With the number of apps and digital solutions that promise to improve productivity, you’d be forgiven for wondering why an analogue journal or planner is still an essential buy for a lot of people at the start of a new year.

Yet research has shown that the act of writing notes by hand helps memory recall and retention, largely because we use different parts of our brains to paraphrase and record the event or note, compared with tapping on a keyboard or iPhone. 

Daniel Levitin, a psychologist and neuroscience professor at McGill University in Montreal says the appeal often lies in getting tasks out of your head. “There is no one gold standard when it comes to organisation, but there are some common principles of effective systems and externalising is high on the list. Somehow get what’s in your head out there into the world – by writing it in a journal, putting it on index cards, or sticky labels.

“The conscious mind can attend to about three things at once,” he adds. “Try to juggle any more than that and you’re going to lose some brain power. If you’re at work and thinking ‘we’re out of milk’, ‘pick up the dry cleaning’ and ‘this bill is due today’ … You’ve already reached your maximum and you’re not even doing your work. Also the flexibility of a blank notebook can help get your juices flowing more than you would tapping everything out on a screen ... It encourages you to expand your visual field and expand your imagination.” 

In an era where we’re all looking to make better use of our time and optimise productivity, which journal is best? Our testers spent many hours putting 10 through their paces.

You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps to fund journalism across The Independent.

2019 Weekly Planner: £28, Ponderlily

Our researchers loved the feel of this planner, even before discussing the eco-friendly benefits such as the hardback cloth cover, soy-based ink and recyclable paper. The layout makes a lot of sense, with room to reflect each week and month on goals and habits, intentions and reasons to celebrate, plus an hour-by-hour breakdown of each day from 5am to 10pm.

Founder Carina Lawson says she designed the planner after finding herself in a never-ending cycle of being busy, successful and exhausted, and wanted to encourage others to set “to-be lists” rather than “to-do lists”, promoting taking time for self care. Our testers described it as a real pleasure to use. 

Buy now

A5 TABi Notebook: £19.90 (inc VAT), TABi

Incessant note takers and list makers will know that often the hardest part is finding them again. Not so with the TABi notebook, which has been described as a “search engine for paper”.

Users are able to write an index tab for every page or section, which makes it easy to find those important scribbled thoughts again. In testing, our reviewers really liked the soft touch cover, ring binding and size of the A5 notebook (it’s also available in A4 for £23.88), which was light and durable enough to carry around.

A couple of the tabs looked a bit curled up after a few uses, although the paper is good quality and there was no bleed through with ink or highlighters. If you’re looking for a planner for projects at work, for example, this would prove a real asset. 

Buy now

2019 Daily Planner – Flock: £46, Hello Day 

It’s one of the more expensive products we tried but our reviewers could tell a lot of thought has gone into the Hello Day Planner. The cover design is worthy of any Instagram aficionado, and with 450 pages it’s hefty enough to cover your whole year (though too heavy to move between home and office). We particularly liked the “Monday pep talk” – inspirational quotes that are included on each Monday page – and the monthly budget pages.

There’s also lots of space, with each day getting its own dedicated page (apart from weekends, which have half a page each) and space to track 10-minute accomplishments (those little tasks we all put off), which were satisfying to get through. The planner comes in a smart presentation box and feels like it would be a welcome Christmas present for a stylish sister or best friend.   

Buy now

2019 Family Diary: £12.99, Busy B

We know it’s often the maternal figure in a household who ends up tracking everyone’s schedules, lest football practice is missed, or a play date is forgotten about. The Busy B Family Diary is a great solution to the difficulty of keeping so many balls in the air. It’s light enough to carry around in a handbag, and there’s room for up to five schedules across a weekly view (split into ‘my week’ and ‘their week’).

There’s also space at the front for useful contacts and personal details, such as passport numbers and expiry dates, shoe and clothing sizes, plus any pertinent health information. Product designer Kerri Middleton designed the planner after becoming a mum and it shows. 

Buy now

Goodbye 2018, Hello 2019: £14.99, Project Love

The focus of the Project Love journal is less on scheduling for the next year, and more on evaluating what sort of life you want to create for yourself. There’s no weekly, monthly or yearly breakdown.

