Planning

How to Make a Paper Planner Actually Work for You As a Working Woman: Throw it Out & Go Digital (Seriously)

November 14, 2020

I’m Kelly Nolan.
I'm an attorney who'd been decently organized through law school but got quickly overwhelmed as a actual attorney. After nothing else worked for me, I created this system – and kept on practicing law. Years later, I found out others were interested in learning it, so that's what I do now! Let's get this realistic system in your hands so you can start living a life that feels more calm, doable, and that lights you up.
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Picking out a paper planner is incredibly fun. But the actual using of the planner…? Well, after the initial two-week honeymoon period, it often ends in frustration.

So, how to use a planner in a way that sticks, helps you get stuff done, and helps you actually enjoy your downtime?

Throw out your paper planner & go all-in on a digital calendar.

If you’re tempted to roll your eyes and hit the “back” button, know this: I’m a paper lover and fully recognize the benefits of planners.

I used a paper planner through high school, college, and law school. The paper planner aisle at Target still beckons to me with its siren call and gorgeous patterned covers. I process by writing, so I have tons of handwritten notes scattered across my desk on any given day (including right now as I type this).

That said, there’s a reason you as a modern working woman have been struggling to figure out how to make a paper planner work for you for so long. There’s a reason that, despite your best efforts, you’re still overwhelmed.

Paper planners just can’t keep up with a modern working woman’s life.

But good news: a digital calendar can.

When done right, making the switch from a paper planner to a digital calendar to manage everything on your plate will change your life.

Because here’s the thing – the question shouldn’t be “how to use a planner” or “what’s the best paper planner technique?”

We’ve got to think bigger and get to the heart of the matter. The question should be, “how do I get everything done with more peace of mind and actually enjoy my downtime?”

And digital calendars get you there. Paper planners just can’t.

In this article, I’ll walk you through ten reasons why even paper lovers like me should make the switch to a digital calendar like Google Calendar or Outlook.

Before we dive in, I want to make one thing very clear:

Going digital with your calendar does NOT mean ditching all of your paper.

If you process by writing and love to brainstorm on paper, same here! Keep going!

We just want to take those ideas and create an actual, clear, and realistic game plan in your digital calendar of how you’ll bring those ideas to life in a way that helps you see how they interact with the rest of your life (i.e., other work projects, childcare, partner’s schedules, fun plans, all of it).

Before we discuss why you should go digital vs your paper planner, let’s take a step back and talk about…

How to Use a Planner / Calendar Effectively

Most of us use paper planners like this: events get assigned to a time (a start time or a block of time), and to-do’s end up as a list in their own separate column or even on a separate to-do list, post-it note, phone app, or just live in our head.

So, when we try to figure out where our time is going that day/week/month, we have to look at multiple places and do a lot of mental gymnastics to figure out how to get it all done and what to do next.

Because all the things requiring our time are scattered, we don’t have a clear view of everything on our plate – so we definitely don’t have a clear view of how we’ll get it all done (or if we can get it all done).

And that’s why we struggle to take a break. We’re not sure if we can get it all done to begin with, so we feel like we always need to be working to increase the chances we’ll actually get it done.

Does that make sense?

By bringing it all together so we see everything on our plate in one view, we can then create one game plan for how we’ll get it all done over time.

When we know we can get it all done over time and in a way that doesn’t require us to work right now, we can take breaks we can actually enjoy without the pressure of feeling like we should be working.

And that brings me to …

Reason #1 to go digital: You can load up a digital calendar with ALL the information in a manageable way (vs a paper calendar, which ends up a cluttered mess)

Digital calendars let us put alllllll the information in one spot.

Personal events and tasks, professional events and tasks, family activities, partner’s schedules, and even reminders to give your dog her monthly meds.

(Only exception: if you’re someone who likes/has to keep work separate because, e.g., you use Outlook at work and Google Calendar at home, two places is fine! I show clients how to do this in a way that lets them keep their work and personal calendars separate but still see life holistically when planning their weeks.)

