The Ultimate Guide to Using a Planner Effectively
Table of Contents
Note: This guide on how to use a planner effectively will continuously be updated to become more and more comprehensive, so feel free to return to it in the future for another read!
How do we get our time back? The fact of the matter is, it takes work and intention to organize your life in a meaningful way.
We would all benefit from using our time more efficiently, but time management is tough. It makes sense to maximizing the use of your time to help you achieve your goals and improve your long-term well being.
The world moves quickly. Our schedules are packed. It seems like things continue to get busier all the time, with little resources left for meaningful work and self-care. Sometimes society's focus on achieving goals leads to burnout.
The apps we interact with are made to be attractive and addictive. Pleasing sounds, tactile vibrations, and colourful graphics are designed to keep your precious attention and time.
In addition to limitless distractions, we’re all just trying to keep it together and live our best lives. But we’re also trying to advance our careers, travel, maintain friendships, meet new people, pursue hobbies, and figure out our passions. We’re looking for ways to relax, but also get ahead.
We’re always balancing challenges and keeping on top of chores — bills, groceries, dropping off our kids, running errands, increasing unaffordability, physical fitness, mental health…
We play the roles of parents, siblings, children, employees, friends, and manage the expectations and responsibilities that are ingrained in society and those roles.
We make choices of prioritization every day do our best to juggle it all. But holding all of these things in our minds can lead to overwhelm and burnout. That’s why we turn to tools and solutions to help us.
One of the best organizational tools you can use is planning.
What is planning?
Planning encompasses a wide range of activities that help us take control of our lives. By helping us balance core tasks, personal and professional goals, as well as self-care, planning helps create order out of a chaotic stream of priorities. It can free up precious resources so that our time can be used more effectively.
Planning can help us look to the future and review the past, so we can make good choices about how to spend our time in the present. It also involves the intentional action of taking time out of your day to focus on how to spend your time on other tasks. This is important, and can often be neglected. But it’s a great use of time, and with practice, your planning practice will become more effortless and effective.
The art of planning extends beyond the function of helping us plan our days. That is, it's not just about planning for birthday anniversaries, due dates, or grocery shopping lists.
It could also serve as a creative outlet via decorated spreads. For some, planners are used more for journaling - for instance, to log memories or track habits. We’ll get into more details on this below.
A fantastic range of tools and planning systems exist in the world, and serve a multitude of planning goals, styles and needs.
We want to simplify a lot of this for you in this guide.
Whether you’re a seasoned planner, or someone just starting out, this guide is meant to be a one-stop source of all the information you need. We want to help you find and refine a style that works for you.
What’s the best way to plan?
Yes, we know that “it depends” is not something you might love hearing when searching for a answer. But in this case, it’s especially true.
Planning is extremely personal. Your preferred methods may evolve over time, and it can be hard to keep track of what’s out there. This is why we’ve created this guide. It’ll be continuously be updated to become the go-to source for planning, and can be referenced whenever you need.
What works for one person may not work as well for others. But in general, you can start by considering the purpose of your planning. Questions of purpose can be daunting for some, but try starting by asking yourself what you would most like to accomplish.
That is, what do you want out of your personal planner? Are you looking to spend time reflecting on your life? Your values? Your desires and goals? Is your day planner for work, or for improving your personal life (or both)?
Are you looking to work towards something specific? Manage your weekly schedule? Streamline processes? Work on a hobby? Build new habits? All of the above?
It can start to feel overwhelming if you haven’t done this recently (or ever), but this is exactly the type of thing planning can help with.
If you’re just starting out, start small. You have full control over the level of detail you get into, so don’t make it daunting. If your planner has a guided journaling section, don’t pressure yourself to complete it right away. Do it when you are in the right mood and headspace.
In fact, it’s probably better to start at a high-level before drilling down into specifics. It’s equally important and to regularly revisit, reassess, and revise your planning process.
Let’s start by covering some basics, and then get into some detail!
What planner layouts are out there?
A planner layout is personal, but what’s out there? It all depends on the design.
A planner can have monthly overviews, weekly & daily spreads, space for time-blocking, to-do lists, habit trackers, journaling sections, focus and goal areas, and so much more.
Planners come in many different layouts and configurations, such as vertical layouts, horizontal layouts, or combinations of these. Blank, lined, grid, or dotted notebooks are also all used to plan with ultimate creative freedom.
Below is a list of common planning parameters and related specifics.
Planner layout types - Some planners have guided sections which vary in depth and prescriptiveness, whereas others focus solely on planning pages. Some planners use both journaling and goal setting pages. Others focus more on the functional side of planning.
- In terms of the graphical aesthetic of a planner, some designs are common to most planner brands.
- Vertical layouts generally present the week over two pages, with vertical columns for each day. Columns vary in size, but 1.5” is a standard which fits many sticker kits.
- Daily layouts provide more space to plan, and come in various configurations. For instance, 3-month, 6-month, 12-month, and 18-month. H&O daily planners dedicate a full page to each day.
- Horizontal layouts, like vertical layouts, can spread the week over two pages. Writing horizontally feels more natural to some folks, and provides more room to write for an experience more akin to journaling.
