Getting Myself Organized: How I Learned to Use a Planner

2015plannerMy 2015 Erin Condren planner, personalized with a quote from St. Padre Pio.

Here I have to make an admission: I love reading planner posts.  I love picking up planners in the store and flipping through their clean, tidily ordered pages.  I love looking at planners online.  But it has only been in the last four months or so that I have really come to use a planner on an almost daily basis.

A couple of years ago, when Jen started posting about her Erin Condren planner, I was intrigued.  (You can see her most recent post here and follow her links to the other reviews she’s done over the years.)  I had tried and failed to use other planners in the past.  I would write appointments down in the planner and then close it up and forget to look at the planner and have no idea what was going on during the week.  Or I would misplace the planner.  Or forget to write in it, period.

So for years I have relied on a simple wall calendar to keep up with who had to be where when.

The calendar we used this year comes from Michelle Quigley, but I also like and have used the wall calendars from TAN.   The wall calendar has the benefit of being up where I and everyone else in the family can see it at all times.  I always use a Catholic calendar that has important dates in the liturgical calendar marked along with secular holidays so we can check saints’ feasts when we sit down to say our prayers. (I used to just use the wall calendar we got for free from our parish, but it seemed to miss a lot and I decided I wanted the traditional calendar to be included as well.)

The wall calendar is a fixture in our house and essential to keeping us on track, but there is only so much you can write into those squares.  As our family grew, I found that I was just letting too much of the other stuff slip through the cracks.  For example… if Andy’s out of town  and I need to get the kids somewhere at night, what should we have for dinner and when should we eat it?  Do I need to prep anything ahead of time? Use a crockpot?

The Erin Condren planner looked interesting to me because of the vertical format with the time blocks divided into Morning, Afternoon, and Evening.  (Now you can get a horizontal or hourly layout, but more on that later.) I thought it might be flexible enough for me (even me!) to figure out how to use it.  And the covers were nice.  So I held my breath, took the plunge, and ordered one.

My first year trying to use the planner saw mediocre success.  Mostly I ignored the calendar pages and used the blank Notes section in the back to record our grocery purchases every month.  Occasionally I would actually use the calendar to plan my meals.  Using the planner to organize my life — i.e. to write down things to do, places to go, and people to see — was about as much as a flop as it had always been for me.  At the end of the year — with a sigh — I decided that it had probably been money ill-spent, and so I didn’t order another one.  I picked up a cheap spiral notebook to keep track of grocery purchases and thought I would go back to relying on my trusty wall calendar.


Our grocery purchases for September.  You’ll notice that I had tried to set a much lower budget and failed miserably to keep it.  Our monthly budget varies from month to month as I buy many of our staples in bulk.

The only problem was… I kept digging out my old planner to access the other information I had written down in it.  Passwords. Phone numbers.  What we spent on groceries in June.  The small calendar for the year.  The scratch pads that stick in the front cover.  After about a month, I realized that I had actually used the planner more than I thought I had, and I determined (again) that I would grow up and actually use the calendar pages this time.  My new Erin Condren planner arrived around February, and I used it to help me plan out the AIP (Autoimmune Paleo) diet for Lent.

AIPplanner page

Sorry for the blur! Putting posts together for the past few months has basically been a battle with my technology. But you can see a few components to my planning in this picture at least. I often use the margin as a place to keep a running grocery list. I write in all the appointments first and then I stick in the meals and any prep I need to do beforehand, when I need to do it. The cryptic acronyms you see on some of the squares are abbreviations for cookbooks.

Then I forgot to use the calendar pages again.  I kept scribbling on the notepads and keeping track of my grocery spending in the back, but looking at the planner had a tendency to make me feel guilty, like there was something I was supposed to be doing…

Around August, life reached critical mass.  I had a child getting ready to head to college, we had figured out that we didn’t have as much money as we thought we had, homeschool activities for the new school year were starting up — including a music program that began at 8:30 AM — and I was just beginning to come out of my first trimester fog.  Andy, who had valiantly done the bulk of the grocery shopping before, wasn’t getting home from the gym with Katydid until 6:30 PM, so it was clear that he could not “swing” by Kroger on his way home anymore.

