As a web designer, you’re often forced to wear many different hats every day. You’re the CEO, creative director, office manager, coffee fetcher and sometimes even janitor. That’s a lot for anyone, and it certainly makes it difficult to find any time for quality creative thinking. Organization in any operation is important, and for our work as web designers it is important, too. The good news? You don’t have to have been born an organizational machine. Let’s look at what being organized means and a few strategies and tips to help you clean up that messy desk and get your work ducks in a nice neat row.
1. Organization 101
What it means to be an organized person or run an organized business is commonly misunderstood. Many people equate being organized with being fussy, which is not the case. Little labeled folders and neatly itemized lists are one way to stay organized, but they are merely tactics. The heart of organization is having a strategy. Being organized is simply a matter of using clearly defined and consistently implemented systems to get things done.
But how do you go about finding and implementing a strategy if you’re starting from square one? It begins with where you want to end up. Think about where you waste the most time or what frustrates you the most on a daily or weekly basis, and start there. Formulate simple clear goals and treat these overarching goals as the finish line in your strategy.
For example, if you have trouble paying all (and I mean every single one) of your bills on time because they are perpetually lost in the mess on your desk, make it a goal to pay every bill before it is due for the entire year. With this broad goal in mind, you can work on cleaning your desk and setting up a routine for paying each of your bills.
2. Building Routines
Very disorganized people tend to do things in a scattershot way, jumping frequently between unrelated activities, wasting time and energy with each switch. So, if you are committed to being more organized, the first things you need to analyze are your daily, weekly and monthly routines. What activities do you do every day, week and month? It helps to make a list for each and add to it over the course of the week or even month.
Once you have this list, you should start to notice patterns. You can use those patterns to help you plan your time more efficiently. Arrange your activities by location, type or client to minimize the time you take to switch gears (both mentally and physically) between each activity.
Tips for Building Effective Routines
- Group like tasks
Don’t stop working to answer each email as it arrives. Instead pick two — and only two — times a day to deal with emails. Schedule all of your meetings together during one part of the day, and don’t stray from this time block. If the block is full on any given day, then schedule the meeting for the following day.
- Keep the e-mail inbox clean.
When a bunch of new e-mails arrives, sort and prioritize them right away. You could have three folders — one for important e-mails (“Important”), one that require some work (“Work”) and one for e-mails that aren’t that important and can be replied later on (“Later”). Try hard to keep the first two clean in the end of every day, and set up reminders or to-do-lists for important tasks. If you get way too many e-mails, you could set up a little system that would delete all unreplied e-mails that are older than 10–14 days and send a notification to those who sent these e-mails, so they know that their e-mail wasn’t read. If the e-mail was important, they will follow up eventually.
- Standardize your working hours
Freelancing web designers are blessed with abundant freedom in the hours they work. But this can be a blessing and a curse. If you work a few hours here and there during the day, you force your brain to switch on and off multiple times a day. Try to work roughly the same schedule each day and all in one block. This creates a clear divide in your head between work and free time, and the divide will help you stay efficient and organized.
- Schedule time for administrative tasks
You’re a designer foremost; but if you’re a freelancer, you are also the office manager. Don’t let those administrative tasks pile up. Schedule time each day or week to take care of bills, filing or cleaning.
- Time to think
Similar to the last point, you are also the CEO, and as such you need to think about the overall goals and strategy of your one-person organization. Make sure to leave time (at least some each month) to analyze how business is going and how you are progressing towards your goals.
Important to remember: routines are not (and should not feel) inflexible. You are always free to change the way you do things. Sometimes you may need to put out fires, and sometimes you just need a change. Listen to your instincts.
While being organized is not the same thing as having a mild case of OCD2, creating clear and consistent systems that you can use on a daily basis is important. These systems only become more important the busier you get, serving as an anchor to help you remember everyday items and meet critical deadlines.
The Old-Fashioned Way
I’m a big believer in simple solutions, especially for organization. My desk is covered with sticky notes, and I nearly always have a small notebook handy for sudden brainwaves. In addition to creating a written record, the physical act of writing forces you to use another part of your brain, one that ingrains the idea, making you less likely to forget.
