How a Day Planner Helps With My Wellness Journey

The cool thing about having a chronic mental illness is that you’re forced to learn a lot about yourself and how you operate in life. (Did I just say there was a cool thing about being sick?! Pretty sure my ability to see this silver lining is a case in point of progress made in my journey!)

And the cool thing about having a blog is that I can share what I’ve learned with you!

I’ve taken what I know about myself and built a custom day planner completely suited to my needs.

At first it didn’t occur to me to share the awesomeness that is my new custom planner with you, but Kelly kindly pointed out that because my planner is so crucial to my health and wellness, there’s a good chance it could really help someone else (maybe you?) too.

So here I am. Am I writing this because I am insanely proud of the beautiful planner I made? I’d be lying if I said the answer was no. But that’s not a good enough reason alone (in my book) to take up valuable space on my blog. I hope that by sharing this, I may spark some ideas in you for ways you can improve your wellness journey as well.

So follow along as I share how I use my day planner to help me stay well.

How a day planner helps with my wellness journey

The hard-to-read back cover says “live the life you love.”

Why a day planner?

Throughout my life I have learned that I thrive on structure. My high school guidance counselor (who I’m close with to this day) pointed it out to me years before I was able to recognize that trait within myself.

I didn’t always know what “thriving on structure” looked like or meant, though. It wasn’t until I started using planning and scheduling as part of my recovery from depression episodes that I learned how important structure is in my life.

I’ve experimented over the years with just about every planning system I could find. I’ve used 8 or 9 different to-do list apps on my laptop, I’ve tried electronic calendars, I’ve made tables in Word and more tables in Excel. I’ve bought expensive paper planners, too (oh man, I am SUCH a sucker for shiny new planners…and planning apps).

I’ve finally settled on a system that includes both digital (I use Excel, Todoist, and Workflowy for my blog/business planning and OS X’s Calendar and OmniFocus for personal stuff) and paper (enter my fantastic custom day planner to tie it all together).

I’ve settled on a daily planner (as opposed to weekly) for the paper portion of my system for two reasons. One, it’s the most flexible. I love using my Staedtler Triplus fineliner pens to write colorfully, but that also means that it’s not as flexible as pencil. And two, it gives me a daily ritual that helps ensure I’m living life to the fullest.

Part of knowing I need structure in my life is the realization that without it, I feel lost. I fritter away the hours in my day, distracted by this and that, and don’t really live my life with intentionWhole days pass and feel completely wasted. I need something to ground me, to help me focus, and to remind me what really matters.

So every morning, the first thing I do is fill out my planner for the day (referencing Calendar and OmniFocus as part of my system).

The pieces of the day planner puzzle

Here are the sections of my custom day planner – and, more importantly, why each one is so important for my health.

1. Gratitude

It’s no secret that practicing gratitude on a regular basis has several health benefits (including improving your outlook on life and your sense of positivity, helping you sleep better, boosting your immune system, and fighting hypertension). As someone prone to depression, it’s especially important to me that I do whatever I can to maintain a bright outlook on life. So every day the very first thing I write down is something I’m grateful for. I strive to come up with something new each time. Many times it’s the same thing or person, but for different reasons. Aiming for something new each time helps keep me from getting in a rut or taking too much for granted.

Gratitude & intention

2. An intention

Including an intention was Cindy‘s idea, and I have quickly fallen in love with it. An intention is basically an overarching goal for how I want to live my life that day. A couple of examples include “I will treat my body with love,” “I will be laser-focused while working,” and “I will be fully present in everything I do.” Some intentions will have a more obvious health benefit than others (for instance, practicing mindfulness in your actions helps with a myriad of physical and mental health concerns). I believe, though, that regardless of your intention, you are boosting your well-being by living your life to the fullest. I think that when we are more conscious of how we want to live from the get go, we are more likely to live a life we’re proud of.

3. My schedule

This is pretty straightforward. It’s more than just a rote copy of my calendar, though. When I’m struggling the most with functioning due to depression, I need to schedule every bit of my day. This gives me a place to do so without cluttering up my calendar with things that aren’t as crucial as appointments and such. This section really provides two health benefits, then. It can help with basic functioning to help pull me out of a depression episode. But even if you don’t have a mental illness, scheduling can also help you work in time for exercise, meal planning, and cooking. These things are so crucial to our journeys, yet they get pushed aside for other things all too often. When we schedule them in, they can be treated like appointments. And usually we don’t miss appointments unless we’ve got a heckuva good reason!

4. Appointments

Speaking of appointments, I have separated this section out from my schedule just to ensure that if I’m struggling to follow my schedule, at the very least my important appointments won’t be missed. Don’t forget to include exercise, meal planning, and cooking here!

My coping skills list

While these aren’t all immediately self-explanatory, I know what each one is referring to. If you want to include your own coping skills list in your planner, remember that each person is unique in that what helps one person cope may not help another. So my list will look different from yours. A google search for “coping skills list” will give you tons of ideas of things to try out for yourself.

