While using planners can be easy – they make great doodle pads and drink coasters – how do all those other moms know how to effectively use a calendar / planner for an organized life… you know, the moms who actually get places on time? Welcome, dear beginners, to Planner 101…
How To Keep Up With Life By Learning to Effectively and Successfully Use a Planner (for Beginners)
Welcome back to my series (Home Management 101) on getting it together and rocking the organizing stuff. If you haven’t read The First Step to an Organized Life (Home Management 101: Post 2), I suggest going there now.
Because unicorns are real.
Also How to Keep Track of…Everything!. I barely got started and already realized I need a note about how to remember stuff. It’s not part of the series, but if you don’t have a way to remember stuff for later, it will help.
I’ll warn you now, this post is not for the faint of heart. It’s a doozy. I tried to chunk it up but, girlfriend, I just couldn’t do it. It needs to stay intact.
So settle in, put the kids in front of whatever you-say-is-mind-numbing-but-you-know-you-watch-it-later-even-when-they’re-not-home show they’re hooked on nowadays. I promise you a treat when you get to the finish line.
If you consider a peek inside my brain a treat (I will pretend you do).
Peeps Come In Cotton Candy Flavor Now!
My calendar epiphany struck on a playground, where I was hanging with a dysfunctional mom club. We didn’t call ourselves that, but we all knew what we were. These were my peeps.
In this safe space, I confided the overwhelm I felt tracking the everyday mom minutiae. I couldn’t even trust myself to send an empty milk carton to preschool on the right day.
If you don’t have a preschooler who forgot his milk carton on bring-your-empty-milk-carton- to-school day, that might sound trivial. If you do have an empty-milk-cartonless preschooler…well, you get it.
Each time I screwed up, especially when it affected my kids, guilt stabbed me in the gut. I’d flash back to elementary school and the panic that set in when I discovered I didn’t have my picture form, empty dish detergent bottle, milk money, or signed report card.
I was the kid who made teachers sigh. Or worse.
I was desperate to give my kids a different experience. I just didn’t know how. My go-to solution – Post-its and my (faulty) memory – obviously wasn’t cutting it.
So that day on the playground, as I lamented my inability to keep up and prevent my offspring from being “that kid,” one mom piped up.
“Why don’t you just put it on your calendar?”
My what now?
Apparently…some of us were less dysfunctional than others.
Possibly Even A Cotton Candy Flavored One
In hindsight, it should have been obvious. But it wasn’t.
Maybe it’s not obvious to you, either. And maybe I can help.
Because you, also, are one of my peeps.
And Also Bagels
Before you ask if I was raised by Aborigines, I wasn’t a total calendar n00b. I had owned a calendar/planner a time or two before.
The first time dated back to my former life in an office. My experience went about like this:
- They gave me a planner.
- I had no idea how to use a planner.
- During meetings I doodled in the planner.
- The end.
(That was the job where they also gave us free cookies. Not relevant, just sayin.’)
You Are Invited to Bring-Your-Empty-Milk-Carton-To-School Day. Black Tie, Optional.
Later, in my full-time mom life, it didn’t go any better. I did try to capture appointments and momentous occasions, but putting “bring-your-empty-milk-carton-to-school day” on a calendar never would have occurred to me.
Call me uncultured, but it did not strike me as a calendar-worthy event.
I guess it should have.
My experience with SAHM planners went like this:
I buy the pricey one with the aggressively gleeful, very busy mom on the front, the planner that promises to fix my life. After all, you can’t put a price on fixing your entire life, can you?
If you could, it would be $44.00.
Once again, I enthusiastically fill in every appointment I can think of, carefully using colored pens to link each one to a person.
But wait, an event could apply to hubby and myself. But what if it applies to son #2 and hubby? Or son #3, son #1, and me? Or son #3 and the cat (don’t ask)…
I abandon color-coding.
I frown slightly at my now less-than-perfect planner.
Soldiering on, I diligently apply stickers to every birthday, every holiday, and the occasional Tuesday (just because).
I fill it with lists of cleaning chores, paint colors I like, movies I want to see, death-by-chocolate recipe variations, TV workouts I enjoy watching while eating Ho-Hos (Richard Simmons ranks #1 in case you’re wondering), and future hamster names.
I proudly finish the entire project within a week of buying the planner.
I display it ostentatiously next to the fridge, bracing for my new, improved life.
And never open it again.
Unless you count scribbling phone numbers on the inside cover.
I mean, it’s paper, it’s near the fridge – you do the math.
To my uninformed mind, planners were for list-making, birthdays, and appointments. And, regrettably, only for the appointments already scheduled before the planner was purchased.
Because, after all, if I took my planner with me, I would lose it.
