What if all the most basic rules of planning – the ones you KNOW to be true – aren’t true at all?
For any area of life, “the rules” float around in the back of our head.
The kind of rules that only register as true because we’ve heard them so many times we don’t question them anymore.
Rules like “success is when you have a big house and a Ferrari”. Or “a woman is only acceptable if she weighs less than X” (where X equals whatever the magazines say this season).
And when it comes to how people organise their day-to-day life, the rules are beliefs about:
- what an organised person does
- what an organised person is capable of
- what are the “rules” of being organised
- what “organised” actually looks like.
But are these actually true if you take a closer look?
And if they aren’t, why let them hold you back?
Over the past 9 years of working with and developing flexible planning systems, I’ve talked to hundreds of people about what they struggle with when it comes to planning and time management.
Ironically, I’ve found that these planning stereotypes are not only everywhere, they actually keep people from being organised.
The truth is that no one should stick to a system that someone else is trying to force on them.
When it comes to managing your life, the best route is to find what system serves YOU the best, and then shape that system to fit your life. And if you don’t find one, you can mix and match and create an entirely new thing for yourself.
What tends to happen, unfortunately, is that these beliefs are there to sabotage anyone who dares to show up and wants to bring clarity to their time management. No wonder so many people give up after the first attempt: the first burst of motivation runs out, they’re overpowered by rules that don’t apply to them, everything just feels too overwhelming. And then it’s easier to just go back to business-as-usual, even if that involves chaos, anxiousness and never really getting from A to B.
With that in mind, I’ve collected the most universal planning myths a.k.a. the biggest blocks to a sensible and practical time management system.
And, since I’m all about being actionable, I will also show you how to deal with them.
Some myths you may already have heard yourself, some might be familiar, but you’ve never explicitly said them out loud (these beliefs are the sneakiest). Whether you’re a seasoned planner or you’re just starting out, you can take note of them for later, so when these thoughts crop up down the road, you can easily go “A-ha! I know you. You’re not real. Shoo.“
Myth #1. “I wasn’t born organised. I’m genetically incapable of managing my time.”
Imagine someone passing you on a bicycle. Would you sigh, lamenting, “How lucky! They’ve got the bike riding genes.”
Would you think it was odd if someone commented, “Look at Sam, knitting a sweater. He was born with the ability, you know.”
Or would you believe someone who told you, “The reason Pam’s really good at Latin is that she was bitten by a radioactive Latin dictionary.”
The occasional superhero origin story aside, all of the above cases involve people who started learning something, then had a setback, tried again, failed, tried yet again, and gradually became better at it.
I firmly believe that if it’s a skill, you can learn it. Sure, you might have a better affinity to learn some skills over others. But what you definitely have the ability to do is:
- decide what you need,
- figure out what change would help your life,
- and take steps toward that change.
Planning is a skill like any other. You can realize you need it, find the ways to best do it, and then make it a part of your life — just like with any other habit. If you devote even just a small amount time each week to try out a new method of time management and see if it works for you, you’re already on your way to learning this new skill. Best of all, as you practice, you’ll soon see how it can become a new, positive habit in your life.
Mythbusting challenge: Learn this basic skill in days
If you think you’re so rubbish at planning that it’s not even worth trying, let me show you the easiest time management skill in the world. Whether you use ring binders, your phone’s task app, a digital calendar or a bullet journal, these are the steps you need to start making them work for you.
Step 1. When you need to memorize a new task you need to do, instead of trying to remember it in your head (next to the other 500 pieces of information you’re trying to juggle in there), reach for the pen and set your to-dos on a piece of paper. Just by paying attention to make “write task down” your default action, you’ll make this a habit in just days. (If your vibe is more digital, use your phone, of course, but still: write it down. Write it down. Just know where it is!)
Step 2. After you start doing this, you might soon start to figure out where you need to jot down each type of information. Events on a wall planner? Tasks on the phone? Daily lists in a bullet journal? Everything in one place? Work related stuff in a separate calendar? There are so many options, but you can never figure them out by just thinking of them. Implementation is key! So is experimenting with different options.
Even if you don’t become a champion (not that there’s any Planner Olympics that I know of, nor that you were obliged to enter if there was one), you can improve, day by day, helping yourself to be better at planning, knowing your schedule and oversee the different areas of your life.
Myth #2. “Planning means scheduling every minute of my day and living by a strict regimen!”
