8 Steps for Using a Paper Planner Effectively

Paper planners are effective only if you use them regularly. Here's how to start.

overhead shot of person writing in paper planner on desk with flowers and coffee

Treehugger / Sanja Kostic

Paper planners are effective only if you use them properly and regularly. Here are some ways to get into the groove, if you're not yet an addict!

Perhaps you’ve made a New Year’s resolution to become more organized. Paper planners are an old-fashioned yet effective way to stay on top of everything that has to be done by providing a powerful visual layout and space for jotting notes, to-do lists, and ideas. The only problem is that no planner will help you get organized unless you use it. Establishing that routine is important and well worth the effort. Here are some tips on how to get started with a planner.

1. Have a Regular Daily Planning Session

overhead shot of woman's lap while she holds coffee and writes in her paper planner

Treehugger / Sanja Kostic

Take 5 or 10 minutes every evening to go over your tasks for the next day. That refreshes in your mind what needs to be done, making it less likely for you to forget about appointments, etc. Organizational expert and blogger Jen from Pretty Neat Living makes a good point by describing it as an important brain dump: “I used to have issues falling asleep until I started this nightly practice a few years ago. I no longer experience racing thoughts scrambling through my mind of tomorrow’s to-dos since they’re all nicely laid out for me.”

2. Have a Regular Weekly Planning Session

over should shot of woman filling out paper planner on couch while sipping coffee

Treehugger / Sanja Kostic

At the start of the week, such as Sunday evening (or whatever works best for you), take a few minutes to go over plans for the week ahead. This is your chance to plan for broader tasks that can’t be pegged to a specific day, i.e. catch up with a friend, send out thank-you notes, finish that pile of ironing, weed the garden. You can also transfer any information that may have gone into your phone during the week.

3. Use the Monthly Section

shot of person's lap with paper planner cradled in hands open to monthly section

Treehugger / Sanja Kostic

Every planner has a monthly spread. I prefer designs that place it at the start of each month, although some planners put all the month spreads at the beginning of the book. This is where you should jot down all the things that won’t change—birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, due dates for bills, etc.

4. Use a Single Planner for Everything

over shoulder shot of person sitting on green couch with paper planner and coffee in hand

Treehugger / Sanja Kostic

It’s helpful to keep all scheduling, lists, and brainstorming notes in one place, so you don’t have to consult or carry multiple planners, calendars, or notebooks. Try color-coding business and personal tasks for better separation by using different colored pens for things relating to work and personal life. Fill it with sticky notes, stickers, and whatever else will help you to stay on track. This is easiest done with a paper planner, especially one that's divided into seven days on one side and blank or lined paper on the other.

5. Make Your Steps Concrete

close up shot of paper day planner with appointment hand written surrounded by pencil and paper clips

Treehugger / Sanja Kostic

Write in full sentences (with verbs!) to clarify what you need to do. For example, it’s more likely you’ll tackle “Call Maria about recipe” quickly than if you just write “Maria.”

6. Check Your Planner Often

person in sweater drops small paper planner into pale tan leather purse

Treehugger / Sanja Kostic

Check it frequently and leave it somewhere obvious when you’re at home, a desk or table, ready for use. Don’t stuff it away on a shelf because it will get forgotten. Pop it into your bag when you leave the house, just as you take your wallet and phone. If you don't have it with you, put information into your phone calendar, then transfer to your paper planner when you get home.

7. Use a Small Passport or Regular Sized Planner

lay flat shot of person's hands touching pale pink day planner on wooden desk

Treehugger / Sanja Kostic

The smaller and more compact your planner is, the more inclined you will be to carry it around and use it. Realistically, you need something that can fit in a handbag or backpack. Big, hefty desk planners are nice but not as practical, unless you keep track of everything on your phone and transfer it later to your planner, but that’s an additional step. On a related note, choose a planner that draws your eye—something colorful and/or beautiful—because that will help you to remember it and make you want to use it.

8. Don’t Stress About Filling It Up

shot of day planner filled with activities on wooden desk next to coffee cup

Treehugger / Sanja Kostic

Sometimes the appearance of empty space makes people think they need to fill it up. Don’t go there because you’ll burn out and lose interest in your planner. Rather, allow your planner to be reflective of your life at a particular time. Some weeks will be jam-packed; others empty by comparison.

You’ll have to figure out your own style, whether you like to write down everything as a sort of brain dump, or if you prefer to stick with only relevant scheduling stuff. Some people like designs with calendars on the left and lined/graph paper on the right, which allows for note-taking. Alternatively, you can get a slim notebook that slips into the back of the planner for writing down general things that don’t fit into particular days.

A planner can be useful for tracking diet or workouts, planning meals and grocery shopping, remembering when bills and payments are due, scheduling time to watch movies or read books, listing things you're grateful for or goals you're working toward, or creating a brief record of what you did each day, aka a "did" list. It can be whatever you want.

The sky’s the limit when it comes to figuring out your personal planner style, and now is the best time to get started.