Wednesday, 4 June 2014

The Scatterbrain's Guide to Getting — and Staying — Organised 2

My original post, The Scatterbrain's Guide to Getting - and Staying - Organised, is one of the most popular I've written, so I thought I'd share a few more tips I've picked up. As I explained back then, I'm not naturally organised. I would forget everything if I hadn't developed strategies to get myself organised. 

Yet people who met me after the age of 16 tend to assume that being organised is something I find easy. Not so! I just find it easier to put a little effort into being organised than to sort out the mess created when I'm disorganised. These tips/tricks/tactics (or whatever else you wish to call them) might seem like a hassle at first, but once they're set up it takes little effort to maintain them.

1. Create more email folders
In The Scatterbrain's Guide to Getting - and Staying - Organised, I suggested you create an email folder labelled 'Important' to keep emails with important information separate from everything else clogging up your inbox. I also love the tip provided by Stina Lindenblatt in the comments, which is to create a 'Pending' folder for emails that need a reply, but which you don't have the time/info/energy to reply to immediately.

Now I'm saying make more folders! Since I've been submitting work more regularly, I've got folders which separate my writing-related emails into relevant categories. Mine are 'Writing Submissions' which I use to save acknowledgements of stories I submit, 'Writing Rejections', 'Writing Acceptances', 'Writing Back-ups' and 'Writing Miscellany'. If I find myself wondering where I submitted a story or if a magazine ever responded to my submission, I can find the emails I need (if they exist!) in about 3 seconds.

2. Learn to love spreadsheets
Okay, so regular readers are probably fed up with reading about how I'm no longer scared of spreadsheets since doing a computer course earlier this year, but learning to use spreadsheets for basic tasks makes life a lot easier. I have an Excel file which I use to keep track of what I'm submitting where. It has worksheets detailing what stories I've submitted, any non-fiction I've submitted and a list of upcoming competition/submission deadlines.

I've even inserted some formulae to help me out, since I now know how! It's handy to see how many stories I've submitted at a glance. It's also handy to see how many half-decent stories I've written. Using formulae may seem superfluous if, like me, you haven't written that many stories (well, stories I care to submit), but if you put these mechanisms in place at the start you will still be well organised when you're submitting dozens at a time.

3. Get yourself a ring binder
And some file dividers. Into your ring binder, put anything and everything that you might need to refer to on a day-to-day basis. I've got sections for upcoming competitions, magazines/literary journals publishing the type of stories I write, odd articles of writing advice, leaflets from the non-profit organisation I do volunteer work for, etc. What you put in your folder is up to you, but there are 2 essential sections: current work and miscellany.

For me, the current work section simply provides somewhere I can put my most recent drafts without them getting lost or chewed by my springer spaniel puppy. I also find it useful to keep all drafts for my current work in one place, so that I can refer back to them easily. A miscellaneous section is essential because, in my experience, there will always be something that doesn't quite fit into another category. 

4. The important/urgent matrix
I've stolen this idea, but I don't know who to credit because I've seen it in several places. It's a handy tool for figuring out which tasks to prioritise. You divide a piece of paper into quarters and label the top edge 'Important' on one side and 'Not Important' on the other. The side edge is labelled 'Urgent' and 'Not Urgent.' 

This results in 4 boxes: 

  • Important and Urgent
  • Important but Not Urgent
  • Urgent but Not Important
  • Not Important and Not Urgent

You can then insert each item on your to-do list into one of the boxes. Your priorities are the tasks in the 'Important and Urgent' box. The 'Important but Not Urgent' box is the trickiest, since these are the tasks you need to make an effort to fit in. It's hard to remember that they should take precedence over the 'Urgent but Not Important' box because they don't have a deadline attached, but important stuff should be near the top of your list of priorities.

So, should you do the 'Not Important' tasks at all? It depends. Some of these tasks may become important if left undone - cleaning the kitchen floor, for instance - but other things can be removed from your to-do list with no consequences. This exercise may serve as a reminder to avoid drains on your time and energy, if your 'Not Important' boxes are cluttered.

Of course, it also depends on the time you have available: if you want to bake a cake for your children's school's summer fete, for example, and have a couple of hours to spare, it's a nice thing to do. However, if you have a million and one 'Important' things to do, your time is best spent tackling those things. No one should criticise you for prioritising work, health, family, friends, etc. over everything else.

5. Use 'dead' time
I've talked about this before, in Stop Pre-Wasting Time! and Killing Time Thieves. If you are indeed a scatterbrain, chances are your day is stuffed with dead time. What do I mean by 'dead' time? Any period of time you're not using to its full potential. This may include:

  • Short periods of time between tasks, which you think are too short to use to do anything productive.
  • Time spent waiting for something, or which consists mainly of waiting between small tasks. Eg. waiting for dinner to cook/stirring it every 10 minutes ir si.
  • Travel time - if you travel on public transport or have a driver!
  • Time spent zoning in front of the TV.
This is by no means an extensive list, but I hope you get my drift. 

Dead time is the time you write off; you may think it's not practical to do something more important at the same time as cooking dinner or you might think the 10 minutes between getting home from work and walking the dogs isn't worth filling. These are poor excuses! You can check (and organise) your email in 10 minutes, or even 5. You can research short story markets as you keep an eye on dinner. You can plan a story on the bus. Some tasks are better suited to doing little and often - you might find it's easier to learn a new skill this way, for example, than it is to spend 3 straight hours learning at the weekend.

Think of creative ways to use the time you've got. I once read in a self-help book or article (I can't remember where, but it's been oft-repeated) that we all have the same amount of time as Einstein, Helen Keller, Martin Luther King and everyone else. We all have 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year. You can waste as much of that time as you like bitching and moaning about the pressures you're under and your never-ending to-do list, or you can tackle the tasks you need to get done and find ways to achieve your goals. Your choice.

I saw this post on How to Remember Everything earlier and found myself nodding along. It's about Evernote, which is my favourite app and a great way to help yourself stay organised. It's useful for synching information I need on my iPad with my non-Apple smartphone. I use it a lot when I'm out and about, for writing down ideas, noting important stuff and shopping lists. Check it out!


  1. A fantastic reminder of how to use time wisely, Hayley. I love all your ideas and don't know where I'd be without my spreadsheet for submissions. I could still improve things further, as I have too many scraps of paper with scribbles on. I like the idea of the important/urgent matrix. However, I'm almost too good at doing other things while I'm waiting for something to boil, resulting in a few blackened pans!

  2. Some very useful tips here. I keep my subs records in a book. I've never thought of making a spreadsheet for them, but what a good idea. Thank you x

  3. I have a seperate email account I use for writing submissions to make sure I don't miss anything important and I have a spreadsheet for all my submissions - maybe I'm not as disorganised as it looks like from a quick glance at my desk.

    1. Organisation is a state of mind — I have loads of clutter, but I know what and where everything is! :-)