How To Make a Planner

Many first-time visitors to this site are probably overwhelmed by the vast number of pages, templates, packages, sizes and loose forms available. This little all-in-one guide is meant to direct beginners to downloading the right packages, printing and preparing the forms, and setting up a basic planner or Hipster PDA using the D*I*Y Planner kits.

The goal here is to teach you how to create an effective industrial-strength planner system that can last for years, yet costs next to nothing. This page might look a little complicated at first glance, but you’ll be surprised by how little work is generally involved, especially after a little practice. For example, I can now create a dozen double-sided punched forms in about three to four minutes, including printing, by using basic (i.e., “cheap”) equipment. No special skills are involved, just a little patience and an hour or two to follow the step-by-step instructions the first time through.

(If you only want to download the kits and start experimenting, jump to the Official D*I*Y Planner Kits page and follow the links.)

How To Make a Planner

Choosing a Planner & Size

Depending on where you live in the world, there are usually five main choices you can make for your planner. Read carefully: this is probably one of the most needlessly confusing bits.

  1. Classic size, which is 5.5″x8.5″, half the size of a regular letter-size sheet of paper as found in North America and some South American countries. A planner this size offers a great balance of writing space, portability, and amount of material to carry. You can generally find decent Mead or At-A-Glance planners this size at your local department story for $7-$20 USD, or you can buy upscale Day Runner or Day-Timer products for $40 USD and up at your office supply store. I’d recommend a three-ring planner, because of easier hole-punching.
  2. A5 size, which is half an A4 sheet, and found in most other countries world-wide outside of North America. These planners are a little bit wider and not quite as tall as classic, but otherwise are very similar. Filofax is a popular brand with a wide range of options.
  3. Letter size, which is standard North American full-size sheets (8.5″x11″). Great if you need a lot of space, but poor for portability; it can get large and heavy. Planners and binders this size can be found quite cheaply indeed. However, please note that there are no full D*I*Y Planner sets for this size (yet!), just a calendar package for now.
  4. A4 size, the rough equivalent of letter size in most countries outside of North America, and subject to many of the same pros and cons of letter size above. Again, there no full D*I*Y Planner sets available yet, just a calendar package.
  5. Hipster PDA size, which is 3″x5″ index card size (people outside North America often scale to slightly different sizes). Many people keep a stack of index cards with to-do lists, calendars, notes and other important info. Small and portable, and all you really need is a binder clip to keep it together. However, they are also difficult to file, you cannot carry around too many without facing organisational issues (think of shuffling a pack of cards), and printing/cutting them can be a pain if your printer isn’t in complete agreement with your choice of planner.

My recommendation? It’s hard to go wrong with a classic or A5 size planner, and they are easy and inexpensive to find. However, the Hipster PDA offers a great alternative for people on the go who need something small that doesn’t need to hold a lot of information.

Other Basic Supplies

At a minimum, you might need the following:

  1. A planner, as mentioned above, unless you want a Hipster PDA. Then all you need is a $0.15 binder clip.
  2. Paper of the right type. That means the correct size and stock. For stock, if you’re using a Hipster PDA, I’d recommend 90-110 lb card stock; if you’re using anything else, I’d suggest bright white (94 and higher) 24 lb stock. Both are available cheap at most department or office supply stores. As for sizing, it’s easier for most beginners to just purchase paper of the right dimensions, but sometimes this isn’t possible. For example, I find it hard to find classic size paper in my area, so I get letter-size paper and cut it in half with ….
  3. A guillotine (a.k.a, “paper trimmer”). Only needed if you need to chop paper yourself. Can be found for about $20 USD, but a little investment goes a long way towards ease of use and the quality of the cut. (And, I believe, you’ll find a number of handy uses for it besides chopping template paper.) A particularly good buy, if you find yourself cutting a lot, is the GBC GT II Series Trimmer, 15in. — good value, self-sharpening, fairly compact and sturdy.
  4. A hole punch, if you’re using anything besides a Hipster PDA. The key is getting the right one for your paper. I couldn’t find one specially sized for my three-holed classic size planner, so I purchased an Acco adjustable punch ($4-6 USD). If you have a six- or seven-hole planner, you may have to buy an expensive specialty hole-punch: be forewarned!
  5. A pen. Some people use expensive fountain pens and other extravagant writing utensils. I use a Pilot G2 0.5. Writes smooth and flawlessly, and only costs $1.50 USD. (I can still lust after Fisher Space Pens, though.)
  6. Access to a computer and printer. Any semi-modern (read: less than about 8 years old) Windows, Mac or Linux machine will do, as long as it can run Adobe Acrobat Reader. As for a printer, most regular $50+ USD inkjets will do the job admirably, as will most lasers that can take different size paper without centre guides (the majority of them do).

