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The 13 best planners for staying organized in 2021, including tips and tricks from experts

How to choose a planner

There are an overwhelming number of planner types. “I used to try to just stock as many as possible because it’s such a personal thing,” said Chandra Greer, who owns Greer, a stationery store in Chicago, Illinois.

She eventually realized it was impossible to cover every base and now just selects functional, quality options, knowing they might not be the right fit for everyone. “I’m more interested in the function of it,” she said. “Is the layout useful? Is the layout well-designed? Is the paper great? Is it something that is going to withstand being your daily friend for 365 days?” 

To find out what will work for you, you can start by considering what qualities are most important to you. “I think if you sort of start with, ‘What is it that I want to use this for?’ that gives you a good starting point,” said Alexandra Cavoulacos, founder of The Muse and author of “The New Rules of Work“.  You can start with format — daily, weekly, or monthly — and overall length. Do you want to keep it to a few months for a specific project, or would you prefer something that gets you through a month or even longer? 

Daily, weekly, monthly

For some people, a planner is merely a portable calendar, Cavoulacos said. “They want to know where they need to be, when they have a doctor’s appointment, those sort of things,” she said. Other people want to track projects and create to-do lists. The amount of detail per day will start to dictate how much space you need. “There’s a hundred ways somebody might schedule their day,” said Greer. Some people need an hour-by-hour breakdown. If you’re mostly making to-do lists, a weekly calendar might work. If it’s more about keeping tabs on a few appointments, monthly might work. 

“It’s all about what works for you,” said Cavoulacos. 

Dated or undated

There are many reasons you might decide to buy an undated calendar. “People might decide on March 28th, they want a planner,” said Greer. “But if a planner is dated, they’re already three months through the year.” With an undated planner, they can get more bang for the buck by having it carry them through the next March. 

Another reason might be you know yourself to be a fickle planner user. If you keep it undated, you can always pick up where you left off without wasting days’ worth of paper. People working on a big project, planning a wedding, or focusing on a specific goal might also prefer an undated planner, for more flexibility or to keep everything contained in one book. 

Months or years

Some hyper-focused, daily planners will only last a few months. It helps keep them from being too bulky and cumbersome. Others are much bigger picture, with five-year plans. In between, there are standard yearly planners and academic versions, which tend to start in the summer or early fall. 

The only thing that might stop you from buying an academic planner in January is that most manufacturers don’t have the current year’s available, so you’re better off waiting a few months for that. 

Horizontal or vertical

You’ll often see weekly planners arranged with each week covering two pages and the days spread out horizontally or vertically. When someone comes into Little Otsu looking for a planner, co-owner Jeremy Crown first asks, “Are you more of a task-oriented planner?” He thinks people with detailed schedules or long to-do lists will prefer the column format of vertical layouts. Those who like making notes or doodling might like the horizontal layout better. 

Some planners use a “dashboard” view, with a week or day on one page and the other dedicated to habit trackers, gratitude prompts, and other fill-in-the-blanks. 

Size

Doctors, nurses, and chefs always want pocket-sized notebooks and planners, said Crown. You might want something big enough to hold your sprawling handwriting but small enough to carry around in your purse or messenger bag. Many planner makers will offer at least a couple of choices when it comes to size. 

Minimalist or full of prompts 

Planner aesthetic ranges from very barebones to packed with extras. What you like is completely personal. You’ll find plenty of basic books with a plain cover and just the calendars. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you can get a planner with quotes, charts, and check-ins. You may want something in between, with a pretty cover but few internal embellishments. 

“You want your planner to inspire you, whatever that means for you,” Cavoulacos said. That could mean a simple planner with zero distractions, she said, or something with quotes and your horoscope that makes you look forward to opening the book every day. “I do think the sort of aesthetic piece, the inspiration piece, is also something that shouldn’t be forgotten,” she said.  

If you do want something more stripped down, Greer suggests looking to Japanese planner makers. “You’re not going to see little flower illustrations and little quotes and 85 pages of guided journal

meditation
,” she said. “They keep it very simple. They’re very serious about it.” 

Both Greer and Cavoulacos point out that you can add your own quotes and personalizations to even the most minimalist planner, as long as there’s space. “It could become more of a person’s little command center,” said Greer. 

Paper quality

For some, the quality of a planner’s paper isn’t really a factor. There are a few things to know, though. Two Halloween-ish-sounding words that are useful to know, stationery-wise, are bleeding and ghosting. Bleeding is when the ink leaks through. Ghosting is when you flip the paper over and can see what’s written, even though it hasn’t actually bled through. “Good paper, whether it’s thin or thick, doesn’t ghost,” Crown said. 

In many countries, fountain pen use is much more widespread than in the United States. The paper made there reflects that. “As a general rule, Japanese paper tends to be softer and smoother, and American paper is kind of the roughest — or we’d say the toothiest — and Europe’s kind of in the middle,” Crown said. 

“Fountain pen usage is a really big factor,” Greer said. “It’s probably the number one question we get about any of our notebooks and planners, ‘Is the paper fountain pen friendly?’ and not all papers are.” If paper quality is high on your list of importance, Greer suggests taking a close look at who makes a planner. 

“I definitely gravitate towards manufacturers who have a background in paper,” she said. “So they’re not so much about being a planner company. They’re about a notebook/paper company that has planners.” Some of the manufacturers that make planners with excellent paper include Midori, Paperways, High Tide, and Kokuyo Jibun Techo, she said.  

Cover

Even if you’re not into paper, you’ll want to pay attention to the cover’s material. Hardcovers will stand up to more wear and tear than softcovers. “Sometimes people will trade off that durability for something that doesn’t cost very much so, but definitely people are expecting, when they purchase a planner, that it’s going to get through the whole year and not look like it was run over by a truck,” Greer said. 

Binding 

It’s important that planners lie flat since you’re writing in them. Many are spiral bound, but others are stitch bound. Either will let you write on them, but you can flip one side of the book behind the other with a spiral binding. “A lot of people are kind of indifferent between spiral and stitch bound now, as long as it lies flat because that’s really what they’re looking for,” Greer said. 

Discbound is similar to spiral-bound, but it’s a bit different. The pages in a discbound book can be easily removed and put back in, but you don’t have to open the discs, as you would with a three-ring binder. Instead, there are little notches in the paper that fit around the disc. It makes planners more customizable because you can quickly and easily move pages from one section to another. 

Another concern with the binding is whether it will keep the planner together for the whole year. Some glued-in pages might not hold out as well. “If you have something that’s stitch bound or spiral, it’s very sturdy for the long haul,” Greer said.

Bullet journaling 

Bullet journaling is a system of tracking and tackling tasks, goals, and projects. It can be used with basically any notebook, but it’s not for everyone. “I think for some people you want the prompt and you want the structure to guide you because you’re not exactly sure how to organize everything,” Cavoulacos said. 

“There’s a lot of stationery enthusiasts in the United States, and so there’s all these different subcultures with people who are really into making their own space on paper,” Crown said. “And that’s what bullet journaling is perfect for.” 

If you’ve never tried it, you can either start with an ordinary notebook you have lying around. There are also plenty of hybrid options, with calendars and space for notes or bullet journaling. 

Extras

There might be some little perks with certain planners that might be deal-makers for you. Maybe you want a front pocket to keep extra papers. Perhaps you prefer a planner with an elastic band to help keep it closed. 

If the extra that’s most attractive to you is stickers, keep in mind that you can probably buy them separately.  

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