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organization for the artist

Post #354 • August 26, 2004, 6:04 AM • 14 Comments

The above shows my kitchen table and floor as I turned the chaos of my life into order. Why don't schools teach artists how to handle reality, by which I mean the drudgery of modern living, paying bills, organizing papers, managing time? Does that ask too much?

I've gotten by over the last ten years using a non-system of crisis management, general mental sharpness, and a talent for pulling solutions out of my rear at the last minute. I know more than a few of my artist friends operate the same way. Let's face it: if we naturally possessed organizational skills, we would have run the numbers and gone into some sensible field like real estate instead of art. We act according to ideals, not systems.

But I realized that by not organizing my time and workload I have been creating problems for myself, not getting enough done, scrambling idiotically at the last minute for every deadline, and creating a cloud of guilt about a mysterious pile of chores about which I had no idea how to tackle. So I dealt with it. I eliminated the dreaded pile and I now have a system for dealing with things in a way I can live with. In case it helps out anyone else, I present Franklin's Organizing Tips for the Artistically Inclined and Organizationally Bamboozled, or something.

1. You need some supplies. Fork over eighty or a hundred bucks for a file cabinet. If you're my age you probably need the four-drawer one. (If you don't use all the drawers you can put art supplies in the empty ones.) Get the kind where you can just toss the files in there, not the ones where you have those hanging files that the other files go into. I know you, and you're not going to fool around with that shit. Get a box of plain manila file folders. (Yeah, the colored ones look pretty, but you have to stick labels on them, creating an additional step, whereas the plain ones you can label with a pencil and erase to reuse. Besides, you have artistic inclinations that will cause you to feel certain things based on the color of the folder. You don't want to think about that.) Get sticky notes. (All yellow. See previous parenthetical. You'll see the fuscia note attached to something and freak out about it.) Get some plain paper.

2. Copy the masters. First Things First by Steven Covey, and the Inside Out books by Julie Morgenstern. Or, just proceed.

3. Address the pile. Take two file folders, label one with a star, and label the other with two stars. For each item in the pile, do the following:

  • If it demands immediate attention or you have to handle it in a manner of days, put it in One Star. (I have bills, a list of invoices to send out, checks to deposit, and the info on a client who wants to buy a painting.)
  • If it doesn't demand immediate attention but would make life better if you did it, put it in Two Stars. (I have a card from the Voices and Venues people about their new website, some maps I want to give back to my folks, a coupon for Linens 'N' Stuff because I need some, and the business card from someone who expressed interest in my writing once whom I want to contact.)
    • You have some choices regarding an item destined for One Star or Two Stars. One is to put a sticky note on it saying what you have to do with it, with an estimation of how much time it will take. (The one on the V&V card says "look this up" and "20 m.")
    • But if the item has too much bulk, like my pile of business cards that I want to turn into a contact list, file the items together into the cabinet, take a piece of plain paper, put the same info on it ("turn business cards into contact list, 5 h.") along with the label you filed it under ("filed under 'contacts'"), and then put the paper into One Star or Two Stars.
    • You may just have an idea for something, in which case simply write it down on a piece of paper with a time estimate and put it in One Star or Two Stars.
  • If the item demands no action but you want to keep it, label a folder for it and put it in the file cabinet, or, obviously, put it in there with like items.
  • If the item meets none of the above criteria, throw it away. Revel in the bliss of jettisoning crap you don't need. Consider whether this bliss might outweigh the necessity of keeping the item as per the previous step.

4. Spend one or two hours every weekday (whatever that means to you) taking care of stuff in Star One, and when you run out of things in Star One, go to Star Two. Ideally, you want to have as few items as possible in Star One relative to Star Two; this means that you are spending relatively more time improving your existence and less putting out fires. When you take care of something, look at your time estimate and see how closely you guessed it; this makes you better at managing your time.

5. Spend an equal or greater amount of time each day making art.

The above ideas may seem pretty basic, but finding out about them from those books I mentioned made me feel like I'd had a revelation. Actually, I felt like I had just discovered the can opener after spending years getting those funny metal cylinders open with a hammer - enhanced, but relative to a pathetically uninformed state.

Good luck and tell me suggestions if you have them.



Mark Barry

August 26, 2004, 3:11 PM

Paper shredder.....then back to work.


that guy in the back row

August 26, 2004, 4:17 PM

great post Franklin. Bought a file cabinet about two months ago. what a relief. One tip that works for me: always open your mail right next to the trash, for the envelopes/junk mail/ etc.



August 26, 2004, 5:09 PM

Don't overfile. If you make a file for every little thing you end up with a box that says "to file" and you never do it. I find that 4 basic file baskets do it:

Work (stuff that has to be done),
Bills that have to be paid,
Follow up (items which anticipate an answer from elsewhere. such as an order you made or a letter you expect to be enswered)
filing (everything else, including paid bills).

Certain special permanent files are needed, such as personal documents, contracts, IRS, auto.

After years of overfiling I realized that a year's worth was several hundred pieces of paper, and if it was all in one place the occasional rummaging through I had to do took way less time than all the meticulous filing.

