Despite the then-early stage pandemic unfolding in the US, and my better judgment, I walked into the Hyatt Regency SFO on Friday, March 13. The greenhouse-themed lobby was packed with nearly a hundred women wearing pink lanyards. In search of swag bags and name tags, they crowded the check-in area next to a 7-foot-tall fountain pen filled with colorful beads.
Two days earlier, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced that gatherings of over 250 people should be canceled to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, and recommended ceasing leisure travel entirely. Suddenly, a conference devoted to the art and science of do-it-yourself calendars, agendas, and goal trackers (location: airport hotel; expected attendance: 1,200) seemed like a very nonessential place to be.
By then, all five major Hollywood Studios, UFC Wrestling, most late-night TV talk shows, and other conventions were all closing up shop. The International Planner Conference, aka PlannerCon, was an outlier. Social media posts throughout the week assured that the three-day conference would go on... as planned.
There were no pens at the name tag table, and I caught the check-in woman by surprise when I asked for one. #Plannergirls bring their own pens everywhere they go, and the biggest, most heavily underlined event in their agendas is this annual gathering of planner influencers (planfluencers) and journaling supplies vendors. Inside the carpeted Grand Ballroom, dozens of planners sat at tables, comparing notes about how to lay out family budgets or food diaries and adding stickers to their own.
It’s hard to remember that we recently needed to plan every aspect of our lives. In the Before Times, being judicious about our schedules allowed for side hustles, night school, and part-time volunteering. We condensed regular naps into power naps, cooking into meal prep, and meetings into check-ins.
A centimeter-wide spray bottle serves as a reminder to water succulents; a kawaii hypodermic needle is placed next to a flu shot appointment.
The planner community, as it is known, is an expression of the same economic squeeze and pressure to self-optimize behind grind culture. But while the tech bro relies on apps to auto track his sleep and macronutrients, the planner girl tracks her metrics manually with markers and stickers. Hydration is monitored daily by using blue markers to color in lines on a mason jar decal, each increment representing a glass of water consumed. A centimeter-wide spray bottle serves as a reminder to water succulents; a kawaii hypodermic needle is placed next to a flu shot appointment. Then she posts a picture of the diary page to Instagram, where the hashtag #PlannerAddict reveals 5.2 million posts featuring meticulous weekly layouts written in gorgeous penmanship using fine-tip markers.
At first glance, elaborate list-making seems darker than passive forms of self-quantification. There’s an obsessive quality to the charts planners make to track everything: daily prayers, volunteer hours, pleasure reading, family phone calls, blinds-dusting schedule — not to mention a competitive aspect to posting it all on social media. Planning sometimes looks like a way for women, who make up the majority of #PlannerAddicts, to scrutinize their shortcomings. Ironically, it also seems like a self-imposed time suck.
But #plannergirls will tell you that it’s meditative to color in the mason jar, it’s soothing to break down their hectic lives into check boxes and attainable tasks. Creative planning isn’t time wasted — it’s time checking the boxes of “get offline” and “make something with your hands.” They’ll also tell you planning has given them a sense of community, which I witnessed firsthand.
Supplies catered to moms, teachers, nurses; to chores, cooking, and pregnancy. There were no stickers for pick-up basketball games, auto mechanic appointments, or leg day.
“You used to be so shy!” one woman gushed, hugging a young vendor selling glittery denim pen pouches. All over the convention floor, reunions were taking place. Planfluencers snapped selfies with their followers, and online friends found their kindred souls IRL. Some meetings started out meekly, with offers to swap or trade little bags of planner supplies and candy. Elsewhere, the connections were explosive, women chatting loudly about planning methodologies, as if they had been suppressing these feelings all year.
No one ever said explicitly that PlannerCon was for women or female-identifying people, but every detail was blatantly femme. The jaunty cursive known as bridesmaid font was used at every signage opportunity. Conference passes were hot pink; vendor merch was millennial pink; PowerPoint presentations were magenta. Supplies catered specifically to moms, teachers, nurses; to chores, cooking, and pregnancy. There were no stickers for pick-up basketball games, auto mechanic appointments, or leg day. Merchandise with gendered epithets like “#BossBitch,” “Planner Babe,” “Pen Queen” drove the point home.
Everyone around me was female, except for a few male partners who had tagged along. I asked one boyfriend if he planned his own life the PlannerCon way. He laughed and said, “I just take life one day at a time.”
