Over the past 20 years, I’ve used a variety of planning tools—traditional planners, bullet journals, a traveler’s notebook, discbound planners, and many digital tools like Google Calendar, Todoist, Trello, Evernote, Asana, and Notion.
I also know, first hand, how difficult it is to choose and commit to a tool that you hope will help you stay on top of things.
I want to help you narrow down your focus to the right tools—no matter what they are—so you can feel confident about what you pick.
What Types of Planners Exist?
From traditional planners to digital apps to systems you create yourself inside a humble notebook (a.k.a bullet journaling!), there are more productivity tools to organize your life and schedule than ever before.
Here are the most common options.
1. Traditional Planners
Even though the digital age has pushed us to plan online, die-hard paper planners still adore the process of choosing (and using) the perfect layout. Whether you crave a colorful cover or want a more professional vibe, you can’t go wrong with keeping things nice and simple.
Best for: Those craving simplicity. You just need the essentials to stay on top of your schedule and to-do’s. You don’t want to put a lot of effort into your planner upkeep (getting things done takes priority over planning to get things done!).
2. Specialty Planners
In addition to monthly, weekly, and daily planning, these planners incorporate more goal planning and productivity assessments. You’ll see monthly and weekly reviews as well as pages that help you break down your goals and stay on track throughout the year. Some incorporate budget and expense tracking too.
Best for: Those who want an all-in-one tool that supports multiple areas of their life. You are conscious about how your daily actions align with your long-term goals and need consistent reminders to stay on track.
3. Bullet Journals
This unique planning system offers endless customization and space for creativity. You turn a blank notebook into whatever you need—it can become your calendar, to-do list, weekly meal plan, ideas, and journal all in one! Each page is numbered and added to an Index so you can easily find those meeting notes you took three weeks ago.
Best for: Those who want a completely custom planner without any wasted pages or unnecessary extras. You like keeping everything they need to reference inside one notebook and enjoy the extra flexibility of designing their own pages.
4. Traveler’s Notebooks
Another flexible planning system are traveler’s notebooks. Available in multiple sizes, traveler’s notebooks feature a leather cover and elastic straps down the middle. These straps hold multiple thin notebooks inside. So you can combine multiple bullet journals and planners into one convenient, portable tool!
Best for: Those who like to organize their life by topics (one notebook for home, one for work, etc) or want to combine a smaller planner (like a monthly calendar) with a bullet journal.
5. Discbound/Ring Systems
In these notebooks, you can build your own planner using planning inserts. They allow for easy addition, removal, and rearrangement of pages, as opposed to the traditional coil-bound planner.
This setup is a bit more expensive as you need to buy the supplies upfront—a notebook, paper to print your own planner pages (you can purchase a PDF or make your own designs), and a special punch. Or you can purchase pre-punched inserts from a brand.
Best for: Those who want complete control over every page in their planner. They like to change layouts often so they need the flexibility to switch things up from week to week.
6. GoodNotes Planners
If you want to transition to a digital planner system but love the visual aesthetic flipping through a paper planner, GoodNotes may be the solution you are looking for. With multiple premade planner layouts and systems to choose from, you can find something that nods to your favorite paper planner with the added benefits of streamlining that digital planners offer.
Plus, if you loved planner stickers and washi and don’t want to entirely give that up, GoodNotes makes adding decorations, inserting images and using digital stickers so easy! You can also pick from hundreds of digital covers on Etsy, or even make your own.
Popular Picks: Create Heart Work Planners | KDigital Studios | PlannersCollective on Etsy
Best For: Those who love the visual aesthetic of paper planners but want the benefits of digital planning. Easy to customize for a variety of needs and you don’t have to give up your planner stickers and washi to brighten up your weekly spread!
7. Digital Tools
Need to keep tabs on your calendar, to-do list, habits, and make space for random lists and notes? There’s an app for that. But even more than apps, there are fully built-out platforms (like Notion) where you can create a complete organizational and productivity hub.
- To-do lists: Todoist, Things, TickTick, GoogleTasks, Any.do
- Calendars: Google Calendar, Apple Calendar, Cozi, Calendly
- Note-taking: OneNote, Evernote, Obsidian, AppleNotes, Notion, Google Keep
- Habit trackers: Streaks, HabitNow, Habitify
- Project management: Notion, Trello, Asana, Monday.com, Hive, ClickUp
Best for: Those who crave the portability, synchronization, and automation not found in analog systems. You often need to collaborate with others and they also like the minimalist nature of using a digital tool—all you need is a computer, iPad, and/or your phone!
