December 2, 2020

In a World Gone Mad, Paper Planners Offer Order and Delight

Back in April, deep into a YouTube budget-planning rabbit hole—an attempt to minimize my pandemic agitation by exerting what control I had over my own corner of the world—I came across a woman named Alaina. She was walking viewers through the planner she had created, showing the debt-reduction tracker and the financial goals page, talking about how to create a daily, quarterly, and yearly money routine. I was fascinated; her method of tracking every aspect of her finances was so different from my approach, which involved avoiding it altogether until I received a credit card bill or a low balance alert.

I watched all of her budgeting videos. Eventually, I clicked on one titled “How I Use My Happy Planner.” Her hands were moving quickly over the pages, turning them, pointing out different sections, gesturing along with her explanations. She had clean, tiny handwriting and used cute stickers: a cloud in a dark blue bubble for a chance of rain that day, a little wallet next to “budget review,” a little laptop on her schedule, across from a to-do list. Then, onward to the business planner.

Wait, I thought, you have more than one planner?

She had eight: catch-all, business, budgeting, home, personal, faith, notes, and reading.

Hypnotized, I watched her flip through all the planners, trimmed down into sections of a binder and hole-punched to fit on shiny metal rings. I was astounded by the discipline required, the amount of control she had over her time and task list. She could turn to a page in a book on her desk and know exactly what to do with the next hour of her life. I wondered if I’d just stumbled on the most productive person in the world.

Alaina Fingal

Alaina Fingal (@theorganizedmoney) organizes her compartmentalized mind in Frankenplanners.

Photograph: Akasha Rabut

three planners on table

“Once I became a mom, a wife, an entrepreneur, that’s when I realized I needed something more customizable, where I could kind of plan each area of my life.”

Photograph: Askasha Rabut

When I was a kid, I would observe aunties, teachers, and movie heroines—what they did every day, how they moved through the world—seeking a glimpse of what adult life was like. I saw glamour, accomplishment. Alaina (@theorganizedmoney) reminded me of that vision. I liked getting to know her by seeing what made up her day as an accountant, entrepreneur, and mom.

Was the sense of control I saw in her videos learnable? I searched a phrase that kept coming up in the titles of Alaina’s videos: “plan with me.”

A vocabulary revealed itself. A world of planner obsessives opened up. Plan With Me’s, I soon discovered, were videos of people demonstrating the art of decorating and accessorizing their bound paper planners. The pages came in many layouts: horizontal, with seven paragraphs of plain notebook lines; vertical, with three blank boxes descending down the page for each day; dashboard, with lists for what to do and what to buy each week; hourly, with timelines from 5 am to 10 pm. Now to decorate. You might go spare, and just lay down a few icon stickers for work meetings and the kids’ activities. Or you could go ornate, with dozens of colorful boxes and flower stickers. Your approach might depend on the space you need for planning and the format of the page. Are you working on a typical weekly spread or a travel plan with packing checklists? A memory page with personal pictures or a blank week you might use to practice hand-lettering?

The decorative planner babes were the women (most planners I encountered were women, but there are also planner men) who decked out their planners with so many stickers that the lines on the pages disappeared, hidden by colorful boxes that could handle their short lists and reminders and also coordinated with the flowers, leaves, animals, fruit, or colorful shapes that matched the week’s theme. Functional planners favored layouts that featured more ink than stickers; they would time-block their days in hourly layouts, scheduling when they would work, eat meals, exercise, watch Netflix, meet friends. They would still add a few stickers, though, because “making it look pretty makes [you] want to look at it.”