A professional organizer’s two simple changes to help creatives conquer chaos

Organization is a skill that anyone can learn.
Organization is a skill that anyone can learn.
Image: AP Photo/Matt Slocum
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When it comes to being organized, creative people get a bad rap. We tend to think of artistic types as messy and inefficient, covered in paint splatter and up to their noses in stacks of instruments, papers and books. But in my work with fellow creative-minded types, I’ve found this simply isn’t true. As with any skill, organization and productivity for creative people just takes a little practice.

When we design systems that help us make better use of our creativity, we thrive. The problem is that most of us are juggling our creative work with a hundred other responsibilities. When it all gets to be too much, art is the first to go.

I find that things tend to flow more smoothly if we make room for creativity in our lives in advance. Here are two key organizational changes that I recommend to anyone who wants to make that happen.

The first is to have a trusted place to store project ideas, notes and information. Some of the biggest creative geniuses I know have an abundance of great ideas—which can wind up feeling like a burden. They have trouble corralling their own information. Even if the ideas do get written down, they’re often scribbles and fragments that live in too many different places—on multiple scraps of paper scattered throughout their homes, or buried in the “notes” apps on their smartphones. Thus, the ideas aren’t easily retrievable when it comes time to turn those ideas into a project.

If you’re a pen-and-paper diehard, take a cue from Brooklyn writer types and grab yourself a pocket journal (only one). Then keep it with you at all times. Treat it like another limb, and know that it’s your trusted place for all the information and inspiration you need.

For those who want to go digital, nothing beats Evernote. The app is free, secure, and syncs to all your devices—so if you jot down a short story idea on your iPhone, you’ll easily be able to pull it up on a Word document once you reach your computer. Evernote can also store articles you’ve read, products you’re eyeballing, photographs and PDFs—so you can easily compile all your sources of inspiration in one place. Of course, if you’ve already found a different app that gets the job done, go for it—all that matters is you’re able to find the info you need at the drop of a hat. (Or a paintbrush.)

The other key is to make creative time as important as any other appointment—by scheduling it on your calendar. Some people may feel that introducing any kind of structure to the creative process is the antithesis of art, which we often associate with spontaneous moments of inspiration. But I think scheduling time for art is just a way to help ourselves out on the backend, allowing us more freedom to focus on the work itself.

Finding time for creativity can be a gnarly battle, whether or not we depend on that work to pay rent. For one thing, it’s easy to procrastinate when the task at hand requires us to dig deep within ourselves. We’re also up against inner clutter—you know, all those voices telling us that we’re not talented enough or cool enough to be doing what we want. Excuses like “I’m too old to start” or “I’m too busy” only hold us back.

This is where scheduling appointments can really help. It’s not a guaranteed way to shove off procrastination; you still have to stick to the appointment. But even the act of scheduling can start to hold you accountable to yourself. And the continued practice of doing so will help you get better at sticking to your commitments.

One of the most successful writers I know says that he was only able to make a career for himself because he decided to write every day from 9 am to 1 pm. Even when he was broke and tending bar at night, he made those writing hours his second job.

By contrast, I have another friend who does not schedule creative work hours for himself. For years, he’s wanted to start selling the goods he makes. But because there’s no time in his schedule that’s designated to do the necessary tasks, he wakes up each day with no roadmap. So he never gets as much done as he would like.

That would be fine if he was okay with not selling his work. But he really does want to, so this situation makes him unhappy.

That said, there’s no single right way to make creative work. I have yet another friend whose drive is so strong that she doesn’t need to schedule creative work hours; she just naturally carves out time to produce her work and share it with the world.

And if you do want to try a firm scheduling technique, don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day here or there. Life is messy and imperfect. But most of us will get much further if we structure our lives in ways that allow us to prioritize creativity—and then deviate from those systems only when we need to.