Keeping a planner has been a part of my life ever since I can remember. Even as an elementary student, we were all given spiral bound planners customized with the school’s logo and holiday schedule in it. We’ve been taught that keeping a planner, writing down homework/to-do lists, scheduling activities, scheduling study and leisure time, increases your likelihood of being successful at school, at work, at life. If you write something down your more likely to remember it. If you write out your goals, you’re more likely to achieve them.
And it’s true, to an extent.
At some point, probably during college, when everything became so digitized, laptops abounded, google took over, mac had the sticky note app, I stopped keeping a paper planner and organized everything online. At least I thought I was organized. Digital calendars seemed like a good idea–no daily space limits, no strikethroughs or eraser marks if something changes–but they were lacking something that made it difficult for me to consistently use them and find them useful.
I like to put pen to paper. I know this about myself, and I resisted that for awhile, because it didn’t seem efficient. So eventually, I went back to a paper planner. But here’s where the chaos started…as a person who is picky about paper type, page formatting, notebook binding, and even the way a pen writes on the paper, finding the perfect planner has superseded the actual utility of the planner itself.
I ran across the Passion Planner soon after it launched, and loved it. There were goal setting pages that you broke down into timeframes to work on, there were weekly layouts with space for priority setting, there was free space on each layout for random notes or doodles, each month ended with a reflection about what worked/didn’t, what/who you were grateful for, how you would rate the month, lessons learned, and reprioritizing for the upcoming month; extra note pages in the back; and a built in folder for keeping up with notes and receipts. I used it pretty consistently for the full year, re-ordered for the following year and purchased a second one for E. But that second year, I kind of fell out of love. I wouldn’t use for weeks at a time. I can’t remember the exact reasons why, it had all the elements I wanted in a planner, but somehow it wasn’t meeting my needs any longer.
Part of my dissatisfaction probably came from running across the Bullet Journal concept (thanks a lot, pinterest). Bullet journals were colorful and changing, they were pieces of art. The concept piqued my creativity that had been laying dormant from the drudgery of my 9 to 5. So I gradually jumped on the bullet journal bandwagon thinking it would be both a great way to reactivate my artistic interests and allow me to customize a planner to fit my needs.
Talk about wasting my time. You see pictures of finished bullet journals with these amazing layouts and perfect handwriting, cute little doodles, lists without imperfections. But you don’t really think about just how much time and effort it took to get the finished product. That they had to plan out their layouts, do it in pencil (unless they’re just magical), trace over it in ink, choose perfectly complementary ink colors. Then choosing a notebook and markers was its own fight. I went through a couple of notebooks, not finding any of them to be suitable options, order all types of artistic markers of different tip sizes off of amazon, spent hours looking at layout ideas…
It’s unsurprising that after a couple of months I went back to kickstarter looking for a pre-printed planner, that was colorful and creative, that someone else designed so I could just focus on actually using the planner.
I thought about going back to the Passion Planner, but I had it in my head that I wanted a colorful planner that I didn’t have to color myself. So I went back to decision-making-hell thinking not only about the colorful aesthetic, but about binding (had to be hardbound, spiral-bound reminded me of those grade school planners), and layouts, and extra space, and then about shipping, because a bunch of Kickstarters were from European vendors. Through some random googling, I finally landed on a planner from an Australian company called Bliss Inventive. Their’s was colorful, hardbound, and had daily layouts instead of weekly layouts. I wasn’t thrilled at having fewer note pages in total, but I figured since each day had its own page, I wouldn’t necessarily need the extra space.
It was a beautiful planner, I got multiple compliments about it. I kind of missed the notes pages, but for the most part, having the quarterly and monthly planning pages was enough. And yet, after about 5 months of using it, I started getting frustrated with it and stopped using it.
Back to kickstarter.
This time I found a planner that was specifically designed for graduate students, by a graduate student. Called Academia (real clever right?) It had more notes pages, goal setting pages, travel and conference planning pages, the full academic year at a glance, a monthly layout, and a weekly layout similar to the Passion Planner–with areas for to-do lists, quotes, tracking habits, water intake, and sleep. It wasn’t the prettiest planner, which I realized after my last bust, wasn’t as important as functionality and customizability.
