Sunday, January 06, 2013

Organizational Tips from the Chronically Disorganized

It showed up in the correct orientation on my computer, sorry about this.
Some of my most commonly used organization tools- Post-It notes, numbered to-do lists, and calendars.

Organization Enables You To Juggle More Than One Ball At A Time, A Personal Story

Last Fall semester was pretty hectic. Four comic conventions before midterms and a seriously staph infected spider bite threatened to knock me on my butt and had me considering dropping that semester. It was a tough struggle, but with a lot of work, I managed to finish the semester on schedule, even finding time for some freelance work. I don't think I would have been able to accomplish this without some serious planning and the utilization of some basic organizational tools.

SCAD, particularly SEQA, can be crazy busy.  With only ten short weeks to cram in a semester's worth of knowledge, our semesters are full of deadlines, field trips, critiques, and visiting artists.  Add to that Comic Arts Forum in Winter, Editor's Day in Spring, and conventions throughout the entire year, and you've got a lot of ball-dropping potential.  A disorganized student is very easily overwhelmed.  Sure, many of us write notes in our sketchbooks, but if you're sketching regularly and are taking more than two classes, you'll breeze past your notes in no time.  Add to that the fact that many of us are left brained creatives who aren't necessarily detail oriented and your ball dropping potential has more than doubled.  Planning isn't necessarily a creative person's strong suit, though our heads may be in the clouds.

I'm chronically disorganized person. Struggling with ADHD my entire school life, I was fortunate enough to have a mother who was willing to drill into my head the importance of organization. Planners and calendars have been an important part of my scholastic life since kindergarten, lists and small bribes have been useful in keeping me going when frustration threatened to overwhelm motivation. If it hadn't been for this, I probably would have been lost when it came to college. But thanks to this strong foundation, I knew how to study, how to prepare for a difficult semester, and how to push myself when I'd hit a wall.  I'd also learned how to plan for the future and how to break large goals into manageable tasks.

I'm not always on the ball with my organization regime.  When things aren't so hectic, I get lazy and let things slip.  My calendar might still read November.  My to-do lists might have accomplished tasks that are yet to be scratched off.  I don't let this bother me, because I know that when things get tight, I can cope.  All I need are a few helpful tools.

My favorite organizational tools aren't exotic.  I don't really go for phone apps when it comes to getting my act together, although there are several very useful ones available for free.  Good old pen and paper goes a long way to keeping my head on straight in times of turmoil.  Just the act of writing my to-dos on paper cements them in my mind and calms my nerves, and later, when I'm in an anxious deadline frenzy, I can review what needs to be done without panic goggles clouding my vision.  When I'm feeling down about my current working situation, I set about making plans for the future.  I brainstorm new products to launch at specific conventions, determine the necessary work, costs, and printing requirements, and then break that down into a time line with tasks to be completed.  By setting benchmarks, I can make a daunting task an achievable reality.  Pie in the sky goals can be broken down into a series of steps.

I do have a yen for well designed stationary, and this includes my to-do lists.  I COULD take the time to design my own, but I'm pretty satisfied with what's available commercially.   My favorite brand right now is Knock-Knock, their products are well designed, easily available, and fun.  There's plenty of room to write just about everything I need to get done, and scratching off finished tasks is very satisfying.

A Quick Look at My Organizational Toys

Lists, lists, and more lists.
I seriously don't know what's with my camera phone.
At the very back, a very plain, very cheap planner.  I have three like this, one for conventions, one for household dates, and one for work related deadlines, all in separate binders.  Next is my five days a week workweek calendar, with plenty of space to write in.  Next is my to-do list, which really comes in handy for busy weekends when I need help focusing.  The Long and Short list is a bit of wishful thinking, I rarely to get to anything on either, but a girl can dream.
Wall calendar
My 'wall' calendar (tied to my folding screen).  This blog post was started in November, hence the November calendar.  I mark down everything: conventions, school dates, deadlines.  Having this easily visible reminder really helps me plan my schedule,
Blog binder
I keep a binder for the blog, where I squirrel away future blog ideas.  Doing this helps me plan blogposts at least a week in advice.  It may seem silly, but it's really useful, particularly when I'm going on vacation, and need to schedule for guestposts.  Planning posts in advance also forces me to think ahead, which is good for more involved posts that may take several days to write.  

Zip pocket
At the very front is a little zip pocket with some tricky little tools: Sticky notes, punched hole enforcers, washi tape.

A quick list for entries.   The Long List would be useful for 'dream' posts, or posts that are so involved I'd need a lot of external help to write (therefore, a long shot), the short list are entries that are more immediate, like convention reports.  I, uh haven't updated this particular list since I went on hiatus.

Blog post organizer
Outlines for future blog posts.  Outlines aren't just for essays, they help me remain coherant while writing long, convoluted posts.

I record when entries were posted, and try to plan future entries.  I'll mark down conventions, because there's usually an entry shortly after I return.
Business card holder.
This is cheating a bit, as I don't intend to show you guys my career binder, but I have tiny little business card pages inside to keep everything safe and tidy.
Coupon and receipt book.
I have a coupon book (left) with coupons organized by month they're useful.  On the right is my expenses book, where I squirrel away my professional receipts.

This organization training comes back into play whenever I'm feeling particularly overburdened and stressed.  First I make a list of what I need to do.  Then I break out the monthly calendar, and set some dates (or mark down existing commitments).  Then the weekly calendar, where I set landmarks and try to break the big tasks down into smaller ones.  From there, I make daily to do lists.

