Don't Start by Buying a Planner

Don’t Start By Buying a Planner

Are you ready to make some major changes in your life?  Did you start by getting one of those fancy planners that promise to guide you to your new and better life where you fulfill all your goals and live a perfect life?

Don't Start By Buying A Planner

I bet you’ve diligently filled out the values and your dreams and everything else in a planner before.  And at some point in the year you have come across it forgotten and dusty.  You leaf through and see your forgotten goals and look at all those empty pages and decide you are a failure.  

Are you really just not cut out to make your goals happen?

No.  You just need to make some changes that can’t be accomplished by buying a planner.

Most things are not achieved by throwing money at them.

Most things are not achieved by throwing money at them

What to do before buying a planner

Most planning systems start by having you explore your long term goals.  This is a huge use of emotional energy and time.  By the time you finish your goals, if you even do finish, you will be completely burnt out.  I bet you’ve been there.  I bet you’ve felt like you did so much, so you must be all done, right?  How did that work?  Did you reach those goals?

It’s not the failure to set goals that’s stopping you from doing what you want to do, it’s the failure to have a daily planning routine.

You need to plan your routine before planning your goals.

How to establish a daily planning routine with just a pad of paper

How to establish a daily planning routine

Grab a pad of paper and a pen

All you need to start a daily planning routine is a pad of paper and something to write with. No fancy planner necessary. If you have one, go ahead and use it as long as it doesn’t make you feel like you have to fill out every single section every day. If you don’t have a planner, hold off a bit because what you think you need might not be the best fit. You might not even need one – I just have a monthly calendar and a notebook!

Decide three things

There are just three critical parts of a daily planning routine and each one can be thought of as its own habit or routine.  So, the very first thing you need to do is answer the following questions:

  1. How will you remember to start the day by looking at your plan?
  2. How will you remember to look at your plan throughout the day?
  3. When will you reflect at the end of your day and plan for the next day?

Pretty simple or daunting? Here are some ideas to help!

How to remember to start the day by looking at your plan

If your morning has a way of being hijacked by other people or distractions it’s super important to actually look at your plan before you start your day. One way to do this is to physically tie your plan to something that you already have a habit of doing.  For example, if the first thing you do each day is make coffee, leave your pad of paper on top of the coffee maker.  If you always look at your phone first thing (even though you know you ‘shouldn’t’), put your pad of paper on top of your phone. If you are always rushing out the door each morning, put your pad of paper on top of your purse or keys so it comes along with you.  Then take the 30 seconds to actually read that plan first thing in the morning!

How to remember to look at your plan throughout the day

Since you are now a planner, you need to actually look at your plan during the day, because that’s what planners do.  If you haven’t done this before you will have to give yourself some little cues.  

First, the plan has to be WITH you.  It should be open and visible as you go about your day.  If you are a mom at home, perhaps it should be on the kitchen counter (aren’t you glad you just have a cheap pad of paper getting mac and cheese spilled on it instead of that expensive planner?)  If you are at a desk, leave it open on your desk.  If you are all over the place, set a timer on your phone to chime every hour or two to remind you to take a look at that pad of paper.  

Plus, whenever you have a random thought you want to remember during the day, write it on your pad of paper!  By using your pad of paper you will start to look at it more often.

How to schedule your reflection and planning time

This is the one thing that will be the hardest.  You will actually need to make the time to do some thinking about your day and your tomorrow EVERY SINGLE DAY.  Some days might take longer than others, but even if you don’t have much to plan for tomorrow you will need to make the little effort to use your pad of paper to write a few things down. 

The best thing to do is to decide that you will do it BEFORE some routine thing that you do every single evening.  Don’t make it before you go to sleep!  No one wants to do anything right before they go to sleep! Use something like before dinner or before couch potato time. If you are constantly hijacked put an alarm on your phone so you stop and spend the few minutes you need to reflect and plan.  You will be able to enjoy the rest of your evening because you are DONE! 

Again, this will be the hardest.  This is time that is specifically for you. If you feel like it is taking away from time with your family, stop. This is what you need to be your best self for your family. If you have kids you will be setting an EXCELLENT example!

You have to do it every single night, even if your day was completely hijacked and you didn’t even look at your plan in the morning.

Planning is thinking about the future, not dwelling on the past. Every day is a free do over.

WRITE DOWN the answers to these questions on your pad of paper.  Commit!

  1. How will you remember to start the day by looking at your plan?
  2. How will you remember to look at your plan throughout the day?
  3. When will you reflect at the end of your day and plan for the next day?
Routines before Goals

What to do during your reflection and planning time

At the end of every single day you need to reflect on the day you just finished and the day you will start tomorrow.

