The Myth of Just Getting a Planner

This article contains a few prompts to get you started on troubleshooting your experience with planners.

By Ceanna Hayes Daniels — May 15, 2023

The Myth of Just Getting a Planner

High school and college students struggling with motivation, time management, project management, or a combination of all three, often receive some variation on the same well-intentioned but ultimately unhelpful advice from their parents or teachers:

"Have you tried making a to-do list?"

"You should add it to your calendar next time."

"Just get a planner."

The fact is, however, that recommendations like these fail to address the root of the problem. Buying a notebook doesn't magically increase your productivity, nor does it teach you to balance competing academic deadlines successfully. Students who have been told to "just get a planner" often struggle with how to use a planner, not acquiring one.

However, this dismissive advice doesn't have to limit your high school experience or define your college years. No one is inherently bad at using planners. Conversely, you're experiencing specific, concrete problems you can address and resolve after identifying them. Ultimately, it's more effective for students to ask themselves why the planner they were given doesn't work for them than to berate themselves about the planner not working.

Here are a few prompts to get you started on troubleshooting your experience with planners:

Issues with One Planner, Rather than Planners as a Whole

Sometimes, there's an easy fix. If you like planners overall but are facing a product-specific issue — for example, there isn't space to write out your daily tasks within the weekly calendar provided, or your planner doesn't fit inside your backpack — then just trying a different brand or size could be all that's needed to solve the problem.

The Pressure to "Get It Right"

Other times, students may be held back by the pressure to immediately find a cohesive system for using their planner. Try not to stress about "getting it right" right away — no one expects you to establish a life-long system for tackling to-do lists today. You don't necessarily need to find a system that will sustain you through college; just getting practice in high school and developing an effective system will set you up for long-term success.

Instead of pressuring yourself to stick with one system right off the bat — which could lock you into an approach that limits your productivity and leaves you with low motivation about ever using a planner — adopt a flexible approach and be open to making regular adjustments to your planning methods. The insights you gain from analyzing why something doesn't work for you will help you to find or create a system that does.

In addition, there are many books, blogs, and YouTube tutorials on how different people adapt scheduling tools to work for them. Sometimes just seeing someone else's walkthrough can reduce the pressure of "getting it right" as you start a system for yourself. As a result, it's often worthwhile to learn more about a productivity system and google a few tips and tricks while you're at it before you feel discouraged about making it work for you.

Online or on Paper?

When testing different types of productivity systems, many students begin by asking whether they want to use paper planners or digital planners, or even a hybrid system, to track their tasks and deadlines. For digital native who needs to be able to access their calendar across multiple devices, a physical journal could limit their productivity. By contrast, a student working on decreasing their screen time and increasing their focus may find it valuable to use a physical planner or journal to achieve their goals more effectively. Approach the question with your own goals to analyze what will work best for you and be open to changing your system to fit the needs of a new semester.

Aesthetic Preferences

Don't underestimate the impact a planner's aesthetic can have on whether a planner works for you; it's a crucial element to a system's long-term functionality. After all, if you were given a planner in an art style that makes you cringe or a color that gives you a headache, you won't be likely to use it often. Knowing your style preferences can help you to pick a planner or design a bullet journal setup that you'll use regularly. Perhaps you'll find that you prefer a sleek, minimalist design to increase the efficiency of your planning process, or perhaps you'll prefer a maximalist setup that changes monthly to keep yourself interested and engaged in the planner. Whatever the case, selecting a visually appealing system will help you stick with it long enough to determine whether it works for you.

Bullet Journaling

If planners — in any form you've tried — haven't worked for you, or if the setup of a traditional planner feels too constraining, then it may be time to swap to a different system, such as bullet journaling.

Like traditional planners, bullet journals provide a unified location for tracking appointments, deadlines, and to-do lists. Unlike planers, they offer enormous flexibility and endless options for customization, lending themselves with equal ease to a minimalist's daily log and an artist's creative outlet.

Unfortunately, the maximalist approach some users promote online can scare off newcomers who would enjoy the original system. Before you write off bullet journaling based on the elaborate, time-intensive spreads popular on social media, look at the system the bullet journal's creator originally envisioned by checking out his book or YouTube channel. The simple setup is easy for students to replicate and adjust to their own preferences, offering far greater control and flexibility than a traditional planner does. (In addition — no one online needs to validate or even see your approach to bullet journaling for it to work for you.)

Finding "One" that Works

Finding a system that works for you is a gradual process with many variables, and, ultimately, there isn't a ready-made system that works perfectly for everyone. As a result, students often need to try various scheduling tools and systems before they figure out what works for them.

In addition, you may find several effective strategies rather than one "perfect" system. Rotating through those systems based on your goals for the week, month, or semester is more long-term benefits than forcing yourself to use the same tools for different problems. As you seek productivity systems that work for you, don't pressure yourself to make anything perfect; just aim to find helpful approaches.


Remember that productivity systems are meant to work for you rather than make you work for them. If you're spending such extensive amounts of time updating, designing, or editing a system that it decreases your overall productivity and happiness, it may be time to set it aside and try something else.

Be patient with the process; even a system that works well when you first find it will become more helpful as you gradually refine it. In addition, what works well in high school may need adjustment once you start college. Although it can feel slow at the moment, investing time in developing a productivity system that works for you always pays off, not just by helping you to pursue your goals more effectively and increasing your self-understanding, and preparing you for whatever challenges you face in the future.

Ceanna Hayes Daniels

Ceanna Hayes Daniels

Ceanna Hayes Daniels is freelance writer and editor. In 2022, she graduated Hillsdale College summa cum laude with a degree in politics. In her free time, she continues to enjoy studying philosophy, political theory, and literature. She and her husband live in Michigan, where the two enjoy perusing bookstores together for new books and old records.
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