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The best planner for you is the planner you will use, so let’s really dig into that.
I’m going to guess that you’re reading this because you have never been able to find a planning system that really works quite right for you. You probably use a new system for a couple of weeks, or even a couple of months, but then you stop using it for some reason. The specific reason will probably be different for each person and each time, but basically it stops working because (a) it’s not new anymore so it’s less interesting, and (b) there are things about the system that are incompatible with your processing type and/or particular executive dysfunctions.
How do we figure out what we actually need? Trial and error. Which sucks.
I wish there was some nice, clear list of steps I could share to help you figure it all out, but there really isn’t. This isn’t something that has easy steps. So what I’m going to do instead is talk about the solutions I have found that are working for me, and the changes I’m intending to make come January.
Processing Type and Executive Functions I Struggle With
As I said earlier, I’m a Micro-Visual processor. I like categories and boxes but I like everything easy to see as well. As for Executive Functions, I have difficulty with almost all of them (benefits of having Combined type ADHD I guess). What I’ve recently realized is that my processing type means that not all of the things that help me will help everyone else, but also my particular issues with executive functioning mean that I’m in a good position to be able to figure out different things that will help others. Weird but true.
When I first found a planning system that worked, I followed the advice in Julie Morgenstern’s Time Management from the Inside Out. I highly recommend her books if you are also a Micro-Visual processor. Her strategies are easy to understand and adjust for different processing types, so they may help you if you’re a different type of processor as well.
Anyway, I’d been trying to use paper planners for years, but I could never find a system that worked consistently. I wound up getting a Palm Z22 (it was 2005), colour-coding and categorizing all of my tasks, and that worked for several years. When the Palm bricked itself, I switched to a Moleskine weekly planner, pocket size. It was just an agenda, and when it ended I moved to the Moleskine daily planner, regular size.
I stuck with the daily planner for several years. I liked having the full day with hours down the side so I could keep track of what I did each day as well as my upcoming appointments. There wasn’t enough room for tracking the things I wanted to track, though, so I started adding stickers and then little booklets I created on the computer. That got ridiculous.
I kept a bullet journal for a year or so, but I had to stop because I got stuck on making it pretty (which I knew was likely to happen but I loved the idea of how customizable it is) and because my hand does not do well with having to write a lot. It cramps up, and I have tendinitis in both arms anyway. Bullet journaling requires a lot of writing, even if you’re keeping it as simple as possible. So I moved to printables… which weren’t quite what I needed.
What’s Working for Me Now
My current planning system draws from Julie Morgenstern’s book Time Management from the Inside Out, the general ideas inherent to bullet journaling, a system I came up with through trial and error several years ago, BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits, and the book The Organized Child: An Effective Program to Maximize Your Kid’s Potential—in School and in Life, by Richard Gallagher, Elena G. Spira, & Jennifer L. Rosenblatt. Overall, it’s a good system that works really well for me. There are a few little things that I need to adjust, but that’s about it.
I need to see stuff and I need to do stuff, so writing things down by hand (rather than typing them) helps me remember them better since that’s a physical action. BUT I can’t be writing a bazillion things down every day, because that will kill my hand.
I use Blueline NotePro notebooks. They use the same hole punch as the Filofax reusable notebooks but take larger sizes of paper.
I use a regular MiracleBind NotePro for my monthly/daily pages. The paper size is non-standard—9.25”x7.25”—but I design my pages especially for these books and it’s working well for me so far. One bonus is that my monthly dividers are from a regular “Classic” Happy Planner I found at the thrift store, and while they don’t fit perfectly (a little narrow) they work for what I need them for.
My weekly planner is not in a MiracleBind, but the binding is still useable, I just have to punch each page twice, with the second set of holes halfway between the first set. It’s a Steno book, meaning that its binding is across the top, and it is 6”x9”. The monthly dividers I use in this are cut from card stock. I’d link to this notebook on Blueline’s site, but I can’t find it. They may have discontinued it.
I have decorated the covers of both of these notebooks with stickers that I really like, which makes them more appealing to use.
My side planners are Filofax refillable notebooks. These take A5 paper, which is a little wider but a little shorter than a half-letter sheet. They have really nice fake leather covers, so I don’t decorate or label them; I just use different colours for different things. I have three. My first one isn’t in use much at all anymore, but I often use it to write ideas in. The other two are used for social media planning and project planning.
My monthly pages have been in my daily planner this year, but I am going to be moving that to the wall for 2023 since my husband and son need a visual system. I will probably create the pages myself so that I can have them be more functional for us all. That will also let me make changes on the fly, if certain features I try turn out to not be useful for them or for me. I received a 2-year monthly planner in my Christmas stocking this year, so I will probably use that for my personal monthly planning and still create a monthly wall calendar.
My weekly pages were a basic schedule grid this year, and it worked okay but I found that I needed a bit more detail. As a result, I’m adding onto the pages and they will be fold-out for 2023. The main part of the page will continue to be the schedule grid with a section at the bottom for weekly priorities, but I’m adding a meal planning grid that will fold out.
The back of the weekly schedule is (and will continue to be) an “Issues Log” (as per a video by “How to ADHD”) that I call “Making Life Work”. The columns are for listing what was hard this week, why it was hard, and what I can do differently next week. On the left of this table is a blank spot that will be visible from the front when the weekly page is folded up, and I’ll be using it for Post-Its with tasks I need to do this week listed on them.
My daily pages have a couple of important features. First of all, they are undated. Given my struggles with consistency, it makes more sense to write the date on a page that I’m going to use rather than have a bunch of totally blank dated pages. This also saves paper. Second, I don’t write out all of my daily tasks every single day—I’ll explain how I handle that in a moment.
