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I Wasn't Born This Way: 5 Steps to the Organised Artist

When I was twenty-three I embarked on an around-the-world trip that I anticipated would last for at least a year and up to two...or maybe three. Who really knew? I was young, I had quit my jobs and the world was at my feet.

I had a stack of traveller's bibles: Lonely Planet books for South America, Europe, Africa, Asia and Austalia. I had some savings. I had my CV printed. I had wanderlust.

What I did not have: organised packing skills.

Mere hours before my flight took off I was sitting in on the floor of my bedroom surrounded by every shred of clothing I owned, staring at an empty backpack. My mother swore off helping me because the stress was too much for her. I began to hyperventilate.

Eventually, somethings found their way into my bag and other things lay abandoned on the floor as I dashed out the door with my mother reckoning that the best she could hope for was that I would still have hold of my ticket and passport when we got to the airport. Against all odds, I did and I hadn't forgotten anything even remotely important in my panicked packing haze. I've even managed to survive the subsequent years and to coordinate an international move.

More than that, I've developed quite the reputation for organisation. I spent the last two years organising events for the Kingston Writing School, compiling and publishing pamphlet anthologies, co-teaching and generally keeping several projects on the go, while completing an MFA, a teaching qualification and writing a novel.

Then, a couple of days ago someone asked me for advice on how to be more organised. Me? My first reaction was to think, "There's nothing I can say about organisation - I'm the least qualified person to talk about organisation!"

Then I decided that, perhaps, I'm actually the perfect person to talk about it. Who knows better than I how a self-confessed scatter-brained caterpillar can transform into a orgnaised butterfly?

Here's how I did it in five steps:
Good dental hygiene is essential
First, I invested in a four month, dry-erase calendar and a marker. I actually took this first step in university. Suddenly, I could see my whole semester at a single glance and deadlines no longer snuck up on me. I could see them coming months away. Electronic calendars are also great because you can set them to send you an alert when deadlines are approaching - from 15 minutes to weeks in advance. My taller (naturally organised) half thinks I'm a bit nutty with alarms going off several times a day, but it works a dream for me.

Second, I started listening to my mother - Shock! Horror! She taught me the joys of reverse scheduling. The idea of working from a deadline back to more manageable goals eased my anxiety to no end. Previously, I would get myself into a self-defeating downward spiral: I would get overwhelmed by the larger project so I would procrastinate, trying not to think of the horror that awaited me, this only left me closer to the deadline, still with no work done but with a healthy addition of over-achiever's guilt and - cue the increased anxiety, then avoidance and can see where this is going. Reverse scheduling stopped this cycle in its tracks. All I had to do was complete one easy, little step at a time and each of those steps took me closer to my huge goal. This paid off enormously this year when I had several major, unexpected events to contend with just three weeks before my MFA dissertation was due, luckily, I was done with the bulk of the work by that time and didn't have to extend my degree by several months.

Third, I learned to love a list. The To Do list is a hallmark of my life. Everything goes on a list: groceries to purchase; emails to send; work to complete for students; questions to ask my mother next time I talk to her; everything. Now, my taller half will attest to my tendency to (inevitably) forget my grocery list at home, but thanks to mobile phones, I just ring him and he reads it to me before I check out. The list has been invaluable in novel writing, however, because it keeps me on track. I don't have to remember or reread to figure out what comes next; I keep a list so that when I sit down to write, I just write the next thing on that list. Of course I add, swap and move things on the list all the time, but knowing that all I have to do at any given moment is write the next scene on my list takes (some of) the anxiety out of writing an actual, full-length novel. Also, ticking things off a list is very satisfying. Sometimes, I cheat and put down things like "brush teeth" just so I'm certain I'll be able to tick something off that day.

Fourth, I prioritised. You have to. Not everything can have the same level of importance and urgency in your life. Somethings you've just got to let go. So when you're looking at your list, hold it up to your calendar and do the more urgent things first. Do not give in to the urge to do the quick things first just to have lots of ticks on your list. Remember your reverse scheduling and decide what has to be done now and then do it. The quick stuff will be quick whenever you do it, but the first step on that enormous project? Better take that as soon as possible.

Fifth, I hold myself accountable. If I forget something, it's my fault. Not the person's I was supposed to do it for. Not the trains'. Not the weather's. Not my computer's. And not my mother's. That last one took a while - essentially all my teen years. I make myself apologize and I make myself apologize without excuses. No excuse? That's the worst part but it all sucks. I hate doing it and so, when I have to, I then go find a way to ensure that it won't happen again.

So, all in all, I'm a flaky artist but I'm living the life of an organisation freak. For years, I thought that this just wasn't who I am. Why should I change who I am? I like living with my head in the clouds. But I've found that I like living anxiety and apology-free a lot more. Writing everything down lets me do it all: be away with the fairies but great at my jobs and focused in my writing.

I love not forgetting things anymore. Missing my stop on the bus because I'm stuck in a book doesn't count. I chalk that up as extra exercise.


  1. I seem to recall a young Bader Hall resident taking charge and helping me organize my (gigantic) suitcase for the trip back home to Canada at the end of our year at the ISC. Your stellar organizational skills may have started earlier than you think ... although maybe it's just easier to be organized for someone else than for yourself?

    1. Also, I had no idea you have a blog! It's really good and I'm adding it to my To Read list, now!

  2. I remember that, too! I think it was much easier to tell you to throw things out. This is evidenced by the fact that I brought home two enormous suitcases and a large travel backpack. Ahh, remember the days when airlines actually let you take luggage on board? Thanks for reading the blog, Heather! Hope life is good with you - it's been too long!

  3. Wow. You had me fooled. No, really. Great post. We'll have to have a list chat one day. Lists also allow me to be the person I wasn't born to be and I also put things like 'brush teeth ' on lists for the same cheeky wee reason. I suppose you've only got a problem if you make a list of lists to make (I don't do that; I’m sure you don’t either!). I also believe the buzz of ticking things off the list motivates you to do more and do it faster. Fab post.

    1. Lists of lists? Never *scrunches up paper and stuffs in pocket*

      Glad you enjoyed the post!


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