They offer multiple interior layout options and cover options, a condensed or expanded version. I opted for the expanded version, one book per semester, with two extra notes pages per week for each semester. On those pages, one side was free space divided into dot space and blank space, the other was formatted like a daily tracker of sorts, with seven rows (days of the week) and four columns. You could track/plan 4 courses, or 4 meals, or 4 arenas of your life. Really whatever you wanted.
Although I used the first semester book pretty faithfully, I wasn’t in love with the paper. I couldn’t write smoothly in pen, so I used sharpies. Then I found myself wasting a lot of time trying to make it look pretty–mulling over combinations of marker colors. By April of the second semester book, which was thicker than the first to include summer months, the binding started to break. So I pulled the book apart, punched holes in the pages, and used it in a binder. But then I had to carry the binder around. Ironically, the thing that annoyed me the most was the extra note pages I opted for; it was too much space and I felt obligated to try and use it when I really didn’t have use for it.
Back to the internet.
This time I made a list of must haves, and wants in a planner and page layout. I revisited some of the planners I’d liked in the past on kickstarter, but most of those were either unavailable or didn’t meet my criteria.
I finally, stumbled across some that I liked, but a new challenge presented–they were quarterly/90 day planners. The concept sounded fishy, like it was just a ploy to make people pay more money. But since I couldn’t find anything I else, I held my breath and bought one. I could commit to 90 days of one planner, and if I liked it, then I’d buy the bundles.
I’ve been using the Full Focus Planner for almost a month now, and so far so good. It’s a smaller sized book, unlike the 8×10 planners I was using before, and because it’s only a 90-day planner I still get all the note and goal setting pages without it being massive, so it’s less cumbersome to carry around. It’s hardbound, has an elastic to keep it closed, two bookmarks, and the binding, cover, and paper is of a really nice quality. The inside looks basic, but the layouts provided everything I needed. The only thing missing is a section for gratitude, but I could just write it in on the note page. The other cool thing about this planner is the creator made a bunch of video clips with tutorials on how to use the planning, goal setting, and daily pages optimally. We’ll see if I stick with it…60 more days.
Now that you’ve survived this most riveting essay expounding on the history and evolution of my planner usage, I can actually get to the crux of my thesis:
Should we really endeavor to have well-scheduled lives? Is our worth measured in our productivity?
Writing things down absolutely helps you to remember, helps you focus, helps keep your goals in view, but all too often, a planner is a stark reminder of what I didn’t accomplish: the deadlines missed, days “wasted,” times spent with my eyes not on the prize. The Full Focus Planner has probably one of the best systems for steering you to be successful in forming desired habits and realizing long and short-term goals. It helps you create navigable stepping stones to streamline the process, but it also shows you quite plainly when you didn’t maximize your day or your week.
On the one hand, reviewing my planner halfway through a sluggishly paced workday can be the motivation I need to at least cross one thing off my top 3 list. But on the other hand, that need to push myself is mired in guilt, the feeling of impending failure, and anxiety, particularly because I’m a self-confessed overachiever (which is both a positive and negative attribute). There are afternoons, whole days even, when I legitimately need to close everything down and sleep, and yet, faced with a list of perfectly tangible steps for goal fulfillment, I get another cup of coffee or something sugary, and push myself to keep going.
From the start of my Journey to 30, and even the year and half or so before then, I’ve been searching for the recipe to create and stick to the perfect “productivity routine.” If I could just routinize my work/school/personal life, then all would be well. Every year I create a table of my ideal workday, by hour, listing what I would do when, how long I would study, when I would make time for working out and writing, meal prep, cooking, “free time.” My current planner has you outline something similar in an ideal week format.
But about halfway into my Journey to 30, I struck through that goal and wrote in its place: “Stop trying to schedule everything!” I was spending more time trying to create the perfect schedule than to actually use that schedule to the benefit of my ambitions. I do this every time. If someone tells me that creating an organizational system will help me be more successful at something, I spend all my time researching, testing, and improving on the system rather than utilizing it. I’d take beautiful, systemic notes in college, but run out of time to study them; I’d be sleep deprived with only mediocre grades to show for it.
Even though I struggle with focus, and planners and scheduling can be a tool to minimize that struggle, I also struggle with being overly self-critical, where that planner can be a weapon for self-harm. I’m realizing that rather than endeavoring to achieve all these other indicators of success that I’m not necessarily invested in, it may be more vital to strive for balance; that’s where true success resides.