And if I didn’t, then how could I possibly be expected to remember to put appointments in it when I got home?
Someone just did not think this planner idea all the way through, now did they?
Back to Sticky Notes and Finger String Reminders
It wasn’t the planners’ fault. These were some first-rate systems.
For someone with a PhD in Planner.
Meanwhile, I was still at remedial sticker-sticking-on level.
If you are excellent at stickers and hamster names, but lacking skill in the making-life-happen department, read on.
Picking Your Planner: Cheap Is Good, Free Is Better
First off, I don’t use an online calendar. That’s just my preference. I know, I know. Especially when it’s 100% free. It’s just not my ideal. I’ll go into that in another post.
But I did use one for years and if you prefer that over paper, have at it.
If so, you can skip down to “Filling It Out: ‘I’m Ready I’m Ready’ – Spongebob.”
For my fellow luddites (I’m not, really, I just wanted to use a big word), consider this next part your pre-requisite.
Go to Walmart or Staples or Amazon or even the Dollar Tree and find a planner that floats your happy little sailboat. Don’t get hung up on perfection.
Start with a cheap one (or free – there are several good ones online), until you see what works for you and what doesn’t. You can always transfer it later, especially if you’re not out-of-pocket yet.
Be forewarned in this search, the type of planner you choose right now is not going to change your life.
Even if it’s $44.00.
I prefer a two-page month-at-a-glance calendar. It gives a clear snapshot of the month while leaving enough room to write in each day block. Mine always runs August through December of the following year for a fresh start each new school year.
Nowadays I use one from Scattered Squirrel, print it, and put it in a binder to match my décor to I can leave it out all the time.
The good parts of my décor. Not the “your house is homey, it looks so lived in” parts.
Printing my own allows me to add extra pages in between months for other purposes and start with whatever month I prefer.
If you’ve printed out your calendar, it’s time to set it up. You’ll need a 3-hole punch, a 1” binder, some divider tabs, a pencil (and sharpener), and a pen.
To eliminate at least some of the inevitable crossing-out, I use pencil for the bulk of my content.
I use divider tabs to separate the months. Sticky notes or Post-it flags will also work fine.
If you printed your own, three-hole punch it and put it in a binder.
Better Your Planner Than the New Couch
By the way, it’s okay if you later need to add something hastily and only have a pen or sharpie. Don’t freak out. Just use what you have.
Remember, a super messy calendar means you are using it and it is working.
Or it means you left it out for your toddler to decorate with magic markers.
In any case, messy calendar vs. mom who forgets she’s chaperoning a field trip – you decide.
Filling It Out: “I’m Ready I’m Ready” — Spongebob
Okay, all set up.
Ah, I see our online calendar groupies have rejoined us. You took a bathroom break, didn’t you?
Don’t worry, you didn’t miss much.
Other than the meaning of life and my recipe for Fudge Sundae Pie.
Go ahead – scroll up. We’ll just play on our phones ‘til you get back.
Made you look…
Okay, now that we’re all here and itching to go… let’s talk about filling this bad boy in.
- Start with recurring yearly dates.
Unless you need reasons to miss birthdays. Then you can skip this part. For the rest of you, add birthdays, anniversaries, and annual events.
- Then gather the assorted activity calendars and date lists that have been piling up.
- Carefully transfer each and every date onto your Master Calendar.
- Next up, include the recurring appointments and meeting dates that probably won’t change for the year. Like the meetings you’re expected to attend but don’t receive calendars for.
- After you’ve exhausted your paper pile, go back and examine the dates you’ve added. Do you need to schedule anything contingent on those dates?
Example #1: Aunt Lucinda’s birthday on April 10th.
Do you need to send her a card? Put it down for April 6th.
Wait, don’t you need to also buy the card? Note that in mid-March. Then it’s just an add-on to your Walmart list instead of a separate last-minute run.
Aunt Lucinda might have a heart attack when she gets your card on time next year!
Hmm, maybe it’s not such a good idea then?
Aunt Lucinda’s birthday, contingent item #3 – March 15th: Ask Aunt Lucinda if I am in the will. If yes, buy a very nice birthday card in case it’s her last.
Aren’t calendars just so useful?
When you’re done, put in one more date. On the first of August, write in “schedule a date to do upcoming year’s calendar.”
That’s about it for setup.
Just get as much information on there as you possibly can in advance.
Kidding. You’re not done.
Cute that you believed that, though.
Now you have to maintain it.
Keeping It Up-To-Date: We Need a Celebrity to Bring Attention To This Syndrome
Filling out an entire calendar for the year challenges my brain, especially if there are distractions around while I’m doing it. I try to plan it for alone time, or I break it up into parts before I start.
