How to use a planner 101
August 26, 2019 6:03 PM   Subscribe

I have never in my life maintained any kind of external planner/calendar/to do list, paper or app-based, for any length of time. I’ve held my life together, narrowly, but the last several months have been a little hectic and they’re about to get moreso. If you are a person who made the transition from holding everything in your head somehow to keeping a better system, how did you make the change? Are there specific tools you recommend?

My history of using planning tools goes something like this: acquire new calendar or to-do list tool, use it successfully for approximately 2-3 weeks, forget to enter a task somewhere along the line, remember to do the task anyway, eventually stop recording new tasks because remembering to record them is more burdensome than just holding them in my head. My memory turns out to be pretty okay most of the time. I make it to work and appointments, bills are paid, I maintain a life outside of work. However, I do run into problems with double-booking myself sometimes, probably more often than the average person. It’s also a huge cognitive burden; I exert so much mental energy holding my schedule together on top of doing regular day to day tasks that I’m utterly drained at the end of a workday.

Tools I have run into this block with: basic paper planners, google and iOS calendars, outlook, health month, habitica. The most successful calendar run I have ever had was a shared group calendar embedded within the EMR at one of my old jobs. Honestly, it worked largely because other people were reliant on me putting in appointments correctly, and I was in turn reliant on their input.

Right now I work irregular contracting shifts through two different agencies, and am about to start a part-time non-agency gig. I’m heavily involved in two volunteer groups. I try to see my friends who I don’t volunteer with at least occasionally, and also have to get groceries and go to doctors appointments and do laundry and all that good stuff. I am balancing all of these things okay—this is not a question about what activity I should drop, please don’t suggest that—but I am definitely at the point where I need better external tools to visualize which things go in which slots on which days.

But what do I use and how do I make a habit of using it? I looked at both Todoist and Remember the Milk today and felt immediately overwhelmed with options. I’ve had therapists suggest bullet journaling, but I am a crafty person and I feel like I would go overboard in making my pages pretty/making the perfect structure for my days and wind up missing the forest for the trees. I don’t know if I would want to use the same tool for blocking out a schedule of where I am every day and for sub-dividing tasks within the day or not. Something has to change, but I don’t know what and looking at options is making me anxious. How do you choose? How do you even develop the habit of managing your schedule appropriately?

(I do have an ADHD diagnosis and take medication. It’s helped immensely, but this particular task is still clearly a sore spot. I’ve talked to so many ADHDers who say that they swear by their calendars for keeping symptoms in check, and I want to be one of them).
posted by ActionPopulated to Grab Bag (12 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Where do your appointments, events and activities mostly come from? Mine mostly come in by email, so the key thing for me is a calendar with email integration so I can see my calendar in the same window as my email and use a button to turn an email into a scheduled task or event.

If your things mostly come up in a situation where you won't have your computer, you'll need something on your phone, or if you are the kind of person who doesn't always have your phone, but does carry a bag, a paper planner might be better.

The key thing is to decrease the time and effort it takes to put something in your calendar in the first place, and also to get into the habit of checking it at key times. (For me that's first thing in the morning and also whenever I'm about to schedule something new).

Some people also find it helpful to have integration with some kind of smart device, eg a watch that buzzes or shows your next appointment on the screen. I don't find that super useful and actually leave calendar notifications off, because for me the problem isn't knowing what I have to do next, but avoiding double booking myself.

Anyway, my point is, your solution should be designed for your personal life and your personal needs, not what works for anyone else.
posted by lollusc at 6:17 PM on August 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

I never used anything until fairly recently, in my late 30s. Now I use a paper wall calendar that lives in my dining room and I share with my spouse. It’s nice, and that habit has helped me remember to put some types of things on my phone’s calendar app (also easily shared with spouse phone).
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:43 PM on August 26, 2019

Best answer: I use a paper planner (the Moleskine Weekly because I need to see the whole week in one glance. They make the same one every year and I like having the same planner all the time, and all the old ones matching on a shelf.

