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Using a paper planner

Owning a planner does not mean that you will be more organized.  You need both to select a good planner and to develop an effective system for using it.  Not investing in both these aspects will increase the likelihood that your planner will not help you.

Selecting a good planner

Once you know what to look for and what to avoid, you may be surprised by how many poorly designed planners exist. Spend at least 30 minutes browsing planners before choosing one. Free or gifted planners are rarely the best option.

Easy to open, hard to crush

Do not get a fragile ringed binder unless you are exceptionally good at keeping your things in good shape. A flimsily made planner doesn’t stand a chance against a large textbook or your laptop. If both end up in your backpack together, your planner rings will eventually get bent and it will be very annoying to try to open it. Why create one more barrier to using it? Go for something that lies flat when you open it but cannot get crushed. Bound is better than rings but if you can only find rings, go for the sturdiest you can find.


Think simple. Some planners provide tons of extra pages full of formulas, self-help worksheets, or maps. Others add little quotes around the edges of pages or sprinkle in images throughout. All those “extras” equal clutter. They are not useful. Try to get a planner that is as plain as possible. If it comes with extras, rip those pages out. The last thing you need is to get distracted by some unrelated piece of information.

Plenty of room to write

To make sure you have enough room to write, you’ll need a planner that is adequately sized and well-formatted. Avoid planners with inefficient uses of space (large margins, unnecessary images along the sides or bottom, etc.).

Dates included

Some planners don’t have months or dates listed so you can start them any time of the year by filling those in yourself. But there are 360 days in the year. 360. That’s a lot of numbers to write by hand. Avoid that unnecessary step by buying one of the many planners that already have the dates written in.

Academic year

Planners come in two formats: the academic year (starting with September) and the calendar year (starting with January). When you’re in school, your life is organized around the academic year so it makes the most sense to get an academic planner.

Month view

Some planners only have weeks in them. Make sure you get one that has a month view in it too.

Week view

Make sure that you have plenty of space to write within the weekly portion of your planner. Some people find it very useful to plan out their weeks hour by hour. If that’s true for you, look for a planner that has enough space to write your plan hour by hour. Make sure to get one that has extra space at the bottom of each day where you can write in some notes.

Other students prefer to have space to write what they need to get done each day without assigning times to it. The upside of this option is that it generally takes less time to fill out. The downside is that it can make it harder to figure out what you can reasonably complete that day.

Space for a to-do list

You’ll need to keep a to-do list in addition to the weekly and monthly plans. Make sure there’s a space on your planner for this list. Sometimes, there is room on the side, top, or bottom of the weekly page for notes. The benefits of this format is that you see your to-do list every time you open up your weekly view, which increases the chance you’ll remember it. The downside is that you need to rewrite items on the list every time they are carried over to the next week.

Other planners provide space at the front or back of the planner for a list. This option means you don’t ever have to rewrite an item on your list. However, your list can become long and cumbersome. Additionally, your list can be much easier to forget. If you do need to use a space that is away from your weekly view, we recommend putting a sticker on your to-do list that sticks out a little bit past the planner so you can easily locate it.

Selecting a good wall or desk calendar

Many students find it helpful to have their monthly schedule posted in a highly visible place so that they see it multiple times a day. The same principles that apply to portable planners also apply to wall/desk calendars. Simple is best. Some students like to include a to-do list off to the side. You may also find that a dry erase calendar works well for you because it’s easy to quickly change what you’ve written and the pen stays attached to the calendar. If you do get a dry erase board calendar, make sure it comes with magnetic pens that have erasers built into their lids.

magnetic calendar

How to use a planner

At the end of the first week of the quarter

You’ll have the most to fill out at the beginning of each quarter. It’s important to block off some time to dedicate to planning at the end of your first week. It can be tedious to front load all this planning but it makes a HUGE difference and will save you lots of time down the road. It can also help you avoid the panic of getting way behind and all the emotional and logistical energy needed to get back on track if you fall behind.

1) Enter all your assignments and exams into the weekly portion of the planner using your syllabi. Enter major assignments (ie paper, presentation) and exams in the monthly portion of your planner. This will allow you to quickly identify your busy weeks. You do not need to include small homework assignments in the monthly portion. If you are using a wall/desk planner, make sure to enter dates there as well. You may find it useful to color code according to class or according to type of task (ie. paper, exam, presentation, etc.).

2) Enter all other important dates into the monthly and weekly portion of the planner. This includes DRS deadlines, major medical events, trips, etc.

3) Identify pinch points. These are times in the quarter when you have more than you can get done in one week. For example, if you have two midterms and a paper due in the same week, you’ll need to start working on them the week before to ensure that you pass your exams and finish your paper. Often, students have a couple busy weeks in a row. In that case, you have to think about how you’re going to spread the workload over three weeks.

You can identify busy weeks by looking at the month view in your planner and seeing where you have a lot due (or back-to-back weeks of a moderate amount due). Some students find it hard to absorb all the information on their planner in a way that allows them to identify pinch points. In that case, it may be very helpful to complete our pinch points worksheet, which allows you to easily see the points of the quarter where you’re likely to fall behind unless you plan ahead.

4) Highlight pinch points. Highlight pinch point weeks on your monthly view so you know they are coming. You will also want to highlight the week prior to it on your weekly calendar so you will be sure to know one is coming.

5) Break down very large projects. If you have projects that you’ll need to work on over multiple weeks or the whole quarter such as compiling a portfolio or writing a large research paper, you’ll want to break them down into parts and then assign due dates for when each part needs to be completed in order to finish the project by the end of the quarter. Try our worksheet for breaking down projects.

Every Sunday afternoon

Block out time every Sunday to create your weekly schedule for the upcoming week. Reference your monthly schedule and to-do list to figure out what needs to get done. If you’re entering into a pinch point period, you’ll want to break down projects and tasks so you can spread them out.


Plan to look at your planner at least every morning and every evening. Ideally, you’d also check it again around lunch. It helps to tie planner checking to a behavior you already engage in consistently. For example, some people chose to check their planner every time they brush their teeth. Others make it a ritual with morning coffee, lunch, and after finishing their work for the night. You can also set an alarm on your phone to remind you.

Any time anything changes, gets assigned, gets scheduled, or you think of it

As soon as you learn about a change in a due date or an extension on a project, you should immediately update your planner. That goes for personal things as well. If you suddenly remember something you need to get at the store, that should go immediately into your planner (probably on your to-do list). Whenever you schedule an appointment (ie. doctor’s, therapist, meeting with professor, etc.), you should immediately put it in your planner. Get in the habit of (politely) interrupting people and saying, “hold on, I need to write that down in my planner.” Most people will not only be understanding but they’ll feel good that you’re taking it seriously.