Passion Planner Tips: How I Use My Planner as a Social Worker and Therapist
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit my state, like many of my friends and colleagues, I found myself working from home for the first time. The closest thing I could compare it to was when I was in graduate school, squirreled away in a study carroll at the library for hours on end, managing my own time and productivity with little reinforcement. Except now, instead of research papers and case studies, I had a growing caseload of therapy clients and an inbox chock-full of overdue messages from other providers. Not to mention a spouse, a dog, a mortgage, and the crushing debt that comes with a master’s degree.
Left to my own devices at home was challenging to say the least. While some of my friends felt like those first few weeks at home were characterized by scrambling to learn the “new normal,” I felt like my job never stopped--it just changed forms. In a typical pre-pandemic day, I would get to work early, see 3-4 patients between their doctor’s visits for brief check-ins, helping with community resources or behavior modification. I’d spend an hour charting and answering phone calls and emails, then after lunch, bounce between 50-minute therapy appointments and meetings until the end of the day. That’s where Passion Planner comes in.
A Change of Planners
At this point in my life, I was using the Passion Planner Weekly, the same planner I’d relied on for almost five years. I’ve always thought it was a good therapist planner, with plenty of room to write in appointments and reminders. The functions I liked most were being able to see my week at a glance, as well as to track habits on a 7-day basis. Something that was stressed to my cohort in our training was that as social workers, we can’t pour from an empty cup. Setting goals and reminders for the whole week, such as “read before bed four times” or “drink 72 ounces of water every day this week” were ways that my Type-A brain could assess my own needs and actually prioritize self-care. (Sorry if I’m shattering anyone’s illusions here, but therapists? We are not always great at that stuff, either. It’s only human.)
By April this year, a few weeks into working from home, this was no longer working. My strictly regimented routine had become murky and uncertain. Half the time, I couldn’t get our telehealth software to load, and would end up calling my clients on the phone for our sessions. The other half, I stared at a pixelated screen so long I felt like my eyes were burning, trying to assess my clients’ eye contact, motor activity, and read their dang lips when the audio would cut out. The entire landscape of my job looked different in light of COVID-19: how would my clients access community resources like food banks when our state forbade gatherings of more than ten people? How do people quarantined with the virus get their medications, groceries, even thermometers and face masks? Every minute I was not actively working with a client, I spent compiling a list of resources and distributing it as widely as I could in my office.
As you may have guessed, this was not sustainable. Pretty quickly, I started to feel the insidious creep of burnout leaching into my workdays, and then eventually my off-hours. I was staring at a computer screen for nine hours a day, and when I was eating lunch, I stared at my phone screen. It was early spring, the pandemic was still new, and I was exhausted. I left the house for essential errands every two weeks, and felt the weight of anxiety pushing on my chest from the time I woke up.
I decided to switch to the Passion Planner Daily after a conversation with my own therapist, who reminded me to take it “one day at a time.” (This might burst another bubble, but most therapists see therapists, too! Again, we’re only human.) I realized that while working towards my long-term goals might have been appropriate pre-pandemic, right now, my long-term goal was just to get back on track. While I had always enjoyed learning from others’ Passion Planner tips and tricks, I realized that ultimately, my planner had to work for me.
Find Your Ingredients for a Good Day
I reflected for a while on what I think are the ingredients in a good day, and came up with movement, creativity, and connection. These became my guiding principles as I started to plan with the daily, asking myself, how can I move my body in a way that feels good today? How can I use my creativity? Where can I find connection with my community, with the people I love?
Slowly but surely, things started to feel a little easier. I started to look forward to lunch time dog walks around the block, even if we only went for a few minutes. Twice a day, my partner and I would set alarms to tell us to meet in our kitchen to stand around and drink a cup of water together, which we cheesily termed “water cooler time.” This forced us to take a break from our screens and talk to each other, without griping about co-workers or deadlines. After work, I’d sit on the porch and work on my knitting projects or writing cards to friends. I have always loved cooking and baking, and I decided to flex all these muscles at once by making food for my friends, then walking over to drop them off on their door steps. Movement, creativity, connection, and homemade banana bread… the ingredients to a great afternoon.
Creating “Good Enough” Goals
The second breakthrough I had with the Daily came when I went a little off-script. I was listening to a podcast, and one of the hosts started talking about how most of us are estimated to be operating at 40-60 percent of our usual productivity right now. “Your expectations for yourself have got to be so, so low right now,” she said, laughing. “If they’re not low, low, low, I’m coming over and I’m going to lower them for ya!”
This clicked with me almost instantly. Even with taking it one day at a time, and breaking my day down to a few key elements, my expectations were still sky-high. If I was late sending a birthday card, or didn’t get through all the emails I wanted to by five o’clock, I was just rolling them over to the next day with a heaping side dish of guilt and shame. To really prioritize my own self-care, so that I could pour from a cup at least half-full, I had to give myself grace to be imperfect… which is exactly what I had been telling my clients in therapy when they confessed being late on an assignment for an online class, or feeding their kiddos frozen corn dogs for the third night in a row. My expectations of myself had to be low so that I could remember that I am worthy of love, respect, and rest even if my productivity isn’t top-tier. That pressure comes from capitalism, an economic system that tells us we are worth what we can produce, but in turn, for a lot of these messages, the call was coming inside the house. I am the one who puts the most pressure on me.
So I changed the format of my Daily to include two new categories: instead of “personal” and “work” to-do lists, I changed these sections to read “Good Enough Goals” and a “Want to Do” list. Since I was already acutely aware of all of the things I had to do, I took a gentler approach to my goals and wants. “Good enough” goals to me meant the difference between saying “I’m going to bike five miles every day” and “I want to move my body after work five times this week.” A “want to do” list was less about folding laundry and paying bills, and more things like reading during my lunch break, or taking a long, relaxing shower before bed.
Tips for Therapists
I started to adjust my routine at work, too. I built in at least 10-15 minutes between therapy sessions and meetings, the same way I encourage my clients to be mindful of their transition time between therapy and the rest of their lives. Instead of immediately documenting the visit, as I was always taught to do, I started jotting down a few notes during the session, and after it had ended, taking a walk to stretch my legs and refill my water. The act of physically writing in a break in my Passion Planner reminded me that I should be taking one.
Another change I made was blocking time in my schedule for different tasks. First, I would schedule appointments with clients that worked with their availability, and around that, I would dedicate blocks of time to things like outreach calls, answering emails, and research or administrative tasks. There are certain parts of my job that tend to pile up if I am not on top of them (ahem, progress notes…), and I found that by dedicating a block of time on Wednesday afternoons to completing them, I felt much less stressed. Instead, I would put on a good playlist, refer back to my notes, and power through them one at a time.
Taking Good Care
After a few days, something wild happened: when I was easier on myself, I actually found that my follow-through improved. This blew my mind. After years of being indoctrinated with hustle culture and motivating myself by being my own bully, I was not only checking things off my lists, but also enjoying them? Unheard of.
It might seem outrageous, but in this challenging time, I started to take my own advice, and learned that it’s pretty dang good stuff. By starting to keep a mental health planner, I was reminded of two important lessons: one, you can’t pour from an empty cup, and two, you shouldn’t have to. As a social worker, a wife, a daughter, a friend, it’s important for me to find joy and ease in the everyday. We can mitigate the effects of this pandemic not only by masking up, washing our hands, and social distancing, but also by easing up on ourselves. You are doing the best that you can with what you have.
What are your ingredients for a good day? Let us know in the comments!
Madeline Hodgman is a clinical social worker living in the Midwest with her husband and pets. In her free time, you can find her doing yoga, baking, reading, or exploring the national parks.