It was early October when my maker friends and I started the conversation. “So…what planner are you going to use next year?” Based on the amount of back-and-forth and research and angst, you’d think we were purchasing a car or a house, rather than a notebook with some dates printed in it. But really…when a planner is going to be your constant companion for a whole year, you have to get it right.
When the System Fails
As I sat down to plan my week a few days ago, it felt like slogging through molasses. I couldn’t see the big picture, couldn’t prioritize my most important tasks, couldn’t focus on what I wanted to accomplish for the week. Why not?! I mean, my new planner clearly had a blank line on the top, saying, “Week 04 Focus: ________________.” Literally, all I needed to do was fill in the blank.
Frustrated, I figured I’d just do what worked for me at the end of last year, so I blocked out my time for the day and assigned tasks to each hour. That almost worked—at least for getting the most basic work done—until I got a phone call that changed my plans for the day. Last year, I would have gone with the flow and rescheduled as necessary. This year, I threw up my hands in defeat. There wasn’t enough room in the planner to write out a change of plans, I told myself. It was all the planner’s fault. I wrote, “AFTERNOON PLANS DERAILED” at the bottom of my schedule, and called it a day.
Obviously, my new planner wasn’t flexible enough to help me stay on track. Maybe I needed to use the space differently. Maybe I needed to go back to the brand I used last year. Orrrrr…maybe I needed a custom bullet journal! If I just got the right organizational tool, laid it out right, and used it religiously, I’d end every day with a sense of accomplishment and pride in my work. With the right planner, I’d fall soundly asleep each night, content in the knowledge that I was furthering my career, nurturing my relationships, and living my best life.
You know that’s not how it works, don’t you? I do too, but those are the stories I tell myself.
It’s Not the Planner
There were a lot of reasons why what I was doing wasn’t working, but the planner I chose wasn’t one of them. It’s telling that my first reaction was to try to reinvent the wheel, though, and I don’t think I’m the only one who does that.
Creating new organizational systems is a powerful procrastination tool because it feels like work. We see all those gorgeous #bujo spreads on Instagram and think that that’s what productivity looks like. It’s not. Those spreads turn life/work planning into a creative outlet. There’s nothing wrong with that, and you may even find it enjoyable. If so, go ahead and bust out the gel pens and have fun with it, but unless your goal is to get recognition for the way your planner looks, no amount of washi tape is going to bring you closer to actual productivity.
Here are some things that might:
Continue doing what’s worked in the past. By adulthood, most of us have developed at least some systems that keep us organized and functional. Are you actually using the systems you’ve already set up? If not, think about why. Be honest with yourself. You may just need to suck it up and recommit, but it’s also possible that your needs have actually changed.
Decide if the problem is temporary. My tried-and-true method of blocking out my time didn’t work this week for several reasons. First, I had an unusual weekly schedule, with an airport run, unpredictable car issues, and an erratic, final-exam school schedule for my son. Second, it was a rough week, emotionally, which affected my overall motivation levels. Third, the work I’ve been trying to do recently is less task-based and more big-picture than it was in November and December. The first two issues were definitely temporary. The third is longer-term, but also not permanent. The time-block technique should still work for the majority of my days, so no need to throw a good system away at the first sign of trouble.
Try a simple solution. When things aren’t working, my impulse is add more rules and layers of complexity. We’re conditioned to blame a lack of productivity on a lack of discipline, but that’s not always the case. Remember how I mentioned I had a rough week emotionally? I probably could have been more disciplined and just churned out the work, but it likely wouldn’t have been my best work, and it definitely wouldn’t have been the work I needed to be doing this week. I would have been working just to feel productive, and feeling productive isn’t the same as being so.
In search of inspiration, I listened to Sara Tasker’s most recent Hashtag Authentic podcast, temptingly titled, “Planning, organising and editing your life, with Anna Newton.” Anna suggested making a list of just three things to do on any given day. I tried it, and it was the perfect solution for me this week: easy, good for big-picture thinking, and didn’t require me to spend hours creating a new system. Which brings me to my final suggestion to avoid organization procrastination…
Be flexible. Take a deep breath. You don’t need a system for everything. You (gasp) don’t even need to write everything down in your planner. Your organizational systems are there to help you get the things you need to do done. Organizing isn’t your work. Your work is your work. So, while you don’t need to start from scratch to get your life in order, you also don’t need to be a slave to a system that you created.
If all else fails, just write, “PLANS DERAILED” in all caps and call it a day. Sometimes, that’s what you need, and I promise, I won’t tell anyone.