10 Tips for Using a Blank Journal as a Planner

Cathy Hutchison
6 min readApr 6, 2019

It’s almost the beginning of a new year. And THIS is the year you will get organized!

But where do you start?

There are tons of planners on the market. (With some pretty hefty pricetags.)

But who has time to learn a new system? Or fill out all of those pages? Ugh. You have enough things going on. Planners are supposed to make your life easier, not load you down with forms to fill out.

What if you could go simple with a system that fits you 100%? What if you didn’t have to pay a dime for things that are built for someone else’s life?

You can do this with a blank journal.

If you don’t already have one laying around, you can pick one up for less than $20 from an online retailer like Leuchtturm or Moleskine.

Here are 10 tips for using a blank journal as your daily planner this year:

1. Start with the end in mind.

On the very first page, start with a sentence about this time next year: It is December 30, 2019 and I ____(fill in whatever you want to be able to say at the end of next year)___.

For example, you might write: “It is December 30, 2019, and I am working at my new creative job.” Or, “It is December 30, 2019, and I’ve completed the first draft of my novel and have found an agent.”

Being concrete with your desires sets a trajectory for the year. You will use this sentence to course correct whenever you feel uncertain or overwhelmed. It will influence your decisions about how you spend your time. Starting your blank journal with this statement will inspire everything that follows.

2. Create a navigation system for your journal.

The Bullet Journal Method introduced the idea of numbering pages and adding an index to blank journals to make it easy to find things later. Some blank journals, like the Leuchtturm, come with the page numbers and index preprinted.

While an index is valuable for navigating a blank journal, you can take it a step further and add a color-coding system to highlight different pages to make them easy to find.

If you are into stickers or washi tape, those can also create differentiation between pages which can quickly cue your brain to what you are tracking on any given page.

3. Decide your scale.

Some people prefer to plan tasks monthly, others weekly, and still others daily. The scale you work in will be driven by the type of work you do. Project-based work might make more sense monthly, while someone covering a number of disparate tasks that change quickly, may prefer planning in days.

The best part of using a blank journal as your planner is that you can try a weekly scale, then switch to daily if it isn’t working for you. Also, you never run out of room no matter what your scale.

4. Leave your calendar online.

It’s hard to beat online calendars for collaborating with others. Plus, when is the last time your paper planner saved your bacon by sending you a much needed reminder on your phone?

The ability to share and update quickly in the digital world is powerful. And while written planners used to be all about calendars, many of us use planners for real-time responsive planning rather than as a file cabinet for appointments.

Still, scheduling is an important part of planning.

You have the option of logging appointments into your digital system: Outlook, Google, or other system to be shared with co-workers and family, then copying over only what needs to be done in a single day (or week or month if that’s the scale you work in.)

5. The $25,000 piece of advice.

There’s an old story about philanthropist and banker, JP Morgan, being handed an envelope with the “guaranteed formula for success” in it. He agreed that if he liked the advice written inside, he would pay $25,000 for its contents. The story goes that Morgan opened the envelope, nodded, and paid.

The advice? 1) Every morning write a list of the things that need to be done that day. 2) Do them.

I’ve heard variations on this story, including to only write the three most important things to be done that day, and to do this before you go to bed or before you leave the office. The reason this story hangs around is that the advice actually works.

A blank journal is a wonderful place to keep your list. Whether you organize based on days or by project, seeing what needs to be done in one place helps you to do it.

6. Get a pen loop.

Pen loops are a simple adhesive square with an elastic loop designed to stick to the back cover of a journal so you can anchor a pen through the loop.

Standard planners usually come with these, but if you are using a blank journal, you will have to add your own. Having a pen attached to the journal saves you the stress of scrambling to find one when you need to capture something right away.

You can pick one up at your favorite journal store or on Amazon.

7. Learn to think in layouts.

One of the best things about planners is that they provide a structure for your brain to organize information. When you craft this for yourself, the structure thinks like you do. Simply ask yourself: when my journal is open in front of me, how do I want to see the information?

Magazines lay out information in spreads all the time. Visual priority is created with header fonts, callout boxes, and subheadings to make it easier to digest and navigate big blocks of information.

Your layouts can be as complex or simple as you want. Just ask, how do I want to see it?

8. Leverage sticky notes.

Why redraw every layout when you can leverage Post-It notes for information that changes rapidly? Varying sizes of Post-It notes can create a wide variety of layout options.

Take meal planning for example. If you want to list meals during the days of the week, and maintain your shopping list, you could draw that structure every week, or draw it once, using post it notes in the boxes where you want to record the information. At the end of each week, toss and start again. (Or save the meals on the sticky notes to plug in for future weeks.)

Meal prep layout by Sublime Reflection. The link has a great article on meal planning.

9. Motivate yourself by engaging emotion.

The biggest advantage to using a blank journal as a planner is the ability to engage your emotions. Put a motivating quote on a blank page. Add color to your task list. Draw stick figures to remember things. Sketchnote. Watercolor a page and use a sharpie to add a few words.

The artistic piece of visual journaling makes a huge difference in how it feels to work in your planner. While the task lists will make your left brain happy, adding artistic elements like color and drawings will engage your right brain. This whole brain engagement is wildly effective.

10. Use as many notebooks as you need in a year.

When you use a blank journal as your planner, you get to pick the size. After all, the clunky planner that sits on your desk is useless.

Journals come as small as passport size to fit in your pocket, as thin as a checkbook, or about the size of a paperback novel. Once you fill one up, you simply start a new one and label the exterior to make it easy to remember the order they go in. For example: 2019.1, 2019.2, etc.

A good piece of advice is to start with a fresh journal each year because it is a powerful practice to begin with a clean slate.

Look at you and your organized life!

As you glide into this next year, you won’t be scrambling to test drive planners or waste your valuable brain energy figuring out if that big investment is worth it.

You will just be planning. In real time.

With your real life.

While your friends are filling out forms and lugging them around, you will have a sleek, trim notebook right beside you where you only capture what matters in a way that thinks like you do.

Most importantly, in March, when your friends have all abandoned their systems because they were just too hard to use, you will have useful, valuable information at your fingertips that is a breeze to maintain.

Want tips on how to journal? Get the free ebook on How to Journal with 28 ways to journal and hundreds of resources so you can find the method that is right for you.