Even so, it has a definite start and end, so it’s not a huge problem.
Where things get dicey, since ongoing consistency is not my strong suit, is maintenance.
A planner, even one filled with stickers, lists, and receipt pockets, is completely worthless if you don’t maintain it.
If it doesn’t have all the scheduled dates in it, you can’t trust it.
If you don’t know where it is, it’s useless when you are on the phone trying to schedule a physical.
To avoid IUMPAAGNPS (I Use My Planner As A Glorified Note Pad Syndrome), make it a habit to update the calendar at least once a week. Just add a note to every Monday in the first few months that says “update calendar.” It might feel weird to use your calendar to remind yourself to use your calendar, but it works.
On calendar update day, I follow this checklist:
- Check email reminders for updates. If you haven’t read my post about email reminders (How to Keep Track of…Everything!), I send myself an email when I want to add something to my to do list.
- If you received any additional new calendars or reminders in the past week, add in the dates.
- Add renewal dates for subscription services and free trials that auto-renew.
Sometimes you can’t postpone a calendar update until your weekly update day. These situations still don’t require you to take your calendar out of the house. Doctor receptionists and pushy volunteer-job-assigners might not like this deferred commitment, but my response is “I will check my calendar when I get home and get back to you.”
Then, I do two things (combine it into one if you prefer):
- I send myself an email with the date I need to add.
- Then I set an alarm reminding myself to check it as soon as I get home.
By the way, this is also a technique that gives you time to consider if you want to do something before making a promise.
Which, come to think of it, explains why pushy volunteer-job-assigners don’t like it.
Putting It Into Action: Hello, Beautiful – Don’t Forget to Check Your Planner So You Can See Why Today’s Gonna Suck.
Now for the most important part. If you don’t do it, the entire process comes to a grinding halt. Hello, IUMPAAGNPS.
You have to check it.
Check it every night and every morning.
- Every night, look at the next several days.
- Every morning, take a quick look at today to remind yourself of anything important.
Sounds like a lot, but you’ll get it. Starting a new habit like this, which can sound easy to some, may be a monumental task. I get that. I was once where you are now.
When I started, I put a sticky note on my bathroom mirror. You can also use an alarm app on your phone.
Or do both. Because why not?
How To Avoid People and Other Useful Tips
Here are a few other random tips that’ll help you master this calendar thing.
- Circle appointments or anything with an assigned time to schedule around. This makes them stand out.
- Add addresses, directions, and phone numbers when appropriate. Easier than looking it up five months from now on your way out the door.
- As you schedule new dates, think about supporting tasks.
Example: You get invited to a Christmas party for December 22nd, with an RSVP date of December 15th. Mark both dates.
Make notes in the prior weeks to finalize your outfit, bake cookies to take, schedule a nail appointment, buy a hostess gift, etc. On the December 22nd block, make a note to take along the cookies and gift.
If you don’t enjoy parties, this also gives you ample time to fake an attack of the plague.
- There’s a fine line between date-specific reminders and overly ambitious to do lists. Consider each non-date-specific action item before you write it in.
Example: Make a separate list of fall cleanup chores, with just a note on the calendar in October to check the list. Don’t write all the to dos on the calendar itself. However, when you find out the township is picking up brush on November 3rd, that’s a date you do want to add.
There’s no hard and fast rule for this. Just know that if your calendar turns into a fantasy list of what you’d like to do to your house in a different reality, it can get overwhelming. You might even stop using it altogether. Been there.
- Keep your updating process simple. This helps prevent procrastination. My calendar takes less than 5 minutes per week for me to update it – about three minutes to gather the dates from various sources and two minutes to put them in. That’s because I don’t worry about how it looks.
A Summary of Relevant Thoughts
As you can see, planners are just as useful for mom life as they are in the office. An empty milk carton can be as important to a 4-year-old as a public stock offering is to a CEO.
I decided to wrap up this post with lists summarizing my points instead of a traditional conclusion. It’s okay, it’s my blog. I can break the rules, so play along.
- Planners aren’t just for scheduled activities, occasions, and appointments. Anything that can be tied to a date can go on a planner.
Then you won’t have a 21-year-old son with empty-milk-carton-PTSD who, as a junior in college, now carries an empty milk carton in his backpack 24/7, just in case.
- Whether you prefer paper or online, just get started. If you need to change it up later, you can transfer the information then.
- If you’re still at Planner 101 level, don’t worry about artwork, stickers, penmanship or color-coding.
- Messy is good.
- Use pencil, but don’t hesitate to use something else in a pinch.
- Start by entering recurring yearly dates and dates from other calendars and lists.
