How Do You Stay Organized?

by Jami Gold on January 6, 2015

in Over-Achieving Perfectionist

Crumpled sticky note with text: How Do You Stay Organized?

With a new year, we often want to start off on the right foot, and we don’t want to repeat last year’s mistakes. (Let’s make new ones instead, right? *smile*) So we like figuring out what didn’t work last year and what did.

My schedule has been absolutely insane for so long that I can’t even remember when it last wasn’t insane. My inbox is a disaster where things go missing on a regular basis, my Twitter mentions are a stream of people I mean to get back to (but too often don’t), and my to-do list grows larger as I fall more behind Every. Single. Day.

For as much as people tell me that I seem organized, I feel like I’m just barely not drowning. I joke about how my “method” is to flail randomly, but that’s not really a comfortable feeling for me. So I’d love to find a time management approach that helped me track everything.

The Facets of Our Life

As writers, we have to juggle many aspects of our life. We usually have day jobs taking up most of our time. The hours we have left are often split between writing, personal time (including those oh-so-fun dentist appointments), household time (cooking, cleaning, etc.), and family time. That’s a lot of juggling.

Add in the fact that our writing life is often just as complicated (or maybe more complicated) than our day job—with deadlines, drafting, revising/editing, social media and marketing, business accounting (and if we self-publish, add finding and dealing with cover designers, editors, etc. to that list)—and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed.

Knowing Our Goals

I’ve written many times before about how we need to know our goals:

Heck, I’ve shared a business plan for writers, which is all about deciding on our goals. And as I mentioned in my post about when we should develop a business plan:

“The process of putting our goals or priorities to paper is different, especially if we then translate those ideas into strategies. Writing down our goals can force us to think through an issue, to think deeper and see the ‘end game.’ …

Whether the plan actually works or not is somewhat irrelevant, as Robert Doucette commented on my last post:

“The benefits of a well thought out business plan are psychological as well as strategic. It helps to focus efforts.””

Writing Down Our Goals

Jane Litte of the Dear Author blog had a great post this past weekend about the steps of goal making and prioritizing:

  1. Set Goals
  2. Prioritize Goals
  3. Define Tasks (breaking down goals into smaller chunks)
  4. Prioritize Tasks
  5. Estimate Time (<— Many failures are caused by underestimating the time required.)
  6. Stick to the Plan

She shared a story about the effect of writing down our goals, and it was so interesting I had to look up more information. Per Forbes:

“There was a fascinating study conducted on the 1979 Harvard MBA program where graduate students were asked “have you set clear, written goals for your future and made plans to accomplish them?”  The result, only 3% had written goals and plans, 13% had goals but they weren’t in writing and 84% had no goals at all. Ten years later, the same group was interviewed again and the result was absolutely mind-blowing.

The 13% of the class who had goals, but did not write them down was earning twice the amount of the 84% who had no goals. The 3% who had written goals were earning, on average, ten times as much as the other 97% of the class combined!

Unfortunately, that study is an urban legend that’s been around for a long time (some references attribute the study to the Yale class of 1953). However, Dominican University conducted a study specifically to see whether or not the original “study’s” idea of the importance of writing down goals was legitimate, and their real study showed similar positive results as the legend. So myth or not, the results are legitimate.

It makes sense. After all…

If we’re not committed enough to write it down,
are we really committed enough to get it done?

Tracking Our Progress

Great! We have goals and we’ve written them down. Now what?

Thanks to Louise Behiel, I discovered Jamie Raintree’s Writing Progress Spreadsheet. If you’re comfortable with clicking around spreadsheets (such as from using one of my beat sheets), you should be able to figure out Jamie’s tool.

She gives us a way to track our word count by day, week, month, year, or project. If only her calendar on each tab offered NaNoWriMo-style color coding, I wouldn’t be able to contain my love. *grin*

But how do we track our non-drafting writing projects? How do we track our progress on editing, or sending out review requests, or our publishing production schedule?

The Holy Grail: All the Information at Our Fingertips

So far, my time and project management has been a mishmash of tools. I use OneNote for brainstorming and brain dumps, and I use various calendars and task applications (Outlook, Google Calendar, Trello, Wunderlist, etc.). But that mix-and-match approach means it’s easy for things to get lost or for my time to get double-booked.