The great thing about all of these types of planners is you don’t have to exclusively use one or the other.
I know plenty of people who double-dip by combining analog systems with digital apps (that’s what I do!) Others may keep a bullet journal for daily task lists, but also maintain a specialty planner for all of their goal planning.
It’s nice to have so many options, but also overwhelming… how can you possibly choose?
Assess Your Current Tools (What You Like + What You Don’t)
The best way to know what planner or planning tool will support you in this current season of life is to look at what you’re using now (or what you’ve used in the past) and take stock of how you feel about them.
Do this exercise on paper if you can.
Just thinking about your likes/dislikes doesn’t stick with you long-term (at least it doesn’t for me!) So take some time to write down your actual thoughts so you can reference them later when you’re shopping for another tool.
For example, if you tried a weekly planner that featured a habit tracker on every layout, but didn’t really use the habit tracker each week, then you probably want to find a weekly planner without a habit tracker and use a different tool for your habits instead.
During this process, ask yourself two questions:
1. What is working well for you? What feels natural about your current system? Think about the ease of use, various features, etc.
2. What hasn’t been working? Where do you feel the most friction? Consider time spent planning, ease of finding information, staying on top of to-do’s, etc. What is missing from your current tool?
You can use my Find Your Match planning guide to work through these questions, as well as take a Planning Preferences quiz to help narrow down your selection!
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Consider Your Planning Preferences
The right layout, tool, and system will be different for all of use.
Planning is extremely personal. Our brains don’t all work the same, nor do we find ourselves in the exact season of life as one another. Whether you’re a college student, single mom, empty nester, or work-from-home side hustler, your needs will be different than your friend, family, or neighbor.
So you need to think about what YOU like in a planning tool.
Here are some questions to get those juices flowing:
- How much upkeep can you handle? A traditional planner keeps things nice and simple while a discbound or ring system might require more maintenance.
- Does portability matter? This determines the size of your planner and/or convinces you to choose a digital tool.
- Do you like a lot of structure or prefer more flexibility? The layout is already designed for you inside a traditional planner, but if that feels too rigid, a bullet journal might be the right fit.
- How do you like to visualize your tasks? As a daily list without any timestamps? By the hour so you know when they fit into your day? In a simple, weekly overview? This will determine your planner layout.
- Do you change planning systems often or do you stick with one tool all year? You might want a more forgiving system like the bullet journal or discbound/ring notebook if you like to try new layouts on a regular basis.
- Does binding matter? For paper planners, there’s a big differences between softbound notebooks, traveler’s notebooks, hardcover planners, coil bound, discbound, and ring bound.
You want to think about these things before committing to something new. Again, my Find Your Match planning guide can help you with this part!
Once you’ve narrowed down your preferences, you can start looking at planning options in a whole new light. Instead of being overwhelmed by all the choices, you know exactly what will and won’t work for you.
I highly recommend doing more research on the tools you’re thinking about by watching YouTube videos, reading blog posts from individuals who’ve used that tool, or by searching via hashtags on Instagram.
I just did this when trying to decide between the Hobonichi brand and Stalogy notebooks. I’m still not sure exactly which one to pick, but I was leaning towards the Hobonichi Cousin. After the video I watched, I know for sure that the Cousin is not for me and that if I go Hobonichi, then I want the A6 original.
You May Not Want to Hear This, But…
All planning systems require time and effort.
They are not a magical fairy godmother ready to grant your every productivity desire. And while I do believe some tools are better for certain individuals over others, I firmly believe that you can use almost any tool to get the results you want.
As long as you use it.
You may decide on a planner stack and digital combo that you’re really excited about. But after the first week, you’re starting to regret your decision.
Don’t change anything for three months. Three months gives you enough time to work out the kinks and get into a routine with your planning tools. You can still do a few tweaks here and there, but try to avoid any major overhauls.
If after three months, you still feel frustrated, then by all means, try something new! But chances are, you just need to get used to what you’ve chosen.
Most importantly, have fun with this process. If at any time you feel anxious because you’re not sure what decision to make, remember that you don’t know what works until you try it.
Each tool moves you closer to the right fit.
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What planners (or planning tools) have you used in the past?
What do you plan to try next? Do you need some help deciding? Let me know in the comments!
Disclosure: Some of the links in the post above are affiliate links. This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. Read my full disclosure policy here.