Another great thing about using something like a notebook is that it doesn’t need charging (unlike all of those electronic gadgets in your pocket), and it doesn’t rely on a good connection to the Internet (unlike a Web-based to-do list). If you’re accident-prone, you can even get a field notebook4 (the kind biologists use), which has waterproof pages.
Do you remember life before mobile phones? Do you remember how many phone numbers you had memorized? The human brain is capable of remembering vast quantities of information; but like any muscle, it is only effective when actively used. Give your brain a chance to find the answer before turning to those Web calendars and notifications — it might surprise you!
A note about Web apps: these have become big business. And no wonder; a single-purpose app exists to help you do just about anything. But as with email, people get into the bad habit of being completely unable to move forward without checking, updating and mulling over their app of choice. For teams working together, these apps can be a true life-saver; but often you will also (hopefully) be working with only one or two individuals on each project. Why not simplify and drop the Web app altogether. A well-traveled notebook can do most of what an organizational app can do, without eating a portion of your pay check each month!
If you need a little more structure than just a notebook in your pocket, here are a few “analog” organizational systems to look into:
- Getting Things Done5
Personal organization based on writing down the important stuff.
- The Hipster PDA6
Notecards in your pocket held together with a clip. How much easier does it get?
- The Printable CEO7
Printable sheets to help with task management and goal-tracking.
Analog solutions can work wonders if you’re flying solo, but what if you have to collaborate with others on a product? Sometimes there is just no substitute for a good Web app at your fingertips to help you coordinate a project’s different facets. But be sure that you really need a Web app before wasting two days testing different ones, as I’ve recommended several times already. That said, here are a few stand-out apps to help you navigate your next project:
Mentioning Web-based productivity is impossible without a nod in 37signals’ direction. Basecamp is an amazingly mature and powerful app for coordinating teams.
- Campaign Monitor9
To manage email lists and send well-crafted HTML emails, this app is top of class.
Invoices, plain and simple. It also integrates with Basecamp.
If you’ve decided that a Web app is required for your project, remember that single-purpose apps are generally the way to go. If the app tries to accomplish too much, it will likely only end up frustrating you with features you don’t understand, much less need.
The One That’s With You
Photographers have an old adage: “The best camera is the one that’s with you.” The point is well made. What item do you carry with you everywhere, without fail? Your mobile phone, of course. And with the likes of the iPhone and Google’s Android platform, your phone is as powerful an organizational tool as your computer.
- Use the note-taking app.
If you have a brainwave, write it down. Replace “notebook” with “phone” in the paragraphs above and you’ve got the idea. You can collect and organize your inspirational images, videos and screenshots online with tools such as Zootool11.
- Voice memo yourself.
Most smartphones record voice memos. Voice memos are a quick way to get information down without having to type everything out on a small keyboard. Just remember that they only work if you listen to and act on them later. No smartphone? Just call yourself and leave a message: you’re sure to pick it up later.
- Exploit the app eco-system.
Both the iPhone and Android have healthy eco-systems of app builders who create just about everything, especially productivity tools. Check out what’s available for your phone.
Clearing the Clutter
You have a problem: your desk is completely covered. And I mean every square inch. Pens and pencils scattered about, yesterday’s newspaper lying under there somewhere (the sudoku half-finished, of course) and last week’s lunch rotting away quietly in the back corner. Somewhere in there you have work, too. While this surely doesn’t describe you, it illustrates a few points, so it’s a good starting point.
- Keep a trash bin next to your desk.
Having a bin close at hand ensures you will use it. If you can spare the space, add a second one for recycling.
- Use your desk for work and work only.
Just as you shouldn’t work in your bedroom, you shouldn’t read the paper, do the crossword puzzle or eat lunch at your desk either. I know: separating life and work can be hard. But the most successful freelancing designers I know clearly delineate the two and wouldn’t mix them up for anything!
