panda planner

Mara Abbott and the Power of the Panda Planner

A few months ago, my friend told me about the difference her “Panda Planner” had made in her life.

I snickered. A Panda Planner? It sounds like some sort of Lisa Frank throwback for angsty adults.

She told me about how the Panda Planner would ask her each morning to focus on an affirmation for the day. I replied that any planner that asked me to spout regular rays of sunshine onto its pages was asking to be dismantled and recycled (my powers of destruction are limited by my yen for zero waste).

That was the end of the conversation. I waited a few days. I typed “Panda Planner” into the search bar on my computer.


I waited a few more days, and then I started the process of looking for coupon codes. I couldn’t do better than 10 percent off, but I was done for anyhow. It helped that Panda Planners are made with 100 percent recycled paper, and it also helped that I have a self-control problem when it comes to book recommendations.

Why Panda Planner?

So, why am I talking about a planner — albeit one that promises to make you happier, more satisfied with your life, and up your productivity by a factor of ten — in a blog focused on training, nutrition, and sports?

I think it can help you to be a better athlete. I chose those words carefully — the Panda Planner cannot make you stronger, faster, or fitter, but it can make you a better athlete. An athlete’s quality and potential are dictated by her mindset and resilience, not her bench press or peak power stats of the moment

I should note here that I am not getting any sort of kickback from Panda Planner to write this. In fact, it was me who gave them twenty bucks for the privilege of owning my own stupid little black book. I will also admit that I remain an extremely remiss planner user, cracking its spine on probably – probably – about half the days in a given week. Nonetheless, the more I use it, the more I like it, and the more I realize what a transformative tool it could be for those who chase excellence with their hearts and lungs out on the road.

How does it work?

Each day when you open your Panda Planner, you are faced with a series of blank boxes before you can even get to your daily schedule or to-do list. It prompts a list of three things you are grateful for, and three things you are excited about.

Every day.


Regularly practicing gratitude is associated with a whole host of positive things: an increased ability to meet goals, improved self-esteem, greater optimism, and even fewer aches and pains. A 2016 article in Outside Magazine that drew on multiple academic studies noted that many of the psychological and physical kickbacks of a regular gratitude practice could boost athletic performance.


And excitement? The VIA Institute on Character created a 24-trait assessment of personality strengths, and according their research one of rarest dominant traits was “zest”. Zest is seen in people who approach life with enthusiasm and energy, and VIA categorizes it as a “courage” trait — meaning it is a strength the helps us to overcome fear.

Even if you’re not a naturally zest-ful person, the act of writing out the things you are excited about on a daily basis is a powerful generator of motivation and inspiration — especially when you are chasing goals that are particularly daunting or long-range.

Free Cycling Training Assessment Quiz

Take our free 2-minute quiz to discover how effective your training is and get recommendations for how you can improve.

It can also help you to pick the right goals. I wrote a CTS post last winter about the importance of authentic goals. My Panda-recommending friend was most struck by the things that didn’t show up in her excitement lists. She realized that that she needed to re-evaluate the things she was striving for — ultimately, her career.

What will it do?

It’s your regular commitment to these reflections that allows them to have a big impact. By grounding yourself in the things you already have and are grateful for, and by motivating yourself with anticipation of things to come, you can increase your capacity to overcome setbacks and become more resilient.

From my own experience as an athlete, I can tell you that resilience is probably the most critical trait for an athlete who aspires to any sort of longevity, but you don’t have to take my word for it: This guy agrees, as do these folks, and them — and remember her? Resilience is as important as that looming interval workout — just don’t tell your coach I said so.

The power of positive thought

Next on the Panda Planner daily page is that mocked and lambasted (by me) affirmation box. According Sam Shweizky, head volleyball coach at Princeton University, a good affirmation is written in the present tense, and is simple, active, emotive, and productive.

In an article picked up by USA Volleyball, Shweisky offers some general sports-related affirmations, such as “I am confident in my ability”, or “I perform well under pressure,” but you can also narrow and specialize your affirmation to your sport, your life, or a particular challenge you are facing. Repeated affirmations are a form of positive self-talk that can help you increase your own confidence and believe in your ability to reach your goals.

Finally, the planner offers blanks for you to write in your focus, priorities, hourly schedule, and to-do list for the day. To the extent that you are a Time-Crunched Athlete trying to fit training into your daily life, this can be an important place help you schedule workouts — and give yourself credit for prioritizing them.

Time to reflect

The day-in-the-life of a Panda ends with a short daily review. The planner gives you three blanks to list your “wins” for the day, and one blank to focus on a way you can improve. It’s quite strategic — the dominant focus is forced onto your positive abilities and accomplishments, but you are still required to think critically — not about things you did wrong — but about how to make tomorrow even better.

Consider, as we head into the New Year and another season, the impact it could have on your capacity as an athlete if you spent just ten minutes each day honing your emotional resilience and capacity for self-reflection. Whether or not you are tempted to go full Panda, I would still strongly recommend picking at least one daily reflective ritual and committing to it for a few months. Your coach might love you for it — creating a consistent written record of your thoughts and emotions could eventually enable you to map trends in physical performance onto a record of your mental state.

Happy holidays — I will see you all in the New Year!

FREE Mini-Course: Learn How to Maximize Your Limited Training Time

Learn step-by-step how to overcome limited training time and get faster. Walk away with a personalized plan to increase your performance.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Comments 8

  1. Anything that can help keep us motivated seems worth a look. More equanimity, more peace of mind seems a worthy goal. I’m definitely going to check this out. Another resource for for anyone wanting to change a habit or behavior-or establish a new one is Jay Livingston’s book Simple Steps to Change: Your Business, Your Life … Jay is an athlete and was a premier executive coach. This book is a synthesis of best advice he offered his clients, an easy to digest combination of cutting edge research and Jay’s best thinking…” The second edition explains a seldom talked about idea Jay calls “not redeciding”, which athletes can use to greatly increase their effectiveness. The book is practical with easy to implement ideas, a book to reference frequently.

  2. I just ordered 5: one each for myself, wife and adult kids. I will give it to them for Christmas and ask that we all make it a resolution to use it in 2019. Thanks for the positive recommendation!

  3. All great stuff! If you want a quick way to reinforce positive messages and gratitude, I’d also recommend the 5 Minute Journal. It is available as a book and app. I started with the book, but find myself using the app more frequently. Allows for an AM move forward/get focused and PM reflective entry.

    1. I can’t promise anything, Diane, and I’m not qualified to answer that question with any certainty. I do know that the power of focusing on gratitude for mental health has been observed in many different places, so I would look into a daily gratitude practice for sure!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *