How to Use a Planner

Planners can help you get good grades and reduce anxiety.

At some point in graduate school, I quit using a planner. I’m not sure why – it might have been because I was broke or because it seemed like more work. I ended up accidentally missing medical appointments, forgetting assignments, and generally feeling so much more stressed.

I tried to implement a planning system a few times but struggled to stick with it. I felt motivated to get the stress to stop, but I didn’t feel motivated to use the systems I created. Boredom was also a barrier.

Even at Duke, where undergraduates tend to be high achievers, my students would sometimes miss assignments and then apologize for forgetting.

Important tips:

  • Planning difficulties are not about intelligence. There are very smart people who struggle with planning.
  • Planning is a skill that can be learned.
  • Stop trying to “remember” assignments. I’m going to teach you a system so that you can use your valuable brain space for other things, like creative problem solving.

Use a Paper Planner

Our brains are amazing. But for managing sheer data, paper is more dependable. Research on learning even suggests that we encode information differently when we write things down.

If you have a planning program or app that works for you, then by all means – use it!

But if your system is working for you, don’t bother to read this article. If you’re happy with your planning skills, you’ll probably enjoy my other articles more.

This article is for people who feel stressed about their commitments, who sometimes miss deadlines, or who feel that something in their planning system is not quite right.

I acknowledge that apps can work for some people, but my job on this blog is to be honest about what works for most students. If human brains absorb information better when we physically write things down, I believe we should take advantage of that.

Even though I really support physically writing things down, if you need technology for disability reasons, that is 100% valid.

Plan Events and Commitments

I like to use a planner with two major structures: a calendar page, and a tasks page.

The calendar page is for things that happen at a specific time. Have soccer practice at 2 on Sundays? Write that down. You’ll also want to write other scheduled events such as meetings with a professor, office hours, and doctor’s appointments.

Writing commitments this way can help you maintain a realistic understanding of your commitments. This can also help you make good decisions about taking on new projects.

Using your calendar pages will also help you avoid accidentally double-booking yourself. I’ve not found it possible to be in two places at once.

If you want a planner that is already set up this way, I recommend the Moleskine weekly. When you open it, there is a calendar on the left and a blank page on the right. Label the blank page as “tasks” and use it to keep your weekly to-do list.

I used the Moleskine weekly during parts of my PhD and I was happy with it. This planner has great paper, too. It feels nice to write on Moleskine products.

If you are a DIY type and you like control over your layout, or if crafting is fun for you, you can set up a blank notebook as a planner. I am particularly in love with Midori gridded notebooks, which have amazing paper. “Love” seems like a strong word for notebooks, but I have pretty strong feelings about nice stationary 🙂

I’m currently using the Midori B6 gridded Shinsho, which is a Japanese size that’s slightly narrower than American A6 planners and notebooks. I used to use the Midori A5, which is a little bigger. I like both, but found I wasn’t really filling the space in the A5. A5 is great if you like to write a lot, though. That little clip is by Midori, and I bought it separately – it doesn’t come with the notebook.

Plan recurrent chores

In my household, we like to grocery shop on Sundays. Choosing a specific day helps us make sure we don’t run out of food staples. Because I have issues with recurrent hypoglycemia, getting food on the same day each week helps me keep myself safe and healthy.

I believe recurrent chores should be an optional addition. If you want to be thorough, write your weekly tasks in your calendar page. If you tend to get overstimulated by too much text, then reserve your calendar pages for actual meetings.

You can also try writing scheduled meetings in one color (for example, a black pen) and chores in another color (like a pencil). I’ve included some favorite pen brands below.

Track Tasks

On the other side of my planner is a tasks page. The tasks page is for anything you previously tried to remember to do.

Does your car need a repair? Do you need to research a new phone? Do you need to stop by the library to get books for class? This all goes on the tasks page.

Some tasks are erratic – we don’t necessarily need to do a specific task like calling the doctor every week. Other tasks repeat weekly. For example, blog-related tasks appear in my tasks list every week.

As I mentioned above, Moleskine weekly calendars are a really useful way to keep track of your weekly tasks. When you open the calendar, the left side is blank and can be used for your weekly tasks. You’ll still be able to see your calendar on the left, so you can find everything you need for the week without flipping back and forth.

Projects are Big, Tasks are Small

Anything on your to-do that makes you panic or dread doing it is probably too big. When I was in school, I once wrote, “write an excellent dissertation” in my tasks list (if you want to facepalm, this is the time).

“Write dissertation” (especially with the emotional pressure of “excellent”) should never have been on my to-do list.

It would have been better to start a projects list and call the dissertation a project. Appropriate related tasks might be, “brainstorm dissertation projects for 20 minutes,” “write 1 paragraph,” “proofread one page,” or “go on the library website and find a relevant source.”

Can you see how much less panic is involved when you slice projects into tasks?

Prowling lion represents an intimidating school project.
This lion is like a project. It’s scary.
Cute kitten represents a small task that is approachable and not scary.
This kitten is like a task. It’s small and approachable.

The idea of projects vs. tasks seems so basic, but made a huge difference to how I manage work. This concept comes from David Allen’s famous book, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. If you want to read more about project management, I recommend it.

If you’re having trouble knowing whether a given commitment is small enough to go on your to-do list, or whether it needs to be broken down further into smaller tasks, check in with yourself emotionally.

Do you panicked, overwhelmed, and miserable, as if a lion is chasing you? You’re probably facing a project. In my example, “write a dissertation” was the project that made me feel overwhelmed. Break your project down into smaller tasks, and put those tasks on your calendar.

Does the commitment you’re considering feel small and approachable (like that kitten)? It’s a task. Go ahead and put it on your to-do list. In my example, “brainstorm dissertation ideas for twenty minutes” was an appropriate task. I knew I could manage twenty minutes, and brainstorming is specific enough that I knew exactly what was involved.

Migrate Tasks

If you don’t get all your weekly tasks done, that’s okay! If you didn’t finish your tasks last week, rewrite the ones you still need to do on the current week’s task list. Task migration is an idea I picked up from the popular bullet journal craze, though I handle my tasks a little differently.

Consider Minimalist Brands

When you are comparing brands, pay attention to whether the font, color, layout, or patterns make you feel overstimulated or stressed. If you want to actually use your planner, you’ll want one that feels comfortable to use.

I tend to get overwhelmed by flowery fonts, lots of colors, and unnecessary symbols. I currently use a plain notebook by Midori. I divide the left side into 8 sections (1 for the month, 7 for the days of the week), and I use the right side for tasks. I’ll write a separate post about how to make a custom planner using a notebook.

Since it’s a pain to keep writing days and dates each week, in the future, I’ll probably switch to Midori’s actual calendar or a weekly planner by Moleskine. I used a Moleskine planner during my PhD and was pretty happy with it. I bought the XL planner (7.5 x 9.5 inches), and enjoyed having a lot of room to write. F or my next Moleskine, I would choose the large size (5×8.25 inches) because it’s lighter.

Planners Can Spark Joy

In fact, you should look for that spark. I couldn’t stick to planners until I found one that made me really happy. The paper by Midori is ridiculously awesome – silky and a pleasure to use. I love the grid and the paper cover. I love that it looks minimalist, and it makes me feel peaceful to use it.

Pens and stickers are also affordable ways to make planning more fun. When you are struggling with a new skill, bribe yourself a little! Even DBT therapists recommend rewarding yourself when you are engaging in a difficult but values-based task.

For example, you can write assignment due dates all in one color. Or you can try using one color for school. I also use them to enhance recall when studying (that will have to be a subject for another post, but I find color so useful when I’m learning something difficult).

Consider Size and Weight

I’m not a fan of freakishly tiny planners. I like a bit of room to work.

After a few years, I realized I didn’t love big, heavy planners either. Before the pandemic when everything was in person, I found myself leaving large planners at home due to the weight.

Heavy planners can also be a problem people with disabilities that affect mobility, people who commute on foot or by bike, and people who already carry a lot in their bag.

If you’re not sure, I think a planner that is about the size of a mass market paperback book is a good choice (about 5×7 or 5×8). If the weight of your bag is the most important criteria, choose a small one (about 3.5×5).

Photo credits: Estée Janssens (pink planner), Francesco De Tommaso (lion) and Tran Mau Tri Tam (kitten)