I used a regular old spiral-bound engagement calendar through high school and college. The blocks for each day were pretty small, but it kept track of important dates. More detailed things like homework assignments had to go in individual notebooks for each subject.
When I encountered my first planner it rocked my world. A place where I could see the whole month at a glance? Track day-to-day assignments? Set future reminders for myself? Keep documentation for all my projects in one place? I was in love.
Remember, the purpose of a planner is to align your actions with your values.
Planners do this by providing structure. Our brains are great at generating ideas, but less good at tracking them and organizing follow through. For that, you need to get the thoughts out of your head and put them somewhere you can look at them.
Clearing out your mind creates space to devote to one piece of work at a time. Planners hold the thoughts in a safe place and provide a place to track work, accomplishments, thoughts, ah-ha moments, and the last time you rotated the tires.
I advocate a daily planner along with monthly and quarterly goal-setting. I find weekly planning doesn’t work for me, but that does not mean it won’t work for you.
As I mentioned last week, I’ve been a fan of planners since the ’90s. My preferences have changed over the years. Here I offer my review of some of my favorite planner systems.
Paper versus digital
Some people love the allure of online planners with their endless flexibility and limitless capacity. Personally, I use my Google calendar to track appointments and dates, and a paper planner for everything else. Writing things down with a pen and paper activates cognitive retention.
I’ve tried Google’s integrated suite of email, calendar and task functions. Creating a task from an email gave me an initial thrill, but I found I didn’t follow through on an electronic task as well as I did when I wrote it down.
That being said, there are several online planning tools I love that are based on the concept of a Kanban board. Kanban is a project management tool that made the leap from automotive manufacturing to software development. It breaks down very complex jobs into smaller pieces and moves those small pieces across the board from start to finish.
The simplest Kanban boards are laid out on a white board or with blue masking tape on a wall. There are columns for each step of the process. A basic column format is something like To Do, In Progress, Done. Slightly more complex ones might have columns for Backlog, Ready to Work, In Progress, Blocked, In Testing, Done.
“Backlog” is where you keep all the things that need to be done someday but that you aren’t working on right now. A task doesn’t move to “Ready to Work” until all the research is done and it can move forward without delay.
Once the columns are laid out, you write a sticky note for the piece of work and move it across the board. Laundry is a great example. Write a sticky note for “Mom’s White Load” and move it from “To Do” to “Doing” when you put the load in. The sticky note doesn’t move to “Done” until the clothes were folded and put away.
My favorite on-line Kanban tool is Trello (trello.com). We use it to plan and track stories at the West River Eagle. You can create multiple boards and share them with co-workers or family members.
Trello is used to plan everything from complex software development projects to weddings. I know an organization that uses it to track placement of foster dogs and another that uses it to track monthly promotions.
This is the grandfather of all paper planners. I used a Franklin Planner for about 25 years. The Franklin Planner works for everyone from professionals to students to working parents.
What I love about it was the ability to set a reminder to do something months from now and have it pop up in your To Do list when the time arrives; that it keeps a record of conversations and commitments; and its holistic approach. I also love the beautiful design of the pages.
One of the great things about the Franklin Planner is the reusable binder and the fact you can hole-punch just about anything and stick it in your planner and it won’t get lost.
Bullet journaling allows you complete freedom to lay out your planner however you like. It combines planning with journaling. A quick scroll through Pinterest will show scads of personalized bullet journal layouts with calligraphy and stickers.
Bullet journaling was developed by Ryder Carroll to help cope with ADHD. Through trial and error, he found a way to simplify his life and calm his mind. Cal Newport (author of “Deep Work” discussed last week) says the result of Carroll’s tinkering “will not only help you get more organized but will also help you become a better person.”
Bullet Journaling does everything more formal planner systems do. You start with a blank journal and customize it to you. Create a mindfulness practice, track how much water you drink, set big life goals and make grocery lists…all in one place.
The Panda Planner replaced the Franklin Planner in my heart. This is the planner we use at the West River Eagle.
The Panda Planner was designed by Michael Leip after he suffered a series of cognitively debilitating diseases. He had Lyme Disease, a traumatic brain injury and cancer. In the end he lost his ability to think clearly and became anxious and depressed.
The Panda Planner uses “scientifically-designed tools to empower you to take back control of your life and flourish in every way.” It also has an amazing Facebook group of productivity nerds who “support one another’s growth, productivity, and wellbeing. We strive to share ideas, inspire, build relationships and never stop learning.”
Like the Franklin Planner, Panda Planners come in different sizes. After using the smaller size for a year or two I switched to the larger 8 ½ x 11 size.
You begin and end each day with gratitude. In between you focus on what drives you – your passion and goals. Over time you develop a series of daily mini-practices: mindfulness, hydration, gratitude, priority setting, etc. The genius is in putting structure around yearly, quarterly, monthly, weekly and daily goals.
This planner works really well for entrepreneurs, students, and very forward-looking people.