I made a point to ask every man I saw. I would ask a #plannergirl to show me her planner, then I’d ask the man standing next to her if he thought of his life in those terms. Two men sarcastically took out cellphones from their pockets and waved them as if I had never heard of a calendar app.
Another man I asked pointed to his head and said, “Everything I need is in here.”
And if it's not in there? Well, it's probably in his girlfriend's head: In the overwhelming majority of cohabiting heterosexual couples, women are the primary meal prepper and grocery shopper. Only 10% of moms say these tasks are split equally, according to Pew.
Up at the hotel bar, 3Sixty Bar, six flatscreens showed Donald Trump declaring COVID-19 a national health emergency. A seventh aired the Golf Channel’s news special, “How Will Coronavirus Affect the 2020 Masters Tournament?”
But the mood at an evening social mixer for unaccompanied conference goers, #YoloSolo, was cheerful. Fifty of us crammed into a conference room called “Sandpebble,” where a coordinator urged us to “stay positive with everything that’s going on.” She seemed trustworthy; she said she had four kids and organized luaus for a living.
She asked the attendees to stand up and introduce themselves and what planners they are using.
“Way back in the day, I used to be a Franklin girl, then I moved onto Filofax, A5, then I found Erin Condren LifePlanner and I’ve finally found planner peace.” “I’m a sticky note person,” one woman admitted. “I’m not a planner, planner,” another said, sheepishly, before rattling off a list of three paper planners she uses. A woman wearing a shirt that said, “Rock out with your stickers out,” said that she only used one planner. The room gasped audibly.
Paper planners have come a long way since '80s yuppie babes in power suits toted original Filofax and Franklin agendas to work. Though personal digital assistants and smartphones threatened to make calendaring obsolete, paper enjoyed a resurgence in the 2010s thanks to the hipster marketing of Moleskines and other notebook imports, like Rhodia (France) and Muji (Japan). More recently, digital product designer Ryder Carroll brought the paper Bullet Journal to mainstream popularity; the minimalist “BuJo” method is a hybrid diary and daily metrics planner, all in pursuit of “the art of intentional living.”
A woman wearing a shirt that said, “Rock out with your stickers out,” said that she only used one planner. The room gasped audibly.
But the rise of the femme, Insta-friendly planner aesthetic can be attributed to Erin Condren. Condren became a stay-at-home mom when the post-9/11 economy tanked her small apparel industry business. On the popularity of her homemade Christmas cards, she started a paper goods company, which was featured on Ellen and Rachael Ray. Her runaway hit came in 2005, when, wanting to make her beloved FranklinCovey planner more “inspirational, colorful and cute,” she launched LifePlanner. The growing planner community endorsed LifePlanner’s pretty functionality; in 2016, Woman’s Day reported that Condren sells 500,000 LifePlanners (now starting at $55) each year.
These days, boutique companies like Panda Planner and Ban.do are popular on Instagram, and mid-level marketing companies have planners selling “direct” to one another on Facebook. At PlannerCon, I saw $100 leather covers, $30 pen clips, $20 bookmarks, dangly charms, $10 paper “snap-ins” (additional pages for career-specialized tracking), sticker organizers, and special washi tapes with repeating heart-shaped check boxes. One sticker sheet featured the repeating motif of an off-brand Harry Potter riding a broom next to the words, “Bill Due!” According to one vendor, the average Con attendee spends $600 on merchandise throughout the weekend.
I had forgotten all about the newly announced national emergency until one #YoloSolo said that she hopped several planes from Europe to South America to the United States, requiring a visa, to get to PlannerCon despite mounting travel bans. A few others had just arrived from the UK, Mexico City, and Canada, in contravention of reports I thought I had read about outbound flights. Based on Instagram, I had expected the majority of PlannerCon attendees to be in their early 20s, but many were over the age of 60. Several used walkers or wheelchairs. A few women were nurses. One was a home aide for the elderly.
Planning is the art of the self-fulfilling prophecy; research shows that writing down a goal makes you 42% more likely to achieve it. So it shall be written, so it shall be done. Being at PlannerCon during a pandemic indicated that the reverse must also be true. The more carefully something is planned, the harder it is to believe it isn’t happening. The harder it is to plan something, the harder it is to cancel.
“Despite all that is going on in the world,” PlannerCon founder Louise Umeki said in her keynote address, “I believe we can make miracles together.”
Later, over drinks at 3Sixty Bar, talk of the coronavirus continued. Several workshops were canceled or still up in the air. Many vendors were no-shows, and VIP tables felt lackluster. Then there was the issue of refunds.