5. My coping skills list

Hands down one of my favorite parts of my custom planner, my coping skills list comes from a kit that I put together for myself awhile back to help me cope when I’m particularly anxious or upset. I got the idea to include it in my planner when I saw Kyla Roma’s “plan to live her best life” in her own custom planner. It includes things that are healthy for both mind and body (exercise, mindfulness activities, take a walk through the neighborhood, do word puzzles, etc) and the real kicker is that I aim to do something from that list once a day. I often don’t succeed, but the goal is that if I get used to going to that list on a regular basis, then when I’m in crisis and really need something to help me cope, I’ll be more likely to turn to my list. (And for the curious, since it’s really freaking hard to make decisions when depressed or anxious, I also have that list cut up on separate sheets of paper and placed in a bag, so I can draw one at random if I’m using the list to truly cope in a moment of distress).

6. MITs

MITs are known in the productivity world as “most important tasks.” It’s typically recommended that you choose no more than 3 MITs for any given day. I love John Henry Müller’s take on MITs, though, where he chooses just one important task for the day, and then breaks it down into 3 subtasks. When writing his plan for the day, he always includes this sentence: “If I do this and only this, today will be a good day.” I LOVE that, but unfortunately had already printed my planner when I saw it! However, I have something else a little later that I think serves a similar purpose of celebrating the day. I’m not sure if there are any specific health benefits to planning a brief to-do list, other than the fact that brief lists are easier to accomplish, and feeling accomplished is a huge mood booster.

7. Physical health

Dubbed my “get healthy!” section, this is where I record things most specific to my physical health. It gives me a spot to track my water intake (with each cup equaling 20 oz instead of the traditional 8) and some blank space to use as I see fit. Right now I’m using half that space to track my meal times (as a newly diagnosed diabetic, I’m working to get on a schedule) and the other half to record exercise once it’s finished. It could also be used as a place to record the planned dinner for the evening or a daily exercise goal. I’d say the health benefits of this section are pretty self-explanatory.

8. Doodle break

Believe it or not, this has a health purpose too! If you haven’t heard of Zentangle, then I highly recommend you google it. Tangling is a structured way of doodling (they emphasize that it’s not doodling, but it’s such an easy comparison that I’m just going to say that anyway) that enables you to create unplanned abstract patterns as a bit of a mindfulness practice. I used to do just a bit of swirly doodles on my planner each day, but I love the concept behind Zentangle and as of yesterday morning have started learning patterns! I’m going to use the “doodle break” space in my planner to learn patterns so that tangling can be a part of my coping skills kit. And of course, the health benefits to tangling are those that can be gained from any mindfulness practice (which, as mentioned above, include both physical and mental benefits).

3 doodles

Technically, I don’t think the center image qualifies as a Zentangle. It’s just my usual go-to doodle.

9. Ta-da list

My other favorite part! I borrowed this idea from Coach Jennie and I am in love with it. A ta-da list is pretty much the opposite of a to-do list. Instead of things you need to get done, you list things you’ve already accomplished! It’s super easy to get frustrated when days don’t go as planned and I can’t check things off my to-do list. But nine times out of ten, I did get other things done. Writing them down helps feed that part of me that is driven to do do do (and thus feels awful if I don’t don’t don’t). I also use this section as a boost for treating my mental illness. All too often I get stuck in the trap of feeling like my meds and external circumstances are solely responsible for how good or bad I’m doing. I become a victim of my depression. Creating lists like this – where I write down things even as minor and seemingly automatic as taking my medications and going to counseling – shows me that I’m much more in the driver’s seat than I think I am, and that I can take credit for a good amount of the progress I’ve made!

Bonus! How it was made

The most important part of putting my planner together was deciding what sections I wanted to include. I’m super pleased with the ones I chose, and I think a large part of the success of a custom planner is making sure the sections included are the ones that will work best for you, your needs, your priorities, and your lifestyle.

My planner is 8.5″ x 11″ and was created in Word (using the publishing layout) after I drew the sections out on a piece of paper first.

Hand drawn rough draft of planner page

I drew this before creating the page in Word, just to make sure I could get everything to fit in an orderly way (and because for some reason I thought it’d be easier to do it with pencil and eraser).

I made the covers by taking a cardstock base, gluing a piece of colored cardstock to one side, and then gluing a piece of patterned scrapbook paper to the other side (trimming the edges with a craft knife). I then added embellishments with scraps of paper and stickers. I laminated both covers using self-adhesive laminating sheets as well, but the back cover ended up with all kinds of ripples and bubbles, so after the planner was bound, I removed the lamination from it.

Waiting at the store for binding

Waiting at the store for my planner to be printed and bound!

I just printed out one copy of the daily page and brought it and the covers to a big box office supply store. I also had the page as a PDF on a USB drive in case they needed it, but they didn’t. I selected 32 lb paper to ensure my pens wouldn’t bleed through, but I totally could’ve gotten away with 28 lb (or maybe even 24 lb, I’m not sure).

It was completely bound and ready in about an hour! I am so pleased with the results and am so enamored by this beautiful, productive, and helpful book of mine.

The finished planner in the car

I was so excited that my planner was complete that I took a picture of it as soon as I got to the car.

Join the conversation in the comments section below!

Do you use any kind of planning system to help with your physical or mental health journey? If you were to make your own planner (or if you already have!), what is the most crucial (or most unique) section that you would want it to have? Do you prefer paper or electronic planning systems?

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