5 Awesome Planners To Help Keep Track Of Your Life

Illustration by Abbie Winters
I first considered using a physical planner after a disastrous day, some time ago, when I entered an important meeting into my "work" calendar instead of my personal one. I ended up missing lunch with a friend who understood the mix-up, but didn't (understandably) argue when I admitted that I was descending into flakiness.
Originally, I thought that keeping the two spheres separate and un-synched would help me be more organized. In a sense, it did — if knowing half of my schedule really well at any given time, and constantly forgetting the other counts. There really were some upsides to bifurcating my calendar in the digital world: not receiving a million alerts and notifications on days when I had work and personal meetings was a big one. But obviously, a big perk — namely, seeing conflicts ahead of time — was something I missed out on.
So, although it felt slightly strange to think that a notebook could do what technology couldn't, I decided to test out a few physical planners. I started on a Sunday evening with several spread around me, and went through the calendar and text messages on my phone to see what I had planned, promised, and put off for the upcoming week.
I thought my main dilemma would be knowing what to put in the planners, versus what I had already put in my phone. In fact, I learned that my real problem was how poorly I had organized events in my phone in the first place. There were meetings with unconfirmed times, or meetings that just didn't show up at all for some unknown reason; and I was counting on my memory to remember they existed. Some days or weeks didn't necessarily have conflicting times, but they were overbooked, making it unlikely I'd be able to be punctual or at ease when checking them off.
After seeing how many holes I caught in just one week, I decided to go through the following week in advance, too. It's not like I had never looked through my calendar before; I just tended to look at my calendar on a day-to-day basis — either the night before, the morning of, or relying on pop-up notifications throughout the day. That kept me on task (ish), but it didn't leave much of a margin of error.
In the end, I realized that I could still use my phone to view the play-by-play action of my days and weeks, but a physical planner was much more useful in creating a structured, bird's-eye view. Figuring out how to balance the two does take time, but more importantly, it takes commitment. Creating a routine of when I'll go through my planner and phone calendar is key. Without that, neither works very effectively.
Ahead, check out the planners I used, and how helpful I think they might be if you're looking to get organized offline.
1 of 5

Erin Condren LifePlanner

Price: $55 - $60

Planners give me a lot of anxiety, not to mention the fact that I need a little more motivation to do something that's good for me, but often feels like extra homework.

So, when looking for planners to try out, I kept in mind that the cover would impact how much I wanted to use it: Too serious, and it'd feel like a burden. Too jocular or cutesy, and I'd get annoyed. There's nothing wrong with inspiration; earlier this year, Passion Planner's founder and CEO Angelia Trinidad explained why that can be really motivating in an agenda. But I like to err on the side of quiet enthusiasm when dealing with stressful situations.

With that said: the llamas, oh, the llamas on the LifePlanner! As soon as I saw them, I knew they were for me. The background color is similar to the color I chose for other planners. (I realized that hues in the turquoise, robin's egg, and Carolina blue family are inexplicably comforting to me, and are for other people as well.) The cover of this planner can be written on with wet-erase markers (available for purchase on the Erin Condren website), which was also cool.

The spiral binding makes this planner easy to customize in many ways, including snapping in or stashing away a variety of inserts, such as an impressively thorough travel checklist, a monthly budget booklet, and a calendars and contacts booklet. (One section of the contacts booklet includes space for important passwords, which I would not advise jotting down there, but to each her own.) At the end, the planner has several ruled pages for notes, pages full of stickers to use throughout the planner, and a few pages for adult coloring book-style illustrations.

Like many planners in this style (colorful, and full of motivational phrases), each month opens up in full, gridded-calendar format, with notes about major holidays and phases of the moon. There is a small sidebar for notes, and I was relieved to see that subsequent pages had larger columns with more space to write in-depth notes on each date.

This planner was a lot of fun and I loved flipping through it, but it was a bit overwhelming for my tastes. Being organized with it is pretty easy — there are folders galore, you can view your week each week in full (as the week is presented in a spread), and there's a section at the end for notes, but the presentation is a lot at once.

Another downside is the size, as I'd prefer not to carry something this wide and thick around. Also, while the spiral binding allows for great customization, it sometimes caught on things in my bag. (Yes, I do carry around four pens at any given moment.) I wouldn't carry this planner around every day, but I would totally keep it at home or at work, using it perhaps, as a dedicated planner for the organization I volunteer with, keeping a few markers and highlights nearby to draw if my brain needs a break.
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Day Designer

Price: $59

The Day Designer is a similar option to the LifePlanner in terms of price and presentation. It is much less whimsical — the cover is lovely and grown-up, but you won't find any stickers or Day-Glo accoutrement here. The tabbed layout that divides each month is an accent also found on the LifePlanner. (And, in general, is something I prefer to notebook strings, or flipping madly through the pages until I get to the current date.) But at 2.1 pounds, the Day Designer is a similarly less-portable option, day to day.

The real differences are in the pages themselves. Again, each month opens with a full calendar grid, with little flags that designate national holidays, and a small column for notes. Each date has its own page (weekends do share one page, though), at the top of which is a quote from a philosopher, public figure, or anonymous wise person. ("Dreams demand hustle." "Patience is a necessary ingredient of genius.")

Some people might not like this layout, preferring to see their entire week at one time, instead of having each date on one page. What I loved, though, was that after the quote was a section called Today's Top Three, another section called Don't Forget, and another with Due and Dollars. (After that section, the bulk of each page is split into two columns — Today (which has timestamps) and To-Do (which has checkboxes) — and then Notes and Daily Gratitude.)

Being able to boil what I need to get down into the "top-three" steps made it easier to actually get stuff done, and sometimes indicate which time I hoped to get them done by. I could always add more to the to-do list, but it was nice to have my most important tasks set apart from the fray at a daily glance.

