

  • Gift ideas
  • Great makeup products I’ve heard about
  • Medical information for family members, gets its own page, so that any subsequent notes could go on the same page.
  • Party Notes: Because of COVID, we had a small Homecoming dance for a few kids who were socializing in a safe pod. I made a balloon wall, which I needed lots of notes for, and the page also contained a TO DO list of snacks and decorations I needed to get for the celebration.
  • A weight chart…not very pretty, but sometimes motivating (and sometimes NOT)
  • Websites I need to check out in my favorite categories: interior design, entertaining, etc.
  • A list of good questions to ask my kids to get conversations going
  • Notes about my son’s senior year, with dates to hit for FAFSA, applications, etc.
  • A drawing (not very good) of a great charcuterie board, complete with colors (Again, when it’s fun, I stay more engaged with my planner!)
  • Decluttering plan of 25 minutes, 3 times a week, one room at a time…didn’t happen, but it’s a good plan
  • Several pages devoted to specific exercise subjects, like “Three Weeks to a Perfect Handstand” (and no, it didn’t happen)

Index or table of contents

Since I keep many important notes in my planner now, I created an index so that if I ever need to reference the notes, I can always find the page without flipping through the entire planner.

My planner is so much more than a place to keep appointments or meetings. I still keep most of that in my smartphone. But I could not imagine a year without the depth, mindfulness, and encouragement I get from my thoughtful, colorful AT-A-GLANCE planner. 

My planner looks a lot like my personality. You might think it’s silly to use markers and stickers, but to me it brings me joy like when I was in school, lining up my school supplies. I also put a lot of humor in my planner, because I love it. In fact, that’s what my planner represents: everything I love and value, because THAT is where my time should go.

Teri Herbstreit is a storyteller at ACCO Brands with an out-of-the-box perspective. She is passionate about unique products that help people stay energized about their own lives by not just keeping things from falling through the cracks–but reducing stress and carving out time to prioritize the things that matter most to them.