The left hand side of each spread is a day planner, so I use it for appointments. I write them in roughly chronological order (so if it's first thing in the morning it goes right at the top of the day's rectangle, and if it's evening it goes at the bottom.
Time, then thing, then place: so, 10:30 - Meet Trish - Coffeeshop.
I do it lightly in pencil with a question mark til it's confirmed, then write it in pen.

The left side of the calendar page is where I write any daily info that isn't time sensitive on that day, so I'll jot if it's someone's bday or if my spouse has the day off or there's a class I might want to take but don't have to.

The right page is the notes side. I keep a running weekly to-do list on that page with hand-drawn check boxes, and I also note down any addresses or other info that didn't fit on the calendar side (like if I have a dentist appointment marked on the calendar side, I might add "bring insurance papers" to the to do list on the right side, and connect them with an arrow.

If something important is coming up I might write in a countdown a few pages before, like "2 weeks to Project", "1 week to Project", etc, on the top of the left-hand page, so I don't suddenly remember it the week-of.

I use highlighters to assess my work-life balance- I can see if one colour (life category) is taking over.
Yellow = work stuff. Yellow with a pink outline = really important work stuff like a presentation. Green = social. Blue = kid/family. Purple = my side hustle. Orange = exercise. If I'm trying to exercise more, I'll buy tiny sparkly stickers and tape the sheet of stickers into the back of the planner. Each day I exercise, I get a sticker.

I cut the bottom corners off the page as each week ends, so it's easy to flip to the current page. And I keep a thin pen tucked into the planner at all times. It has to be easy to use!

I try not to read emails or texts that may have appointment info unless I have the planner- I definitely try to keep messages in my inbox or marked as "unread" if I haven't transferred them. I put EVERYTHING in it, and I just glance at it each night so I can see the next day and the rest of the week.

I use the last page to notate anything coming up next year, roughly in order. Then in early December I buy the next year's planner and transfer that in.

My planner is my absolute saviour- for daily stuff and it's fun/useful to look back at later.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 6:55 PM on August 26, 2019 [21 favorites]

Best answer: I'd suggest starting with just a planner, not a bullet journal or life-organizing system. Just an appointment planner, so you don't have to worry about where to be and when. Task lists quickly get overwhelming, and (as a fellow ADD person), sometimes writing down the task actually makes me more likely to forget about it.

A calendar is a very narrow kind of task list and only accounts for your time, for things that are SCHEDULED. It's simpler than a task list--"laundry" is a big, vague thing, but "lunch with Sally at noon" is very simple and just a line item. Also, there is a specific moment when that plan gets made (Sally asked you what time; you called/emailed her and put it in your calendar), so there's a triggering moment to write it down.

I agree with lollusc--paper or computer (I use Google), depending on where you spend your time. When I was running around all day, I kept a paper calendar, but now that I'm on a computer all day, Google calendar is better. I look at it every day and don't need to spend any effort on when my appointments or work shifts are. It frees up that mental load for projects.

I could not have put together a to-do list system and calendar at once. I had to get used to just the calendar as a planner for my time first. Lists are a separate thing to me.
posted by gideonfrog at 6:59 PM on August 26, 2019 [5 favorites]

Yes, this describes me exactly: acquire new calendar or to-do list tool, use it successfully for approximately 2-3 weeks, forget to enter a task somewhere along the line, remember to do the task anyway, eventually stop recording new tasks because remembering to record them is more burdensome than just holding them in my head.

I am trying to get in the habit of just using the Google calendar app for things with time slots. This way I can see my work schedule (provided by my job via google calendar) and extracurriculars side by side. I like it better than paper because then I don't have to remember to bring a bag with me everywhere, or remember not to eventually ruin the planner by putting food in the bag.

I use ToDoist for anything that's like a list of things that I can complete any time like a shopping list, and for tracking bills and pay days because it's easy to make recurring tasks with realistic, flexible recurrances. I like ToDoist because of its simplicity - you really just have to make the list and don't worry about all the other stuff it has going on.

