An Update on Goal-Oriented Paper Planners and Some New Recommendations

A couple of years ago, I wrote a very popular article about goal-oriented planners, in which I reviewed a dozen such planners, pointed out who they were useful for, and then identified the one I was using at the time.

Since then, readers have pointed me toward a number of additional goal-oriented paper planners and I felt like it was time for an update to that original post. I wanted to do this a little earlier in the year so people would have time to look at a few and think it over before buying one for the new year, as many of these planners are year-long planners or otherwise oriented toward a calendar year.

Let’s start from the top.

What Is a “Goal-Oriented Planner”?

As I noted last time, a goal-oriented planner is basically a paper planner that integrates features that encourage you to make steady progress towards larger goals in your life. This usually includes specific features that revolve around daily evaluation and review of your goals and a regular deeper review of those goals (often weekly, but not always). Different planners approach this in very different ways, and in my experience that means that different goal-oriented planners work really well for specific people.

Although such planners have a deep focus on goals, they also usually function as a normal daily/weekly/monthly planner as well, incorporating the usual features like an appointment schedule and to-do lists.

It’s also very important to note that the value of any planner, goal-oriented or not, is directly correlated to how much effort you put into it. If you make a conscious effort to actually use the features of the planner and make sure to record everything of note in there – all of your appointments and to-dos – you’ll definitely invest some time, but the planner will become extremely useful for you. If you don’t, then it won’t be particularly useful and you’ll find yourself dropping it. Almost every planner can work for almost everyone if they put in the effort to turn it into a useful tool; I’m just trying to find ones that work well for me and identify who each planner would be useful for.

Why a Paper Goal-Oriented Planner? Why Not a Digital Tool?

I use a paper goal-oriented planner in conjunction with a digital to-do list and a digital calendar. There are several reasons for this.

First of all, paper planners work regardless of whether my phone has a charge and regardless of whether I have internet access. They work pretty much anywhere and everywhere I have a little bit of light and a pen.

Second, the process of writing is a reflective one, which is what I want out of a system where I’m thinking about my goals. I use digital tools when I just want to retrieve information. Whenever I want to think about something, turning it over and perhaps embedding it in my mind, I want to use paper tools.

Because paper tools are good for thinking and reflection and learning, and digital tools are good for organizing and retrieval, I find that they work hand in hand in my life. I want my paper planner to be a tool for thinking and considering, and then I take elements from that and put it in digital tools that are useful for just telling me what to do and where to go so I can put my focus on the task at hand.

What Features Do I Look For in a Goal-Oriented Planner?

After using quite a lot of goal-oriented planners over the last few years, I’ve found that a few features are almost required for me in a goal-oriented paper planner that I’m going to use every day, and a few more are highly desired.

First of all, there must be a single-day view that includes an hour-by-hour calendar and a to-do list, or it at least provides space for me to make my own. This is absolutely required, but this is basic planner stuff. When a planner doesn’t have this, I’m probably ditching it.

Second, there needs to be a place to set a small number of top priorities for the day, or some space I can use in that way. I usually have one to three key priorities for a given day and I really want space to list those priorities. The thought process I go through when figuring out that priority is where the real value is, and setting it down on paper gives it a tangible nature that helps me to follow through with it.

Third, there needs to be a place to reflect on my goal progress for that day and, ideally, space for things I’m grateful for. As I noted above, I use the paper planner as part of a daily review, usually before I get started in the morning and again at some point in the evening. That time is a “thinking time,” and these are key elements of that thinking. I want to review the things I’m working on in my life and then (ideally) be able to score them in the evening. I also want to list things I’m grateful for, which helps me keep my mindset abundant. Again, there doesn’t have to be designated space for this, but there must be room to make it happen.

Fourth, there must be some sort of space to do a weekly intense review of my goals. Once a week, I do a pretty intense review of my goals, what I did this week, and what I hope to do next week, and on a less-regular basis (monthly and quarterly), I do an even deeper dive into those things. The planner has to give me space to write down those things, even if it’s just a few blank pages.

Those things are pretty much essential. I find that if a paper planner doesn’t have those things, I’m not going to stick with it.

