How to Use a Planner: Tips and Ideas for Beginners

Author: Madalina Roman

Starting to use a new tool, whether a digital planner or a thick paper planner, can be intimidating.

Even if your purpose is to lighten your busy work schedule in exchange for more free time, if you don’t use the planner effectively, you might get the opposite result.

I’ve often overcomplicated the process of using a new tool or not used it to its maximum capacity, defeating the initial purpose of the tool —organizing my to-do list.

So, I’ve thoroughly researched the topic of how to use a planner, and here are my learnings:

planner organization ideas

Here is the explained version:

  1. Using a planner in a fun way without pressure works best ( at least for me );
  2. Don’t overdo it; organize your daily planner lightly and leave room for changes;
  3. Planning on a Monday for the week ahead can give a good deal of advancement and will help with stress management.
  4. Sticky notes are the best option for me when I’m using a paper planner;
  5. A truly good planner always helps stay organized both with personal tasks and also avoids missing important deadlines at work.

How to use a planner (starter kit)

how to use a daily planner

1. Choose the right planner for you

Firstly, if you haven’t purchased your planner yet, make sure you’re not jumping on the bandwagon because other people purchased a certain type of planner.

Analyze the planner ideas advertised everywhere or recommended and decide if these would make sense for you. Your case can be singular, and your needs or due dates for daily tasks do not resemble someone else’s.

So, have a clear goal in mind

Clarify the whys behind your choice of using a planner:

  1. What do you want to achieve?
  2. Maybe you want to be more productive? Or do you want to get better at time management?
  3. Do you want to improve your well-being or work-life balance, and do you need a planner to achieve this goal? 
Not sure where your time goes?

An automatic time tracker can help spot your time habits. Then, you’ll know how to plan your time.

🤔 Be mindful that even if you’re setting work goals or just making a grocery shopping list, it’s important to set them with the big picture in mind. Our article on why it is so important to set realistic goals might be handy in setting realistic expectations and actionable steps.

Keep in mind what a planner helps with

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a planner as ” Something (such as a device, program, or notebook) that provides a schedule and is used for planning activities, travels, etc. ”

So, digital and paper planners are tools that help you capture every task, goal, or required action as it comes up.

2. Structure your planner

Once the fundamentals and the motivations are clear, it’s time to think about how to structure a planner. It’s essential to devise a system for writing things down in your planner. There isn’t a correct way to go about this, but it’s vital that you’re consistent and that all the information you need is easily accessible.

Some things to include are:

  • Task Name

  • Due Date and Time

  • Priority

  • Location (if applicable)

  • Supplementary Info (e.g., names, contact details)

Make use of planner features

Depending on the type of planner you’re using, it might have some great features that can help you save time and stay organized. Keep these in mind:

  • Notes sections: Jotting down notes during meetings or brainstorming sessions? Many planners have designated note sections that make it easy to find your thoughts later.

  • Reference sections: Have a planner with an address book? Use it to keep track of important contacts, so you can easily find their information when needed.

  • Stickers, tags, and labels: Some planners come with stickers or labels that you can use to mark important dates or tasks. Color coding can be a great way to add a personal touch to your planner, too.

3. Decide when and what you write in the planner

An effective way to organize your time is to write your weekly schedule.

Every Monday morning, while readjusting to work, grab your weekly planner and plan ahead for the week to come, check due dates, recurring tasks, or appointments coming up on specific days. For example, let’s say you have a weekly meeting with your team every Monday at 10 am. You know this meeting will take about an hour, so you’ll need to block that time in your planner. Plus, you’ll want to leave some extra time before and after the meeting for prep and follow-up.

By making a weekly schedule, you can ensure that you’re prepared for everything that’s coming up—and that you have the time to complete it. You might want to check our free schedule templates, which can work as a digital planner.

what is a planner used for

Take notes of things you care about:

  • Work schedules

  • Birthdays, Anniversaries, & Holidays

  • Deadlines

  • To-do Lists

  • Vacation days

  • Bill’s payment due date

  • Doctor appointments

  • Grocery list

  • Car repairs

  • Parties

  • Inspirational quotes

  • Thoughts you have

  • Goals

If you’re using your planner also for organizing personal health and well-being, you may also want to note down:

  • Sleeping habits

  • Eating habits

  • Energy levels

  • Social media consumption

  • Sport and physical activity

Five tips to maximize your planner

organizing planner

1. Set task priorities

Every day, take a few minutes to think about what’s most important. What tasks need to be completed first? What deadlines do you need to meet? Write your top priorities in your planner so you can focus on them first.

