Back to School: Making Planners Work for You

I can hardly believe it’s August already! Which means it’s time for back to school, school supplies, and getting new planners. A lot of schools and colleges give students a planner to use, which is really great. But, how do you make it work best for you? My friends at Indiana University South Bend asked me to share some tips on personalizing their standard student planner – so here are some ideas for how to use your planner, whether you got it from school or from Target. If you have other ideas, please leave them down below!

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which means if you happen to purchase something I make a small commission at no extra cost to you, to go back into the blog and videos. 

I’m a firm believer that you can get organized without spending a lot of money on supplies. If you get a planner for free you are able to get creative about how to make it work as well as possible for you.

First, what are you planning for?

Before jumping in and getting lost in the “how” it always helps to identify the “what.” This is why it’s difficult to give other people advice – you are using a system that works best for you and your specific situation. So, before you go too far and follow the default, think about what you are trying to keep track of (is it your clubs, jobs, volunteering, family responsibilities) and focus on how gaining momentum there.


Spruce up and leverage your standard monthly calendars by going beyond major dates and deadlines – measure or track what matters most to you.

There are so many different monthly calendar ideas you can use!
Better plan your energy and time around major deadlines and events in your life

Major Dates and Events: You might get syllabi for each class, but it’s amazing what you notice when you put all those dates down on the same calendar. Sometimes I’ve realized I have a couple deadlines and big social commitments that fall on the same week – which would leave me quite drained and burned out. At my best I’m able to plan around these high-energy times so I don’t burn out (too badly)

There are so many different monthly calendar ideas you can use!
Plan your different workout days to get movement into your schedule, or track your progress

Fitness and movement: It’s also helpful to plan for movement in my schedule. In this case, I’ve outlined days I intend to go to a fitness class or the gym. You can use this as a pre-plan and/or a log. If you pre-plan, it might help remove barriers to going to the gym by having ideas for your workout or focus. If you log, it helps track progress or quantity over time.

There are so many different monthly calendar ideas you can use!
Keep track of your meals to plan for groceries and meals out

Meal Plan: When I stopped eating at the dining hall and had to buy my own groceries, I would have benefited from planning a little more than eating a Lean Cuisine. If you have access to a wider variety of groceries and a local store, it could help identifying what you’re making for the week while accounting for the meals you have provided or eating out. For one person, I find that I Just need 2 hearty recipes for the week that overlapped some ingredients (seriously if they could just start selling HALF LOAVES OF BREAD that would be helpful for us single, non-family people, amiright?)

There are so many different monthly calendar ideas you can use!
Track a variety of things like symptoms, meals, moods, sleep, and more in a semi-graphic way

Tracking: Sometimes it’s helpful to see progress over time. So you can track just about anything – whether you jot down the numbers or create a chart, you can track the number of hours you spend on an activity (sleep or studying, for example), the level of feeling or pain, symptoms you may have (because I never remember what to tell my doctor), or your mood. It’s more helpful than your flawed human memory.

There are so many different monthly calendar ideas you can use!
Plan for where your money is going by forecasting your budget and bills

Finances and Budgeting: Common advice is to create a budget and list out your fixed expenses like rent, utilities, perhaps your phone or car insurance. You can also forecast some expenses you anticipate having for other things like various outings, meals, gifts, and plan backwards for how you might need to adjust your spending beforehand. It could avoid feeling blindsided by as many expenses.

There are so many different monthly calendar ideas you can use!
Fill your monthly out as you go by recording your gratitude

Gratitude: Take a moment to log one thing you want to note from the day, whether that’s a funny quote, something you appreciate, or interesting observation. As you look back, it may illuminate hope and levity when you need it.

There are so many different monthly calendar ideas you can use!
If you’re more artistic, sketch something each day

Sketch book: For the right-brained ones, you might want to do a sketch or doodle a day. (I’m obviously not a doodler)


Often, we are given layouts and structures that are intended to be helpful – but they don’t quite work for us. Sometimes we sigh and step away, but we can actually do more than we thought to make it work for us.

Here are some ideas to customize a standard school planner



Here are some ideas to customize a standard school planner

There are so many ways you can begin tweaking your layout. You can add quotes for inspiration in the white-space, you can add a snapshot of your schedule of the day, you can add color. Here, I’m using a simple Staedtler felt-tip pen because it isn’t too wet (free planners tend to have thinner paper, so choose your pens wisely!) and some thin washi.

Even though I mainly use my Google calendar, it’s helpful to have a really general overview of the major anchors of my week.

Here are some ideas to customize a standard school planner

If you’re like me, if something is out of sight, it’s out of mind as well. So even though I like the idea of monthly calendars, I really only focus on my weekly view. Knowing myself, I weave in those things like meal planning, gratitude, workouts into my weekly view somehow.

And, if a structure or a box isn’t quite working for you, repurpose it by covering it up with a sticker you might have lying around. Then you can use it however you want – quotes, project list, whatever.

Here are some ideas to customize a standard school planner

Of course, you can also use sticky notes instead of stickers for a ton of stuff. I personally like using them for things I want to carry from week to week – usually things like reading or project tracking, or things I want to talk to my students about.

Making your planner work for you is a great exercise in becoming aware of what you need and how you work – and a reminder that creating your own structures, your own story, is what school is about. I’m excited for you and your own story!

Do you have other ideas you like to use? Let me know in the comments!



2 thoughts on “Back to School: Making Planners Work for You

  1. Kroger & Walmart sell half loaves! Well in this area. (W. KY) I am sending this to my daughter who is a Jr in HS. School started on 8/8 and she was going to carry a (starter)TN but also has the school agenda. Maybe this will help her. My love for planners began with my Western Kentucky University “Abacus”. #nostalgia


  2. I got used to using a planner in middle school when the school provided one for each student and a part of our classtime was used to write down homework, upcoming events, and project/test dates. I get one every year because of this habit.


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