The best planner of 2019…or ever

As a freshman in college, I was a creature of habit. It wasn’t intentional; I was always a bit of a low-maintenance kinda gal in high school and rebelled against any kind of routine. (Well, rebelled as only an obedient young immigrant/eldest daughter could.) But maybe it was the uncertainty of college, my fear of failing (there’s that immigrant thing again!) in a new environment, or the desire to have some sense of control over an otherwise unpredictable life — whatever the reason may have been, one of my daily, unfailing habits was to engage in what’s now known as time-blocking at the end of every evening.

In the pre-smartphone, pre-Internet era, this was simply a matter of pulling out a regular ol’ three-hole-punch notepaper and marking each half hour on the left margin. To the right of that, I’d schedule out every hour of my next day. I usually did this before going to be each night, which was almost always 1:00 am, after a full day of studying and classes. I think I was more lenient on weekends and rarely kept a schedule, but on weekdays/schooldays, my days were regimented as if I were in some kind of military school. (I wasn’t. I was in a private liberal arts college in the Southwest.)

Although nearly 3 decades now separate me from that first year in college, I still remember most of that daily schedule really well, probably because it so rarely varied. I’d wake up at 6:00 am and take a shower in the communal bathroom down the hall. At 6:30, all clean and dressed and my hair all nicely blow-dried, I’d have a bowl of Total cereal with some milk and watch “Good Morning America”. Then, at 7:30, I’d pack up my backpack and make the very short trek from my dorm to my first class, which was almost always at 8:00 or 8:30 am.

I’d be in class until about midday, then I’d head to the cafeteria and have a burger and some kind of side. I’d spend the rest of the afternoon at the library doing my work-study job (10 hours/week). At 5:00 pm sharp, I’d go back to the dorm and eat whatever leftovers or frozen meal I had waiting for me in the communal fridge, then at 5:30 I’d watch “World News Tonight with Peter Jennings”. Afterwards, I’d spend the rest of the evening studying and reviewing my notes for the day. If I remember correctly, I’d give myself an hour or so around midnight to just read whatever the heck I want — probably a romance novel — and then I’d close out the night spending a few minutes making out my schedule for the next day.

Rinse and repeat.

In hindsight, it seems like I’d carved out quite the monastic life in the middle of a bustling, small but vibrant university community, but I also remember lots of evenings gossiping and laughing with my roommate, Heather, and spending hours visiting with my best friend, Janice, who lived down the hall. Janice’s room was right above the hall’s main entrance way, so just outside her window was the large, concrete overhang above the sweeping driveway out front. I remember one wintry evening when we climbed out her window and sat on the sill à la Friends, watching a light snow fall — a rarity in our part of the country — and probably chatting about the frat guys we were in love with.

It was a life of purpose, blocked out by the half hour every day, but with plenty of room to fit in joy and spontaneity and hours watching snow fall.

Three decades later, I’m still using a planner, but only after struggling for years to try and organize my life using a variety of apps, from Google Calendar to Todoist to Wunderlist to Asana. I’ve come back to a real paper planner and will likely never, ever come back.

I heard about the Hobonichi Techo planner series from, but it took me months to actually pull the trigger and buy the darn thing. For one thing, it’s not cheap. I think I paid nearly $90 for everything, including the planner itself, the cover, and shipping. I opted for the Hobonichi Techo Cousin, which seemed perfect not only in size as I can slip it into my tote, but also in layout, with an entire page devoted to each day, plus a two-page-per-week section near the front.

I ordered the April 2019-April 2020 planner back in mid-April, and it arrived within two weeks. (The planner comes in two versions: a January version and an April version. I don’t know exactly why, but I suspect it’s because for many Japanese companies and employees, the fiscal year and even the school year begins in April. I worked for a couple of years in Japan during the mid-1990s and remember well the annual ritual of April opening ceremonies at various schools.)

You can buy the planner at various stores around the United States, and even online from US-based stationery/paper companies, but I opted to order direct from Japan because they throw in a couple of bonus gifts: a Jetstream three-color pen (the kind I used to use in high school!) and an adorable little “Not Scary Bear Paperweight.” I’m still not sure what I’m going to do with the paperweight, but once I have my office all set up, I imagine it’ll take pride of place on my desk somewhere. I think of it as my planning mascot.

I am so in love with this planner that P. teases me when I haven’t mentioned the word “Hobonichi” in a few hours. It does fit perfectly into my purse and doesn’t add a lot of extra weight. I especially love how it lies flat (maybe the Not Scary Bear paperweight is primarily decorative?), and how delicate the pages are, and yet how well they hold up to lots of scribbling and even the occasional washi-taped photo.

It’s only been a couple of weeks that I’ve been using it, but I haven’t opened my Todoist app on my phone at all since I cracked open its spine and started writing. I think part of what I find so appealing about my Hobonichi is its flexibility: there’s lots of space for each daily page to write my appointments, to-do lists, and random notes about the day, without making it looked cluttered. The little gridlines make it easy to keep things looking clean and organized, although they’re a bit on the small side so if your handwriting tends to be on the big, flourish-y side, you may find the itsy-bitsy squares a bit too constrained.

Another thing I’ve discovered is that I find myself being much more deliberate about what tasks I can reasonably accomplish in one day. When I was still using Todoist, it was so, so easy to just throw in 15, 20, even 30 different to-do items on any given day, so many of them really significant tasks that could take hours, juxtaposed next to errands and little odds and ends: “Create will on LegalZoom” + “Petco: buy dry food” + “CVS: refill Rx” + “work on cruise vacation photo book”. All in one day!

But it took so little effort to do all of the above, and to move them around with just a couple of clicks to random days, since I never really had a clear, 30,000-foot view of my day, let alone my week. It was also effortless to ignore all of it, too. And things that really don’t belong on a to-do list because they’re recurring and get done no matter what (e.g., “Do laundry”) would only serve to clutter up my list and make it too easy to ignore the big things (“Make will”) so that I can indulge in the simple satisfaction of checking off the super-simple things (“Replace kitchen sponge”).

Not with the Hobonichi. Now, individual days and whole weeks stare at me in the face, right next to appointments which also take up chunks of time. Unlike Todoist, which is, on its face, just a digital to-do list out of context with how life is lived, I can see both my calendar and my task list together, at a glance, and arrange my day accordingly. Now I rarely have more than 3-4 items on my checklist, although the old habit of postponing things is rearing its ugly head. Years of Todoist enabling that habit take a bit of time to overcome, but with the Hobonichi, I think I’m well on my way.

I’d love to know what y’all use to plan your busy days! Do you rely on a smartphone app, or a physical planner? One of the leads at my company — an accomplished and brilliant executive — writes a lot of her reminders/tasks on the palm of her hand, which I find so endearing and human.

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