When it comes to things like chores like going to the grocery store and doing laundry, I tried all kinds of systems for tracking those and then just gave up. Trying to write that stuff down didn't actually ever get it done, the only thing that helps me get that stuff done is the needing of it to be done and the having the energy to do it; trying to bully and shame myself into it by seeing those unchecked checkboxes didn't do anything to help me with that.
posted by bleep at 7:27 PM on August 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

I was the same way, but I've been using Amazing Marvin for about 8 months now. It was specifically was designed with ADHD people in mind. The brilliant thing about it is has what are called strategies that you can turn on and off and modify as you will. You need labels and tags? Turn that on, and you have the option to group or color code tags if you want. You need a calendar with timeblocking? Turn those on. You need priority levels? Turn that on and you can use multiple levels or just star/no-star, and choose colors for each priority level. You don't need any of that and it's overwhelming? Turn it all off.

The other thing that really, really helps me is that I have a master list of all my due tasks, but then I have a day view that shows me this is what I'm going to get done today, and then I only have to focus on that. That helps immensely with reducing how overwhelmed I am. Also, no matter where you are in the program, if you hit spacebar you can immediately add a task, which helps me a lot with the "too much effort to record tasks."

Here's the strategies I use:
- Category context: this shows the color of the category the item is in in the day view, which lets me know if it's a professional thing, a self care thing, a fun thing, etc. Mostly I just like it because it adds color to the main page...
- Task notes, for when I need to include a bunch of information that I'll need to be able to easily reference.
- Labels. I use label groups, which lets me quickly assign a location (home, school, computer, errand), a focus level (low focus, high focus, can multitask), and a physical energy level (high energy, low level). Then when I have some free time and am looking for something to do, I can either filter out ones I don't have the energy/focus for, or specifically look for ones that take high energy/focus when I have that available.
- Timers. Let's me pull up a pomodoro or other timer easily.
- Priority levels. I just use star/no-star, otherwise it gets too complicated.
- Most important projects. Let's me mark which projects to prioritize right now.
- Backburner. This lets me shove all those extra "would be nice" tasks into a drawer where I don't have to see them unless I specifically have time to do them.
- Calendar. I primarily use Google Calendar, and they just added Google Calendar sync, but it's a little wonky right now--they're working on it.
- Time blocking. My Google Calendar is synced as time blocks, so I can see how much time I have in my calendar, and so I can schedule in time to work on certain projects or just note when I have free time. This strategies is really important because of...
- Time block sections! This is really what saves my ass as a grad student. This strategy breaks down the today view into different sections based on my timeblocks. I have a lot of tasks that can only get done at certain times or with certain people or in certain places. This way I can plan to do a task when I'm at the location or with the person it needs to be done with. It lets me schedule out my whole day meeting by meeting and makes sure I don't forget to mention x or bring y.
- Smart lists. This lets me pull up tasks with certain parameters, e.g. due in 7 days and not in my daily routines folder.
- Custom squares. Basically gives me different pages of smart list. I have my today view, a smart list that contains my hobby goals, a smart list for what's due and overdue, a smart list for what's due in the next 7 days, and a smart list for what's due in the next 30 days.
- Start dates. This hides tasks until I can actually work on them, which is good for things that are farther in the future that I want to record but don't want to start for a month or more yet.
- Work session scheduler. This lets me schedule time to work on a project, but still gives me something to check off even if I don't finish the project that day.

That's a lot, and I would suggest starting with something simple just to get into the habit of regularly adding tasks and planning your day. I think that it's very easy to get overwhelmed and then never use a task manager at all. You need to build the habit before you can start making it more complex. So I would suggest focusing on just regularly entering tasks and scheduling them, maybe turn on one or two strategies, but don't try and use all the other fancy features until you've built that habit.