I want an app with a connected website that contains a word count calendar like NaNoWriMo, but also allows us to set up goals and tasks. I want to set up revision and editing tasks like “layering in characterization and theme pass,” “getting rid of clichés pass,” etc. I want publishing tasks like “set up blog tour,” “update website for new release.” etc.

I should be able to put in time estimates for each task and chain them together as parent-and-child tasks with dependencies so I can estimate when a project would be complete. Those tasks should be easily copied and pasted into future projects with the dates adjusted by a simple change to the starting date. I want reminders of upcoming due dates and the ability to link to relevant information.

My calendar and to-do list should also reflect whether I’ve written today’s blog post, cleaned up my email inbox, or connected with people on social media. I want to get a “green success” day on the calendar for completing that day’s tasks, whether they were drafting-related or not, darn it! Oh, and integration for tracking income and expenses per project would be great too.

Is that so much to ask? *smile* (And please, if you know of any such organizational tool, let me know!) Until then, I’ll just have to muddle through, but maybe we can help each other by pointing out tools or lists we can use to get a head start on those tasks. *grin*

If you’ve developed goals, have you written them down? Do you have a strategy or plan for how to complete each goal? How do you track progress toward those goals? Do you have task lists to help mark progress? Do you have a Holy Grail of an organizational tool, or do you mix and match? Which tools do you use? Share names or links!

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45 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Sophia Kimble January 6, 2015 at 11:30 am

Great post Jami, and I’m floundering with you. If by some miracle you find the magic app that does it all, please, please share.

As of now, I use OneNote, Outlook calendar, old fashioned pen and paper that oft times disappears, and excel. And I still feel like I’m forgetting to do something on a regular basis.

Need the magic app! I think it should be called that too when some techy person makes it.

Reply

Jami Gold January 6, 2015 at 12:35 pm

Hi Sophia,

Yes! I hate that “fear I’m forgetting something” feeling–and like you, I feel it far too often lately. (Worse, I usually remember that I am forgetting something, so those fears are real. 🙁 )

LOL! at “magic app.” Yep, I was telling my family that I wished I knew programming, just so I could write it. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Melinda January 6, 2015 at 11:47 am

Hi Jami,
Man, does your dream tool sound nice! I have goals for this year, but not written down. So far I’m 0/5 for days I’ve written any fiction. Great start, huh? I think evaluating where my time goes will be a better place to start. There never seems like enough hours in a day.
I don’t have any organization tools to suggest, but I’ll be checking back on this post.
Good luck with your goals in this new year.
Melinda

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Jami Gold January 6, 2015 at 12:38 pm

Hi Melinda,

LOL! Doesn’t it though? 🙂

Ooo, yes, great idea to begin by tracking where our time does go. Maybe with that information, we can find more efficient ways of making progress. Thanks for sharing!

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Joanna Aislinn January 6, 2015 at 8:54 pm

I really like the idea of evaluating where my time goes, Melinda. I might just keep a running record for a while, just to see it in writing. I suppose ‘proof’ of how much time I might actually have could be quite an encouraging thing.

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Paula Millhouse January 6, 2015 at 11:59 am

Jami,
Check out Lynn Johnston’s web site writersmarternotharder.com
She developed a tool she calls Writing Tracker that is user friendly, and might be exactly what you’re looking for.

I’m still convinced spread sheets and Excel were written by the devil, but hey, if it works for some folks, I’m all about use it.

One thing I’ve noticed about myself is I start off all gung-ho on a new system, then fail to follow through with it.

I will say this about your bringing up those studies on the students: the ONLY way I made it through graduate school was to write out semester goals, then break those jobs down into measurable objectives, and then get through the work.

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Jami Gold January 6, 2015 at 12:42 pm

Hi Paula,

Thanks for the tip! I’ll check it out and report back. 🙂

I’ve gotten insanely adept at Excel in some ways, simply by learning from documents others shared and then adapting it to my use. My production schedule is currently in this Frankenstein spreadsheet that’s crazy impressive and crazy complicated, but it doesn’t tie into an actual calendar, so there’s a limit to how helpful it is.

Interesting! Yes, any project can be more manageable by breaking it down into tasks that we know how to tackle. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your experience!