This past year, the daily pages had a time tracking grid on the left half of the page, where I can write in the time and then note what I’m doing, The right half of the page had Goals and gravy, a method I figured out years ago that helps with Bad Brain Days (I explained this in this post), a place for other To-Do items, a water tracker, a place to list calls, e-mails, and texts that I needed to send, and a box for me to do Sketch a Day. In 2023, I’m modifying the right side of the page to include a daily habit that I want to work on, and I’ve done away with the extra to-dos and water tracker, replacing them with a box for a Post-It (for easy task transfer from day to day) and a box for tracking whatever I feel like tracking that day. The Sketch a Day box is now called “Distraction Depot” and I’ll be using it for Sketch a Day most of the time, but it’s also going to be great for whatever I need to use it for.
The back of the daily page is an assessment. It asks me to list one thing I missed, two things I did, and three good things about the day. Then I can rate my day out of 10, and the bottom third of the page is for writing notes and thoughts, like a journal entry.
Okay, let’s talk about my daily tasks.
One of the problems I have always had with productivity advice is the whole “choose five things for your list and stick to that”. That doesn’t work when eating, personal hygiene tasks, and laundry need to be on your list! Unfortunately, writing everything out every day is time-consuming and hard on my hand, and it results in a ridiculously long, overwhelming list of stuff to try and get through.
To deal with this, I have created a fold-out Dailies list and tracker page. It sits at the back of the month and moves over each month. My daily tasks are listed in the right column, and those line up with the little boxes that run down the edge of the daily page. When I complete a task, I colour in the corresponding box on the daily page. I am really proud of this system, not least because the folded over page functions as a bookmark so it’s easy to find the current daily page.
My project pages are based on a design I came up with when I was a church secretary. The front of the page is for details like what the project is, when it needs to be done by, and what I’m going to need in order to complete it. The back of the page is where I can figure out all of the steps I need to follow in order to do it. The front of the page also has a place in the top right corner, against the edge of the page, so I can colour it to match the life category it belongs to, which makes it easier to locate quickly. I do fill out a project page for projects that happen regularly, just because then I have all the steps written down and I can check it if I forget something.
My social media pages are just a basic grid. I’ve found that I need to make a few changes to the design of this page for 2023, but basically it numbers the weeks across the top and then lists what type of post and which social media the post should go on down the left. The boxes are where I make notes about specific topics for each day and post. At the top of the page I can fill in the month, how many weeks there are, and what the month’s theme is. I need to add a row to the main grid where I can note what printable or other item I’ll be offering that week, and some rows don’t need to have room for me to write stuff in them because I want to just use a similar type of content every time (e.g., tell funny anecdotes on Thursdays).
The last thing I have so far is a homeschooling planning page, which is a basic grid with the weekdays across the top and a column on the left for the subjects. Then I can write in what I want to cover with my son in the boxes. I haven’t tried using it yet, so I’ll have to report back once I have.
Now, I use my phone calendar for appointments because I can tell it to remind me when it’s time to leave for said appointments. I’ve experimented with a variety of ways to incorporate technology into my analog system, and I do use it where it makes sense for me. For example, I keep my grocery list in my phone.
So here’s what’s supposed to happen.
Appointments go into my phone, then onto the monthly calendar. I also record things like paydays and bill due dates that I haven’t automated on the monthly calendar.
On Sundays, I make sure the monthly calendar is up to date with my phone, and then I transfer the week’s schedule stuff over to my weekly page. I choose my week’s priorities from my current projects. Everything is colour-coded using highlighters and coloured pens (I use Pilot’s Frixion erasable pens).
Every morning (or the night before) I look at my daily page and my weekly page, and I make sure I align my daily Goals and gravy with my weekly priorities, choosing tasks from the applicable project pages.
Why This Suits Me
This system suits my Micro-Visual processing type because it lets me categorize everything while keeping things easy to understand at a glance because of the colour-coding.
Being able to see everything at once by laying out my various books and calendars helps with my Attentional Control.
Having a dedicated notebook for project planning helps me keep things simple, and having a place to write down ideas is great for dealing with issues with Cognitive Inhibition.
The assessments that I’ve included help with Self-Monitoring.
Having that constant Dailies list keeps my repetitive tasks in front of me, which makes it harder to forget them (Working Memory).
Something I would like to incorporate more is adapting my schedule to make Cognitive Flexibility easier and to allow me to indulge my impulses (Inhibitory Control). I also want to schedule my self-care tasks (Self-Monitoring).
Planning, Organizational Skills, and Goal-Directed Behaviour are not things I struggle with as much as I do these other things, but of course having a planning system is useful for all of these areas as well.
What about You?
This system is personalized for me and my needs (and the needs of my family). That means it may not work for you, particularly if you have a different processing type or struggle with different areas of executive functioning. Has this breakdown helped you figure out why past attempts at planning haven’t worked for you? Do you have ideas for what might help you moving forward? Would you like help creating a planning system that will actually meet your needs? Please comment on this post or contact me via the contact form!
This week’s printable is a collection of some of the pages I’ve created for my own use over the years. If you are unable to print things or need to have it all done for you, you will be able purchase a few different types of planners over on Lulu soon (see sidebar link). If the cost is too high, please let me know! I will look into taking preorders and having planners printed locally, then sending them out once they’re all ready. Hopefully that will keep costs down, but I have no idea right now how much that might be.
Christmas has been a bit of time off for me. I’m rather proud of myself for sticking with weekly posts over the past three months!
Next month is January. New month, new year. New goals? Maybe. I keep learning more about how the ADHD brain works and how goal-setting can be simplified for us. I hope you’ll join me next month as I jump into some new ideas!