A Quick Look at the Ones I Reviewed Last Time

Let’s run back through the twelve I reviewed last time.

Bullet Journal is more of a free-form system for journaling, though you can also buy a pre-formatted printed version. I would recommend the Bullet Journal system to anyone who has very free-form needs for their planning and wants to incorporate a wide variety of notes and lists and subsections of their own design.

Momentum Planner, at the time, was a printable journal very focused on breaking down large annual goals into progressively smaller pieces. You broke annual goals into quarterly ones, quarterly into monthly, monthly into weekly, and weekly into daily. I would recommend Momentum Planner to highly goal-oriented people who value breaking down their goals, though it works best paired with digital tools, particularly a calendar. (I’m going to come back to this one later.)

Panda Planner is pretty much the blueprint for goal-oriented planners, in my opinion, and it was the first one I used regularly. The Panda Planner would be my default recommendation to anyone who wanted a goal-oriented journal and wasn’t sure what to make of some of the other more specific recommendations.

Rituals for Living Dreambook and Planner is really good at guiding you from a vague idea of a better future into having tangible goals that you can work toward, and that’s exactly who I would recommend it for. If you know you want a better future and have some nebulous but disorganized ideas, this is the goal-oriented planner for you.

The Mastery Journal is very focused on establishing a daily routine of action and seeing it through. It’s good for someone trying to establish a lot of daily habits, but I think it really shines for creative types who need to complete a big project and need a daily structure to see it through. I’d point someone who was working on a novel or a big programming project or a sculpture or something like that toward this journal.

The Simple Elephant Planner was probably the simplest goal-oriented journal I looked at. It seemed perfect for people with moderately busy lives who really just wanted to hammer down on one or maybe two goals in their life.

The Daily Greatness Journal seemed very oriented toward coaching toward a specific goal, and that’s fitting because there are several variations of this journal for specific goals like healthy habits and parenting. I would recommend this journal to people who have a specific goal in mind and really thrive on coaching and nudging toward that specific goal.

The Passion Planner is an excellent all around planner and would probably be my default choice for someone who perhaps works from home and doesn’t intend to carry the planner around a lot in their bag, as the planner’s physical design won’t hold up to extensive travel. If that’s you, this is probably the planner of choice.

The Get to Work Book is pretty clearly designed for people who are already pretty goal oriented. You won’t find a whole lot of guidance in this planner, but it’s very sturdy with a nice spiral binding, and if you want a goal-oriented planner but you don’t need much hand-holding and just need space to review and process goals, this is a really good choice.

SELF Planner is absolutely perfect for someone who has a handful of very specific goals they want to achieve over the next quarter. It is all about knocking a handful of 90 day goals out of the park and is oriented entirely toward that perspective. If you are tuned toward three month (or so) goals and just want something that will help you keep moving forward through them, this is an excellent choice.

The Ink+Volt Planner is perfect for people who are mostly happy with their life but want to experiment with making some smaller changes and seeing how those work out. It’s very oriented toward guiding people through thirty day challenges and trying out new patterns in their life. If you are mostly happy with your life but want to experiment with specific changes in specific areas, this one is perfect for you.

Full Focus Planner is probably the best choice for someone who is already incredibly busy but also has several goals that they want to achieve in their life. This one is clearly designed for the type of person who always has a ton on their plate but wants to make room for more. If you’re the type who has some goals they want to achieve but is incredibly busy and is struggling to find room for them, this one’s basically made for you.

My conclusion was that without knowing much about your specific needs, I would recommend Panda Planner. Having said that, at the time, I personally chose to use the printable version of the Momentum Planner, and I used it for at least a year after writing that article. To be honest, however, I could see myself recommending any of those twelve to someone if I knew more about their specific needs.

If you want to know more about any of these twelve planners, I strongly encourage you to hop back to my original post on goal-oriented planners, which covers each one in detail.

So, what’s new? Since then, I’ve taken a deep look at six additional planners. Did any of them replace my previous choice? Let’s dig in.

Define My Day

The Define My Day journal is literally a four week journal. It’s a paperback spiral-bound journal that’s focused on month-long goals, things that can be achieved in four weeks. It focuses in on that idea with a laser beam.