This is a fear I can totally understand. Who wants to be a stiff, unbearable robot? Not me. But a lot of calendar and planner makers seem to be broadcasting this message through their products.
The way most paper planners (or even apps) are built up suggests that the most important rule of time management is to be punctual and precise. I myself repeatedly felt anxious about not being “smart enough” for the paper planner I was using at the time. Multiple planners I owned were full of charts and sheets that I either didn’t know how to use or didn’t want to use in the first place. But all those pages sitting unused in the back of my planner made me feel a sense of guilt. Which doesn’t really ease the stress of planning.
The moment I allowed myself to take control of my schedule back from my planner, this newly found freedom allowed me to redefine what planning means for me.
Mythbusting challenge: Allow yourself to make changes in your plans
Used well, planning your time doesn’t lock you down, it sets you free. Contrary to the stereotype, planning makes you more flexible. If you have your tasks written down, it becomes much easier to prioritize and chuck out everything that you decide is not that important after all. :)
Having your plans in writing (either on paper or in digital form) helps you learn to prioritize. At the same time, remember that writing down a task does not make it an unbreakable oath.
On the contrary. If you know what’s there in the first place, it’s easier to move things around when you have to. So next time you need to modify something in your calendar, or when the whole week turns on its head by an unexpected deadline, an accident, an illness, or something that came totally out of the blue, you can look at your calendar and know exactly what you can shift, move or get rid of to make place for the newcomers.
This also means more place for fun. And rest. And random adventures. Because you know what to move around to make them happen.
That’s all your plans in writing have to do:
remind you of what to do — or what to move.
That’s it. It’s not a law. And definitely not a tragedy.
Myth #3. “Why write anything down? Life doesn’t read my plans.”
It’s true that things will never go the way you write them down.
But that’s not why you write them down.
Looking back, I don’t think I ever had a single day in my life where
- everything happened exactly as I wrote them in my schedule, or
- I could fit every single thing I wanted to achieve into my day, or
- the only things that happened that day were the ones I knew would happen.
But you know what? A life like that would be pretty boring. :)
So when I feel anxious looking at my “unpretty” planner, full of arrows, Xs (to mark cancelled events or things that didn’t happen after all), or lines crossed out altogether, I remind myself that this is totally normal and the fact that things change doesn’t mean I’m a badly organised person. It just means life happens, and I’m not omnipotent. Or a fortune teller.
Our lives are complex, with a lot of variables, other people with their own schedules, unforeseen events, so however well we plan things, life just organically happens anyway. All changes simply mean that we’re not hermits in a cave at the end of the world with nothing to do, and that not everything is set in stone. Not even the things we want — which is great when we find things that are better than what we originally wanted!
Mythbusting challenge: Embrace the chaos
Of course, this skill of being able to accept that change happens isn’t something I was born with. I sometimes still get irritated by having to change a plan or cross something out (or hide it under a sticker or washi tape — all hail the washi!), and not only because it didn’t turn out as I wrote it down, but because it looks untidy.
But with time and practice, I learned to live with my imperfections and a not always Instagrammable planner. Letting go of a perfect life makes way for a happy one.
Sometimes I’m disappointed that things didn’t go my way, or that I had to miss an event I really wanted to go to, but these messy entries are also good reminders of things I wanted to do, so I can make them happen later.
It’s also great to look back on all the chaotic pages, remembering how stressed I felt when everything fell apart, and how now it’s over. It’s a good reminder that everything comes and goes, even the bad days. So when I have another “nothing went the way I planned” week, I try to remember all the other ones before. That came and went. And then everything was okay again. The messy pages are proof of this, and I’m grateful for them.
Myth #4. “I bought a pretty calendar/planner, but I’m afraid that I’ll mess it up with my ugly handwriting!”
Hand up if this cycle rings a bell:
- You buy an inspiring new notebook, and you never open it again.
- You start a new planner, but then you stop after a few pages.
- Every time you glance at your pile of unopened planners, you feel guilty about having spent money on things you don’t use and can’t even bear to look at them anymore.
- You’re at a paper store and go, “What a pretty planner!“
I call this the Paper Lover’s Paradox.
Look. There’s no rule about what a planner should look like, and what should and shouldn’t go in there. You don’t have to enter the next planner pageant, and the Planner Police won’t be knocking on your door either.
The only question you have to ask is this: can you read what you wrote down? If the answer is yes, you don’t need anything else, whatever format your calendar might take.
