“The Planners” series is a portrait gallery of people using various planning systems to manage work, family life, personal projects and much more. The goal of this new series is to give you more inspiration and to introduce you to new planning methods and tools beyond the bullet journal system.
For this third post of the series, I’m happy to have Merel from @chaintwenty on the blog! I’ve been following the growth of her creative business for a while now and she was kind enough to answer all the questions I had about her planning system. In this interview, I’m asking Merel, among other things, how she manages her business and creative tasks, what her planning system looks like and where she gets her inspiration from.
Full Disclosure: All the pictures featured have been taken by Merel.
Let’s start with introductions: can you tell us a few words about you?
My name is Merel, I’m 28 years old and I work as freelancer from my Gran Canarian home. I’m originally from The Netherlands, but as soon as I graduated university, I moved to the Canaries for my boyfriend’s work. For me, the move was a chance to start creating my dream job: running a small, creative business in handmade fashion.
One and a half year ago, I launched my Etsy shop Chain Twenty, through which I sell hand knitted sweaters and accessories, knitting patterns and hand dyed yarns. A small business doesn’t keep the money flowing in though, especially not in the first stages, which is why I work as freelance text editor on the side. And because of my love for everything creative, writing included, I enjoy that very much as well.
Needless to say, I need to keep track of different tasks, related to two separate jobs, on top of those never-ending household and health-related to-dos.
When did you buy your first planner and what was it? How did your planning system evolved since then?
I’ve been a planner for as long as I can remember. And since I love writing longhand, I’ve also always been an on-paper-kinda planner. Buying a new planner for school was considered a reason to celebrate. It still is, to be honest. Throughout middle school, high school, and university, I’ve always used weekly planners to keep track of classes, school deadlines, work and social events.
The older I became, and the more serious studying became, the more elaborate my planners became. During university, I exclusively used Moleskine weekly planners, with the days of the week listed on the left, and room for notes on the right. I used the left side for appointments and the right side for daily to-do-lists.
Obviously, my planning system changed over time. I remember having a separate cleaning schedule taped to one of the kitchen cabinets, on which the boyfriend and I checked off tasks with our own initials. That basically served to show him I actually did a lot more in the house than he did. 😉 (I can highly recommend the method if you and your partner fight over household tasks, haha!) I also remember working with Todoist, a digital tool to quickly create to do lists with.
At one point, when my planning needs became too many and I had planners and lists and notes everywhere (this must have been during that stress-overload-time called ‘thesis’), I discovered Bullet Journaling. I quickly fell in love with the way the Bullet Journal method allowed me to me track everything in one place.
I’ve Bullet Journaled my way through quite a few journals, and am using my last one as we speak. Because despite the love affair, Bullet Journaling has also quickly become very time-consuming for me, which it is not supposed to be. It also makes me focus too much on simply getting as many to-dos done, without me asking myself if they’re really the most relevant tasks to focus on.
Can you describe your planning system in a few words?
In short, despite all my planning efforts, I have struggled with getting things done productively. What I needed, is a planning system that brings out the best aspect of Bullet Journaling: prioritizing the most important tasks and migrating the less important ones to a next day, week, or month.
In order to stay productive, I need to question my to-dos every day, ask myself how they relate to my goals or deadlines and, based on that, prioritize the most important ones. I like to think I’ve now found the right combination of tools to do so.
What tools do you use for planning and what functions do these tools serve?
- Weekly planner: At the moment, I use the official Leuchtturm 1917 Bullet Journal, in which I created a yearly overview, and monthly and weekly spreads. Since my spreads have become so similar to the layout of a Moleskine weekly planner, I’ll transition to a brand new Moleskine in the new year. I use the left page to jot down appointments and deadlines, and the right page to keep track of my to-dos the Bullet Journal way.
- Morning Pages: For mental health and personal growth reasons, I use a separate, lined notebook for ‘Morning Pages’. Morning Pages is a journaling technique introduced by Julia Cameron (in her book The Artist’s Way), for which you’ll write three pages, longhand, first thing in the morning, about anything that comes to mind. It has a ton of benefits when it comes to self care, but I’m listing it here, because this is where most of my life goals and project ideas originate. The technique is great for sparking creativity and brainstorming on paper on how to get a project idea going.
- Four-month calendar: I put together a quick four-month calendar printable where I jot down semi long-term deadlines, such as shop updates, product releases, collaborations, supply order dates, and other events. When my business grows and I need to think bigger, I may replace this with a yearly calendar.
- Apple Calendar: I use the calendar on my iMac (this app is very similar to Google Calendar) to plan my days from hour to hour. Even though I try to write down all my to-dos in my weekly planner on the day they have to get done, priorities always seem to shift. My calendar is the place where I make a definite plan for the day.
- Habit Tracker: In this app, I list my daily (ideally) habits, both work-, as well as household- and health-related. Examples of habits I put in there are: ‘updating Instagram’, ‘wipe surfaces’, and ‘work out’.
Typical week in Merel’s Apple Calendar.
What is your planning routine?
Ideally, I like to get up 6 am. That way, I can wake up slowly, have a healthy breakfast and write my Morning Pages. This usually takes an hour. Afterwards, without having looked at my Apple Calendar yet, I do a workout. When that’s out of the way, I start my daily planning ritual.
