Tips for Using a Paper Planner

Do you love paper planners? There’s never been a better time to find a planner that suits your personality and style. You can find them online, in office supply stores, at places like Target, and you can even print your own. But if you’re like me, you know that having a planner is one thing and using it is another. I’m here to give you some tips for using a paper planner as a tool to keep your life and business manageable.

Before we get started:

  1. Let’s acknowledge that most of us use digital calendars daily. My iPhone is almost always within reach, and the standard iCal app is my favorite calendar even though I’ve left a trail of unused trial apps. It’s where I keep all of my appointments, events, reminders and other bits of information–but that’s another post. Like glue, we’ll stick to paper here.
  2. I’m a big believer in adapting any time management tool to YOUR personality and life. Use what you can here and throw out the rest. You might prefer all-digital, or a bullet journal. You go, girl.
  3. On that note, my personality resists too many details and too much structure. I lean towards fast and simple. And I could definitely learn to be more productive and use my time more efficiently. No guru here, but we can all learn from each other.

Last year I strayed from my longtime favorite paper planner, Planner Pad, and used an Erin Condren planner. I enjoyed the beauty and quality of the Erin Condren, and developed a mild case of sticker-and-washi-tape addiction. It turned out that there just wasn’t enough room for me in this brand of planner, and I missed the layout of the Planner Pad. My year of Erin Condren was fun and it satisfied my curiosity, but now I’m happily back to the Planner Pad.

My personal criteria for a paper planner

  1. Black and white pages. I like to add a bit of color or seasonal charm with stickers, washi tape, and colored pens myself, but not where the entire page is covered. It’s refreshing for me to make my weekly planning session a tiny bit of a craft session, but I don’t go overboard. Just a bit. My eyes need white space and neatness, maybe because my life is so busy and full!
  2. Thick paper. No bleed-through is important when using colored pens or highlighters.
  3. Spiral binding that lies flat. I don’t want to keep one arm on the planner to keep it open.
  4. Writing space. This is where the Planner Pad shines. I use the Executive size 8 1/2 x 11″ and a week is a two-page spread.
  5. A layout that makes sense for my brain. A Planner Pad works with my way of thinking. A section across the top for categories, a middle section for tasks that need to be done on certain days, a bottom section for appointments. Brilliant. The iBloom Planner has a similar layout so check that one out if you like this style but would rather have color pages—it’s beautiful!

Tips for Using a Paper Planner

Take time on the weekend to plan the coming week. 

I like to do this on Sunday afternoon or evening. I get out my phone and transfer all appointments, then write in things that need to be done on certain days. For events that will last more than a day, I use washi tape to mark the days. Make this a pleasant time if possible, and you’ll associate planning time with good feelings. Pour a cup of good coffee, light a candle, gather your {simple} supplies and enjoy your planning.

Make use of categories.

I write category titles across the top in colored ink and make lists under each. These categories are fairly consistent from week to week, but occasionally a project crops up that is big enough to deserve its own category rather than “Personal.” This might be a vacation, a work project like a speaking engagement, or a special event like a wedding rehearsal dinner. I prefer the category method rather than one long list. The shorter lists trick my brain into thinking it’s all more manageable. 🙂

Check your planner daily.

This may sound silly but it’s a major reason for planner fails. Set an alarm on your phone if need be. This is another area where people’s needs differ: some take their planner everywhere they go, some leave their planner at home. I’m actually at home the vast majority of my days, so my planner stays on my desk or next to wherever I’m working. Things like grocery lists and travel plans go in my phone, so that’s the portable tool. You have to look at the planner to use it well!

Mark off completed tasks.

Enjoy the satisfaction of marking that dude as “done!” Choose your favorite options: check boxes, highlighters, or drawing a line through the task. I’ve been known to write a completed task in my planner just so I can draw a line through it.

Keep it simple and doable.

A complex color coding system or elaborate scrapbook-type decorating increases the chance that your planner will go unused at the first sign of a full schedule. If setting up your planner each week stresses you out, you’ll quickly start avoiding it. Your smart brain will build an association of ain’t-nobody-got-time-for-this with your planner, and that’s the exact opposite association you want to have.

Personalize your planner.

And I’m not talking about printing your name on the front (although that’s a nice feature). I mean use labels to cover standard headings and change them to fit your life. Use it in a different way than the manufacturer intended. Cover things up with stickers if need be. I love using stickers with inspirational quotes each week because words matter. You might find ways to use your planner that are a total opposite to what I’ve suggested here. Be free, my friend. It’s YOUR tool and your life.

Use sticky notes if you’re overwhelmed.

Some days it’s overwhelming just to look at all of the tasks looming in your planner. On the days when your coping skills are fragile, try this: Open your planner. Find a task that must be done today. Write it on a sticky note and close the planner. Keep the sticky note ever before you until the task is done. Crush that sticky note with great force and toss it in the trash. Then proudly mark the task as “done” in your planner. Write the next task on a sticky note. And close the planner.

Why Paper and Pen Are Good for Your Brain

Physically writing with pen to paper affects your brain differently than typing on a computer or phone. Your brain evaluates your tasks as you write them, preparing the way for you to get them done. If you’d rather use paper than digital for making sense of your schedule and to-do’s, try a couple of these tips for using a paper planner and let me know what you think!

Where to find the planners mentioned:

Planner Pad

Erin Condren Life Planner

One Comment

  1. Lisa Manske says:

    Great tips! This is my first year being consistent with a planner. Even though I use my phone a lot, I don’t use it as a planner, ever.

    This year I bought the “Well Planned Day” planner. I have several friends who love this planner but I won’t buy it again next year (bleed-through paper, floral design on every page in colors I strongly dislike, teeny tiny space for weekend planning). I’ve adapted it to fit my needs, though, for now.

    When planning out my week, I write down all my daily tasks headings and homeschool headings. We don’t follow conventional subjects entirely, so my list looks something like this:


    Then I leave blank lines for other things we may decide to do or may need to do, including errands or meeting up with friends.

    Then I write:


    Followed by a list of my own personal enrichment. Books I’m reading, Duolingo, etc.

    We don’t do all of these things every day. Some days we do Bible, German, arithmetic, history, and coding. The next day we may do Bible, German, arithmetic, and mathematics. I put a brief note of what chapter, lesson, or page we did and a check mark next to each category if we did it. That way I can quickly see that we skipped history 2 days in a row and we should do it today. It allows us to keep a rhythm without being slaves to a schedule. If we get caught up in history and spend all morning on it, that’s fine, we’ll hit everything else later in the week.

    Each day I fill in what I did as a workout. If it’s a day where I didn’t have time I can quickly do a set of hoe downs so I don’t have to leave it blank. Same for the household category. Some days I get loads of things done. Other days I feel like I got nothing done but, if I think about it, I did dishes and swept the floor. So I write that down and feel better about my day.

    So, in many ways I write things in my planner after I’ve done them. But I fill in the framework in advance. If I’m tempted to spend time online, I can glance at my planner and see that I haven’t read yet or practiced Duolingo. So it helps me stay focused. And checking things off is so satisfying! Mothering is the job that is never finished. And everything I do today will have to be done again tomorrow. Checking off completed tasks helps me see that I actually do accomplish a lot, every day.

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