And I couldn’t keep track of everything.

The wall calendar remained (and remains) as important as ever, but I found that in order to keep on track with meals  I had to use the planner.  Trying to keep all these boys and my husband fed is a huge undertaking, and when you throw in my gluten-free, corn-free diet things get a lot more complicated.  There aren’t many convenience products that I can use to make my life easier, so most of what we normally eat is made from scratch.  Keeping up with the prep necessary just to get dinner on the table can sometimes be overwhelming.

Anyway, I decided (again) to be a grown-up.  I got out the planner, and this time it was so useful that it was impossible to forget.

I think that for those of us with ADD-ish tendencies — or brain-fog for whatever reason — the key is finding something that is so useful it’s impossible to forget.  If you’re an organized person, you can probably remember to use any kind of planner.  You may not like the one you’re using; you may want to tweak it so that it works better for you.  But you can probably muddle through and make it work.  We can’t. If an organizational tool doesn’t meet us where we are and prove so enormously useful that we would be lost without it, it is consigned to the basement of our brains where stuff goes that isn’t important enough (or visible enough) to fit into the squeezy closet that forms our working memory.   And it may take us years of experimentation (and failure) to hit on a system that allows us to function in a somewhat “normal” manner. (Not optimal, just “normal”.)  It’s taken me years to realize that my failures are not entirely my fault.  Most planning systems are built for people who know how to use them, and whose brains work in sequential ways.  And most planning systems are not built for homeschooling moms of large families.  (I think that every mother of a large family probably has to tweak her planner to get it to work.  I’m not sure about that, but I have a strong hunch.)  But when I finally hit on a flexible format and started using it to fill a pressing need, I didn’t forget to use it as often.

Here are the  conditions that need to be met by a planner so that I’ll remember to use it regularly:

  • It has to provide structure that makes sense to me.  The vertical format of the Erin Condren planner, which is broken into Morning, Afternoon, and Night, makes sense to me, and it works with what I need it for, which is to plan meals and meal prep around outside appointments.  If I just write the meal prep or meals down in a list format without breaking them up visually, it just gets all jumbled up in my brain.  That said — it was with some trepidation that I ordered the new hourly format for 2016, but after studying it a bit, I think that it will actually give me more space for writing and I’ll be able to put appointments in at their actual time instead of just scrawling it wherever and taking up a lot of space.  Also, I like the colors of the hourly format better.  I didn’t think I could do the horizontal format because I need the structure of having time laid out for me.


A more recent weekly two-page spread, a little less filled in.  Sometimes I still drop the ball.  We also didn’t eat all these meals. I made something else on Monday night (can’t remember what it was), we didn’t have pizza on Weds., and Andy brought home an enormous amount of leftovers from his office building’s Christmas party on Friday, including 5 lbs of barbecue.  (We live in the Memphis metro area so every party has barbecue, and it’s excellent.) I didn’t cook all weekend.

  • I have to be able to use it to fill a pressing need.  One of the reasons for my past planner failures is that I was trying to use them like other people use them.  Devoting an entire planner to food didn’t seem like what other people did.  Instead, I saw meal planning printables, chalkboard menus, notebooks, online meal planners… etc.  I tried all of those, too, and none of them seemed to work for me.  But combining the meal planning with the outside schedule in the same place… that has worked pretty well.  I’m only now getting to the point where I remember to take my planner with me to the doctor’s office.


My first step has become sitting down to fill out the monthly calendar.  I appreciate that the calendar for the next month is inserted before the last week of the current month so I’m physically reminded that I need to do it before the first day of the month.  I watched a Youtube video about meal planning in which the blogger was quite annoyed at this format because it cut off her month.  For me, though, this is an excellent feature.  I find it helpful, not annoying.