Tasks that go on the monthly calendar:
  • Major due dates
  • School dates
  • Conventions
  • Doctor's Appointments
  • Visits from friends and family

Tasks that go on the weekly calendar:
  • All of the above PLUS
  • Interim goals, like projects I want completed before conventions
  • Critique dates

Tasks that go on the to-do list (or tasks that need to be accomplished that day):
  • Errands
  • Household chores
  • Blog posts
  • Computer to-do's
  • Step by step process for interim goals

A Bacon-Saving Solution

Breaking large tasks into smaller ones helps me overcome the inertia that often prevents me from starting large daunting tasks.  It makes these daunting tasks seem more manageable, as I'm not trying to complete the entire thing in a single day.  It also gives me the opportunity to consider what needs to be done, and the time necessary to not only do it correctly, but to refine the process and possibly streamline it.  I'm not just organized on paper, I'm organized mentally, and that's what really makes the difference.

It was this skill that really saved my bacon last semester.  On nights I was feeling panic-y, out would come the calendars.  Priorities would be listed, and everything else had to take a back burner until my life settled down a bit.  There were a lot of long days, a lot of late nights, but few all nighters (the few that were were due to missing so much class due to doctors appointments, or so much working time lost due to high fevers [staph infection, remember?  I was on the wrong antibiotic for two weeks]).  Making lists, realistic lists, can be a great way to combat those late night jitters and put that nervous energy to good use.  Instead of worrying about the nebulous future, make plans.  Write your goals down and figure out how to make them happen.  Think about how you can organize your life so that it better works for you and fits your needs.

Some people are able to achieve the same effect by having powwows with their friends, but rather than finding this soothing, I find it nerve rattling.  I suffer sympathetic anxiety (in addition to the good ol garden variety that is self propelled), so when my friends are fretting about THEIR deadlines, my heartrate rises and I find myself fighting unnecessary panic.  I'm really only able to calm my nerves when I step back and look critically at what is really on my plate.

Tips on This Organization Thing
  • Set realistic expectations.  You can't conquer the world in a day.
  • Try to focus on accomplishing three tasks in a day, and feeling satisfied with what you've accomplished.  Once those three are done, then you can think about three more.
  • Scratching to-do's off your list is more satisfying than you'd think.  A completed list is possibly the most satisfying thing.
  • Resist the temptation to overload yourself and your to-do list.  If you need to have a master list that includes everything you need to do, that's fine, but don't use it as your daily list.  That list full of goals unaccomplished is going to drag you down.
  • Don't guilt yourself if you have trouble staying consistently organized.  It's not supposed to be a job or a requirement, but a tool to help you achieve what you need to get done.
  • Find organizational tools that help YOU stay organized.  Some people really work well with pocket planners.  Some like calendars.  Some like phone apps.  
  • Comparison is the thief of happiness.  Don't let others drag you into the rat race, and don't subject yourself to it.
  • Break large goals into smaller, more manageable ones.
  • Don't cultivate anxiety.  If you need to, remove yourself from a situation that causes anxiety, even if it's mentally.  Go for a walk.
  • Block of distractions.  This is something I struggle with.  When I go on hiatus from social networks, that usually signals crunch time.
  • You don't have to do everything all the time.  We can only juggle so much stuff, especially when we're stressed out.  Your friends will understand if you say no to some social obligations.
  • If possible, don't let others determine your work load.  Only you know what you can handle.  But be honest with yourself.  Six hours of TV and two hours of drawing isn't a workday.
  • Even in a crunch, try to make time for yourself.  Hot baths, hot tea, or even taking time to get the mail are all opportunities to wind down, but you can't let your work intrude on your private time.  If it does, you've never stopped working.
  • Always allot yourself more time than you think you'll need to complete a project.  Don't wait until the last minute.  I know a lot of us think we work better at the last minute, the pressure helps us focus or some b.s., but you should at least THINK about your project when it's first assigned.
  • Don't underestimate the power of planning, but be flexible.  It's ok to revise your plans if things change.  When my knee got infected, it completely destroyed my original time line.  Fortunately, I'd padded my schedule to accommodate for comic conventions, so instead of being completely screwed over, I just had to really buckle down.  
My graduation is looming in March, so it's time to get down and dirty with the strategic planning.  It's time for me to have a powwow with my planners and calendars, and set some self imposed deadlines for my thesis comic and paper.  To better facilitate this process, I'm going to have to give some serious thought to my objectives, keeping my outside deadlines in mind at all times.   To get a good idea of the amount of time I'll need to allocate for all this, I'll probably chat up my friends who've already graduated, and base my time line on theirs.

So Why Bother?  Everything's Going Fine, Right?

I realize that organization may not be at the top of the list for most artists.  It may seem unnecessarily constraining, but it's more of a guideline.  You don't have to let your list box you in.  Calendars are useful in that they help you plan your schedule, determine how long a project will take and whether or not you can take on more work.  I see a lot of artists online get backed up with commissions, and I have trouble understanding why some of the more established artists struggle to meet deadlines.  If you know how long it takes to complete a piece, and you know how long you're willing to spend on a piece each day, there's no reason to get horribly backed up.  By planning out a work schedule, you can accurately predict how long it will take you to finish each piece, and you'll know how many you can take at one time.  Organization isn't just for students and for goal setting, it can be used to manage a professional work schedule.

Wouldn't it be helpful to know, at a moment's glance, what your convention schedule looks like six months for now?  Wouldn't it be nice to have a list of conventions you've applied to, conventions you're tabling at, and conventions you're attending as a guest?  Handy to have a record of who you've invoiced, who's paid you, and who's yet to pay?  When it's only a couple things, it's easy to manage mentally, but if you're overbooked or forgetful, it's easy to lose track and lose money, or worse, jobs.  It's a lot of stress to try and remember everything, and takes up a lot of brainspace and power to juggle mental lists.  Writing things down frees that up for creativity.