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“Hope” is the thing with feathers —

That perches in the soul

— Emily Dickinson

You are entirely up to you.

— The Erin Condren LifePlanner

The thing with feathers arrives on a dreary Thursday afternoon in mid-January, right around the time that most humans begin quietly abandoning their New Year’s resolutions.

But not you. You are opening the pink-and-white box, unfastening the colorful sticker that binds the package within, and there it is: The Erin Condren LifePlanner, its cover embellished with azure peacock plumes and, in delicate, looping script, your name.

Oh, hello, the planner says, its voice the whisper of Caribbean-blue tissue paper parting to reveal the promise within. This is going to be your year.

This is not the flimsy at-a-glance planner your office hands out in December. It’s not one of those basic desktop calendars you impulse-grab near the checkout line at Staples. You don’t just fill out this planner. In the parlance of planner nerds, you move into it — because this planner is not merely a thing, but a state of being.

Your new planner is but one among a vast and flourishing spectrum of elaborate, personalized, customizable planners flooding the marketplace, each with a deluxe price tag (typically $20 to $70) and promises of dreams realized, goals “crushed” (in the good way), a better life, a better you.

The Erin Condren LifePlanner (Erin Condren)
The Erin Condren LifePlanner (Erin Condren)

It speaks to you in an aspirational language that only someone with dreams as big as yours can understand. Says the turquoise notecard packaged atop your new planner: What you seek is seeking you.

If you are a person who does your seeking on the Internet — and especially if you’ve ever given the Internet any reason to think that you might be stressed-out, or a millennial, or a woman, or a stressed-out millennial woman juggling work and a family — these planners are going to find you. They will most likely appear in your Facebook timeline or your Instagram feed, asking you, “Are you ready for the most organized year of your life?” Yes. Yes, please. Then they lure you into a world where serene women plan their days in plush armchairs with a mug of tea in hand, where every window is filled with sunlight and every pristine desk is topped with a spray of colorful pens and a potted succulent. Here, everything is calm. Here, there is no overwhelm. (Here, among the planneratti, the word “overwhelm” is a noun.)

Consider the Full Focus Planner, which pledges to help you “accomplish your biggest priorities without overwhelm.” The Weekly Action Pad promises that you will “feel on top of your to-do list, and avoid overwhelm.” The Emily Ley Simplified Planner “stands on the idea that there is more to life than overwhelm.”

Or maybe you want something more existential. The Morning Sidekick Journal wants to help you “understand your why.” The Evo Planner promises to help you understand the inner workings of your own brain, so you can use that knowledge “to get the life you deserve.” The 90x Goal Planner wants you to “get closer to the you that you want to be.” The Passion Planner, which includes a gratitude log, wants you to “reflect on the past, but more importantly, act on the present.”

These aren’t organizers or calendars so much as spiral-bound life coaches, and they demand your attention and investment. You’ll get out of them only what you put into them.

But first, you’ll have to answer some questions.

Do you want a leather cover or vintage floral? A vertical weekly layout or horizontal? What is the theme of your year? What are your goals for each month? For each week? Which complimentary sticker pack should you choose? Do you need an academic calendar, an 18-month calendar, a calendar that breaks your day down into hours, or 30-minute intervals, or 15-minute intervals? Why — really, why — do you feel you need a planner in the first place?

Deep breaths. One must avoid overwhelm.

“What is the magic? Well, she gets to design it herself. She gets to choose her background color. She can add a photo. She feels like she is part of the process,” says Erin Condren, doyenne of decorganizing, founder and creator of her eponymous lifestyle brand. “Then it arrives, and it’s hers to run with. That’s the magic.”

Culturally, generationally, personally, many of us are having a moment where we want very much to believe in this kind of magic.

We are desperate to cleanse, focus, declutter, reclaim. We binge-watch Marie Kondo on Netflix in the hope that we might finally tidy our homes. We order a $60 planner in the hope that we might finally tidy our brains.

Those fervent urges pushed sales of planner books and organizers to $386 million last year, according to NPD Group, a market research firm. Sales of planner accessories — the satin bookmarks, the covers and inserts, the packs of shimmering productivity stickers — surged to $3.9 million in 2018, an increase of 105 percent over the previous year, according to NPD.

People want more than a generic appointment book, says Tia Frapolli, president of the NPD Group’s office supplies division:

“Consumers are using these products as life planners.”

Those consumers are mostly millennial women. Adults between 22 and 40 make up 65 percent of Erin Condren’s clientele, which is also 98 percent female. Other planner companies — particularly those that cater specifically to entrepreneurs or career goal-setters — are more evenly split between the sexes, but the generational target is largely consistent.

“People initially thought, ‘Oh, this is for a late-40s gal who never understood digital.’ That was the myth, but that’s not true at all. Our core is young people,” Condren says. “I think for them to have everything all in one space and feel like you have more control over it, when you cross something off your list or celebrate with a sticker, there’s that feeling of accomplishment that is not that easy to feel these days.”