If there are any, I transfer ideas or goals from my Morning Pages to my four-month calendar. I then break these ideas and goals down into actionable tasks, which I plan to do on specific days in my weekly planner.
I then update my habit tracker, crossing off ‘write morning pages’, work out’ and hopefully also ‘sleep 8.5 hours’. When I notice I’m seriously falling behind on one of my habits, I make sure to specifically designate time for that habit in my Apple Calendar, which I’ll get to next.
I transfer all my to-dos for the week from my weekly planner to my Apple Calendar. In my calendar, however, I completely rearrange them according to priority. The most important ones are planned for that day, the others get assigned to other days of the week. I usually only fully plan the day ahead of me, and leave the other tasks loosely assigned to days I think they’re gonna work best.
If possible, I try to group similar tasks together, a technique called ‘calendar blocking’. That way, I can for example take all my product photos in one go, instead of pulling out my camera every time a product is finished and ready to be photographed. Apple Calendar makes this very easy, because you can color code tasks. That way, I only have to look for tasks with the same color and group them together.
With the help of color coding, I’ve made the following categories of tasks: ‘life’ (for general life stuff like sleep, breakfast, lunch, and dinner), ‘workouts’, ‘text editing’, ‘household’, ‘making’ (for all creative activities like knitting, packaging orders, and designing patterns), ‘laptop time’ (for tasks such as writing blogposts, creating product listings, and updating social media), ‘fun’ (for all social activities), ‘spanish’, and ‘self care’ (for journaling, beauty treatments, and reading).
At the end of the day, I cross off all completed habits in my habit tracker, and completed tasks in my weekly planner. If I completed a task that needs to be repeated at some point in the future, such as vacuuming, I immediately write down the task again in my weekly planner on the day it ideally needs to get done.
Tasks that didn’t get done, I migrate to a random day in the future in my Apple Calendar. It doesn’t really matter where I put it, because the whole process of reviewing, prioritizing and grouping tasks repeats itself again the next day. In my weekly planner, I leave it where it is. Limiting the migrating process to digital devices has saved me tons of time. My day never goes as planned, so in reality, I switch and migrate tasks all the time.
What’s your current favorite planning tool?
Even though I’m a huge fan of analog ways of planning (in my opinion, nothing beats a pretty planner or notebook), I must admit that my current favorite planning tool is my Apple Calendar. Grouping and migrating tasks has never been easier or faster. It allows me to adapt to changes in my schedule quickly and effectively.
Besides, assigning a certain time period to every task has taught me a lot about how much time some tasks actually take. And therefore, I now know how much I can realistically get done in a day. This has stopped me from making never-ending to-do lists, that made me obsessed with crossing off as many to-dos, and prevented me from working on those time-consuming, but oh-so worth it, really important tasks that bring me closer to my dream goals.
Do you have one (or several) planning gurus?
After graduating from university, the urge to learn has never really ceased. I love to read all kinds of books relating to business, psychology, philosophy, self help, self care, and personal growth. The books I found particularly interesting are: Flow. The Psychology of Optimal Experience (by the author with the unpronounceable name of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) and The Power of Habit. Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (by Charles Duhigg).
Besides from reading books, I also get very inspired to get my life together by watching YouTube videos about these kinds of topics. Planning-wise, I’ve learned a lot from Amy Landino (AmyTV on YouTube), who is actually responsible for my obsession with getting up early, digital calendars, and calendar blocking. When it comes to channeling creativity, turning ideas into manageable projects, and making that dream life happen, I always get super inspired by Aileen Xu (Lavendaire on YouTube). Next to being a pro in prioritizing, Aileen also has a lot of good stuff to say about maintaining a positive mind set, which plays — for me anyway — a major role in productivity.
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Did you ever experiment a planning slump? How did you get out of it?
Planning slumps happen to me all the time, on a weekly basis. They usually don’t last longer than a couple of days though. When I’m working, I’m forced to look at my planning and update it accordingly, because that tells me what I’m gonna do that day. On my days off, however, I always intend to keep an eye on my planner, but it almost never happens. I have this all-or-nothing-mentality, which means that if I don’t get up early, do my morning pages and look at my weekly planner, I don’t even wanna bother looking at my calendar anymore, because I feel like I have to do the whole ritual for my planning to be effective. After a couple of days, the lack of planning makes me feel anxious and down, so I always get back to it eventually.
Do you have a very special planning tip or hack to share?
I don’t believe there’s a ’best’ way to plan. What works best differs from person to person and even changes over time. However, planning your day from hour to hour gives you very valuable insights about where your time goes. I think we all underestimate how much time doing the laundry actually takes, and overestimate how much time goes into the seemingly impossible-to-accomplish projects.
Also, never check email in the morning! That only drains energy and, as a result, usually takes up way too much time. I usually plan an hour of answering emails and social media comments right after lunch or dinner. Again, I prioritize the important ones to make sure they get answered, and see how far I come with the rest in what time I have left. Tomorrow is another day!
And if you’d like to share your planning system & special hacks and get featured in The Planners series, just send me an email to claire[at]minimal-plan[dot]com. There’s absolutely no need to run an Instagram or YouTube channel to contribute!