The one downside to Marvin is it isn't free--there's a one month free trial but you have to pay afterwards. That said, I think it's worth it. The dev team is very responsive and communicative as well, and they've added tons of things per user suggestions.
posted by brook horse at 7:33 PM on August 26, 2019 [9 favorites]

Best answer: What’s helped me the most is committing to using my paper planner for 5-10 minutes each morning and before I stop working. Not the method but the time.
posted by warriorqueen at 4:57 AM on August 27, 2019 [5 favorites]

Fellow ADHDer here and while my use of a planner is not 100%, these things help:

1) Scheduling a time every Sunday afternoon/evening to make sure my next week is planned out, and that everything is on it. I also transfer any appointments that aren't in my Google calendar into the Google calendar at this time. My calendar has a default of 3 reminders for every appointment: one 5 days beforehand, one 2 days, and one the day of.

2) Sticking plastic pockets in my planner--every appointment reminder card I get goes straight into one of those pockets.

3) Reviewing my planner every evening before I go to bed. This is the one I fail to do most often, but hey.

4) Purchasing a new planner every few months, even though the old one isn't filled up yet. I am leveraging the Shiny! New! Thing! effect with this, because the newer and shinier a planner or planning system is, the more likely I am to use it.

5) My planner is with me 100% of the time. I carry a bag, so it's easy to dump in the bag.

6) I also get planners that have extra blank/lined/whatever pages for notes in the back, because if I can use it for random note-taking, that increases the chance that #5 above will happen.
posted by telophase at 9:57 AM on August 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

I forgot: on #1, I also set Google Calendar to the setting that emails me every morning with the things I have planned on that day.
posted by telophase at 9:58 AM on August 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

And coming back after lunch: the reason I use a paper planner is that I need to have something I can put into my field of view and SEE. If I put something away, it's gone, forgotten, unimportant. Google Calendar works to an extent because of the email reminders, but I'm also fairly good at mentally editing out reminders. A paper planner that I can plop on my desk to the side of my keyboard, open to this week, works better than anything else I've tried.

Weekly is also key: I need to be able to see more than one day at a time to keep the immediate future in my head, and monthly is too much.
posted by telophase at 10:48 AM on August 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: What made it work for me was the right planner: Erin Condren life planner specifically in the vertical layout. It lets me plan all the aspects in one place - one cube for timing, one for To Do, one for what I need to cook that day, and below it all, wardrobe. But it's not labeled, so one might use each for whatever they needed, like each person in the house or... I use the monthly view for menu planning. This way, I can see that I have a late meeting and won't have time to cook or run to the library but should wear my grown up outfit, all in one glance. Every day starts with a cup of tea and some Planner time.
posted by AliceBlue at 2:31 PM on August 27, 2019

Response by poster: Thanks so much for the feedback everybody. I marked the best answers that really helped me think through what I’m looking for in a system, but I found insight in every answer.

For folks who might read this later, here are the conclusions I came to after some thought:

-Because I rotate between many different work sites and don’t use a computer consistently at all of them, I want to try a paper planner. I have a dedicated work bag that goes to all of my sites and my volunteer activities, so it should be straightforward to keep the planner in the bag. Phone is less good because I can get distracted by other apps while going to enter an event, and I do a lot of my work scheduling by phone so it’s easier to keep a notebook in front of me for that.

-The planner will just be for the week to week outlines of “which employer am I working for and at which site,” plus other concrete things like appointments, friend dates, and volunteering. Work to-do lists and nebulous ongoing things like laundry are separate problems to tackle. I will probably do different colored pens to represent the different employers.

-The Erin Condren planner AliceBlue mentioned has a layout that looks like it would work for me and has patterns I like. I will order one of those today to test drive. If I like it, great, there’s my planner. If not, there’s a whole wide world of planners out there to explore.

That said, the Amazing Marvin site brook horse mentioned also looks great (if a little overwhelming), so I’m keeping that in the back of my head as something to explore if I find myself in a more computer-focused job down the line.

Again, thank you for your feedback everyone, this planning thing feels much more attainable now.
posted by ActionPopulated at 9:23 AM on August 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

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