Instead of this becoming overwhelming as it would in a paper planner, using a digital calendar lets you divide up the different categories of information into sub-calendars.

Sub-calendars let you filter what you want to see at any given moment.

Want to figure out if your partner will be home tonight? Click on his/her schedule.

Want to live your day-to-day without theirs cluttering up your view? Click theirs off.

Everything is at your fingertips but is also within your viewing control for clarity’s sake.

Paper calendars just can’t do that.

If you try to load them up with your schedule, your driving time, your time-blocked tasks, your kids’ schedules, and your partner’s work schedule – well, it becomes an overwhelming mess that you can’t filter or control.

We’ve got to bring everything together in one place AND in a manageable way.

Digital calendars are gangbusters at doing that (especially when using a technique I teach in my time management program for professional working women).

Paper ones… not so much. This is why when professional working women ask me how to find the best paper planner for them and use it, while I have small suggestions to help improve how you use it, I often push them away from paper planners and to digital / electronic calendar options. Are planners helpful and worth it? Sure. Could you get more clarity, confidence and less stress with a digital planner? Most definitely.

Reason #2 to go digital: Because it’s easy to calendar repeating events, digital calendars help you have more control over your invisible to-do list & lighten your mental load

We all have an invisible to-do list.

The stuff that never makes it onto the to-do list or into the paper planner but takes up our time.

Making dinner. Showering. Doing bath time and bedtime with the kids. Walking the dog. Washing bedsheets. Cleaning up the kitchen before bed.

Exacerbating this issue is the fact that during the mental gymnastics of figuring out when we’ll do everything, we often underestimate or completely overlook how much time these things take.

This leads to feeling behind and beating ourselves up for not getting stuff done – when it objectively couldn’t all get done in the first place.

To counteract this outcome, I’m a big fan of making those things visual to help:

  1. free your mind from the juggling act, and
  2. help you realistically plan for how long those things take, so you can feel accomplished at the end of the day – not defeated.

That said, time-blocking those things in a paper calendar (see reason #1 for going digital) not only results in a cluttered mess, but writing those things out for every single day of your life is way too time-consuming.

I mean, I love having those things in my calendar, and even I wouldn’t do it in a paper planner.

So, reason #2 to switch to a digital calendar:

Because it’s easy and quick to create repeating events, your new digital calendar will help you have more control over your invisible to-do list and lighten your mental load.

In a digital calendar, you can get those invisible to-do’s out of your head and into a calendar on a repeating basis with just a couple clicks of your mouse.

Even better, as your days shape out, you can easily rearrange those plans by dragging and dropping.

This is game-changing.

It gets all those little things out of your head, helps you remember to do them, and helps you realistically plan for them.

Instead of going to bed defeated by an unrealistic, invisible to-do list, you get to go to bed proud of today and clear about tomorrow.

It’s magical.

All that said, I find that people struggle with this one a bit because calendaring those little things feels weird. If you have that hesitation, it’s okay – I’d love to talk to you about it. Feel free to send me a message to talk it out.

Reason #3 to go digital: We want to make paper calendars pretty, and that’s time-consuming and actually takes you away from getting stuff done and enjoying downtime

Back in my paper planner days, I spent way too much time making my paper planner “pretty.”

I’d write and re-write things, box and re-box things, etc. until it looked just right.

And then, plans would inevitably shift and the process would start all over again.

And that’s not really the point of planners, right?

The reason we plan and schedule in the first place is to help us get out there, get stuff done, and enjoy the fun stuff.

Unless the fun stuff for you is crafting in your calendar (and if it is – keep going!), then stop spending so much time doing that.

But I don’t think many of us are thinking, “man, I wish I had more time so I could spend more time writing in my calendar.”

So, let’s stop spending so much of time writing in your calendar!

Pretty calendars make a great Pinterest photo, but they don’t help get out there, get stuff done, and live your life.

We’ve got to find a balance between pretty (yes, I talk to clients about color palettes of your Google Calendar) and function.

