My life is a very all-or-nothing proposition.
Either I do all the things or none of them.
So, I’m constantly on the search for some system or program that will work to keep me on top of staying organized. A magical planner or app or something.
I’ve bought an Erin Condren Life Planner every year for the last three years. I usually do pretty well with it until about February. But it’s big and bulky. Too easy not to open up and use. And so I don’t.
And then I spend the rest of the year feeling guilty about the $60 planner that I’m not using — and dealing with that awful pit-of-your-stomach feeling when you’re sure you’re forgetting something miportant.
This year I’ve kind of cobbled together a system that’s finally working for me. I designed part of it myself. Part of it I took from other people. I thought it might be useful to you to know what I’m doing, but also how I came up with it.
Because what I’m using might not be a perfect fit for you. But how I came up with it might help you figure something out that will work perfectly for you.
What I Need to Organize
I started by thinking about what I need to keep track of — and what I don’t. I think what I don’t is just as important as what I do. Because nothing will put me off a plan faster than trying to make myself keep track of things that I don’t really need or want to keep track of.
What I Need to Keep Track Of
- Work appointments.
- Personal appointments.
- Travel schedules.
- Work events (launches, etc.)
- Goals and habits.
- A meal plan.
- Clients and students.
- A work log.
What I Don’t Need to Keep Track Of
- My daughter’s sports schedules (her dad does.)
- Housekeeping schedules.
- Charts micromanging things like how much water I drink or how many steps I take.
- Holiday planning.
- A personal journal or diary.
Your lists will probably look different from mine. Things that aren’t important to me right now might be very important to you and vice versa. That’s okay! It’s just good to know what you want to keep on top of and what you don’t need to worry about so much.
It occurred to me that the reason why the systems I’d tried to use the past didn’t work for me is because they were full of stuff I didn’t need or want. So this time I really thought about exactly what I needed help with.
- Keeping track of appointments and deadlines and the thousand things I need to do every week.
- Staying on top of student/client information.
- A work log.
Once you know what you need help with, you can figure out which systems will work best for you. Here’s what’s been working for me.
Simple Monthly Planner
I use a plain month-at-a-glance calendar with large squares to keep track of my appointments. I’ve found that I really like being able to see my whole month all at once.
You can see that I’m not going for fancy or Instagram ready here. I usually use a pencil so that I can at least make an attempt at erasing if something changes.
FRED is my Folder for Reaching the End of my Draft. You can read all about FRED below. Or get your own here.
I use FRED to track my writing goals and to keep a work log. Keeping a log is one of the most effective ways I know of staying accountable. That’s incredibly important when you’re self-employed and there’s no outside force imposing deadlines on you.
I use the outside of my FRED to take notes about writing projects.
Printable Passion Planner Pages: Weekly
Stapling my FRED into a file folder works so well for me. I got the idea from the Passion Planner website. You can download an undated weekly spread there for free and at some point, years ago, I read about the file folder trick.
It stuck with me and I adapted it for my monthly calendar. It’s finally occurred to me that it might actually work for me for my weekly calendar, too.
So far, I’m really enjoying it. I don’t have to deal with an entire book. I can see the whole week at once — nice and big with lots of space for notes. Including the outside covers of the folder.
I like the layout well enough. I wish the times weren’t there. I love that I can choose a Sunday start, since my work week starts on Sunday, not Monday. I’m incredibly frustrated by planners that truncate weekend days.
Printable Passion Planner Pages: Daily
Passion Planner has just rolled out a daily planner. You can download an undated sample (or the whole dated PDF sample. Passion Planner is one of the most generous companies I know of.)
I’ve been printing out seven a week. I fold them in half and (self-explanitory) use one a day.
One side has space for listing some daily goals and other types of reflection. There’s a planner section — but since I’m using the weekly planner, I don’t need it. Instead, I use that section to keep a list of ten post ideas every day.
The back is just a section for notes. I use that for my other daily list of ten ideas. (Today was ten things I’m going to prepare today to get ready for Thanksgiving.)
Both the weekly and daily printable pages are free on the Passion Planner website.
I keep my file folders and my monthly planner inside a padfolio that has a clipboard on that holds my daily page so that it’s front and center and easy to see.
Inside the front cover there’s a pocket where I keep my unused daily planner pages. There’s also a notebook that I use if I want to take notes for something specific to this week or this month. The pages fit perfectly in my files.
My One Notebook
I keep a single notebook. I use it for notes on everything — from grocery lists to ideas for my next novel and everything in between.
I have given up on carrying a notebook around with me all the time. I’ve tried and tried and I just never stick with it. So I keep my notebook on my desk during the day and take it home in my backpack at night. When I’m out, I carry a Hipster PDF (below.)
Right now I’m using a spiral bound notebook that I found at a thrift store.
A Hipster PDA
I might be the very last human on Earth to use one of these. Am I? If you use one, I’d love to know about it. Let me know in the comments.
A Hipster PDA is basically just a bunch of index cards held together with a binder clip.
I can’t function without a to do list. It’s by far my most effective productivity tool. Every day I make a list of all the things I need to do. Starting with the things I didn’t finish from yesterday’s list. I add the things from my weekly planner, my monthly planner.
I have two other cards that are sort of habit trackers. One is a SELF card. I track these four things every day: Sleep, Exercise, Logging (my food), and Fun. And I keep track of my daily writing earnings.
As you can see (and so can I, which is the point) I’m doing okay with sleep and fun, but my exercise is not so great.
And then I just keep eight or ten blank cards for notes. My little trick is to put the binder clip on the right side, so that it doesn’t block so much of my writing.
My Index Card Box
This is new for me, but so far it’s working really well.
I’ve bought this index card box. It’s big — it holds a ton of cards — and I love the design of it.
It came with ABC dividers. I also bought monthly, 1–31, and blank dividers. With the blank dividers, I made cards for the days of the week. So I have a calendar of sorts, in my box. The days of week first, then 1–31, then the months.
Every day, I rotate the past day to the back so the current day is in front.
This might seem super redundant to you — especially if you’re not particularly disorganized. I mean, I already have a monthly AND a weekly calendar. Do I really need index cards, too?
Not for everything. I don’t write every single thing down on Index Cards. For instance, I don’t make cards for doctors appointments that are already in my planner.
I have permanent cards for things that always happen on certain days of the week. Standing deadlines and appointments.
And I use this system for helping me make progress on bigger goals. I make a card for the very next step and put it in place for the date that I want to do it.
I use the monthly dividers for future planning. I use the blank dividers to make a section for specific goals or projects.
I have a card for each of my Ninja Writers Academy students in the ABC section, to help me keep track of their goals, so I can best help them.
And I have a divider for each of my coaching clients. When I speak with them, I take notes on index cards and file them there. I also keep track of finances and dates of our calls.
I’m excited to see how this system evolves over the coming months. I’ll keep you posted.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter and Instagram and is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation, and The Astonishing Maybe. She is the original Ninja Writer.