The cult of productivity: Why you should skip out on planners and bullet journals

While the achiever in me wants to artfully and thoughtfully fill in all those fancy boxes, my real life is not so tidy.
Illustration of people bowing before a shrine of planners.
No thank you, paper planner, I’m stepping away from the altar of busyness.Cari Vander Yacht / for NBC News
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By Stephanie Feuer

The emails arrive full of the breathless glee of new baby announcements: They’re here! Momentum planners, Passion Planners, the limited edition Happy Planner. The email advertisements invite me to join the conga line of planned and productive tomorrows, seducing me with high quality paper and the need for matching fine-tipped markers. It’s almost a new year. Surely you are in need of a new planner for plotting out all those resolutions?

I ogle the work of planner devotees who, armed with stickers, tape and multicolored pens, post on Instagram as #PlannerNerds. These #PlannerAddicts (four million posts strong) publicly display their #PlannerLove and how they’ve harnessed the power of goal setting and tracking, with images of planner mastery posted for the entire #PlannerCommunity to see. To keep it fresh, some even subscribe to the Planner Addict Box, which provides reinfusions of stickers, page flags, special pens, seasonally decorated washi tape and even flamingo-shaped paper clips. The resultant planner pages are amazing, each entry its own work of art, each day’s image a celebration of glitter and good intentions.

But this year, I will not succumb.

It’s almost a new year. Surely you are in need of a new planner for plotting out all those resolutions?

It’s not that I’m unaware of the power of writing things down. A 2014 study published in the journal Psychological Science shows the pen is mightier than the keyboard when it comes to both memory and comprehension. Other studies have shown the act of writing can be beneficial to neural activity in both children and adults. I’ve personally always kept a journal. It’s just that while the achiever in me wants to artfully and thoughtfully fill in all the boxes and lists those planners provide, the reality is my life is not so tidy, and trying to make it fit stresses me out.

I remember a particular red pebbled-leather binder I acquired when the Filofax was first imported from Britain in the 1980s. As if penance for nights of white powder, lavish parties and other early 80s excesses, young professionals became obsessed with updating their Filofaxes. All the power women I knew carried one. It was a signal of competence, a bold display of ambition.

I tried to love my Filofax, but its dimensions could not accommodate the frequent calendar changes my marketing job demanded. Plus, my handwriting was often indecipherable, adding to the mess. I was cute, unattached and the perfect last-minute date. It was easier to squeeze into the little black dress that hung on the back of my office door than keep that damn binder up-to-date, much less fit it in my evening bag.

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It was easier to squeeze into the little black dress that hung on the back of my office door than keep that damn binder up-to-date, much less fit it in my evening bag.

I ditched my Filofax for the Psion 3 in the early 90s. I loved that the battery-operated, envelope-sized personal digital assistant (PDA) had Word and Excel integration. Rescheduling and tentative calendar additions were a breeze. One year I even kept my tax records on the little wonder.

I narrowly missed joining the ranks of the 1.7 million business executives who toted their desk-sized spiral Franklin Planners like bibles of career success when the media company where I worked tapped a group of mangers for training on the Franklin Covey system. I viewed their required adherence as ongoing punishment for blowing deadlines, and tracked deliverables with my team via Palm Pilot. I never loved its “Graffiti” writing system, but the simplicity of rejiggering priorities on the Palm was a game-changer. Soon we all switched to the Blackberry, nicknamed the Crackberry, which kept us tethered to the office via email and our calendars and contacts synched through Outlook. I kept the habit of digitally reorganizing my to-do list and deadlines each day.

Hillary Clinton checks her Blackberry from a desk inside a C-17 military plane upon her departure from Malta, in the Mediterranean Sea, bound for Tripoli, Libya. Kevin Lamarque / AP

Like blowback from all that digitization, there was a resurgence of paper planners which dovetailed with the renaissance of all things analog, from vinyl records to designer business cards to fountain pens. Moleskine was at the forefront of this trend, after it revived a legendary writer’s notebook and soon expanded into planners.

