Here’s a fun exercise:
Ask a teenager who doesn’t use a planner why they don’t. They’ll probably reply, “Because I don’t need to,” followed by, “I remember everything I have to do,” or, “They put all the homework online.”
Then say, “Fair enough. So… based on the name of the thing, what do you think a planner is for?”
The answer, of course, is planning.
It’s not called a ‘rememberer,’ so it’s not really for remembering. True, a planner can help you remember things if, like me, you don’t trust your memory. But helping you remember things is just one of the many reasons to use a planner, and, as the name indicates, the primary reason is planning.
By focusing exclusively on what’s due tomorrow, students fail to think long-term. They don’t see upcoming deadlines for big projects. They don’t see upcoming exam dates. And thus, everything gets done at the last minute, including studying. As a result, learning suffers, and students’ lives are more stressful than they need to be.
Planners can help students break out of the mentality of “done” that pervades our thinking around school. Getting the homework done is important, but there’s more to succeeding as a student than that. To learn deeply, form long-term memories, and cultivate curiosity about what you’re studying, you have to do more than what is asked. A planner can record tasks that aren’t assigned by teachers like studying, doing extra practice problems, or pursuing personal passions, such as writing, drawing, or playing music. Because it can be more than a simple task list of the homework that is due tomorrow, it opens the door to thinking thoughts like, What incremental progress can I make tonight toward my long-term goals?
And there’s more going on in your life than just school: sports, music, theatre, clubs, volunteering, work, chores, time with friends, and family events. You’ll make better choices about how to spend your time when you’re not devoting brain power to holding it all in your head. You can plan your time better when you’re able to see everything laid out. In other words, a planner is an executive function tool. It’s something you can use to engage with school and life as an active agent.
Part of being an active agent in your own success is taking ownership of your schedule and your obligations. More and more, we’re seeing schools put all the homework and test dates on an online platform, such as Google Classroom or Schoology. These resources aren’t bad, in and of themselves, but many students approach them passively. Since the tech version of a planner is given to you, it doesn’t give you a chance to take ownership of your tasks. It’s just another way for grownups to tell you what to do. Something shifts, though, when you write it all down yourself. When you do that, and you map out your homework and studying around all your other activities, you’re now telling yourself what to do.
“Brains are for having ideas, not for holding them.” –David Allen1
Another reason for using planners is to reduce the unnecessary stress that comes from carrying around all the ideas in your head. It’s absolutely possible to remember everything you have to do, but some part of your brain will have to be devoted to remembering everything, and another part of your brain will be devoted to worrying about forgetting things. When they’re all written down in what David Allen calls “a trusted system,” your brain can let go and relax.1 So one reason to use a planner is just to feel better.
Just One Option Among Many Systems
The classic paper planner is held up as a mythical panacea for disorganized teenage students, but it’s not. It’s just one tool among many. You can get all the benefits of a planner through other means. It’s important for parents to recognize this and avoid the trap of rigidly insisting that the planner is the one and only way to manage school.
I, for one, don’t use a paper planner. I use Google Calendar, I send myself emails with ideas and reminders, I keep note pads with me to jot down ideas, I have a to-do list at work, and I have a 3-tiered to-do list system I use for my personal life and side work. I sort my daily and weekly to-do lists into categories. Sometimes I use sticky notes. Sometimes I write things on my hands. Is this a perfect way to remember and plan everything? Probably not. But there is no perfect way to do it. All you need is something that’s good enough.
A system that’s good enough is one that you trust, one that makes sense to you, and one that you use consistently. The worse system is no system at all. And the main challenge for teenage students is transitioning from a childhood where having no system was fine to an adulthood where having some system is all-but mandatory. In middle school and high school, most students need to figure a way to manage their increasingly busy lives, but that system doesn’t have to be the traditional paper planner.
It’s also important for parents to reflect on how well they’re modeling this for their kids. Are you using a planner? Or some other system? Do your kids see you use it? Do they know how your system works? Do you ever fail to use it? Do you let your kids see the consequences of that? Are you actively leading by example?
Please also keep in mind that a teenager is like a Chinese finger-trap, so the more you insist that they use a planner, the more they’ll resist it. All you can do is name the benefits, present a menu of options (alternate systems that could serve the purpose of a planner), and then let them choose what to do. They’ll probably choose not to use any system at all, and then they’ll experience some natural consequences. And when they complain about the hard time they’re having, you can gently remind them that using some kind of planning system is still an option.
Chris Loper has been an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services since 2014. Along with Greg Smith, Chris is the cocreator of Parenting for Academic Success (and Parental Sanity) – a five-part course offered every summer.
He writes the popular self-improvement blog Becoming Better, so if you liked this article, head on over to becomingbetter.org and check out his other work.
Chris also offers habit coaching, helping busy adults with habit formation and productivity.
In 2021, he published a humorous memoir titled Wood Floats and Other Brilliant Observations, a book that blends crazy stories with practical life lessons, available on Amazon and through most local bookstores.
He lives in Issaquah, WA, where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.
1 Allen, David. Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. Penguin Books, 2002.