One of my biggest goals last year was to increase my regular creative output. I knew that I was capable of getting more done and I went on a mission to figure out how. Along the way I discovered that my organizational system played a huge role in keeping me on track. Finding something that works has made a world of difference in my mood, my levels of anxiety, and how much I can get done each week.
I don’t know about you, but I tend to obsess about this stuff, stressing over every detail until a system works smoothly. I’m learning to let go of perfection and trust the process and am being rewarded with new ideas and increased productivity. Some of you might find this post incredibly boring, but if you’re like me and you like peering into other people’s routines and systems, then I think you’ll love it.
I’m still refining it, but here are some of the methods I use to get and keep the creativity ball rolling:
Digital vs. Paper
I have tried so many times to use software and web-based programs to get organized and have failed each time. There are some amazing systems out there but for whatever reason I can’t get any of them to work for me. Since I accepted that and started developing an entirely paper-based system I’ve been much happier and my work has started flowing much better. The only thing I have on the computer is a Google Doc list of everything I want to accomplish this year, which I check weekly to make sure I’m on track.
TIP: If something isn’t working, stop trying to force it to work. Use what is most natural and comfortable for you.
The Right Tools for the Job
I used to use one notebook to keep track of everything and found that, while the simplicity was nice, it made it hard to keep track of ideas and information. A lot of stuff was getting lost. So I went through and was able to divide what I found in each book into four categories: learning, to-do, ideas, and self-care.
After trying many different brands I have fallen deeply in love with the beautiful Japanese Apica books that I found at a local stationary store. The lines are spaced just the right distance and the paper is the perfect texture. They’re quite slim so carrying around 4 of them is about the same as 1 larger notebook, and they come in different sizes. I got the bigger ones for subjects that would require lots of writing and the smaller ones for lists so they could fit in my purse.
Ideas: for keeping track of different ideas in all areas of my life – my artwork, my website, workshops and programs, my home, writing, etc. This has been so helpful because I can go through it regularly and find items to put on the to do lists.
To do: where I create weekly, monthly, and long-term todo lists and the occasional shopping list.
Learning: for taking notes during talks (in person and online), and during courses or classes. Also often includes a lot of action items that make their way onto the to do lists.
Self-Care: for working through limiting beliefs, negative thoughts, and keeping track of what I’m learning and what techniques work best.
I carry all of these around in a zip-up pouch from the dollar store, along with a pencil case full of ballpoint, gel, and brush pens, and some sharpies and highlighters. If I don’t need the whole pouch I’ll just bring the To Do notebook, since it fits in all my purses.
I use a separate notebook at home (a free one that I got from Make Something Edmonton) to write up daily lists or for note-taking on the go.
TIP: These notebooks are such a joy to use that I find planning has become so much more fun. Find tools that you love and that you look forward to using to make it easier.
How to Make To Do Lists Work for You
To do lists are my bread and butter. They give me direction and keep me going. Instead of feeling enslaved by my lists, I feel liberated. I don’t have to think about what to do next on any given day and waste precious energy making decisions. I just do the next thing on the list. Of course, I’ve learned that just writing endless lists and slogging through them is a good way to feel overwhelmed and burned out.
Here’s how I make the most of my lists:
The most basic unit of my system is the weekly to do list. It goes Monday-Sunday, and because I’m at the office 3 days a week (at a day job that affords me plenty of free time to work on my own projects) and at home the rest of the week, I divide the page into Office and Home.
My office list is often a little overwhelming since there is so much that I want to do in terms of writing and planning, but I recently discovered a way to make it more manageable. I write a number from 1-4 beside each task on the list. Number 1’s get done on Monday, 2’s on Tuesday, 3’s on Wednesday, and 4’s whenever I have time or feel like taking a break from the harder stuff. This means that when I get to the office in the morning instead of having a whole page of tasks to look at, I only look at the number 1’s and find it easier to get to work. This system also keeps me from putting off tasks because I can see that if I don’t finish a number 1 today, I’ll have to add it to the list of number 2’s tomorrow. So far this has increased my productivity, and the ease with which I go through the day enormously.
Thursdays and Friday are my working at home days so I structure them a bit differently. I take items from the Home list and try to divide them up evenly between the two days, including things like ‘meditate’, ‘yoga’, ‘dishes’ etc. as needed. Then I number each days’ tasks, with number 1 being the most important thing I want to get done that day. Since November, working in the Draw Paint Print book has been number 1 almost every day. If I stick to this list and don’t veer away too much, I find I can usually get everything done – as long as I don’t put down more than 10 items.
TIP: The key here is to put most important tasks (these are often the hardest and the ones we least want to do) at the top of the list, and have a descending order of priority after that. Exercise is often 3rd or 4th on my days at home, since that is a major priority for me. It might take some time, but decide what your main priorities are and structure your lists around those tasks.
Less is More
A big part of keeping this system running smoothly is knowing when to stop adding items to the list, which took a fair bit of trial and error. If I have too many items I can’t get to them all and I feel stuck and overwhelmed with a bunch of unchecked items at the end of the day or the week. When I keep it manageable, I feel confident and empowered because I can finish everything on the list. If items come up and the list is already full, they have to go on next week’s list, no questions.
All this might sound like it takes a lot of work, but trust me, it doesn’t. I spend a little bit of time each week reviewing my monthly and yearly goals and seeing what tasks I can put on the list to get closer to accomplishing them. I also add items to the weekly list if there’s room, or to a monthly list if they’ll take more time. Overall I probably put less than an hour into organization each week – any more than that and I’m obsessing rather than producing – and the results I get are so worth the effort.
TIP: Don’t go overboard adding items to your lists, and don’t spend hours on this every day. Learn what your limits are and work within them.
What about you? Was this post a giant snooze-fest? Or are you buzzing with excitement about revamping your organizational systems? What methods work best for you?