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Abbey MacInnis January 6, 2015 at 12:15 pm

Hi Jami, 🙂
I love this post. I too, wish there was a tool like the one you mentioned.
Thanks for posting links to what you use as well. I’ll definitely need to give them a try.
I’ve recently heard of Asana. It’s a site where a team of friends can work together on projects and tasks. I don’t have an account, but I’m part of a team.
There’s also RescueTime where you can see how you’re spending your time every day while on your computer. You can set goals too.
I have a free account, so I’m limited as to what I can do 🙂 I just downloaded it this weekend, so I’ll receive an email in a week with a report on how I spent my time this week.
I’ve used my iPhone’s reminder feature and calendar to help me with reminders and dates. I’d rather get a reminder or notification on my phone than an email. 🙂
I have written down my goals in Asana. I have them as projects or tasks, which you can also add subtasks 🙂
Sorry for the long comment 🙂
Hope this info helps.
Happy New Year!

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Jami Gold January 6, 2015 at 12:45 pm

Hi Abbey,

Yes, most of the project management tools out there are geared toward company teams. Which is great, but not quite a good fit for me, myself, and I. 😉

Ooo, thanks for the tip about RescueTime. Let me know if that report was helpful! And I’ll check out Asana too. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Robin January 6, 2015 at 12:49 pm

Great advice, Jami. Setting goals is so critically important to get where we actually Want to go – if you haven’t decided if Montana or Texas sounds great for your next vacation, how do you decide which way to turn on the highway? hmm? 🙂

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Jami Gold January 6, 2015 at 1:08 pm

Hi Robin,

LOL! Exactly! And that sounds a lot like my advice about how pantsers can write more efficiently if they have at least vague ideas of where to go. 😉 Thanks for stopping by!

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Stacy Jerger January 6, 2015 at 1:07 pm

This reminds me of the year I planned my wedding, LOL! I had made a list of about 150 tasks, with some requiring micro tasks just to complete one task. It sounds crazy, but the list was immensely helpful because it was in chronological order, so I always felt like I was working toward a goal with manageable deadlines (also helped to see what was behind me and what was ahead). I had the list in a spreadsheet (don’t ask how may tabs) and also on my calendar.

I wouldn’t plan a wedding again, but since then I’ve used similar methods for other goals – for my business, personal life, social life, etc. And I’ve found other great chronological lists for things like book releases (what to do 3 months prior). There’s something about *writing it down* that minimizes mental confusion and reinforces what we’re trying to do. Goals, tasks, and prioritizing definitely help get things done! 🙂

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Jami Gold January 6, 2015 at 1:11 pm

Hi Stacy,

150 tasks? Yikes! And yeah, I understand. 🙂

Yes, writing it down often helps me focus as well. I got more done yesterday (when I’d written out a to-do list) than I usually do. Lesson learned. Again. 😉 Thanks for sharing!

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Onita January 6, 2015 at 2:49 pm

I’m having a similar problem, in addition to my health issues! UGH!!! My biggest hurtle is to blast through severe fatigue, then my next identifying my goals of my WIP.

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Jami Gold January 6, 2015 at 3:47 pm

Hi Onita,

It’s frustrating how much our health contributes to our ability to get things done. We just want our body to work, right? I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you! Thanks for the comment!

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Lara Gallin January 6, 2015 at 3:26 pm

I’m not going to lie, I have no idea what I’m doing at the moment. As well as knuckling down to start on my second draft, I’m still trying to find a part time job, I’m making jewellery and trying to run an Etsy shop which is massively time consuming. I’ve been neglecting social media and need to find time to take a more active approach but right now everything’s all arrrgh!

After reading this post I’m wondering whether it might be an idea to set up a timetable on Outlook to organise myself.

Almost forgot, I also need to learn how to use Scrivener!

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Jami Gold January 6, 2015 at 3:50 pm

Hi Lara,

Yikes! Yep, that’s sounds like a handful, all right. I can’t tell you how many times I look at my clock and it’s 2 hours later than I thought. Ugh. Hate losing all that time. Good luck getting it all done, and thanks for the comment!

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Abbey MacInnis January 6, 2015 at 5:25 pm

This post made me want to do some research 🙂
I found a free app in the Apple app store called ToDo Lists or Reminder Plus by SixAxis LLC. You can add tasks and set them to remind you every day, week, every two weeks, month etc or not at all. So for those tasks that you want to repeat, I think you can simply change the date. You can also delete multiple tasks and sort them.
It says that it will put your tasks/reminders in order of date. It says that it will help you organize your daily, weekly, monthly tasks etc. I’m going to give it a try.

