The decorative planner babes were the women (most planners I encountered were women, but there are also planner men) who decked out their planners with so many stickers that the lines on the pages disappeared, hidden by colorful boxes that could handle their short lists and reminders and also coordinated with the flowers, leaves, animals, fruit, or colorful shapes that matched the week’s theme. Functional planners favored layouts that featured more ink than stickers; they would time-block their days in hourly layouts, scheduling when they would work, eat meals, exercise, watch Netflix, meet friends. They would still add a few stickers, though, because “making it look pretty makes [you] want to look at it.”

I knew early on I wasn’t a decorative planner. I had tried bullet journaling in a dotted notebook at the beginning of the year but stopped in March when I lost my ongoing freelance work at the beginning of the pandemic and all of my plans dried up. I was bingeing Plan With Me videos during a period when my depression was really bad and I was taking a break from freelance work, so my sense of hourly or daily time had dimmed. Getting my brain in order required more than a blank dotted page; I needed functional layouts more than free space.

I watched videos explaining planning techniques, walking viewers through how planners make special pages, break down big projects into tinier tasks, plan actionable goals. You can also watch reviews of new releases, which come out nearly constantly—either small creators releasing sticker designs every month or the big companies coming out with collaborations with brands and seasonal releases, at which point the brands and their marketing squads put out flip-throughs, and enthusiasts rush to snap them up from the companies’ websites or Michael’s or Joann or Hobby Lobby before they sell out. Influencers do sponsored posts and offer affiliate codes and giveaways between more personal videos.

YouTube is great for explanations on specific layouts and techniques, but Instagram is the place to share pictures of weekly spreads and to converse with other planners. There are so many on Instagram, hundreds of pictures of spreads posted by power planners, walls of color and pen making up their feeds. And on Facebook, casual planners ask for advice on planning and life, small planner company founders and sticker shop owners ask for feedback, and everyone shows off their planner carts and pen collections and meetups and this is the cutest sticker ever and you go girl! and there’s also a convention and podcasts for all this—

“It’s a lot,” planner influencer Desiree Perez tells me after explaining how involved she is in the planning community, what I call Planner World. She decorates multiple spreads a week, runs popular Instagram and YouTube channels, promotes for Happy Planner, one of the largest planner brands, works a full time job as an administrative assistant, and presumably sleeps at some point. “It is a lot, but I really, really enjoy it so much.”

Desiree Perez (@happy.2.plan) was introduced to planners on a trip to a Michael’s craft store.

Photograph: Amanda Lopez

“I didn’t understand all the stickers and scrapbooking stuff, so I left that alone. Then I went on YouTube, and then I saw ‘Oh, planning is a whole different world.”

Photograph: Amanda Lopez

As I absorbed the details of planning culture, I kept expecting to suddenly want to turn away. In the past, when I’ve discovered subcultures that had whole languages and practices (think BTS Army or Big Brother fandom) I would ultimately write them off as not for me, that it would take too much to learn. Plus, I was (and remain) pretty skeptical about all those pretty spreads and inspirational “plan a better you” quotes. Surely it was a veneer? I wondered how much real talk could really exist in a world of constant self-improvement, especially one in which the primary outreach platform is everything-is-perfect Instagram. Mostly I was afraid that I would see a planner post about racism or depression or fatphobia, and someone would respond that they were being “too negative.” But I kept digging anyway.

And the planner world is huge. Over the past decade, planning has grown into a giant online community, with 5.5 million mentions for #planneraddict and 4 million mentions for #plannercommunity. Paper planners, which are commonly thought of as schoolyard tools sold in Target aisles, make up a multimillion-dollar industry. The most recent figure—and it’s safe to assume the numbers have only grown—has the planner industry showing $342.7 million in sales in 2016. Planning grows from a productivity tool to a hobby to a lifestyle for thousands of women every year. These women gain a sense of control in a chaotic world by planning as much of their lives as they can. Even in a year where no plan is safe from the pandemic, and no industry is safe from racial uprising, life doesn’t stop, and planners gonna plan.