Does all this sound expensive? Well, put things in perspective. The most you should have to spend (disregarding the computer equipment) is about $35-$40 USD plus some paper. That will get you a planner system that will last for years, a very handy guillotine and hole punch, and an endless supply of planning, time management, and other handy forms for the minute cost of some paper and ink. Sounds like a good deal to me, especially when compared to the very expensive (and limited) store-bought forms, or even digital PDAs. Doubly so, if you can use a few things at the office to save yourself some money.

Downloading the Packages

First, make sure you have Adobe Acrobat Reader (or Standard, or Pro) on your system. You should have at least version 6.0. If you don’t have it, it’s a free download.

  1. If you’ve decided to go with Classic or A5, go to this page: D*I*Y Planner Classic/A5 Edition. You’ll see a choice for downloads: Classic or A5, 1-up or 2-up. If you already have paper the right size (which I recommend, even if it means chopping it yourself), choose the 1-up: this prints one form per sheet. If, for some reason, your printer does not allow printing on the correct size form or it insists on center-aligning the page, you can choose the 2-up. That prints two forms on one letter-size (or A4) page. (My advice: don’t worry about 2-ups until you’ve at least tried the 1-up version.)
  2. If you want the Hipster PDA index card version, visit this page: D*I*Y Planner Hipster PDA Edition. You’ll see three versions for download. 1-up prints one card at a time. Many people find that their printers can’t handle this without slippage or margin troubles. The graphic version is for those people wanting to do their own layouts: I’d advise beginners against that for now. The safest bet is to get the 4-up. This prints four forms per page on regular full-size stock (which tends to be pretty cheap), and then you just chop with a guillotine or cut with scissors.

Save the file to your hard drive, double-click on the file, and it should create a directory with the files. The ones you need are the PDF files. Open them and browse through the forms. Find one that will prove useful for you, something basic for now (such as the Checklist).

Cutting the Paper

Cutting the paper If you can’t find paper of the correct size, and you want Classic or A5, then you can go ahead and guillotine letter-size or A4 in half.

The top of your guillotine should have a guide across the top. This serves two important purposes: holding your paper at a right angle; and allowing you to measure the paper. For example, if you’re cutting letter-size paper, align the paper snug against the guide, setting the edge at exactly the 5 1/2″ mark. That means your page will be cut exactly in half.

This might take a few tries to get it exactly right –a little nudge to two to the left and right makes a big difference– but once you figure out where to align the paper for chopping, you’ll never have problems again. For example, my guillotine has a groove at 5.5″, and I cover it just to its far edge to make an exact cut. Both halves of the paper should be the exact same size if done right.

Printing the Forms

Except for the Hipster PDA forms, all D*I*Y Planner forms are created as both odd and even pages. This means that there will always be a nice margin for your binder rings. Odd pages numbers in the PDF (3,5,7…) will be the front of the forms, and even numbers (4,6,8…) will be the backs. This is how to get started for non-Hipsters in 1-up:

  1. Choose a basic form in the PDF, like Checklist or Notes. Choose the front of the form. You’ll know this because there’s a greater margin on the left, and it will have an odd page number.
  2. Setting the printer guidesTell Adobe Acrobat to File -> Print.... In the dialog box, tell it not to scale, rotate or center. This is very important! Tell it to print only one copy, and just the current page. Ensure that the right size paper is loaded into your printer, and that the paper guides are holding it snug to the edge. Cover your eyes and hit the Print button.
  3. Check your printed form. It should fit nicely on the page, with a margin at left for the punched holes. (See the Handbook: Printing How-To for more advice and trouble-shooting.) If it’s fine, put the paper back in the printer so it prints on the other side. In the PDF, choose the back of the form (the even page number, margin on right) and print as above.
  4. You may have to experiment a little until you get the knack for printing the forms in the correct orientation (hint: the back should not be upside-down compared with the front). Print off one at a time, and try not to waste paper or ink.
  5. One important tip: if you have a colour printer, go through your printer dialog box and look for a “greyscale” checkbox to turn on. If not, it may mix colours to produce black. This is often a waste of money, so turn off colour printing if possible.
  6. Once you’ve understood how your printer works, print off a few multiples. You can’t go wrong with a few checklists and notes pages. I’d advise only printing what you need for the next couple of weeks. You don’t want your planner to become so thick you won’t carry it anywhere.
  7. If your printer won’t allow you to print to Classic or A5 paper correctly, your next option it to download the 2-up version, print two forms at a time, then cut them afterwards.
  8. If you’re lazy, bring them to your local copy/printing place and see if they’ll print and cut forms for you. Many will, and quite cheaply.