- Combinations of various types of layouts exist. Those that cannot find exactly what they are looking for sometimes create their own ideal layouts in dotted or graph notebooks.
Planner patterns - Every layout can incorporate a pattern to help guide writing (or it can be blank!). Dot grid, graph grid, and lined are all common patterns are used to create sections. H&O uses a light dotted graph grid to provide both structure and flexibility.
- Planner sizes - Some prefer A5 planners for their portable size. Others prefer wider columns (and larger books) that can be filled with more stickers. There are lots of different sizes out there!
To help you choose, consider the size of your handwriting, and whether the layout will provide you with the what you need. It may be necessary to experiment with a few different layouts (or use several concurrently), and you’ll figure out your flow with time. H&O layouts can be downloaded in full and for free, so you can figure out what works best for you!
Paper composition - Various papers are used in planners and notebooks. From thin, low density papers to coated papers with additives, the type of paper used will affect writing feel, how quickly inks absorb, smudging, and so on.
- Papers can be made with virgin fibers or include post-consumer waste content (recycled paper). Virgin fibers can be sourced from certified forests (FSC) with responsible and renewable planting practices.
- As you’ll be using your planner all year, the type of paper your planner uses is an important consideration. Check out YouTube reviews of the planner you are considering to see if others have done pen tests, which can help you narrow it down!
Paper weight (GSM) - An important consideration for your future purchase, as it informs how thick the paper is. Generally, the thicker the paper, the better it will be for preventing bleed-through and ghosting. However, if a paper is coated or saturated in a latex or poly coating, even thin paper can prevent ghosting.
Paper colour - Paper can vary in colour temperature, and planning papers generally range from bright white to beige. Even bright white papers vary, as some can be warmer (redish) and others colder (blueish). H&O paper is bright white and leans to the warmer side of the spectrum!
- Texture - Papers can be smooth or gritty/toothy, and it’s worth trying different types with different mediums and pen refills, to understand how your favourite mediums cooperate. Do you like your pen to glide effortlessly but risk a little smudging, or have some resistance and dry fast?
Planner covers can be made from a variety of materials, from uncoated paper to plant leathers. A large chunk of materials available all use varying degrees of plastic. From 100% polyurethane to recycled papers that are coated, this is something to consider if you are interested in the environmental sustainability of your products.
H&O focuses on incorporating materials with post-consumer waste, and limited use of plastic. There are really exciting and innovative materials that we can’t wait to try!
Planner spread types
While there is no set definition for these and it’s somewhat of a sliding scale, spreads can range based on the media/accessories used.
Generally use only several colours and media that emphasizes the pen. This does not mean it is completely devoid of decoration (such as stickers or washi). However, the use of these is more about function than form. Stickers used might help keep track of appointments, dedicated self-care time, keeping track of daily habits, and highlighting areas of importance.
Decorative spreads are a creative outlet. Almost like the modern version of scrapbooking. There are tons of different ways to decorate, and we go into these below. Decorative planning has been said to be the leading cause of planner chonk.
How to use a planner? Methods and techniques
Journaling & self-reflection
Journaling is a powerful technique which could be used to plan. For example, self reflection exercises can help you set goals and priorities which align with your values.
Often guided by prompts, self-reflection tools can help you discover new passions, or help you focus on existing ones. Self-reflection gets at the core of who you are as a person, your values, and ways for you to live a happy and meaningful life.
There are lots of ways to journal - so let’s cover a few.
1. Retroactive review
This can be as simple as writing about your day. It’s often useful to use a notepad in conjunction with a planner.2. Memory planning
Planners are a great way to record memories. Almost like a diary, you can record events and how you felt about them.
For example, watching the sunrise from a trail's peak following an early morning hike. After you get back to your AirBnB, you reflect on your how this made you feel, and how you'd like to come back here with a friend.
You can also track your mood, sleep hours, and so on.
3. Habit tracking
Among the many ways planners can improve your life, habit tracking is ranks in the
top. You can track your water intake, exercise, reading, studying, and regular participation in hobbies. You can set your own rewards, and watch as over time you build solid, healthy behaviours that make you feel good about yourself.
4. Goals and to-dos
You’ve likely heard about S.M.A.R.T. goals. At a high level, these are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely.
We believe that at least some of your goals should revolve around self-care and self-development. That is, achieving these goals should bring a sense of intrinsic fulfilment, instead of external pressure to perform at, for example, work.
Ask yourself questions like “how does this goal connect with my values?”
Note: Check our 2023 Weekly PDF if you’d like to go through some exercises to help you review existing goals or identify new ones.
Self-care and wellness are a key part of many planner systems. Essentially, you want to focus on preventing burnout by finding ways to take of your physical and mental well-being on a regular basis.
By deliberately blocking out time for these self-care actions, you can avoid being inundated and overwhelmed with all your to-dos. Otherwise, they can dominate your schedule and get in the way of self-care.
As they tell you on the plane, in case of emergency, first place the oxygen mask on yourself, before you can help others. Similarly, by committing time to take care of yourself on a day-to-day basis, you will be better able to support others and accomplish goals without burnout.
