Making a planner work for you - planners on the beach

Making a Planner Work for You

When we talk about systems to help us maintain routines and habits, the number one thing I talk to my executive function clients about is using a planner. Most people with ADHD struggle with making a planner work for them. If I had to put a number to it, I’d say 95% of my clients start balking at the idea of a planner. It’s something that their parents and teachers have shoved down their throats for years. They hate them. Planners don’t work for them. They can’t remember to use them, so why bother? I’ve heard all of the reasons. My response is always the same:

You need a system to organize your life and priorities. Your deficit in executive functioning means that you can’t simply rely on remembering things. But—and this is a big BUT for some of them—YOU get to decide what that planner system is

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For many people, they spend time trying to copy what other people do because it works for them and it looks cute and they desperately want to be like that. 

Very rarely does anyone say that you should try to figure out what you need for a planner to work for you. Like everything else I talk about, it’s a process and not something to rush. And in this, I speak from personal experience. I’ve always been a planner person, but I would just walk into a store and buy one that looked like it would work. My only requirement was that it had a monthly spread as well as a weekly spread. But I never thought about layout or design or anything like that.

Actually taking the time to figure out what layout works for me was a game changer. And I’m a person who has always used a planner. Imagine how beneficial it would be for you—the person who has railed against using a planner.

As I mentioned, most of us try to copy someone else planner style or method. I’m not saying you can’t do that. You should absolutely look for inspiration wherever you can. But if you try to mimic exactly what someone else does and it doesn’t click for you and your brain, it’s going to be too complicated and you won’t stick with it.

Let’s start with looking at ways to help you define your planner style.

Making a planner work for you - planners on the beach
Making a planner work for you

Styles of the Planner Itself

The first step in making a planner work for you is in choosing the planner itself. There are so many options available, from using all printable and customizable pages you add to a binder, printable pages you add to your current planner, store-bought planners, bullet journals, and many more. 

Your planner style begins with the type of planner you use, whether it is printable or store-bought, the size, color, and other details. If you want to bring it with you, pick a planner that is small enough to fit in your purse. On the other hand, if you want to do a lot of artistic elements and customization, a bigger planner you keep on your desk at home might be a better option. 

In order for a planner to work for you, you have to start with the right one. Not all planners are created equal, so your best friend’s favorite planner might not be yours.

Here are some things to think about when deciding which planner is best for you:

  • What size do you need?
  • Do you want to add more pages of your own?
  • Are you interested in using monthly, weekly, or daily planner pages?
  • Do you need blank doodle or notes pages?

Write down what you are looking for, then stick to this list. It is going to keep you from buying the wrong planner, and make an investment in a planner that will work for you.

If you’re not sure what you want, start with what hasn’t worked in the past. Were you overwhelmed looking at everything scribbled in tiny boxes on a full month? Did you hate to have hourly boxes to fill out your day? Did it feel like you had nowhere to be creative and brain dump?

By figuring out what you don’t like, you can start to figure out what you do like. This is how I found a planner that I love. I looked at old planners that I used and then stopped and forced myself to get back into because I paid like $30 for it. 

Ultimately, I decided to create my own. I know that’s not for everyone, but I would suggest looking into printables as a way to experiment with different layouts and styles. Printables tend to be cheap and you print however many copies you need. If it doesn’t work, you don’t have to feel bad about abandoning it. If you sign up for my newsletter, you can get a set of printable planner pages for free to experiment with.

Using the Planner

The next aspect of defining your planner style is in the habit itself, and the reason you are using a planner to begin with. This can also be different for each person. Here are some things to consider when it comes to using your planner:

Why are you using a planner? 

Figure out what your purpose is so that you can act with intent. You might be using it to help you reach goals, to track your anxiety or stress triggers, or to improve your health. Someone else might use it to stay focused and productive with work tasks. Still another might only write down appointments and deadlines to be able to keep track of them.

Make a list of all the things you’d like to organize and plan for. Then decide which of these should be pages or a section of your planner.

What will your pages include? 

Another part of defining your planner style is in the pages themselves. If you want to start basic, a store-bought planner works out great. However, when you have specific uses or goals, you might want pages you can customize. Some planner companies, like Happy Planner, have additional kits you can buy to add to your planner. There are millions of people selling planner inserts on Etsy. The key here is to go in with a specific idea of what you want. Don’t just go to window shop or you will fall down a rabbit hole of planner pages.

Where will you use the planner? 

This is also important to determine because it might determine the size of your planner. I keep my planner on my desk. I like ample space to write, so mine is standard letter size, 8½” X 11”. However, this is not a good size for someone who wants to carry it in a pocket or purse. Depending on your goals, you might have more than one planner.

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Go Beyond Filling in the Monthly Calendar

Many people start using a planner with the monthly calendar page, where you write down important dates and appointments. This is a fine place to start, especially if you routinely forget things or show up too early or late for appointments. Realistically, you need to utilize more sections of the planner to benefit from it. We all have other things we need to track or remember and a planner can help us do that.

Weekly planner spread

Start using the weekly planner pages, where you write down goals and tasks for the week, then switch over to the daily pages where you add more notes and more specific to-do lists. Using weekly and daily pages can help you plan and prioritize the things you need to do. Planning and prioritizing are executive function skills that many people struggle with, especially when they just see a giant to-do list. They don’t know where to start or what to do. A planner won’t do it for you, but it can help you focus on making the best choices.

Trackers for your planner

Your daily planner is an excellent way to write down your goals and start working toward them. Where you write your goals down will depend on the planner you are using. Some have pages before each month’s calendar page, where you can write down what goals you have, and tasks for that month to achieve them. Others have blank pages you can use. 

Other trackers you might want to consider for your planner: 

  • Your water intake
  • Quality of sleep
  • What you eat
  • Fitness routines
  • Anxiety or stress triggers
  • Mood tracker
  • Gratitude or inspirational quotes
  • Work tasks you got done

These are all tools that can help you pay attention to the things that are important to you.

How to Stop Giving Up on Daily Planners

It is easy to pick up a new planner and start using it, but continuing to use it in the long-term is where the challenge comes in. You need to understand why you keep quitting on your planner, and how to be motivated to continue using it so you can reap the benefits. If you understand why you've abandoned a planner in the past, you can learn how to make this planner work for you.

Pick a Planner You LOVE

We’ve already spent a lot of time on this, but it bears repeating again. If the system isn’t working for you, you won’t keep doing it. If you keep using a planner for a little while, then ditching it, it is probably not the planner for you. A planner that you love and are passionate about is one you want to keep using. From the look of it on the outside, to how the inside is set up, you need to fall in love with this planner. It is all in the details, the size and look and feel, how many pages you have, whether or not the pages can be customized, and so much more.

Make it Fun

In addition to using the right planner, how you use it will also make a big difference. You need to have a reason to keep using it, which involves making it a fun experience. Don’t make it a chore with a boring black-and-white planner that you don’t enjoy using (unless, of course, you prefer a minimalist style).

Figure out ways to make this entire experience more enjoyable. Maybe you sneak in some coloring pages so you have activities to do each time a new month starts, or you use color coding, stickers, Washi tape, and embellishments. Maybe you prefer using more of a bullet journal style planner because it gives you more customizable options. 

If you are using some of the trackers I mentioned above, many are colorable, and filling them in with different colors adds fun.

Turn it Into a Daily Routine

Another great way to encourage regular use of your planner and make a planner work for you is to add it to your daily routine. It should be something scheduled into your day, whether you use your planner before writing in your journal, as part of your mindfulness routine, or write in it in the morning while having your first cup of coffee. Building positive routines will turn them into habits you no longer have to think about.

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