It also helps to write a column on a lined pad every Monday of things that need to be done. Put last weeks undone stuff in column two. After a couple weeks most of the undone stuff doesn't matter any more.

And ALWAYS sort the day's mail immediately. As Guy suggests, 95% goes in the trash. Get it there ASAP.



August 26, 2004, 5:20 PM

good post, i'll probably invest in a file cabinet too. Right now i have one of those accordion hanging file folder things and it takes me all day just to figure out whether something goes under personal or reciepts or etc. Simplify, Simplify, Simplify!



August 26, 2004, 5:45 PM

I've found that I can deal with money/bills/taxes/expenses etc. when I use the computer to organize everything. If I don't use the computer I freak out/stress out, forget or become totally confused. The computer somehow both depersonalizes it and makes it more engaging (perhaps it is tapping into my propensity for videogame addiction). Quicken Deluxe is pretty groovy, but if you want some kind of interactive invoicing features Quickbooks Pro is awesome, but might be overkill for most artists. And of course, there's always Excel or a freebie spreadsheet program like OpenOffice. Also, internet banking and billing has been a freaking godsend.

A calendar program which offers alarms and reminders is good; you can print out various layouts for monthly, weekly or daily schedules, including pages which fit into several physical organizers. It really helps me plan my work/life schedule to enter it into the computer and print my schedule as needed.

I guess one of the reasons I like having everything on the computer is because I hate having too many papers lying around; just seeing the paper makes me feel more stressed and crowded. Cluttered environments seem to clutter my mind, and when I am stressed I am most likely to create clutter. It's like the chicken and the egg!

I also have a couple of file drawers reserved for art research, like articles, essays, images, invitations, etc.



August 26, 2004, 6:11 PM

My wife has developed an effective bill-paying trick: As soon as a bill arrives, write the amount and due date on the outside of the envelope, above or near the stamp. File all bills in the same spot (we use a little office-supply helix so the bills always in view), sorted by date, and simply pay the topmost item(s) when the due date is near. (Tho nowadays, electronic payment reduces the mental load that much more.)



August 26, 2004, 7:12 PM

Regarding Kathleen's suggestion, I freak out if I have to coordinate my computer to-do list with the physical stack of things that need to be dealt with - I'd rather have the stack of things function as the list itself. To each her own. But I love paying bills online, and have never once had a problem with it after 500 payments.



August 26, 2004, 7:23 PM




August 26, 2004, 7:30 PM

Franklin, thanks for addressing this frustrating and dreary but totally important issue for artists (and lots of other people). I'm being serious. It's nice to see someone else's pile of papers and know I'm not alone. Also, this:

"Yeah, the colored ones look pretty, but...Besides, you have artistic inclinations that will cause you to feel certain things based on the color of the folder. You don't want to think about that." hilarious, because it's TRUE! When I worked at the Bass, I went really gung-ho after reading the Julie Morgenstern books you mentioned (which are really great and helpful, btw--the time map system really works, when I can get myself to do it) and created this file system using purple, red, pink, and yellow folders, based on categories of Administrative/Operations, Programs/Education, Curatorial/Web, and Grants. Personally, I like using colored folders b/c it makes the task of filing a little more, I dunno, aesthetically pleasing or something. I made Administrative purple using the really logical rationale that I liked purple a lot, but I really hated doing administrative stuff (dealing with check requests, purchase orders, etc.), so maybe I could psych myself up into doing it if I associated it with a color I liked. I feel really sheepish admitting this in a public forum.

Another thing I feel goofy sharing here but that was actually really helpful for me was Flylady ( She/it is kind of an internet phenomenon, and the site/service (a mailing list you can subscribe to that sends out reminders and routines to follow) is pretty heavily geared to stay-at-home-moms and people with families and kids.
The stuff I've been able to adapt to work for me is advice on just decluttering and getting rid of unnecessary stuff (which I as an artist tend to hoard--i.e., cool-patterned soap and candy wrappers from five years ago that were once supposed to get pasted into a sketchbook or something, but just ended up taking up space); breaking down big tasks into 15-minute segments using a timer (a really good strategy for ADD-ish people like myself, especially if you feel overwhelmed by certain projects or tend to get easily hyperfocused or distracted); as well as basic daily and weekly routines (15-30 minutes every morning and evening) for getting the recurring stuff you need to do out of the way (keeping your home in decent shape, handling bills and paperwork) so you can focus on more important things. Like, um, posting massive comments on other people's blogs. *blush*


fire marshall

August 27, 2004, 12:24 AM

Forget the pile of papers, what's with the assortment of hanging electrical cords? Is this really your house?



August 27, 2004, 12:37 AM

The food processor, juicer, blender, and citrus juicer, respectively.


Jerome du Bois

August 27, 2004, 11:07 PM


The food processor, juicer, blender, and citrus juicer, respectively.

So, which one do you use for the papers?




August 27, 2004, 11:46 PM

None of them. For big jobs like this one, I stick to the pasta maker.



August 28, 2004, 12:11 AM

you have two separate juicers?



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