- Keep it up to date with a weekly update. Out-of-date planners are worthless. Email reminders work well for this.
- Start fresh once a year. I suggest August.
- Make it a habit to check it every day, twice a day.
- Don’t waste valuable memory space when you can write and forget.
- Add pertinent info when you schedule each date.
- Your planner is a reality planner, not a fantasy planner.
A Summary of Irrelevant Thoughts
Also, because it’s my blog, I will leave you by summarizing points I did not make but would like to.
- Newb should be spelled n00b if you are a cool mom.
- Writing that line officially makes me the most uncool mom ever.
- Free cookies trump free planners any day.
- Aggressive gleefulness is sometimes a precursor to random violence.
- Doritos are also a satisfying snack when viewing excessively cheerful, curly-haired aerobics instructors.
- Captain Sexy Beast is a great hamster name.
- I lied about my sticker-sticking-on skills. My stickers are always crooked. Always.
- I will probably use luddite in a future post. I like that word too much.
- The Food Truck Festival has homemade chocolate mousse – if a birthday is the same day, you can conveniently forget to write in the birthday. Just don’t say it was my idea.
- If I had to, I would even skip my husband’s birthday to get the chocolate mousse.
- Yes, you should say Master Calendar in a deep resonating announcer voice. I do. The vibrations calm me.
- Vibrations really are very calming for anxiety.
- If you play Rockabye by Clean Bandit featuring Sean Paul and Anne-Marie, at full volume on an Infinity Sound System 14 times in a row for the calming vibrations, because “it has to be loud to feel it,” you will need a hearing aid.
- Not that I would know.
- What did you say?
- I don’t really have an Aunt Lucinda so I can joke about her death here. If you do have an Aunt Lucinda whom you claim to love, then why do you always forget her birthday? Glass houses…
- If I had to pick a celebrity to shed light on IUMPAAGNPS, I would pick Melissa McCarthy. No reason. I just like Melissa McCarthy. I have no idea if she currently suffers or has ever suffered from IUMPAAGNPS.
- Pushy volunteer-job-assigners should be tracked on a government network with their photos and addresses listed. They should also have to wear a sign that identifies them as such.
- My planner doesn’t always tell me today is gonna suck. But my mirror does.
- By the way, I don’t recommend “hello, beautiful – don’t forget to check your planner so you can see why today’s gonna suck” as a daily affirmation.
- If you are reading this and I told you I couldn’t attend your daughter’s bat mitzvah due to a raging case of the plague, know that it was true that time. And when your son reaches 13, I may have a relapse.
- If my calendar truly held a fantasy list of what I’d do to my house in a different reality, the list would be very short.
2) Start over.
- Spongebob is not the only person who ever said “I’m ready I’m ready.” But quoting a historical figure such as himself makes me sound well read.
In all seriousness, being able to use a planner is probably the #1 most important way to move away from a life of apologies and catch-up into a life of adding in all the extra things you’ve always wanted to do. Not only can you add them in – the inner calm from knowing you’re on track will let you actually enjoy them.
And, speaking of apologies, I apologize for not really including my recipe for Fudge Sundae Pie in this post.
However, I may include it in the next post in this series, What to Do When You’re Overwhelmed by Paper Clutter (Home Management 101: Post 4). So you’ll have to read on. It’ll be worth it.
Oh yeah, and I’ll also include tips on how to subdue all those demanding papers.
P.S. If you enjoyed this post, I’d love to have you on my email list.
That way, if I ever get over my terror of emailing people I don’t know (a pretty low likelihood, if I’m honest), I can send you a notification when I post new content. Just look for the bright pink signup form in the sidebar or at the bottom of the screen if you’re on mobile. Well, okay, don’t just look for it – you’ll also need to fill out the signup form after you find it – if you just look for it, find it, and then don’t do anything, how can I (n)ever email you? Right?
And if you ever do get an email from me, seek shelter because it means that the world as we know it might be ending…
P.P.S. I’m excited to say the entire series is finished and posted. Links at the bottom of this post below the giant Pinterest images!
P.P.P.S. If this post helped you at all, would you be willing to save it to your Pinterest board? Why, you ask, would you do that? I mean, you already read it, right? Why save it?
Not only does it keep it where you can find it if you need it again (because you can’t accidentally leave a Pinterest board in the backseat of a Lyft), it also means other moms wandering in the desert of missed appointments and lost opportunities might see it.
That’s a win-win-win-win in my book.
- Win for them (less guilt and also a great hamster name idea in case they need one),
- Win for their kids (empty milk cartons and the like),
- Win for me (more people finding me), and a
- Win for you (I will buy you a chocolate-chocolate-chip ice cream cone next time you come for a visit – I know a great place!).