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Jami Gold January 6, 2015 at 6:28 pm

Hi Abbey,

LOL! Oh good! I don’t have Apple products, but I hope it works for you. Feel free to come back and let us know so the Apple people feel the love too. 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

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christa allan January 6, 2015 at 8:17 pm

I’d love for you to create/design a planner that does all those things! I still do better keeping track of myself on paper.

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Jami Gold January 7, 2015 at 10:50 am

Hi Christa,

LOL! I wish I had the technical know-how to do that programming. 🙂 *waits for magic wand* Thanks for stopping by!

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Joanna Aislinn January 6, 2015 at 9:02 pm

When I have the time and some structure, I can do very well in the organization dept, but mostly of ‘things’ or ‘duties’ (i.e., household papers, closets, notes for school, etc).

Re: writing and projects: I’d gotten insanely overwhelmed with trying to do too many other ‘writing-related’ tasks while working on developing some workshops I plan to teach. I wrote some specific goals re: the workshops, and made a conscious decision to put the fiction writing to the side for a while. (Story ideas weren’t getting me anywhere either.) That helped big-time. Although one piece is missing, it won’t hold me back from starting the contact phase.

Goals: I jotted a few down last January. They’re on a word-doc somewhere. I revisited them once and found I’d made more progress than expected.

Every step forward gets me closer to my goal(s). I can slow myself up by judging the pace, or just keep on feet-forwarding it.

Happy New Year, Jami! All the best to you in 2015!

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Jami Gold January 7, 2015 at 10:52 am

Hi Joanna,

I understand. I have so many projects in play at once that being scattered and prioritizing is a struggle. I wish you luck with all your projects! 🙂 Thanks for sharing your insights!

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Joanna Aislinn January 7, 2015 at 7:06 pm

My pleasure! And thanks so much for your very insightful, detailed and useful posts!

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Deborah Makarios January 7, 2015 at 1:16 am

For me, if it isn’t in ink, it isn’t written down. Text on a computer I can change, but the ink does not lie 🙂
I’m big on making lists, especially if I’m stressed, although my writing is generally in big block planning (these two months I’m working on redrafting this, then I’m going to outline that…) as I tend to be a big-picture person. I can do details, they just don’t enthuse me.

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Jami Gold January 7, 2015 at 10:54 am

Hi Deborah,

Ooo, interesting! Yes, for some, computer writing is enough. For others, it needs to be on paper. And for others, like you, it needs to be on paper in pen. 🙂 I guess the point is knowing what works for you!

I’m with you too, on list-making. Keeping too many “to-do”s in my head leads to stress, but I tend to feel better as soon as I write them down. Thanks for sharing your experience!

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Connie Cartisano January 7, 2015 at 7:06 am

Thanks for the post, Jami.
I have set the same goal more than once, to finish my WIP by _____, but I repeatedly fail. Partly because I have a lot else on my plate, but mostly, as I gather from this conversation, because I haven’t broken it down into manageable tasks.
I’m going to try that.
Also, I feel the frustration with the need for multiple organization and management tools when one would be so much better. Don’t any of us know programmers who could do this? I guess our circles as writers wouldn’t overlap with computer experts, hmmm?
Thanks again.

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Jami Gold January 7, 2015 at 10:58 am

Hi Connie,

Yes, it’s good to know our big picture goals, but we often need to break that into smaller chunks–call them tasks, a strategy, a plan, etc. Not only does that help us see how to get from point A to point B, but checking off those tasks can help us see (and be encouraged by) progress. 🙂

Actually, I know several writers who are married to computer folk, but not all computer people do programming. :/ I’ll be sure to keep my ear open though! 🙂 Thanks for stopping by, and good luck on finishing your WIP!

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Chelsea January 7, 2015 at 9:47 am

I use todoist to stay organized. it works on all my browsers and on my phone.

I put everything in todoist. EVERYTHING. From projects that will take years to my to-read book list to “cut otis’s toenails” any floating idea I have, I whip out my phone and write it down. if it’s something that’s more than one action to complete, I make it a project, and write down the next action. I can add reminders, due dates, scheduled repeats, all kinds of stuff.