The journal starts out by having you define your goals for the month in a number of spheres in your life and laying out what your ideal day looks like. From there, it moves on to four largely identical week-long sections oriented around defining a handful of milestones you want to achieve for the week, a two page layout for tracking “daily disciplines” (i.e., habits you’re wanting to establish) over those seven days, a page that’s solely a to-do list for the week, two pages for each day (one for the morning to define the day, then one for the evening to review it), then a page to review the week. This repeats four times, followed by a two page monthly review and a bunch of pages for notes.

In other words, this planner wants to put you in a cycle where you define monthly (actually, four week long) goals, break them down into weeks, break those down into days, and then go through a planning and then a review cycle for each of those things.

This journal does a really good job of that specific task. If you’re very oriented toward month-long goals and 30 day challenges, I unequivocally recommend this journal for achieving those goals.

I really, really wish there was a 13 week version of this journal that was essentially three of these journals smooshed together into one well-bound version, with a quarterly review at the start and the end. I’ve discovered that, personally, that quarterly cycle is really important for things I’m working on and working toward, and to achieve that with this journal requires buying three of them and changing journals twice during that cycle.

That being said, for a journal solely focused on achieving month-long goals, this one is really well executed.

I would recommend the Define My Day planner to anyone focused on month-long goals and habit changes or “thirty day challenges.”

Momentum Planner (print edition)

This is a six month printed and bound version of the Momentum Planner I discussed earlier in this article. Prior to this, I had simply printed out the full year version and had it bound at a local print shop, which worked pretty well for me. This version is a little pricier over the length of a full year (two journals), but it’s better bound and more portable.

I’ll largely reiterate what I said last time about this system. Momentum Planner is all about starting with five yearly goals, breaking those each down into quarterly goals, breaking those down into monthly goals, breaking those down into weekly goals, then breaking those down into daily goals. It is very structured around this top-down pyramid style system. While this book is a full-fledged planner, with daily calendars and such, this goal system is deeply embedded throughout it.

For me, that system works really well. I have a lot of experience breaking down big goals into little bits and thus this system works well for how I think.

The only element here that I find lacking is that a lot of the big goals I set for myself are more habit-oriented. While I can write daily “to-dos” for some of those things, I find that a habit tracking system of some kind is a good supplement. This is something I’ll touch on again in a bit.

I would highly recommend the Momentum Planner to anyone who thinks of their life goals in a highly top-down fashion, breaking down big goals into progressively smaller pieces.

Clear Habit Journal

The Clear Habit Journal is a wonderfully-produced journal from Baron Fig that’s intended as a supplement to the book Atomic Habits by James Clear, a book I wrote about extensively in a “Books with Impact” article a few months back.

When you first glance at this, what you’ll notice is that most of the pages are blank, with a light dot-grid pattern on them. This is done so that you can basically turn the pages into whatever format you want with a ruler and a pen. A few dots are slightly darker than the others, making it easy to divide the pages into halves and thirds, so you can make daily and weekly layouts exactly how you want them. In this, it kind of reminds me of a Bullet Journal, noted above.

What really makes this journal stand out, though, are two features. For starters, right at the beginning, it offers several pages of “one line a day” journaling for a month at a time, paired with pages for “one prompt a day” so you can write something in response to a single prompt, a month at a time. This allows you to easily do some micro journaling, along with making yourself think about a single prompt each day. This is quite nice.

What’s really great is at the end of this journal, there are several pages of tables specifically designed for the daily tracking of habits over the course of a month. It simply has a wide column to list a task, then 31 narrow columns with which to indicate completion or to give yourself a score (a la the system in Triggers), and there are several pages of these.

There are also several pages at the beginning and end of the journal that discuss several different systems of coming up with and tracking goals and making decisions. Given the free form nature of the bulk of the journal pages, it’s pretty easy to try out these systems if you need to make a decision or want to try something different.

This is a really great journal. I’m pretty sure my ideal journal, if it were to exist, would include the habit-tracking material in this journal bundled with the top-down goal setting material in the Momentum Planner. The habit tracking pages in this are just perfect.

