Anna Ren

As an educational consultant, North Caldwell mother of two Anna Ren saw a third of her students develop mental health challenges due to the pandemic and the pressures of being a high school student. Having also faced anxiety as a teen and being a mom to a child with anxiety, Ren was inspired to create Journey 180 Planner, a tool to help teens manage their stress through organization and thoughtful reflection. Her undated planner, designed to be used anytime a teen is ready, aims to inspire teens to practice self-love, self-care and gratitude while encouraging them to explore their passion and focus on their personal growth. We asked her about her planners and what advice she has for teens, especially those with anxiety, during the hectic high school years.

NJF: What inspired you to create Journey 180 Planner?

Anna Ren: I was stunned and heartbroken as I witnessed over a third of my students develop mental health challenges during the pandemic, and hearing about how others struggled with anxiety and depression even before the pandemic inspired me to create a tool that helped them practice self-care and self-love in addition to productivity. I, myself, also struggled with anxiety and depression as a teen and wished that there was a tool like Journey 180 for me then. I didn’t originally set out to create planners, but when the idea came to me, I realized this could help teens, like the ones I work with, today.

NJF: Teens are busy, stressed and often overwhelmed by the lack of time they have to dedicate to school, sports and extracurricular activities, family and socializing. How does your planner help and what informed its development?

AR: Our planner was designed based on the needs and concerns of the hundreds of teens I’ve worked with over the decade I’ve worked as an educational consultant; and while many people think I help teens with the college application process, and I do, a lot of what I do is life coaching. That includes breaking down tasks that seem impossibly large, to bite-sized actionable pieces, or replacing negative self-talk associated with the “destructive perfectionism” with realistic self-love and acceptance. My interactions with teens and the trusting bond I’ve developed with so many of them helped shape the unique elements of our Journey 180 planners. 

Journey180’s daily planning section helps teens visualize and break up their time to reduce anxiety and increase productivity–it’s rooted in the Pomodoro method of focusing in chunks of time. It also includes daily gratitude and affirmations to root them in positivity.

Our journaling section at the beginning uses fun exercises, like Bucket List Bingo, Memories I Want to Make, and People I want to Connect With to help them get excited about planning for their future. Then there are the academic components like the Test Game Plan and Paper Game Plan that allow them to drop in their deadlines and work backwards to thoughtfully plan out their time into smaller pieces that make it less overwhelming.

planner NJF: As an educational consultant, you witnessed many of your students struggle with anxiety and mental health challenges. The idea of planning and being organized can seem overwhelming when you’re struggling with the weight of these challenges. How does a planner like yours help?

AR: As a mom to a child with anxiety and an educator, I understand the value of structure which is why we try to help students by being specific with the prompts and exercises in the planner. That includes only adding three priorities of the day that are realistically attainable. Lastly, the act of writing things down in general helps with anxiety, because it’s getting it out of their minds and onto paper, where they are able to visualize what’s on their plate. Being able to see it makes that much easier to organize a plan for how to tackle it. 

Taking time to pause and reflect can also help them gain clarity on what they really want to/need to focus on. One of the prompts asks students to specifically consider what they need to place on hold and that helps them pause and realize that not everything needs to be done and to give themselves permission to come back to something later.

Our planner is purposely undated, because I know how frustrating it can be to see a blank page and feel like we’re “failing” at life. We want teens to know they can start, pause and resume at any time.

NJF: How is the adult planner different from the academic planner?

AR: We are so excited about the Adult Lifestyle Self-Care Planner that launched earlier this year as we recognized adults also need many of the same elements like self-care and self-love. The main difference is we’ve replaced the academic sections such as paper and test planning and grade tracking with more journaling sections. The weekly challenges are also designed more for adults vs. teens. So for example, instead of an academic challenge of speaking up more in class, it may be offering to mentor someone in their work or community. 

NJF: Beyond organization, what are the other goals of these planners?

AR: The goals of the planner are to help users practice self-love, self-care and self-growth through thoughtful planning, action and reflection. In addition to weekly affirmations and gratitude, it also includes a habit tracker to encourage them to take consistent daily action on goals that are important to them. 

NJF: What advice do you have for those of us who buy planners and get overwhelmed and stop using them? 

AR: We’re only human. I think people typically see planners as a tool for organization and productivity. However, in the planner community, we approach it with a mindset of making it fun and recognizing that this can be a keepsake of what we did in our lives. Therefore, I would recommend an undated planner so that they feel comfortable taking breaks. More importantly, I would recommend getting accessories like colored pens, stickers, highlighters etc that make it an activity you look forward to. Make it into a habit – it could be as simple as taking 20 minutes to drink your favorite beverage, light a candle and focus on yourself. Giving yourself time just to pause and reflect on what you want and what you’ve accomplished is an amazing gift for yourself.

NJF: You include a free college admissions planning course with every purchase. What does this entail?

There is a lot of great free content on how to approach the pieces of the college application process, but not as much on how to actually stand out and get accepted in the competitive admissions landscape these days. Our course is centered around how to thoughtfully leverage a student’s authenticity in their activities, essays and recommendations to create an admissions profile that helps them come across as likable, relatable and memorable. It offers the templates and strategies that I use to help my students get noticed and accepted to their colleges. Basically, how to help a student get into college by highlighting the best parts of themselves instead of trying to impress admissions by being someone they’re not.

NJF: What is your #1 piece of advice to parents of teens during their high school years?

AR: Remember what it was like to be a teen yourself and recognize that teens these days face new challenges, such as school shootings, social media, internet bullying and college applications that want them to do more than just get good grades and scores, so it’s important to extend grace and support. Your teens need you more than ever – they may not always know it and sometimes it requires loving your teen from a distance, but just like they were when they were a toddler – remind them that your love is unconditional and that you are always there for them.

Ren with her family. Courtesy of Anna Ren

NJF: What do you love most about living in NJ and your hometown?

AR: I love how diverse NJ is. I feel like my kids are able to learn so much through the diverse people, cultures and cuisines we’re able to introduce our kids to. I’m from North Caldwell and being part of a small, close-knit community that puts our kids first has been such a blessing.

NJF: What do you like to do with your kids in NJ?

AR: I love taking my kids to the local farms and Turtleback Zoo when the weather is nice. I also love taking them to explore new cuisines. Living so close to Montclair has been great in terms of having them try everything from Thai to Ethiopian food. And of course, they love the Jersey Shore and the boardwalks!

NJF: What advice do you have for a mom looking to branch out into her own business?

AR: I would tell them to just do it! It’s offered so much flexibility in terms of being able to set my own hours and be present for my kids. We all have our own gifts – it can be as simple as knowing how to get a stain out of anything and everything – so just lean into it. Consider what value you can bring to others and figure out how you can get paid for it and there you go! You’ve got an idea for a business. Lastly, don’t be afraid to reach out to fellow moms and entrepreneurs, most of us are so happy and willing to help in any way we can. 

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