Additionally, the subtler callout for gratitude (instead of a smiley demand that I live my best life), really made me think more introspectively about small things that went well in my day.
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Smythson Soho Agenda

Price: $260

The Nile Blue elephant in the room for this planner/agenda is absolutely the price point. Smythson is a British company that sells luxury leather goods, from bags, to pencil cases, to guest books and agendas.

The Soho agenda has gilt edges and a lambskin binding, and it opens with days, dates, and cultural events important in the U.S., U.K., and Hong Kong (the Edinburgh International Festival, the Met Gala, Art Basel Hong Kong), indicating that this planner is most popular among oft-traveling businesspeople.

Information for the names, websites, and phone numbers of notable theaters, concert halls, museums, and movie theaters can also be found at the beginning of this agenda. Plus, university terms, world time zones, and vintage wine chart are also there.

The agenda doesn't open with a monthly-calendar view; instead, it gets right down to business with a section for each date-of-the week on the left of every page (Sunday and Saturday get half as much box space), and a ruled To Do section on the right.

After the final month of the year, roughly half of the agenda is essentially a ruled notebook — something I wanted more of in other agendas, as it made it easier for me to avoid carrying around a small notebook, which I often do. (I use that to compile everything from story ideas, to grocery lists, to packing checklists, or notes from meetings — something I really want to keep in one place with a calendar in particular.)

The planner doesn't have tabs to find each section, but it does have two different-colored ribbons (both in shades of blue) to find the notes section and the calendar section. To repeat: this is a more luxe option — but if you can look beyond the price, the planner itself is exceedingly practical.

I used this agenda more than the other planners, really due to the portability; it is the size and weight of a small, paperback book. (The size really did give the Soho an edge, especially over the Day Designer, which I enjoyed using as well.) There are much less expensive options for agendas from Smythson, although they still skew toward the higher end of what you might generally spend on a planner.

The Panama Agenda ($60) is a physically smaller option roughly the size of an iPhone 7 that might work well for travelers in particular. My favorite accents on that option are the perforated page corners, which can be dog-eared and then torn off as you work your way through the book. You can also purchase the Panama agenda with an address book insert for $15 dollars more, so that some of the information you keep on hand can be saved year after year.
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Action Method Action Book

Price: $16

To start, this book is sexy. I generally find books like this one slightly erotic (no shame; stationery just does something for me...), but the simplicity of this is really what makes this option a great one — perhaps in conjunction with something else.

The Action Book doesn't have any calendars, dates, inspirational quotes, stickers, accessories, folders, or pockets. It is organized into four "zones": Prep/Focus, Action Steps, a dot matrix, and Backburner. The preparation and focus section is where I wrote a few to-dos for each day – three max. I broke down the steps I needed to take to complete those to-dos in the Action Steps section, and scribbled down things I absolutely didn't want to forget (but could pay more attention to on another page, at another date) in Backburner. Notations is a free zone — doodles, thoughts, meeting minutes.

Action Method has a sample page online that you can print out and try. Although the layout is obviously not that of a traditional planner, I actually preferred it in some ways. In all honesty, I'm not going to open up any planner and work in it every single day — at least not yet. So, seeing the days I've skipped can feel demoralizing, not to mention wasteful, when I finally crack the planner open again.

With this, though, I write the date in myself, set out the tasks for that day or week, and then work on the steps I need to take to get it done, crossing them off along the way. There's no such thing as a skipped day, because I pick the day each time I write.

I found that I liked using the Action Book most in companionship with the Smythson agenda. I took an action from my to-do list in Smythson, wrote that in the "Ref" and Prep/Focus sections of the Action Book, and then thought through the Action Steps I'd need to take to complete it. For example, when I looked at my Smythson calendar, I saw that one of my to-dos was to help an acquaintance with a fundraising effort by a certain date.

I wrote that in my Action Book, noting the Action Steps I had to take to get it done: actually reading her fundraising page myself, giving her any feedback to edit the page, donating, and sharing the page on social media. I set out to get at least one step down, but breaking the tasks up made it easier to keep going, until I crossed off every task in both planners sooner than expected.
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Ban.dō 17-Month Classic Agenda

Price: $20

I loved the simple, but lively holographic cover of the Ban.dō agenda. I was a little nervous about the proliferation of (admittedly very cool) stickers, which I thought would be totally useless and obstructive — but after I used a few, I started to love them. Like Robin Williams in Hook, somewhere along the way, I'd left Neverland and forgotten my inner child, who filled up SEVERAL composition notebooks over the years with stickers. I was inordinately proud of my sticker collection as a kid — and I was also freakishly organized, definitely more so than I am now. This agenda reminded me how stickers could be put to good use.

The Ban.dō classic strikes an excellent balance between the more bombastic Erin Condren, and the staider (and more expensive) Smythson. Yes, the agenda does open with a secret code guide (a donut for D, a crescent moon for L, you get the picture), but overall, the book is lovely and practical. The first few pages include 2018 and 2019 calendars, a section called "Reasons To Party" that is great to highlight big events in the upcoming year like weddings and birthdays at a glance, and a mix of holidays, including National Pie Day and the first day of Kwanzaa.

Also — gloriously! — each month's section is tabbed, and opens with a full calendar of the month. That is followed by two ruled pages for notes, and then a pretty spacious date-by-date section. The agenda closes with several ruled pages for free-writing notes.

If you can't afford (or don't want) to splurge on the Smythson Soho — and you don't mind having cheerleader-esque phrases sprinkled throughout your day — the Ban.dō Classic is an excellent alternative. The compact, lightweight size and extra five months also make it easier to get more use out of it.