Cutting the Hipster PDA cardsIf you have a Hister PDA, it’s a little less complicated:

  1. If you have index cards and want to print singles, put a few in the printer and align the guides. Using the 1-up PDF file, send one form to the printer, telling it not to scale, rotate or center.
  2. If there’s a problem with this, such as slippage or missing margins, you may be better off with the 4-up PDF. Put regular card stock (recommended: 110 lb) in the printer and then print a page, telling it not to scale or rotate. When it’s done, you’ll notice fine grey lines surrounding each card: these are your cutting guides. Simply use a guillotine or scissors to cut the page into cards, and you’re done. (You can print on both sides before cutting if you choose, although you may wish to turn on centering.)

Punching the Forms

Punching the holesIf you have a hole-punch of the right size, it’s very simple. Just stick in your paper (the side with the wider margins) and punch.

If you are using an adjustable hole punch (say, for Classic or A5 sizes), here’s how to customise your tool:

  1. These punches usually come with a little nut or handle to loosen, and each punch should then slide freely left and right. Use a sample punched form (such as one that probably came in your planner) to align each punch and then tighten it into place again.
  2. Slide your pre-punched form into place within the puncher, and press down on the handle. Where the top and bottom edges of the paper are located on the guide, use a china marker or some liquid paper to put little marks.
  3. Simply insert your unpunched forms (keep it to five sheets or less for light-duty models), align them between the marks, and then punch. Voila!

A Hipster PDA is usually not punched, although some people like to create holes for insertion into tiny planners, or to hold the cards together with a ring or carbiner.

Making Tabbed Section Dividers

Section dividersUnless you can find tabbed dividers in your office supply store (most larger ones carry them for a few dollars), you will probably want to make your own. It’s actually fairly easy, if you follow a few simple steps. For this, you’ll need some card stock and some shield tabs, either clear or colour (about $1-2 USD).

  1. Cut a letter-size or A4 sheet of card stock (suggested weight: 110 lb) in half, just like you would for any other template. Each half will be a divider. Create at least five.
  2. Punch your holes.
  3. Line up one of the tabs at the top edge of the page, but don’t remove the adhesive yet. Line up the other tabs on the same sheet, and space according to your tastes. Make some pencil marks to denote where each tab will be placed. This is your tab guide.
  4. Align your guide against each divider and use it to figure out where to stick the tab down the side. Peel off the adhesive and stick.

As an added bonus, you can add tabs to the top of pages as well. Some people do this for high-priority sections.

Organizing Your Planner

This is a potentially complicated topic, and will no doubt vary according to one’s taste and circumstance. (See the Handbook: Setting Up Your Planner for more advice.) Some very basic tips, however:

  • At a minimum, you’ll probably want the following, in this rough order (tweak it later):
    1. Cover, with profile information au verso
    2. Pouches, business card pages, etc. (if you have them)
    3. Calendar section, with daily, weekly or monthly templates
    4. Contacts section, with Contacts or Sources forms
    5. Inbox — this is where you write all your rough notes; keep it stocked with plain cheap (or unprinted) notepaper
    6. Actions — for either:
      • a few Next Actions, Waiting For and Agenda forms (this is the Getting Things Done method)
      • a few To Do List, Checklist and Project Outline forms (or whatever else tickles your fancy)
        1. A tabbed divider for each major project; for example, “Renovation.” “Supply Setup,” or “Website”
        2. An Incubate (or Someday/Maybe) tab for putting vague ideas of those things you want to check out or perhaps do sometime in the undiscernable future, such as learning a language or visiting a particular restaurant
        3. A Reference tab, for keeping various charts and lists (To Buy: Books, Network Information, Local Stores and Hours, Long Distance Codes, etc.)
        4. A Journal tab, for keeping personal notes, records, diary pages, or similiar, if you’re into that sort of thing

Keep it light. If your planner is too heavy, you’re not going to want to carry it anywhere. Also, make sure you have the forms you need, but no more. I’ve seen people try to stuff a half-dozen or more of each template into a planner, “just in case.” (That’s nearly 400 pages!) A good rule of thumb: insert only what you think you’ll need for the upcoming week, and file away those things you don’t need for this week.

