How to Be Type-A Organized For Creatives

What!? I got my own snack

Confession: I was a terrible college student. I was always five minutes late to class, asking for extensions on my papers, reading the wrong assignment and forgetting appointments with my professors. Yet somehow, I went on to get both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and all was Gucci.

How did I not flunk out? Because for every appointment I blew off or essay I forgot to write, someone always loaned me a convenient excuse:

“Oh, she’s just being a writer.”

Both of my degrees are in creative writing. If a med student pulled the same stunts, they’d be flunked in no time. But when you write short stories about zombies for a degree, people don’t hold you to higher standards.

That’s because we love to romanticize the mad creative genius. With headlines touting that forgetfulness is a sign of intelligence and being disorganized makes you smarter, it’s easy to see why.

These stereotypes reinforce bad work habits, but there is a positive side: they show that our culture values artistic work and original thought.

Unlike our parents’ generation, creatives have more potential than ever to make a living from their talents. Thanks to fields like tech, design, digital marketing and advertising, creativity can land you some of the most purposeful, fulfilling and lucrative jobs on the market.

But there is a catch. To be a successful creative, you’re going to have to keep up with tight deadlines, juggle multiple clients, prioritize tasks and remember to answer your emails — all of them.

Thankfully, hiding inside every creative is a type-A, anal-retentive efficiency machine. Here’s how to stop being a space cadet and get it together.  

Stop Making Bad To-Do Lists

Writing things down is the first step in getting organized. But beware: not all to-do lists are created equal.

When I got my first real job and was forced to get organized, I wrote down everything. I kept to-do lists on Google Docs, on my phone, in notebooks and sticky notes and emails to myself — and that was exactly the problem. As I talked down grumpy clients on my desk phone, I learned the hard way that keeping up with 10 different to-do lists is not only stupid, but impossible.

The key to getting things done is to keep all of your to-dos in one place. That way, you never overlook a task and can always rely on your list being correct and up-to-date. Whether you prefer a paper notebook or a fancy app doesn’t matter. What’s important is that you keep no more than two receptacles for your tasks.

The first should be a primary list that’s easily accessible while you work. The second receptacle should be used only when you're away — on a walk or having coffee with a friend — and need to jot something down on the fly.

Every day, at least once a day, take all of the items from your “away” receptacle and put them in your home-base list. Then, go get shit done.    

Be Afraid — Be Very Afraid... Okay, Just a Little Afraid

Let’s face it: the real reason you’re not organized is because, compared to creative work, it’s boring. But nothing will motivate and put the fear of God in you like angering a client or “having a sit-down” with your boss.

You shouldn’t feel paralyzed with terror, but fearfully diligent. Stop to double- and triple-check your work a few times a day. Check your to-do list for missing tasks, reread that email to make sure you understand what’s expected of you, check your draft against the project brief to make sure you hit all the right points.

If getting organized feels a little like paranoia, you’re on the right track.

Get Granular

Say you have a landing page to design one week from now. You go to your primary to-do list and write down “Design Landing Page” for next week. Good job! Almost.

The day before the deadline rolls around, you get to work. But you realize there’s a lot of research to be done, and, uh-oh — you have a question for the client that you need answered before you can even start. Send an email, pray they answer in time and try to push aside the thought that your client now knows you put off their project till the last minute. Meanwhile, your boss just told you there’s a new rush assignment that needs doing ASAP.

Brew a cup of coffee and mix it with Red Bull — you’re in for a 20-hour workday.

Avoid missing deadlines and rushing by getting granular in your to-dos. When you write down a task, think about the steps needed to complete it. Break them out. Instead of “Design Landing Page,” your to-dos should look more like, “Research competitor’s websites,” “Brainstorm ideas with Lee and Kim” and “Mock up version 1.” Give yourself ample time to complete each step.

Don’t Clean Up Your Desk

The state of your workspace has nothing to do with how organized you are. Ultimately, being organized is about being efficient and timely, not about being clean. So unless it’s getting in the way of getting things done, don’t worry about the mess on your desk.

In fact, studies show that those cups you’re hoarding are actually beneficial to your creativity, and that working in spaces that are too clean can hinder your mind. So long as you show up to your appointments and get your work done well and on time, your coworkers can deal with your messy desk.   

Work Hard and Give a Damn

In the end, it doesn’t matter how clean your desk is or whether you use a tricked-out app or a 99-cent legal pad to keep up. Getting organized is 99 percent sheer willpower and 1 percent tips and tricks.

No matter which way you cut it, retraining your brain to be type-A anal all comes down to hard work. Studies show it takes anywhere from 18 to a whopping 254 days to truly solidify a habit. If you’re a hardcore scatterbrain, it will take you some time, trial and error. But if you love what you do and care about your job, you’ll put in the effort to get organized.

At the end of the day, yeah — you naturally suck at being organized. And because of your creative talents, others will tempt you with excuses and easy outs.

But don’t give in. With elbow grease and dedication, addressing your born ineptitude is what will make you a triple-threat: creative, hard-working and organized like a motherfucker.

Written by Chelsie Rivera on December 7, 2016


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I love this! I sent it to a creative I know who has some of the same challenges that you had. It was helpful for him to know that he is not a rare breed after all, but it doesn't let him off the hook. It offers some great suggestions on how to improve his organizational skills. I am a creative (if I am allowed to say so) and consider myself reasonably organized; perhaps becoming a mother years ago brought out that side of me. But I learned some things from this, also. Great read!

Cbuckley 1 kb4y45y
Written by
Chelsie Rivera
Associate Director of Content