  • It has to have a dedicated, visible place to live.  I have a shelf and a bag.  If my kids pick up my planner off the table, they’ll put it in one of those two places.  Stuff doesn’t get stacked on top of it, which means I can find it when I need it.  Anything without a dedicated home will get lost in my house.
  • It has to be easily identifiable.  I am an out of sight/out of mind kind of person.  The more unique an object is, the more likely I am to know what it is at a glance, and therefore, to pick it up.  That’s why I like the Erin Condren covers.  I only order one set of covers, which I have labeled with my initials and the year.  Last year, I also ordered the neoprene clutch.  It’s a little expensive, so I’m going to try to get another year out of mine, even though it’s taken a bit of wear.  I really like having a place to keep the planner along with all the other “stuff” I slide inside it.  The clutch keeps all those receipts, pens, etc. corralled.  (I tried the pen loops, but they kept pulling off… or being pulled off… and some of my pens wouldn’t fit right in the loop in any case.  So now I just stick pens and pencils in the clutch.)


The lighting in my house is really terrible.  The design is actually pink, not white.

UPS just delivered my new 2016 Erin Condren planner with the hourly format today… and the first thing I noticed was that they changed the Notes section so that I can’t really use it to keep track of my grocery budget anymore!  I have to tell you that I am not really happy about that, but I’ll probably just have to keep the budget in one of the fancy little notebooks I couldn’t resist ordering.  (It’s Jen’s fault.  She showed them off.) In my next post in this series, I’ll go into more depth about how exactly I’ve been using my old planner to help me organize our meals, along with some ideas for how I’ll be using my new planner in 2016.  Food is a huge management issue for me, so I’ll probably have a few posts about how I’m trying to plan meals, fit in all the cooking, and grocery shop for all these guys (not to mention my daughter and pregnant me) without going completely broke or insane!

newplannerboxI think God must have whispered in somebody’s ear that I needed the card they tucked into the top of the box.


  1. I loved your post!! It really illustrates the different ways one can use a planner to work FOR them. It’s just a tool until you begin to integrate it into all the corners of your day – and the key part is that it HAS TO BE WHAT IS INTUITIVE FOR YOU! And I really liked how you shared what makes using a planner intuitive for you because it opens up the variety of ways you can use this planner! As I was reading, I was nodding my head at many of your points, only I hadn’t thought about how important they were to me – I just do them. Like how the planner has to be out and visible, and how you put so much of your eating/pantry plan in there.

    I like keeping my budget lists in one of those new little notebooks I talked about ( – tucked in the back pocket. I actually like that I can take the notebook out and work with it alone. Plus, with 40 pages it gets me through several budget cycles. I like using the grid lined one (pink & gold chevron) – but of course, there are options if you prefer lined or blank.

    My Sarah went with the hourly format for her new planner, too, and she LOVES IT! It really works well with all she’s got going on and she likes having the time laid out for her. I admit I was really intrigued looking at it!

    Anyway…really, REALLY enjoyed your post and can’t wait to read more about how you’re using the planner!
    Jennifer Mackintosh recently posted…Preparing Our Hearts and Nesting With Our LadyMy Profile

    • Thanks, Jen :-). I’m glad to hear that Sarah likes the hourly format; now that I’ve had a chance to actually look at it a little bit, I think I’ll be able to work with it, though I may need to make a few tweaks. It seems like it would be nice to have bold lines dividing morning from afternoon, afternoon from evening, etc. There are always some things that happen later than 7 for us, too, but I figure I can squeeze those in at the bottom. The colors are really so much better!

      I really like those little notebooks, too. They’re a little bigger than I visualized them, which is nice! I think I may have to turn the blank-page one into a commonplace book, though… it’s probably my favorite, and I’d really like to give my commonplace book another go. That notebook is just the right size to tuck in here and there, and it’s not so long as to be intimidating. Of course it has nothing to do with planning! LOL But maybe if I keep them together it will jog my memory :-).

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