Also, remember that it’s easier to add and remove pages at the centre of the rings, so any section that requires a lot of paper shuffling should go in the middle of the planner (e.g., Inbox and Actions).

Setting Up Your Organizer

This system was created to be highly tweakable and organisationally agnostic, so feel free to build and fill your planner however you want. However, to get you started with a very basic GTD implementation, I’d suggest the following as a base:

  1. Front of planner:
    • A cover, preferably of high-quality card stock (slick, if you have it), with a Profile form on the opposite side — don’t forget to fill it out;
    • A dual-sided sheet of the GTD basic and advanced diagrams, printed on card stock for durability; and
    • The dual-sided Important Numbers form.
  2. Contacts: use your purchased forms and tabs. “Move in” by writing down the most important personal and business contacts. Use pencil, if possible: contact information changes a lot. (Note: the previous version of the DIY Planner made mention of keeping contacts later. However, I’ve found that since I change the contacts far less often than the actions and projects, it’s better to keep the latter two nearer the centre of the planner — it’s easier to add and remove pages when they are closer to where the  rings open.)
  3. Calendar tab: your calendar (a.k.a. your “hard landscape”). Mark your current date with the “Today” clip-in. Transfer all birthdays, anniversaries and personal dates into the calendar. (You should keep a separate list of these, so you can populate each new year’s calendar with it.)As for which type of calendar to use, you have a lot of choices within this kit. To start, think about how much you need to accomplish, how many appointments you will have, and where you would like to store your Next Actions. For example, I keep a monthly calendar in my Calendar tab, and Next Actions/etc. in my Actions tab. Some possibilities:
    • Day Keeper on each page
    • Day Keeper opposite GTD All-In-One
    • Weekly Planning on each page
    • Weekly Planning opposite GTD All-In-One
    • Weekly Planning opposite Covey Weekly
    • Monthly Planning spread
  4. Actions tab: populate with:
    • Next Actions for each context (Office, Home, Errands, Online, etc.)
    • Waiting For for each context
    • Agendas
    • Optional: A Covey Quadrant or two, if you’re so inclined

    If you have a lot of Waiting For and Agendas forms, you can create other tabs for them. Mark all these tabs with red dots, which signify immediate review (think red = hot).

  5. Project tabs: create tabs for each major project or project category. Populate with:
    • Project Details
    • Project Outline
    • Project Notes
    • To Do List (future Next Items, etc.)
    • Optional: Objectives, Contact Log, Brainstorm, Checklist, Goal Planning, To Buy, Notes

    Mark these tabs with green dots, signifying weekly review.

  6. Someday/Maybe (or Incubate) tab: fill with a handful of Someday/Maybe Quicklist and Someday/Maybe Projects sheets. Mark with yellow dot (occasional review).
  7. Read/Review tab: a few Checklist forms with appropriate headers (“Websites to Review”, “Articles to Read”, “Reports/Proposals”, etc.). Yellow dot: review when you have time to spare.
  8. Reference tab: for now, put a few Notes sheets in here. Mark tab with blue dot (for reference materials). Any major reference categories should probably get their own tabs. For example, I have a Ref:Tech tab that contains things like Emacs cheat-sheets, software registration serials, Internet account info (sans passwords), Python notes, etc.
  9. Misc Lists:
    off-the-cuff lists that you wouldn’t consider serious enough to call “reference.” Use the NotesTo BuyChecklist or other generic forms. A few selections from mine:

    • Shopping: Groceries
    • Shopping: Dollar Store : I’m notorious for going to dollar stores, picking up a hundred things I don’t need, and leaving without the items I actually went in for
    • To Buy: Books : ones I’d like to purchase, but which I can’t remember when I’m actually in a bookstore
    • To Buy: Music : albums I’m trying to hunt down
    • Checklist: Software to Try
    • Notes: Books/Articles to Read
    • Checklist: Gifts : list of potential Christmas and birthday gifts for people
  10. Templates tab. Keep a few spares of each form here that you’re likely to need. Replenish each week, or whenever you’re using a lot of sheets.
  11. Any other tabs you’d use frequently, such as TimesheetsFinances, etc.
  12. Inbox tab: keep regular cheap note paper here. This is your scratch pad. Move finished thoughts and materials out of here as soon as possible to the correct section of your planner. If the phone rings or someone wants to talk with you about something, open this section up immediately.