The weird thing that happens is once I write it all down in todoist and set up my reminders or repeats or due dates, my mind clears because I’m not trying to remember the name of the book I meant to read or that otis needs to go to the groomer or that I have a dentist appointment in three months, all at once. It’s all written down and in a system that will help me handle it.

I only use todoist to organize my life. (scrivener handles the writing) So far, it’s working out pretty good. now I don’t have to remember what i’m supposed to be doing, and that frees up a lot of brain space.

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Jami Gold January 7, 2015 at 11:15 am

Hi Chelsea,

Ooo, sounds promising! I’ll check it out. 🙂 Thank you for sharing!

And I know just what you mean about how making lists frees the brain for other things. Usually when I’m stressed, writing out my list helps. Lately of course, the size of the list itself has been its own stress, but for that, I need a Time Turner. 😉 Thanks for sharing your experience!

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Killion Slade January 7, 2015 at 7:24 pm

I really like Todoist – https://todoist.com/ – it integrates with everything and sends you reminders 😀 mobile, desktop, calendars – you name it

I find that I don’t judge myself as to how much I write each day, but more by the project. If I wrote a manuscript of 138K words for one year – that averages out to 378 words a day. Not a real high count. But if I add in all the words that I edited … then that count goes up considerably.

It’s too much stress to judge myself like that. I have set my goal for this year to submit three short stories in addition to another manuscript to take a break from time to time.

Usually when I begin a project I give myself a day to construct a chapter/scene, then another day to write it. That takes the pressure off trying to get the words down because the research and prep work is completed. Then its just a matter of time to relax enough to allow the words to flow. 🙂

Thanks for another awesome post!

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Jami Gold January 7, 2015 at 11:48 pm

Hi Killion,

That’s a second vote for Todoist. 🙂 I’ll definitely be checking it out.

Yes! I get a lot of other writing-related activities done, like the editing, etc., and I want credit for that. LOL! As you said, you don’t want to judge yourself just by word count because there’s so much more to being a writer than just that. Thanks for sharing your insights!

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Julie Musil January 7, 2015 at 9:31 pm

Jami, you seem soooo organized! I’m amazed at all you accomplish. Thanks for the great advice.

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Jami Gold January 7, 2015 at 11:50 pm

Hi Julie,

Ha! I must fake it really well. 😉 Or maybe I started off in life super-duper organized, and I’m struggling with just being normal organized now? LOL! Thanks for stopping by!

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Jennifer Rose January 8, 2015 at 11:17 am

Timely post! I’m working on organizing everything now. If it’s okay, I stumbled across this amazing video that could help someone be efficient with their time… “Robin Sharma – How I Beat Procrastination” http://youtu.be/bLp9EimaEQI

With all the research being done about the difference between handwriting and typing, it makes me wonder if handwriting down a goal makes a different impact on your brain!

Finally, I’m trying out this new software this morning: Weekplan.net. It seems interesting because it integrates Stephen Covey philosophies.

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Jami Gold January 8, 2015 at 5:22 pm

Hi Jennifer,

Interesting! Thank you for sharing! And that’s a great question about typing vs. handwriting when it comes to our goals. I think things “stick” better for me when handwritten, so I might have to pay attention to that. 🙂 Thanks for sharing all your insights!

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Kerry Gans January 12, 2015 at 11:33 am

The constant juggling! I have an Excel sheet for all writing-related things, color-coded by priority. I have this set up so it opens automatically when I boot up the computer. So it is the first thing I see every day.

The non-writing stuff (child, personal, family) goes on my calendar on the refrigerator. Also color coded so I know who the event is for and what kind (medical is green, my daughter’s stuff is pink, etc.)

This manages to keep me above water–but there are still not enough hours in a day!

Kerry

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Jami Gold January 12, 2015 at 3:16 pm

Hi Kerry,

Exactly! All the organization in the world doesn’t help if we have too much to do and not enough time. *sigh* Good luck finding more time! 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Grace Potts January 13, 2015 at 7:57 am

One thing that’s really helped me is to make two to-do lists, one for regular, one for goals. That way, my goals don’t get swallowed up in the mundane.

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Jami Gold January 13, 2015 at 9:21 am

Hi Grace,

Great point! I’ve spent many a day (weeks?) working on the day-to-day stuff and not making progress in the big picture goals. Thanks for sharing that insight! 🙂

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