Review what you did today

First of all recognize that even if your day did not go as planned, you are actually still a planner.  Doing the planning is good in and of itself and actually helped you in your day even if you didn’t actually follow the plan.

Look at what you did and cross things off your list!  Write down things that you did that were not on the plan and give yourself a little pat on the back!  

If there were things that did not go well, brainstorm a couple ways you might have planned differently.  Do you have to allow more time? Do you have to be more specific? Did you forget to schedule time for some necessary mundane things or for margin?

If there are things that went well, put a little smiley face next to them or heart around them, or whatever makes you smile!  Yay!

In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.
Treat your day like a battle. Full quote origin

Plan for the next day

This is where all the planning systems and tricks come into play.  But to start, keep it simple and just follow these four steps:


Write down everything you can think of that you need to do tomorrow. If some other things that are for the future creep in onto the list, that’s fine, but don’t try to create an exhaustive list – it will be exhausting!  You are establishing the routine, not solving every problem right now.


Look at that list and figure out what absolutely MUST happen tomorrow.  Put a little star next to those things.


Look at the list and see if there are any things that can be grouped together – like errands, or emails, or phone calls.  Group them somehow on your list – just putting ‘C’ next to all the phone calls, or ‘E’ next to the errands. Not complicated!


Make a rough schedule of your day on another sheet on your pad of paper.  If you have a lot of things that have specific times like appointments and meetings you can just write the hours of the day down the side of the sheet.

Put your things that MUST happen tomorrow in specific places on the schedule of your day.  Make sure you allow enough time to do each task!  Then put in the rest of your tasks into your schedule. Try to find a time to do your grouped tasks all at once – like an hour to make all the phone calls, or everything that is out and about all in one trip. 

If it doesn’t all fit, don’t try to make it fit.  It won’t all happen.  If you have to choose what not to do, choose tonight instead of during the rush of tomorrow.  

That’s the power of planning – making choices ahead of time when you have the bandwidth to actually fully consider your choices.

Don’t forget to schedule your reflection and planning time 🙂

Put your pad of paper where you will see it first thing in the morning!

Next Steps

Once you are successfully using your pad of paper every day, you can slowly start adding in some other things to make your life run more efficiently, and eventually define some goals to achieve.  Here are my recommended next steps:

Buy or make a simple monthly calendar for the year

Keep this calendar with your pad of paper.  Put all your appointments in it.  Put notes about things you might want to do in future months on those months, e.g. holiday shopping in November.  When you do your planning, look at this calendar.

Keep a list of future things you want to do

Not everything you want to do will have a specific time frame.  Have a page on your pad of paper where you start accumulating all these things. Consider this list as you do your planning.

Establish a weekly planning habit

Once planning every evening has become a solid routine (take your time, it might take awhile), pick a day of the week to spend a little extra time to plan more of the week ahead.  

Don’t get caught in the trap of trying to plan every single hour of every day for a whole week at once!  Think about what you might want to have done by the end of the week. Look at your monthly calendar and your list of future things you want to do and see what you might want to add into this week. If there are longer term projects, plan a little bit for each day.  

Take a look at the week and consider if there are any days which are busier or lighter. It might help to write out the whole week on a single page with your appointments blocked out so you can see the busy days. Now you can consider whether all those things you want to do actually fit – and choose which are the most important.

Remember, you will still be planning each day the night before as things change during the course of a week! Expect things to change. Changes are not failures!

Consider buying a planner based on how you like to plan

By now you’ve discovered how most of your days flow, how much detail you need in your plan and how much space you need in a weekly or monthly calendar.  

Decide what kind of set up you are looking for BEFORE you start looking at planners.  Take into consideration whether the planner itself is easy to carry along and/or leave open on the counter or your desk.  

It might not even be necessary to buy an actual ‘planner’. I just use a bound book with blank pages with a small monthly calendar tucked in.  I use pages in the book to detail out my weeks and days however best suits that week or day. It’s not pretty, but it’s effective. But maybe pretty is important to YOU – it makes you happy to be writing in your planner when it’s pretty.

Think about your values and whether what you are doing is reflecting your values

Now that you are getting good at planning there is a danger that you will start to try to get more and more done each day until you burn out.  Read Should Maximum Productivity be the Goal?

Set one goal and plan how to achieve it

Check out my post Simple Steps to Goal Setting. You will know when you are ready for more goals.  But remember to always set realistic goals and give yourself the time necessary to achieve them.

Are you ready?

  1. How will you remember to start the day by looking at your plan?
  2. How will you remember to look at your plan throughout the day?
  3. When will you reflect at the end of your day and plan for the next day?

Let me know in the comments what YOUR answers are!

Planning is thinking about the suture, not dwelling on the past.  Every day is a free do over.

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