Setting Up a Hipster PDA

If you haven’t already, go read Merlin Mann’s post Introducing the Hipster PDA. In its most basic form, the Hipster PDA is simply a stack of cards with a binder clip. Many people decide that this is a little too free-form for them, though, and have developed a number of ingenious templates, cases, and ways to use them.

Our Hipster PDA Edition means that you can print out the cards you use, stack ’em in a deck, and either slip them into a case or clip them together with a cheap binder clip. There doesn’t have to be any more to it than that.

However, some people like to make and order their stacks in certain ways to make it easier to use. A few tips:

  1. Put a cover form on your kit with your contact information. If you lose it, you’d like someone to return it, right?
  2. If you use GTD you can print off a reference chart and put it on the back of your cover. Laminate it, and it will last forever.
  3. Likewise, a lot of people put a yearly calendar on the back of their deck for easy reference.
  4. Keep a few blank cards near the back for gathering loose information, brainstorming, or jotting down your phone number for that cute waitress or shoe clerk.
  5. Buy a stack of coloured cards and insert them into your deck, so you can easily find sections when you fan it. For example, I separate calendar items, projects, notes, and blank cards with different colour dividers.
  6. Don’t forget the pen! You’ll have to write fairly small, so one with a 0.5mm tip or less is best.

A Quick Word About Time Management

There are two main schools of thought in time management circles: “top-down” and “bottom-up.”

Top-down methods are probably best exemplified by Stephen R. Covey in his books The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and First Things First. In this type of strategy, you first determine the bigger picture, such as what your values, principles and life’s mission are. Then you work down into your life roles and shorter-term goals. Then you figure out what your week looks like, fullfilling your roles and priorities while working towards self-fulfillment. This high-flying strategy often means a lot more planning and preparation, and is not well suited to just clearing the piles off your desk.

Bottom-up methods are all the rage nowadays, mostly thanks to David Allen’s book Getting Things Done. The idea is to figure out how to handle the daily deluge of work that ends up on our desks as practically as possible. All these items are put into one’s “inbox” and then channeled into Next Actions, Waiting For items, the “hard landscape” (the calendar), projects, Someday/Maybe items, reference places, or the trash can. Very pragmatic, but many people find it hard to focus on the big picture when they’re just slogging through a list of calls to return.

Of course, there’s the old-fashioned way, too. Put your appointments and meetings into your calendar, your contacts into your address book, and your calls and actions into To Do lists. Or you can devise your own strategies. Some people have been highly successful in their time management techniques without ever hearing the names Covey or Allen.

Whatever method you choose, there are forms available in the D*I*Y Planner to help you implement it. However, a little piece from advice: don’t just visit website summaries and shy away from reading the books: they are all good reads (even if you don’t subscribe to all the methods), and you just never know which one might work best for you.

What Next?

So here we are, and if you’ve managed to do the above, then you have a nice little D*I*Y Planner system ready to roll. Now what do you do?

First, I’d suggest reading the Allen and/or Covey books, if you haven’t already. There are plenty of quite powerful strategies and techniques found within those pages.

Second, read the D*I*Y Planner Handbook (and the Hipster PDA Read Me, if that’s your tool of choice), since there are a whole lot of things not mentioned here which might help you set up and use your planner.

Third, experiment with more forms as you need them, or think about ways to use those forms that don’t immediately seem useful. The goal is to wrap a little structure around your chaos and stimulate your productivity. You have nothing to lose except a sheet of paper. Check out the template descriptions in the handbook for a few tips about each one.

Fourth, get the add-on kits, packages and templates. You’ll find them linked off the DIY Planner Kits page. Ones contributed by the community are located in our Templates Directory; there are some real gems in there that might prove quite useful for you.

Finally, if you have any questions, feel free to leave comments or post questions in the forums. We’re all here to help each other, and someone will probably have the answer you’re looking for.


We appreciate any and all feedback on this document, as it’s definitely a work in progress. Please add a comment here, or contact me to send along your thoughts, suggestions or criticisms.

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