Learn How to Use a Planner Effectively to Keep Track of Mom Stuff
Ever wonder how all those other moms know how to use a planner calendar effectively for an organized life? You know, the moms who actually get places on time?
It took me awhile – okay, years – but I figured it out. Now when I’m late, it’s because I want to be (I haven’t conquered the antisocial thing yet), not because I don’t know how to use my planner.
And since my mommy taught me to share, I wrote it all down for you.
Welcome, dear planner newbies, to Planner 101…
By the way, this post is part of my Home Management 101 series on getting it together and finally getting the paperwork and time management part of your life organized. You can start at the beginning, or jump in right here. You can even go to this post and start at the end and work backwards if you want to. Your choice.
So Why Does a Stay-at-Home Mom Even Need a Planner?
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, for Pete’s sake.
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.
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.
Why Did I Suck at Using a Planner Properly?
Before you ask if I was raised by Aborigines, I wasn’t a total calendar virgin. 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.’)
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.
Learn To Use a Planner Effectively
My experience with SAHM planners went like this:
To my uninformed mind, planners were for:
- Birthdays, and
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 take it with me, then how could I possibly be expected to remember to put appointments in it when I got home?
Good-Bye Fancy SAHM Planner: 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.
How to Choose the Perfect SAHM Planner (Or Not)
First off, I don’t use an online calendar. That’s just my preference. I know, I know. Especially when it’s 100% free and you can take it everywhere without losing it. It’s just not my ideal.
But I did start with one and use it for years and if you prefer that over paper, have at it.
If so, you can skip down to How To Set Up Your Planner Calendar.
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 printable 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.
What Planner Works Best?
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.
Printing my own allows me to add extra pages in between months for other purposes and start with whatever month I prefer.
How to Get Started With Your Planner Calendar
Once you print 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 recommend pencil for the bulk of your content. But, and this is important, 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.
In any case, messy calendar vs. mom who forgets she’s chaperoning a field trip – you decide.
I use divider tabs to separate the months. Sticky notes or Post-it flags also work fine.
How to Set Up Your Planner Calendar
Okay, now we have our physical binder all set up (or our fingers are itching to start using iCalendar or Google calendar or whatever). So let’s talk about filling this bad boy in.
Start With the Dates You Know
- Start with recurring yearly dates.
Unless you need a reason to pretend like you forgot birthdays. Then you can skip this part. For the rest of you, add birthdays, anniversaries, and annual events.
Consolidate All Those Other Calendars
- 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.
Add In Contingency Dates
- 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.
Schedule Next Year’s Planner Update
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.
How to Maintain Your New Planner Calendar
Okay, so 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’s a “project” with a definite beginning and end, so it’s not a huge problem.
Where things get dicey, since ongoing consistency is not my strong suit, is maintenance.
But here’s the thing.
- 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 your calendar at least once a week. Set an alarm if you have to, or if you have a day where you regularly do paperwork or pay bills, put a note with your papers that reminds you to update your calendar that day.
Update Your Planner Calendar Regularly
On calendar update day, I follow this checklist:
- Check email reminders for updates. Go here to see how I use email reminders to keep track of everything.
- If you received any additional new calendars or reminders in the past week, add in the dates.
- Add renewal dates for any new subscription services and free trials that auto-renew.
Keep YOur Planner at Home Even When You’re Not
I don’t ever take my planner calendar out of the house. My life is in that thing, and I don’t trust myself not to lose it. Plus it’s in a binder, so it’s not like it’ll fit in my purse.
But sometimes I can’t postpone a calendar update until my weekly update day. However, these situations still don’t require me to take my 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 using my aforementioned system (here).
- Then I set an alarm reminding myself to check my calendar as soon as I get home to make sure there’s no conflict.
As an added bonus, 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.
How To Get Used to Using a Planner Calendar Consistently
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 and one near the cat dishes. My cats have built-in, natural alarms so making sure I see their bowls every morning and every night is their top priority
You can also use an alarm app on your phone (for those of you with no cat alarm).
Or do both. Because why not?
Tips On How to Successfully Use a Planner Calendar
Here are a few other random tips that’ll help you master this planner 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.
What Not to Put in Your Planner Calendar
- There’s a fine line between the non-date-specific reminders above 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.
Note: If you print your own calendar, you can stick that fall cleanup list into the binder immediately after the October page.
- 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 How To Effectively and Successfully Use a Planner (for Beginners)
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.
- Anything that can be tied to a date can go on a planner calendar. Planners aren’t just for scheduled activities, occasions, and appointments.
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. Random lists of dates and calendars lying in a pile are not helpful. They need to be in your master planner/calendar.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Every SAHM Needs to Know How to Use a Planner Effectively
In all seriousness, being able to use a planner is probably the #1 most important way to move from a life of apologies-and-catch-up into a life where you can add 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.
For tips on how to go even further on getting your act together, check out the next post in this series, What to Do When You’re Overwhelmed by Paper Clutter (Home Management 101: Post 4).
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.
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.
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!).
Thank you. You’re the best!