My belief is that this journal probably works best for people who want to chart out their days in a more free-form situation and then migrate those thoughts into digital tools for actually moving through the specific appointments and tasks in a day. Unless you put in a fair amount of work on the blank pages, this won’t be a full planner for you; having said that, it’s absolutely great at being a journal and habit tracker.

I highly recommend this journal to anyone who wants to focus on building new habits and tracking those habits and is more free-form with their other journaling and planning elements, particularly people who pair paper journals with digital systems.

Yearly Theme Journal

I am a long time fan of the excellent Cortex podcast, which digs into a number of areas related to independent creative work. One aspect of the podcast that comes up frequently is the idea of a “yearly theme.” A yearly theme is kind of a lighter version of a goal; it’s simply an expression of what element of your life you want to focus on that year. For example, one recent yearly theme of one of the hosts was “the year of order.”

The idea of a yearly “theme” is something I’ve done myself for the last two years, with themes for my year largely unrelated to personal finance in any direct way. (My theme for 2020 is “black belt,” as a major goal is to get a black belt in taekwondo by the end of the year, but it has other meanings, too.)

The idea proved so popular and so integrated into the thinking of the hosts that they transformed the concept into a paper journal.

In many ways, this journal feels like a lightweight version of the Clear Journal, noted above. There are a few starting pages where you identify up to four themes for the year, followed by roughly 90 single pages meant for individual days (each page has three dot-grid boxes without label, so you can define which goes in both – they could be calendars and to-do lists, or they could be other things entirely), followed by a bunch of pages for habit tracking or “daily themes,” depending on how you want to use them. That’s very similar to the structure of the Clear Journal, though with a little more structure on the individual pages.

This journal is right in the wheelhouse of what I’m looking for. It feels like it takes some elements that I like from the Momentum Planner – the annual focus that overarches over the whole thing – and some pieces I like from the Clear Journal – the habit tracking and puts them in a lightweight structure. It just somehow feels “lighter” than the other two.

I’d recommend the Yearly Theme Journal to anyone who is interested in defining annual themes and tracking daily habits, but wants to do this in a less intense format.

Code&Quill Habit System Planner

This is a really, really solid three month (effectively twelve week) planner that has a lot of features that overlap with the other journals mentioned here, but does a few things really well.

The book is divided into three sections – months, weeks, and days. The months page is oriented around a single monthly goal, breaking it down into four “milestones” (i.e. sub-goals) and actions for each milestone. Those milestones carry forward to the individual weekly pages, where you define a weekly goal and key steps toward achieving them, along with a week-long habit tracker for five goals and space for a weekly review. The daily pages are a two page layout with space for a schedule, a to-do list, a daily goal, priorities, and a lot of space for a daily review. The daily view is really well executed.

If you’re really hammering down on a single goal over the next quarter – or a single “theme” – this planner does a great job of helping guide you to success. I’m thoroughly impressed with it.

The only reason I am not using this journal, and this is a really minor thing, is that I actually track more than five habits at a time. As I was using this journal each day, that was the one thing that kept annoying me, and I really don’t know how they would add a lot more without significantly altering the layout. I’ll admit that I run into the same issue sometimes with the Momentum Planner, where I have more daily steps that I want to do than I have space for, but the extras from that run neatly onto a to-do list that’s right on the page and almost meant for that. Here, if I want to track more than five habits, it has to run into the “takeaways” section, which I really wanted to use for weekly reviews.

The Code&Quill Habit System Planner is honestly my new “default” recommendation for most people, as I think it does everything really well and presents a really usable goal and habit oriented system that almost anyone can use. As I noted, I can see specific users finding quibbles with it that might take them to other systems, but for the vast majority of people – particularly people who are just getting into using a goal-oriented paper planner/journal – this is such a solid all-around choice.

Self Planner

The Self Planner is a six month planner takes a lot of the goal-oriented features noted in other planners and leans heavily into the time management aspect of things. It’s really heavily focused on the daily schedule above all else, inserting a few free form pages and a few “workbook” style pages oriented around setting goals around the daily schedule pages.

The heart of this planner are the weekly two page layouts, which feature eight long columns, one for a “weekly overview” and one for each day of the week. The daily columns are set up like a schedule, divided into hours, with plenty of space for writing; the weekly overview allows you to state your priorities for the week and has some limited space for to-dos. Each weekly layout is followed by two blank pages with dot grids, giving you space for additional notes or habit tracking or whatever you want. It’s very heavily oriented toward a “weekly calendar” view.