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Indeed, by the time I synched my family and work schedules to a Google calendar (circa 2006), planners were thriving. They got cute, like the Erin Condren LifePlanner, with tabbed sections and covers in patterns from watercolor hearts to skulls.

The mom next to me at a parent association meeting had a particularly cute planner, which I noticed when my pen ran out of ink. When I asked her for one of the attached pens — blue — she was immediately horrified, swooping down to cover her precious stash. “Blue is for soccer,” she said. “I can’t risk it running out.” Another mother came to my rescue and emailed me the information I needed, which I promptly added to my electronic calendar, and made my son keep track of his own swim practice schedule.

Paper planners are now big business with more than 5,000 options for 2019 planners on Amazon, and specialty shops offering high-end bound books and imports from Korea and Japan. There’s a planner for everyone. Handsome ones, like Ink & Volt’s limited-edition planner bound in purple linen that practically promises a year filled with accomplishment and goals met. Or the simple, elegant Leuchtturm1917, the notebook often used for the planner du jour, the bullet journal.

In their post-adolescence, planners have gotten cheeky, bossy even — asking all sorts of questions about goals and priorities and what makes your heart sing. Spawned by the oracle of organization himself, David Allen, who embraced the Moleskine notebook for his Getting Things Done methodology, paper planners have evolved into what I think of as productivity crack. With sections for books to read, movies to see, daily chore and holiday bucket lists (does just getting through them count?), planners are demanding more and more of our time in the name of getting things done. These new planner systems even promote productivity activities — migrating tasks and daily "mind sweeps," along with color-coding, symbols, indexes and incessant decorating.

I am very busy” says the front cover of the ban.do planner that comes with awesome stickers and a key for the #bandogirlgang secret code. It’s the perfect illustration of how busyness has become a measure of worth. There’s more than a trace of the puritan ethic in this belief that we are supposed to be productive every minute of our days, like so many Lucille Balls on the chocolate factory line.

A to-do list is an effective ladder up from the rabbit hole of the internet. But downtime is not the enemy.

We do live in a world full of distraction, and a to-do list is an effective ladder up from the rabbit hole of the internet. But downtime is not the enemy. There is value to unscheduled time, to taking a walk, tuning out, letting the mind wander. Creativity and invention come from stepping outside of the lines, not regimented ultra-planned days.

I tried one of the nouveau planners last year. It was bound, beautiful and undated, because it was well into January when I was finally done considering the suitability of the myriad options. The high-quality paper was the perfect white for the purple ink I favor, and it looked so smart on my desk. But my plans were made and ideas hatched while I was out and about, resulting in a rainbow of Post-Its to copy into my planner each day. My to-do list didn’t fit on the lines allotted, my weekly goals didn’t roll up to my monthly goals — working at a startup, by mid-month things I hadn’t imagined took center stage — and managing my planner took a serious chunk of time.

There was another downside to all that tracking and measuring and ticking off boxes on paper. Everything was a data point. On one weekly list I put a reminder to call an old friend. It turned out to be a deep conversation, but when I checked off the box — positioned next to watering the plants and picking up the dry cleaning — my experience was diminished. I suppose that’s where the stickers and tape and colored pens come in. But instead of illustrating my list, I was left feeling that my perfectly bound pages of prompts about values and gratitude, of daily prioritization and tracking, were actually getting in the way of life, or as John Lennon sang in “Beautiful Boy:” “Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans.”

So as much as I’ve pledged allegiance to list-making and believe in setting goals for Monday and someday, I feel confident that this year I will resist the siren song of the paper planner. I’m turning my back on the technicolor archiving of life. My days will be full but not recorded in Insta-worthy fashion. I’ll use a digital calendar on my phone that’s fast and free, and readily update-able. No thank you, paper planner, I’m stepping away from the altar of busyness. I have a life to live and real work to do.