Because, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what your calendar looks like.

It matters that you feel clear on how you want your day to run, empowered to make it happen, and proud of today when your head hits the pillow.

And then, if you want pretty notebooks and other creative outlets, let’s get you there! Those are valid desires.

It’s just that calendars and time management aren’t where we prioritize time-consuming Pinterest-worthy-pages over peace of mind.

Reason #4 to go digital: Better communication with partners, family members & work teammates, which means a lighter workload for you

Before I met my husband, I managed work out of my Outlook calendar and my personal life out of… well, kinda a Google Calendar but, candidly, mostly my head.

Enter Matt and his crazy then-med school rotations schedule (now replaced by a crazy ER shift schedule).

After a couple months of dating, we created a joint Google Calendar so I could see when he was working. (A sign of true love!)

After we started that joint calendar, not only could I easily factor his schedule into my plans, but it also freed up the time we did have together from me asking him a bajillion times when he worked next/this weekend/next month.

Fast forward seven years later: we now additionally share other calendars, including one specifically about our daughter so we can both see when she has daycare, childcare, and doctor’s appointments.

Paper calendars obviously can’t hold a candle to this. Even if you have a single family-hub-type calendar, those things typically live at home, which is pretty worthless when you’re on the go.

And this can be brutal for women.

Women often shoulder the burden of organizing a family’s life, activities, housework and meals. If there’s no communication mechanism, the workload can’t easily be communicated and shared, so by default it falls on the woman.

If, instead, you create an easy way to get things on your partner’s plate, suddenly you’re able to share the load and lighten your own.

And THAT’s where life really does start to feel lighter – because it is.

Reason #5 to go digital: If you want to think long-term, you need to be able to plan long-term. And for that, you need to go digital

So, your driver’s license expires in a couple of years. Your passport – a couple of years later.

Want to avoid the last-minute scramble to renew them?

Me too! Calendar their deadlines and when you’ll start the renewal process in the months beforehand.

If you use a digital calendar, this is easy peasy. Just go to those dates and plug in the info.

If you use a paper planner, your pages don’t go that far. You have to write out those dates on the last page and hope you remember to carry the dates over – for multiple years until you finally have a planner for the year they need to be renewed.

That’s a pretty big room for error and dropping a ball, which you do not want to discover as you’re trying to board a plane for your dream vacation (when we can finally travel again)…

Similarly, let’s talk birthdays. They come around every year. With a digital calendar, you repeat those puppies on an annual basis, and you’re done. Even better, you can repeat reminders a couple weeks ahead of time to plan presents and parties, set those for annual repetitive, and you’re all set. FOREVER.

Paper calendars – nope.

Digital calendars let you plan for the long-term in a more efficient, effective way.

With paper calendars, you’re forced to limit your planning until the last date in your calendar, and that’s just silly.

In short, reason #5 for going digital:

If you want to think long-term, you need to be able to plan long-term. And for that, you need to go digital.

Reason #6 to go digital: Easy integration with Gmail

Google Calendar integrates with my Gmail and GSuite email accounts, so it pulls flights and events from my email and puts them right into my calendar. Efficient.

Paper planners – nope.

Reason #7 to go digital: A digital calendar virtually taps you on the shoulder to remind you to do things. A paper calendar cannot.

In my paper planner days in college, I once stood up an elderly professor at a restaurant.

The lunch was in my calendar. I just didn’t pull out my calendar to check it at the end of class. Instead, I threw my laptop in my bag and went home to take a nap. I woke up and realized my mistake far too late. (Ughhhh my tummy still turns when I think about it.)

Here’s the thing: a calendar only works if it helps you do the actual things you schedule.

This goes beyond just writing down the events in your calendar like a champ.

Your calendar needs to help you know to do the thing when the time rolls around, even if you’re on the go.

Paper planners require YOU to remember to look at them. Lots of room for forgetting to look – and therefore forgetting to do things.