Sure, there will be days when your writing will be “prettier” (whatever that might mean for you — I find some pens are better for legible writing than others), and you may even have time to doodle and draw and decorate. That’s great!
At the end of the day, though, even the prettiest planners, journals and diaries exist for a very practical reason – to serve you, assist your work, and/or help remember these years down the line. In two decades’ time, you’ll be grateful for even the scribbles if they help you recall a time you’ve forgotten.
Mythbusting challenge: Let it be messy
So whether you use your planner for journaling or time management, start using what you’ve got – your pretty pens, colourful papers, notepads and stickers. They are there for you to use! :) And if you mess up? Great. Carry on. It’s part of life. Take a deep breath and allow your planner to be whatever it is right now.
Myth #5. “I can’t really start managing my time until I have the perfect system.”
The proof is in the pudding. Many times in life, you can’t out-think yourself of what may or may not work for you in theory. After a point, you have to take a step — experiment, try something out, gather data, and move forward based on your new knowledge.
It’s the same with planning. You won’t be able to find something that fits your current needs and life configuration perfectly and on the first try. I spent years and years searching for what works for me, and each try gave me a new experience to build on and get ever closer to a system that fits my life and helps me in a genuine way. That said, you don’t have to spend years with trial-and-error – you can take the shortcut of looking at systems that other people have tried and tested, and then cherry-picking what works for you, not unlike a buffet table.
But let me tell you, there will never be one system that will work forever. It’s always going to be a process, because life is a process. What worked two years ago might not work right now. You’re not the same person you were ten years ago, and your life doesn’t look the same either. That’s why I advise people to always lean towards flexible solutions they can change as they go along.
Mythbusting challenge: observe how you operate
Finding your ideal time management and planning system is more a question of getting to know yourself better. What you need to find out is the kind of logic that drives your thinking.
- For many people, writing down their to dos and plans help their goal-setting, but they don’t need any system to deal with their day-to-day tasks.
- Others thrive with the apps on their phone, while writing stuff down is the only way for others.
- I even know people who keep meticulous notes at work but have all their home stuff neatly organised in their head without anything written down.
- And finally, a lot of people use a combination of paper calendars, planners and apps, where each has their own function for that specific person’s life. (I do that too.)
No one method, format or way is better or more right than another. Digital, paper-based or both, do what works for you. The one that helps you the most is the one you stick to.
As your life changes, you might need to mix things up, so feel free to try new planners and methods. Experiment and figure out what helps you the most right now. Whatever today’s date is. Speaking of…
Myth #6. “All right, I’ll try something new – as soon as January rolls around.”
Google’s statistics say that “time management” is something most people search for in January. On the surface, it makes sense: most planners you can buy in stores are fixed calendar planners, which means that they start in January and go up to December, and the only way you can change that is with scissors and glue.
What most paper planner manufacturers are actually asking you to do is to give them money so you can align your life with their planning system. Which is not the best trade-off if their system is not how your internal logic operates.
And what if it’s May when you decide that you need to write your stuff down or switch to a different system?
What if it’s the 6th of September when your brain puts out the “FULL” sign and you need to start writing down your tasks ASAP?
You don’t have an obligation to “finish what you’ve started” if it doesn’t work for you anymore. If your notebook has turned into a maddening chaos of data, you can stop organising your thoughts that way and try something else.
If you have an endless to do list online but never log in to look at it, that way of being on top of your projects clearly does not work for you. And if you realize that you’ve written everything on post-its and you can’t find anything, it’s a good sign you need to switch your system.
And if you realize that you’ve written everything on post-its and you can’t find anything, it’s a good sign you need to switch your system.
I can’t even count the times when, as a teenager, I had a huge pile of notes and post-its on my desk. I pulled one from the bottom of the stack to play the notepad lottery — is this piece of paper the one I’m looking for? No, it wasn’t, and yes, the whole stack collapsed on the floor.
The bottom line is this: if you’ve realized your planning system doesn’t work, and you’re fed up with it, and you see an opportunity to change, don’t wait until next January. If you want to change, start today.
Now it’s your turn!
Which of the above planning myths do you struggle with most? Which of the mythbusting challenges will you try today? Let me know in the comments below!
And if you’d like to learn a simple technique tried and tested by thousands of women that lifts the weight off your shoulders by helping you slash the items on your to-do list in less than 15 minutes, you can read about it right here: The Machete Sorting Technique.
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