- Sort on arrival.
One way to clear your desk quickly is to sort information as it arrives. Open and sort mail when it arrives each day. Sort those receipts that pile up in your wallet at least once a week. You don’t have to immediately act on these items, but don’t let them pile up around you.
- File folders are your friend.
Yes, they may be a bit dorky and corporate, but file folders are a God-send for staying organized. Give each subject its own folder, and stack the folders neatly in the corner of your desk. You can fill the folders with notes jotted during phone calls, pages from your notebook and designs scrawled on the back on napkins. Just don’t throw them away after using them once. A bit of masking tape allows you to relabel and reuse them until they split apart.
- Clean your digital desktop.
If you don’t already have a system for keeping the files on your computer in order, shame on you. Organization on your computer is paramount in importance. A good way to start: match the folder structure on your computer desktop to the one sitting in the corner of your physical desktop. Use it for all of the digital scraps that accumulate over the course of a project. When you’ve finished the project, move both folders — digital and physical — to an archive. After a year or so, you can trash the archive and only hang on to the deliverables (in case the client ever needs them resent).
Remember, consistency is the key to organization, so get into the habit of clearing things away before leaving your desk at the end of the day.
Ditch the Paper
There’s no way around it: paper still exists in the day-to-day running of a business, from receipts and bills to invoices, faxes and letters. Here are a few tips to help you organize all that paper lying around.
- Get a document scanner.
If you’ve got the money, a document scanner (such as the Fujitsu ScanSnap13 — see this in-depth review14) can nearly rid you of that fire hazard growing in your filing cabinet. These scanners can capture both sides at once, scan odd-sized items (such as receipts) and do it quickly. After your documents have been scanned, shred them for security. But now that you’ve digitized your records, you need a very good back-up plan to make sure they aren’t wiped out by a faulty hard drive.
- File by month.
If you don’t have the coin to buy a document scanner, I suggest filing general bills and receipts by month in folders and then archiving them by year once you’ve filed your taxes. Invoices and anything else project-related can go in project folders, again to be archived at the end of the fiscal year.
- Go paperless.
If you haven’t gone to the trouble of making all of your bills and statements paperless, shame on you. Stop everything you’re doing and remedy this right now.
The Long and Winding Road
There is no way to soften the truth: people who are well organized are far more likely to succeed in business and life. But now that you know that organization isn’t an innate skill but one that you can learn and improve upon, you have no excuses. Take the time to analyze what you do and how you do it, and then make small deliberate changes. You’ll be amazed at the difference many small changes make!
Perhaps the most famous productivity blog around. Full of good tips.
- Zen Habits17
Another powerhouse blog that specializes in tips and strategies for organizing your life and work.
- 7 Productivity Tips, Plus Tools for Freelancers and Web Workers18
More focused information, tips and tools to help you organize.
- How to Effectively Organize your Freelance Jobs19
Tips to help you digitally organize all of your jobs and keep track of each one separately.
- Using a Whiteboard to Keep Your Home Office Running Smoothly20
Another great analog solution. Let your creativity out.
- 1 http://www.flickr.com/photos/garryknight/
- 2 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Obsessive–compulsive_disorder
- 3 http://www.flickr.com/photos/thecampbells/
- 4 http://www.riteintherain.com/
- 5 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Getting_Things_Done
- 6 http://www.43folders.com/2004/09/03/introducing-the-hipster-pda
- 7 http://davidseah.com/blog/the-printable-ceo-series/
- 8 http://basecamphq.com/
- 9 http://campaignmonitor.com
- 10 http://blinksale.com
- 11 http://zootool.com/
- 12 http://www.flickr.com/photos/photowu/
- 13 http://www.fujitsu.com/us/services/computing/peripherals/scanners/scansnap/s300.html
- 14 http://productblog.37signals.com/products/2009/02/highrise-and-scansnap-document-scanner-beat-the-pile.html
- 15 http://www.flickr.com/photos/dawnzy/
- 16 http://lifehacker.com/
- 17 http://zenhabits.net/