6 Tips to Using a Planner for your Mental Health

A spread of two pages of a planner depicting days in November 2018. There are dates marked for classes, a therapy appointment, etc.

Hello, I’m Dawn and I’ve been battling my own mental health as far back as I can remember. I struggle to this day with depression and anxiety.

I’ve kept a journal off and on for much of my life. I decided in 2018 to keep one to track my days, so I could stop beating myself up about how much I didn’t do. A few months in, I used it for exactly that, and it worked, pulling me out of a downward spiral of self-hate. In my depressed haze I was discrediting how hard I was working, and looking back in time, I was grateful for what I did manage to do.

Depending on your particular hangups, my routine might not work for you, but I think it could help others. I recommend that you use a daily log, be it a spreadsheet, phone calendar, or physical day planner. Make sure it has all 365 days a year. Other than that, you can use whatever you please. I use a Hobonichi Techo because it had a cool Earthbound jacket, and getting something expensive held me hostage to make use of it.

1. Daily Bullet Points

Sometimes we have time to log details about our day, and sometimes we don’t. It can be useful to gather thoughts on an issue and keep track of moments in time, but when you’re tired, a bullet point of what you managed is just fine.

Now that I have regular work, daily journaling becomes harder to do. It’s important to keep the record daily, so that you don’t lose details of what you did, or how you felt. If you miss a day, you might want to go back and log what you did the day before.

Bullet journals, while lovely, are a bit more intense than what I intend to lay out here. If you have the energy to make a bullet journal, by all means. But I suggest keeping a sloppy handy one for a daily mental health aid.

2. To-Do AND Tah-Dah!

Depending on how often you look through your journal, you might lose track of it as a to-do list. This is fine. What we want is what my friend calls the “tah-dah list”. It’s not a record of what you intended to do, but what you did.

I think of each thing I note as done as something that cost me a spoon, a la spoon theory. Some days I have the energy to vacuum the floors, but some days all I have is enough to answer an email or cook myself a meal. Maybe just “wrote in my journal”. What looks like an accomplishment to you might not look like much to an outsider, but you should keep track of it anyway, because it was accomplishment for you. This journal is for you, not anyone else. (Although it might also be a useful reference point for your doctor.)

My aforementioned friend enjoys scoring chores and shooting for 100 or so points per week. His method stresses me out, but I can see how it could be useful for someone else. He uses it to make sure he stays on top of his personal goals. You might choose to do something similar and assign a number value to the amount of spoons a certain act requires, and have a goal. Most of all, I implore that you be kind to yourself, and shift your goals accordingly.

3. Steps to Completion

While working toward a goal, no matter how small, the steps may need to be broken down. All of those steps deserve recognition. Applying for a new passport might require getting the paperwork, copying documents, and then bringing it to the office to file. Going to a doctor is a step itself, but so is making the call to set an appointment. I feel like all of these aspects deserve to be logged, since each step can be a microcosm of effort and anxiety. As above, it’s important to log your spoons. Give yourself credit for the things you start to do, and whenever time is invested to the process.

Since the Hobonichi has separate parts of the book for daily/weekly/monthly time management (as most planners do) I log the completion of a task in the monthly calendar. If you’re keeping your journal on a phone calendar, maybe immortalize the achievement on paper, or in a different colour on a spreadsheet. When you look back on what you managed to do, you can see at a glance the larger accomplished projects. You worked hard to get these things done, and you deserve to recognize yourself for it. At the end of the year, you can see how far you’ve come.

4. Log Mood and Self-Care

Anxiety makes me want to do more, and depression keeps me from doing it. Sometimes it turns into a spiral of beating myself up about that. It’s taken a lot for me to get to a better place about it, and a lot of it is thanks to the reminders from my journal. Bad mental health days still happen, though. It’s good to log these so that our future selves know that we were struggling, and it can even help log any seasonal habits. This is also true for other issues, such as pain management for people with chronic pain disorders. I find it’s easier to forgive myself for these days when I look back on them than it is while it’s happening.

A journal is also useful to track thought processes, and catch yourself with CBT. If you’re practicing therapy and thoughts that assist in your mental health, you deserve to congratulate yourself on those successes. Likewise for physical practices, like physiotherapy stretches or what have you. It doesn’t matter how minor it was. If it took something out of you, write it down.

5. Personal and Professional Goals

I think it’s important to keep your professional and personal projects, goals, and energy logged in the same place. Some of us are unable to work 9-5 jobs, so the work/life separation becomes pretty foggy. I try to break down elements of my life into four sets:

  • Work – Something someone else wants me to do, usually for money.
  • Creation – Something I want to work on for myself. Can be art, blogging, or writing something of my own.
  • Social – Time to hang out with friends or family.
  • Self – Things that make me a better person. Studying languages, martial arts, or therapy.

I log everything in my life and mostly try to fit it into one of these three categories, and colour-code each of them in my journal with highlighters or coloured pens. Skipping through my journal right now I see that I’m falling behind in the “Creation” department. It makes sense, since most of my creative energy has been going toward working, but maybe I should start setting more time aside for my own projects in the near future.

I feel like we shouldn’t downplay the role our work has in our lives. Depending on what you do, there might be days that you come home drained, and rest for the evening. There’s nothing wrong with this, but as you would log a bad mental health day, this should be acknowledged, too. No matter where your exhaustion came from, it’s here now, and you need rest. Do not alienate the work you do at your job with your personal life goals, since they both effect each other.

6. Roll with the Punches

A spread of two pages labeled "2019 Goals", also littered with cartoon stickers.
A list of WoW stats to remember on the top right.

My 2019 goals are a little messed up since I haven’t gone to Volta in months, and Patriah still isn’t done, but I sure write more and do capoeira. My weekly goals to post on Patreon and call my wife farted out, too. But that’s how things go. What looked good for me in January might not look good for me in October, and that’s fine. I should call my wife more often, though, and update Patreon. The best part of all is that I have a place to stash stickers from local artists that I can support, and that make me happy when I look at them.

I’m sure that keeping a planner won’t be as effective for everyone the way it has been for me, but I find it useful for reminding me what I’ve managed to do, how hard I’ve worked, and it’s even helped me to forgive myself for days where I haven’t been able to do anything. Looking back on things stops me from being present (lazy, useless) me, and the past me becomes someone else. A friend, who is struggling and doing her best. When it’s hard for me to forgive my present self, I can forgive her, who I was.

If that’s something you feel like you could use, I hope you give it a try.

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