6. Colour coding
Colour coding can be a great way of helping you navigate your spreads visually. Certain things can be highlighted to pop, and you can create consistency. For example, you can make all your appointments a bright colour. For self-care time, considering using a more mellow colour.
Planning can be a special, sacred time to focus on personal goals, values and dreams.
It can be hard to find time the time, especially at first. Thankfully, there are techniques that can help! Practicing planning in a consistent way will reinforce the habit further, until it becomes a part of your routine. It’s just like building a habit of regular exercise.
Whether you’re looking at your week, day, or year, you can consider major events like trips, holidays, vacations, and so on. Block out time for these, consider ways of best preparing ahead of time, and set reminders ahead of the actual event times. For example, if you have a major deadline approaching, set reminders at intervals to ensure you are well prepared and on track.
- Time blocking
Time blocking is essentially scheduling. You identify a specific chunk of time - minutes or hours, and dedicate it to a particular task. For instance, you utilize the timeslot of 8-9pm to read, which connects with your value of personal growth and self-care.
Time blocking can be used to create definitive times for your planning itself, which can provide a solid structure. For instance, every Sunday night, you dedicate 30 minutes to set out the week ahead, think about major events, to-dos, appointments, and so on.
Time blocking can also help form habits and rituals. For example, strength training every second day and doing some form of cardio on off todays.
You can set alarms on your phone to remind you of your time-blocked activities if needed, or anchor these times to other activities.
These techniques can help those who struggle to maintain a regular planning practice.
By planning together with another activity that's already a part of your schedule, it might be easier to plan consistently.
For example, you might make a quick 15-minute planning session with your tea after putting the kids to bed. Or perhaps you note down work-related ideas at the end of a workday before launching into home life.
Planning is often a great part of a morning or nighttime routine to help set out areas of focus, to-dos, priorities, and other tasks.
- Brain Dump
Feeling overwhelmed with a task? Writing down everything you can think of can help. Not only will you feel better, but you can analyze this information to help narrow down actionable steps.
Braindumping (or minddumping) is similar to the psychological word association technique. You can either use a blank piece of paper, or a tool specifically designed for this.
Consider writing down task-related things like the timeline, key steps, information needed from others, steps you can take now/later, what seems like the most daunting/easy.
- “Turn-the-Page” technique
If you’re ever feeling stuck, turn the page. Flip to your notes section, a journaling section, an overview of the month or year, or even a previous page. By work on something different, or switch your planning focus, you can prompt new thoughts.
Revisiting previous planning pages can be a great way to reflect on the things you’ve accomplished so far, whether big or small. Reflection is a crucial part of growth.
- To-do review
You might identify to-dos that you can get off your plate quickly (e.g., in 10-15 minutes). Check off completed tasks. For things that require a more complex action plan, there are tools such as the H&O Priority Flow notepad.
Digital or physical planning - which one is best? Check out our quick read on this topic here.
Distress oxides can be used to add a pop of colour to your planning pages, through techniques such as stenciling. To get some awesome inspiration on how to use these to bring your planner or notebook to life, check out @momruncraft on Instagram!
Pens and markers
This can be a whole section in itself, but there are tons of mediums commonly used in planners. Fountain pens, ballpoint and rollerball pen refills, highlighters, sharpies, art markers, all have a place and time. You can use these to decorate a planner spread, or to highlight important information to make it stand out.
Stamps can be an excellent way of decorating your planner in a consistent way. Check out the way @ajmcgarvey uses hers!
Stickers come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Unfortunately, most liners are treated in silicone, even if the “face stock” (the sticker you actually place on a surface) is recycled or recyclable. This means that they cannot be easily recycled, and usually end up in the landfill. We’re doing everything we can to source stickers that have recyclable liners, which surprisingly isn’t that easy!
Whether functional or decorative, these can add a lot of flavour to your planning.
Made in Japan from rice paper, this biodegradable tape is sticky enough to decorate and label, but repositionable enough for re-use!
Japan is famous for sustainable paper-making. Washi can go into compost bins and paper recycling!
Most stationery is made overseas. There are two issues with this: ethical and environmental concerns. Cheap labour and/or government subsidizes make it easier to manufacture overseas, but some brands choose to do it the hard way.
Profit is crucial for a business to survive, so that it can grow, but it doesn’t have to be at the expense of the environment. Sustainable, ethical, and a local manufacturing is something we believe the industry needs to move to, and will be doing everything we can to promote positive change.
Planner terms (dictionary/glossary)
Spread: Usually a visual representation of a two page layout (could be a monthly spread, weekly spread, daily spread, etc.).
BTP: Before-the-pen refers to spreads that are either blank or set up (e.g., decorated with stamps/stickers/washi), but before planning layout that is either
ATP: After-the-pen refers to the same layout that is typically referenced in BTP posts, but is when everything is fully filled out. For example, with to-do lists, tasks, priorities, etc., which could then be reflected on.
Planner stack: Sometimes using a single product will not fill all your needs. A weekly planner may not have enough space to capture the intricate details of a particular event.
Planner peace: The state of being upon finding your perfect planner. It meets all your needs!