I’ve used a paper planner that had designated ample space for me to write my top priorities for the day. Others don’t, so you might need to think of a system for representing these manually, such as:

  • Stars (e.g., 1-star = low priority; 5-stars = urgent)

  • Color Coding (e.g., blue = low priority; red = urgent)

  • List Order (e.g., last = low priority; first = urgent)

As I am a visual learner, using colored pens to color code all the important goals in my paper planners works best for my yearly goals ( note: I’ve discovered that writing my yearly goals in pen and with paper works best for me might not be the same for you).

When discussing work to-dos, a digital planner is more beneficial to me as it sends me important reminders. For setting priorities, the time management matrix quadrants method does wonders for me, similar to Warren Buffet’s 5/25 rule.

2. Use timeboxing

Timeboxing is one of the best time management techniques that helps you maximize time. It involves breaking down your day into smaller chunks and dedicating each to a specific task, goal, activity, or focus.

For example, you might block off your day as follows:

  • 8 am-9 am: Checking and responding to emails.

  • 9 am-12 am: Writing.

  • 12 pm-1 pm: Lunch and break.

  • 1 pm-4 pm: Client meetings.

  • 4 pm-5 pm: Tackling to-do list items.

Using time blocks can ensure that you’re progressing on your most important tasks and goals and that all the things that move the needle are in control. It can also help prevent you from getting overwhelmed by everything that needs to be done in a day.

Within these specific time blocks, there might be specific tasks or calendar events you’ll need to take care of. Or, the time might be relatively unstructured. That flexibility is what makes time-blocking so effective! 

Struggling with time management?

I get you! Using a seamless time tracking system helps surface where time sinks and then manage time better. 

You might also use the Pomodoro technique, which involves breaking work into intervals (typically around 25 minutes) and having small breaks. For that, use a free Pomodoro timer.

3. Make it a habit

The more you use your planner, the easier it will be to stay organized. Make sure to use your planner daily, so it becomes a part of your routine. Until it becomes a habit, I recommend setting a daily alarm on your phone to remind you to update your planner.

Remember, you might have the tendency, as I do, to use multiple planners for different to-dos, such as personal or professional, but for a start, prioritize a single planner.

4. Schedule in buffer time

No matter how well you plan, there will always be surprises. That’s why scheduling some buffer time between tasks and events is pivotal. You won’t be thrown off course if something takes longer than expected.

Buffer time can also involve taking a break, catching up on emails, or giving yourself some breathing room. If one of the most important things for staying productive is taking breaks, don’t forget to create these buffers in your planner.

Make it more functional for you. On that note, most digital planners come with this built-in feature.

5. Be flexible

Plans change, and that’s okay. Don’t be afraid to change your plan as your schedule evolves. It’s better to re-prioritize and move appointments around in your schedule than stress over an over-booked calendar.

The need to fill in and keep track of new events in your paper planner might interfere with your need to maintain a clean and polished look, so it might make sense to go digital. 

Curiosities on how to use a planner effectively

What else can be included in a planner?

Typically, some planners include a motivational quote for each of the seven days of the week, examples of mindfulness exercises for stress management, or a few tips for making the most of your free time. I’ve seen others with frameworks for monthly or weekly check-ins to undertake your learnings and plan more effectively in the future.

Are there better alternatives than planners?

Planners can always help you stay organized, but they won’t necessarily help you manage your time better; you’d still need to apply time management methods or use a time-tracking app that automates the entire process.

Here is just an example of what an automatic time-tracking tool can surface for you with AI:

  • times you’re unproductive or productive at;

  • most opened apps that hinder your productivity;

With such smart productivity insights generated automatically, you rapidly gain a deeper understanding of where your time goes and how to better manage it.

How to use a planner