Outside of that, there are pages for monthly overviews and, perhaps most noteworthy, there’s a two page guided reflection for each month that encourages the person filling out the journal to reflect on the progress for each month and figure out goals going forward.

I feel like this journal was intentionally designed for someone with a pretty tight schedule of meetings and other responsibilities. I found myself using the weekly layouts to do rough time blocking, but I don’t actually have a lot of appointments at specific times during the workday (the evenings are a different story) and I tend to rely on my digital calendar for those. For the most part, I do time blocking exactly the same each week, so I felt like this planner was an excellent tool for someone different than me.

I recommend the Self Planner to a person who has a tight, full schedule and needs to figure out how to achieve personal goals and prioritize things in the gaps.

My Recommendation, What I’m Using Going Forward, and How I’m Using Them

I genuinely feel like the current crop of goal-oriented paper planners and journals are a step up in quality from what existed two years ago, for the most part. They all seem to have adopted ideas from the wonderful books Triggers and Atomic Habits, both of which I recommend.

As I noted, my new “default” recommendation without knowing much about the person is the Code&Quill Habit System Planner. It’s just a strong all-around journal that will do a really good job for pretty much anyone.

I’m personally very into top-down planning and tracking my own habits these days, so for the last couple of months I’ve been using both the Momentum Planner and the Clear Habit Journal. This is in addition to a blank journal. I keep all three of them, along with a bevy of pens, in my “portable office” backpack at all times (except when I’m actually using them or I’m traveling).

So, how do I use these notebooks? This has been my process for the last few months.

I use the Momentum Planner to design my day. It has a very strong top-down goal-oriented focus. I use it to think about what I want to do today and what I want to do tomorrow in terms of the things I want to get done and what my day looks like. I use this in tight conjunction with my digital calendar and digital to-do list, because I almost always migrate my conclusions from this page into my digital tools. It’s kind of a “think about my day ahead” space. Then, during the day, I just use my digital calendar and digital to-do list when I want to focus on execution, not on deciding what to do.

I use the Clear Habit Journal as an ancillary journal for three specific purposes. One, I use it to track habits, because the habit tracking pages in this journal are simply perfect. I have a list of habits that I’m trying to build at any given time and each morning I review them and each evening I score them according to the method described in Triggers. Two, I do “one line a day” journaling where I write down a single line that summarizes my day and then also write a single line in response to a prompt that varies from month to month; the journal offers space designed for this. Three, I use the space in this journal to make decisions when I want to write out pros and cons or use other methods for deciding how to handle a problem. This usually comes up when I’m planning out my day and I’m trying to make a choice or when I do my normal daily journaling.

The other notebook I use is a rotating one that’s just a blank notebook for journaling. I use a version of Julia Cameron’s “three morning pages” journaling strategy where you just brain dump for a while. She suggests filling up three pages, but I write pretty small and that would take a long time, so what I usually do is set a timer and brain dump for 30 or 45 minutes. I just write down whatever comes to mind, and my mind usually ends up digging through one or two intellectual ideas or issues in my own life, and the process of actually writing them down clears my head. Often, if it’s an issue in my own life, the outcome of that feeds what goes into those other two journals, so I usually actually do this first.

Final Thoughts

I’m naturally a goal and system oriented person. I want to create daily routines and habits that take me to where I want to go, and I also find a ton of value in creating big goals and breaking them down. I use both strategies, because they each help with certain things: getting in shape is more of a “system/habit” thing, for example, while writing a novel is more of a “goal” thing. I find that having a goal-oriented paper planner by my side makes juggling a lot of life responsibilities, roles, and goals a lot easier and helps me keep an eye on the big picture.

I can’t guarantee that any of these would be helpful for you, but I will say that if the concept sounds compelling, read through the descriptions in this article and my original post on goal-oriented planners and choose one that matches what you’re going for. I think virtually all of them are good for somebody, and many will be helpful to lots of folks.

Good luck!

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An Update on Goal-Oriented Paper Planners and Some New Recommendations