Instead, there are lots of pertinent questions, exercises and quotes to inspire action and change – such as “what were your happiest moments in 2018?” “how do you want to see yourself grow this year?” and “what dreams do you have for your life?”. Our testers said some of the questions were difficult to answer, but using it did feel like having a life coach in your pocket.  

Buy now

The Bullet Journal Notebook: £19.95, Leuchtturm 1918

The Bullet Journal method (or BuJo) has become something of a cult productivity system, inspiring millions of avid followers since it launched in the US in 2013. It uses an indexing system – a bit like the TABi notebook – which makes it easy to find notes again, and a specified set of bullets to track tasks, events and ideas.

Our reviewers said the rules took a little getting used to but once it clicks, it makes a lot of sense. You can start your bullet journaling experience in any notebook at all but this official option has been designed in collaboration with Leuchtturm 1918, has a hard-back cover, and a helpful guide for getting started.

Buy now

Vinyl Cover Monthly Weekly Diary B6: £7.95, Muji

It’s simple, light and durable enough to carry around, the Muji monthly weekly diary was a real favourite among some of our reviewers. There’s a yearly, monthly and weekly view (the latter of which has a grid pattern on the opposite page for additional notes).

It runs from December 2018 to the start of February 2020, which is great for those events that get scheduled way before you’ve even thought about buying a new diary. One small criticism was it uses numbers for the month, rather than the name (i.e. 5, rather than May), which took some getting used to, but there is a ribbon for finding your place and the stitch binding means the book lies flat when open. Great value. 

Buy now

Goals Journal – Inspiration: £21, Kikki K

If you’re torn between a more traditional scheduling tool and a planner that’s going to inspire you to set goals and stick to them, this journal from Kikki K is just that. With lots of advice on setting targets that are Smart (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely), and prompts to consider your core values, as well as how you measure success in life, our reviewers really liked the simple structure and felt the amount of detail and commitment involved was just right. 

The monthly planner doesn’t have dates marked on it, but this does mean you could pick it up at any time of the year and carry it through for 12 months, rather than being tied to the January-December format. 

Buy now

The MindJournal: £34.99, MindJournal 

Journaling may seem more popular among women (and indeed there are a large number of products on the market aimed at this demographic), but the MindJournal has been designed for the modern man in mind. Co-founder Ollie Aplin designed the book after journalising was prescribed to him by a therapist after he struggled to deal with the death of his mum.

Our testers loved the feel of the crushproof cover and found the structure of the book very smart – it’s split into three parts (warm up, hurdles and strengths) to get journalers used to introspection, plus there’s 30 daily check ins (undated so you can write an update as and when you want), and a lot of room for notes and free thought.

Buy now

2019 Smart Planner Pro and Pen+ Ellipse: £211.99 (£32.99 for the planner, plus £179 for pen), Moleskine 

It’s by far the most expensive planner our testers tried but the Moleskine smart system spans analogue and digital, making it perfect for those users who just can’t say no to their iCalendars yet (but don’t want to make a note of everything twice). Use the Pen+ to write notes, draw doodles or plan appointments across the planner’s weekly view and, in coordination with a free app, it automatically updates your digital devices with the same information.

Our less technologically minded reviewers said they found the initial set up a little challenging, but once it was done, it was seamless to use. Just don’t lose the pen – your usual biro won’t do. 

Buy now (planner)

Buy now (with pen)

The Verdict: Best bullet journals and planners

Overall, our testers declared the Ponderlily journal IndyBest’s best buy for its eco-friendly credentials and smart layout. 

Second place is the Kikki K goals notebook for blurring the line between scheduling and prompts to make 2019 the best year yet

The Muji B6 notebook is also highly recommended for those looking for a light, durable option that doesn’t require a big investment but will see users through the whole year.     

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IndyBest product reviews are unbiased, independent advice you can trust. On some occasions, we earn revenue if you click the links and buy the products, but we never allow this to bias our coverage. The reviews are compiled through a mix of expert opinion and real-world testing.