Digital calendars actually virtually tap you on the shoulder – via phone and desktop alerts – to tell you to do the thing when you planned to do it.

On that day I stood up my college professor, if I’d been using a digital calendar, both my laptop and my phone would have helped me avoid standing up that professor.

And today? Well, with a toddler, my life is even more fast-paced and on-the-go, making my phone alerts all the more critical. I can’t tell you the number of times they’ve saved me.

At the end of the day, your brain has more important things to do than somehow remember the things you need to do or to remember to look at your calendar six times a day.

Instead, leverage your phone. Make it your tiny little personal assistant who reminds you to do the things you need/want to do when you need to do them.

Let it help you show up how you want to show up.

Paper calendars just can’t do that. Believe me – my track record proves it.

Reason #8 to go digital: Digital calendars help you quickly and easily rearrange when the inevitable curveball strikes

We all know curveballs can derail our best-laid plans.

Whether one derails your next hour, day, or even weeks at a time, digital calendars let you drag and drop your little time-blocks to create a new plan.

Paper calendars require a lot of erasing and re-writing, which is far more time-consuming.

We know the curveballs are coming. Let’s use a system that sets us up to be more nimble and helps us get back out there quickly.

Reason #9 to go digital: Since we usually leave home with our phone, you’ll always have your calendar with you

Google Calendar is always with you in your phone. Since we all leave our house with our phones, even when I dash out chasing after our kids, you’ll always have it with you.

If you use a paper planner (it’s at home) and you’re out and about and need to know what’s on deck or schedule a new appointment, you’re in a pickle.

Reason #10 to go digital: Your calendar’s backed up

Despite my tendency to lose physical things like my keys twice a day, I’ve thankfully never lost a paper planner. But I can only imagine.

When your whole life is in a paper planner and you lose it, that’s it.

With a digital calendar, if you lose your phone, a lost calendar thankfully isn’t a concern – you just access it by signing into a computer. Sweet relief – and peace of mind.

(Bonus) Reason #11 to go digital (I can’t help it): Digital calendars let you use apps like Acuity and Calendly to more easily set up meetings, which also protect your boundaries better than you can

Do you love those email threads along the lines of “when works best for you?” and “oh, I can’t do those times – how about these?”

No? No one does.

Apps like Acuity and Calendly, in short, allow you to send a link to someone to book a specific appointment on your calendar during only the windows of time you want to allow meetings, while also cross-checking your calendar to make sure you’re not double-booked.

It’s nothing less than modern-day magic.

Moreover, at least for Minnesotan people-pleasers like me, these apps are game-changers because they protect my calendar way better than I ever could. While I’ll waver and offer people meetings when it works best for them (but not me), these apps show only your available time – protecting your boundaries better than you can.

So, how to set up and use a digital calendar to reduce your stress & up your confidence?

If you’re thinking, “alright – I’m in! Let’s go digital!,” congrats! Given the empowerment and clarity that waits on the other side, I’m thrilled for you!

If you’d like my help learning how to do it, consider joining my time management program for professional working women.

In the time management training program, not only do I show you step-by-step how to set up your digital calendar, we also work through strategies of getting real work done during work hours (freeing up nights and weekends for the fun stuff!), managing email, getting that invisible to-do list out of your head and into your system, and planning your weeks in a realistic and effective way.

In the words of a client, Monica Campbell, an attorney, she shared,

“I was a bit nervous when I joined [Kelly’s program] since I’ve done other programs and bought numerous books and watched untold number of YouTube videos on time management and made no real improvement, at least not any lasting changes.

Now I think that I couldn’t afford NOT to take this program. It has changed the way I looked at time and the way my mind processes it. This was a game-changer for me.

I am now much more hopeful and a lot calmer. I don’t feel like I’m juggling all these balls in the air and possibly forgetting something anymore. I feel much more confident because I have a definite structure to keep track of things, and I can see where I before set myself up to fail.”

If you’re ready for that, let’s get you there. Join me in my next time management program for professional working women. I’d love to see you in there.

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