A regular weekend pass to PC2020 costs $238. A VIP ticket was in the $500 range. Before the virus, VIPs were promised rare editions of stickers, early releases of pens, and a chance to meet and network with specific planner vendors and planfluencers.
The coordinators, according to attendees, weren’t being forthcoming with refunds or the revised schedule. The lack of details about when and where and if things would happen was excruciating.
On Saturday, women worked on their agendas. A young purple-haired stay-at-home-mom gifted me a clip for my lanyard that read, “Eat. Sleep. Plan. Repeat,” in glitter font. She made it herself using a multi-step process: computer programming, a foil press, and a silhouette machine. Other planner girls make their own stickers, graphic design their own planner pages, and sew their own agenda covers.
At first, I wished these extremely creative women would make art for art’s sake, instead of for self-improvement and home economics. But the more planners I looked at, the more I thought of the folk art collection at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 200 years, a be-stickered LifePlanner reminding a long-dead woman that she needs to take 10,000 steps a day to earn a “Starbucks Run,” belongs alongside a Reconstruction-era map quilt and an embroidered chair back showing a Pilgrim wedding ceremony. “The planners are a tangible representation of the Information Age woman, who documented increasing demands and expectations through ritualistic list-making,” a tour guide will say.
#PlannerAddicts are sometimes dragged for glamorizing America’s pitiful work-life balance, for believing that by thinking ahead, they can get ahead of a world that automatically puts them behind. Sure, “Stay sparkly and extra focused,” was a popular T-shirt slogan at PlannerCon. But the most popular tee said, “I am enough to be the change I wish to see.” Sometimes this was shortened on an enamel pin that simply said, “I am enough.” They’re sold by planfluencer Teresa Collins.
If you believe you are enough, why plan so much? Why not just be? On her website, Collins explains that her mission is to “encourage and propel women to use their innate power to find who and what makes them happy.”
Around the conference, our collective denial about the outside world was at least partially starting to wear off. Many of the day’s events had been condensed due to cancellations. I counted 240 people in attendance, not including organizers and staff, which seemed both disappointingly low and dangerously close to the governor's cap on events. I asked two PlannerCon volunteers to confirm the attendance. One told me 223, before the other cut her off and said 217.
Umeki’s second address was tearful and apologetic. She'd received word the previous night that more VIP vendors and speakers would be pulling out, that some workshop supplies would not arrive in time. Attendees and people who stayed home wanted refunds. The next day’s festivities would end four hours early, around 1 p.m.
A woman near me (tote bag: “Planner friends make the best friends”) shook her head. “It’s always something with PlannerCon.”
The final panel of the day was “The Men of PlannerCon.” One woman asked how she could get the men in her life to be planners. “Start listening to what men want,” one male panelist said. He admitted he did not use a planner personally. “Honestly, for guys, they don’t want to carry anything,” his co-panelist said. As I left, I overheard two pregnant women talking about how they desperately wished for boy babies.
Motivational quotes have been replaced with calls for gratitude; entire-week meal prep has been replaced with limited ingredient family dinners.
The last day of PlannerCon was canceled due to the coronavirus. More postponements and cancellations had come in overnight and, by the morning, all workshops had been scrapped, most vendors had decided to pack up, and many attendees checked out early.
Back in the apartment where I will spend untold weeks social distancing, I learned that the woman who flew across continents for PlannerCon got stranded in the US and is tracking her self-care in a B5 Archer & Olive planner, urging herself to light at least one candle a week and eat fruit. I watched as many of the larger planner company accounts transitioned from the Before Times: Motivational quotes have been replaced with calls for gratitude, entire-week meal prep has been replaced with limited ingredient family dinners, and personal goalkeeping has been replaced with deep-cleaning task lists.
According to Flavia Gabriel, a planner supplies designer I met at PlannerCon, isolation is a good time to channel your energy from planning for the future to documenting the present. “I've been seeing a lot of journaling and memory keeping, and people using their planners to record what they did during quarantine, what movies they watched, who they FaceTimed, that type of thing,” she wrote in an email. If your diary doesn’t end up in the Met, it’ll be a gold mine for historians trying to understand the COVID-19 pandemic: what we ate when stores were ransacked, what we taught our kids when schools were closed, how we coped when loved ones died.
As for the things we planned before our new reality set in — the vacations, the half-marathons, the career milestones — Gabriel encourages people to scratch things out, “if you’re not too OCD about it.” “I’ve switched from writing things in pen to writing things in pencil,” she wrote.
Photographer: Michael Bezman