The planners find you online, but after their unboxing, they want you to log off and find a quiet place to put pen to paper — which is, perhaps counterintuitively, why they might appeal so strongly to millennials. They were the kids who grew up with regimented schedules and constant positive reinforcement, affirmational stickers on tests and term papers.

“Maybe because of how we were raised, with ‘you can do anything,’ we feel this intense pressure to do everything,” says Kate Frachon, 31, a content manager for the planner and office supply company Ink+Volt.

The Ink+Volt planner (Shelby Louise Photography/Ink+Volt)
The Ink+Volt planner (Shelby Louise Photography/Ink+Volt)

But now millennials are grown, sandwiched between their own kids and aging boomer parents. Millennials are the generation of crushing student loan debt, of melting polar ice caps, of oppressive work cultures and stagnant salaries. As individuals, they can’t control the economy or the climate or what the president is tweeting today, but they can control where to put this sticker that says “good things come to those who hustle” embossed in gold.

Even Frachon felt the planner’s call, right around the time her son recently turned 10 months old.

“I had this completely overwhelming desire to get, like, three planners,” she says. “I was following Erin Condren and Plum Paper and all of them on social media, and I was like, what is going on? I work at a planner company. I don’t need new planners.”

So she did what any self-actualizing millennial would do. She talked to her therapist about it.

“Eventually I realized — oh, yeah, I’ve had a newborn, for a whole year my life has been completely out of control. Plus the whole world feels totally out of control. So once my baby got a little older and I was like, ‘Okay, I can do stuff now,’ my brain went into overdrive and was like, ‘Okay, if I have these planners I could lock it all in and be completely in control,’ ” she says, laughing.

“Yeah. That’s why people buy planners.”

Even unused, a beautiful planner is a talisman, a blank slate with an aura of intention and authority. Its presence alone is a comfort.

Unless that comforting presence starts to feel more like a scolding one (your monthly goal sheet is looking conspicuously empty), or a threatening one (what happens if you don’t “live what you love”?), or one that sends you into a full-blown panic spiral (“If I have so little time that I need a planner, how much time can I really put into using the planner?” wonders Kamala Kanneganti, a busy 23-year-old med school applicant in Detroit).

Eric Kanner, a 31-year-old digital strategist in the District, bought a Self Journal a couple of years ago. He had just gotten engaged and started seeing a personal trainer, and the trainer told Kanner that he just had to get the journal. So he did. Then he never opened it.

“I think millennials have a hyper-awareness about all the possibilities for how they spend and structure their time, and there’s all this pressure about whether you’re living your life to the fullest,” he says.

He doesn’t feel that anymore himself, though, he says. “I think with time, and after getting married, I’m more comfortable with, ‘hey, I’m going to be who I am.’”

But there’s no shortage of people who say they are who they are because of their planners.

Social media is flooded with active planner communities, posting hashtagged tips, gushing testimonials and proud photos of their just-so stickered pages. Condren and Frachon say their companies regularly hear from people who say they used their planners to get new jobs, to get through grad school, to get through cancer treatment or to get to a marathon finish line.

(Shelby Louise Photography/Ink+Volt)
(Shelby Louise Photography/Ink+Volt)

They hear from people like Jamie Howard, 27, who bought her first Passion Planner two years ago, when she felt stuck in a dead-end nanny job and dreamed of becoming an actor and fitness coach.

“The planner made everything digestible, where it didn’t feel like I was staring at this nebulous plan of ‘not be a nanny anymore,’” Howard says. “By the end of the year I had become a fitness trainer, bought a new car, booked my first lead in a national TV episode and had completely revamped what my whole life looked like. ... So, yeah. I feel pretty strongly about my planner.”

Kanneganti has always felt strongly about her planners, too, at least at first. “It’s always that feeling of ‘new year, new me!’ ” she says. “This is the year I’m going to be organized, I’m going to wake up early, drink tea, and I’ll never be like, ‘Oh, my God, I totally forgot,’ or ‘I’m totally behind,’ because now I have a planner!”

But her personal history suggests otherwise. That’s partly why she chose a $15 Orange Circle Studio planner for 2019 instead of a pricier option — because she knows the hopeful euphoria of January recedes and the excitement of the planner dims as the months tick by and reality continues to be reality.

A few weeks into 2019, in Pinterest-perfect Erin Condren HQ, the next generation of planners — complete with a new annual theme and cover art options — have already been designed. They will be kept a closely guarded secret until their official release in May. Then they’ll begin to ship out in colorful boxes, a steady stream through the summer months, rising to a flood as the days grow shorter and the holiday season approaches once more.

Because 2020 will be here before you know it. It’s going to be your year.

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