Scheduling for Writers, Artists, and Creatives: Paper and Digital Notebooks Calendars, Trackers, and More

Now that I am in my retired years, my entire focus is on my creative projects. I worked as a researcher and professor in the biomedical sciences for twenty years. When I was working I was always hard on myself about sticking to a schedule, and I was rarely successful. Now that I am retired, I am more lenient with myself in terms of schedule, and I think that maybe it is better.

The Saints and Feasts of the Church Calendar, Unknown Painter (circa 1500-1550)

Studies show that our brains are constantly re-wiring to make new connections. I also believe the research shows that various stages of sleep work together to make both new connections and to make useful connections stronger. This must be an essential process for the creative brain, so it is probably best to give the brain downtime and let the creative connections happen if your goal is to make something unique. I haven’t seen or looked for research about day-dreaming and making neural connections, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the process is also similar to actual sleep.

Now that my entire focus is to be a creative, I think it is best to be gentle on myself in terms of schedule so that my brain has plenty of time to make those new connections. Still, I have a very ambitious creative project, so I need some sort of process to keep myself on task. I have found a few tools that work for me.

I believe strongly in habits and routines. I believe that how we spend our time shows who we are. I spend most of time thinking, so I must be a thinker. And I am a frustrated thinker because I spend so much time thinking that I have trouble realizing the aims of my thoughts.

I have recently started using an application by Apalon Apps called Productive. It allows me to enter a set habits by day and keep track. Since I have an ambitious project, I have MANY things that I intend to do on a regular basis and keeping track is essential. Rather than trying to schedule an exact hour for each task, I plan on a day of the week and a rough time of day (morning, noon, or night) to do a task. This seems to be working for me to stay relatively well on task, but I am gentle with myself. The list of habits is merely a guide. If I get sidetracked, fine. If I’d rather do something else, fine. But the guide is there, and when I need to jump start my brain, I look at my habit list and ask “okay, what I am supposed to be doing today at this time of day?”, and I start with one of those tasks.

I am gentle with myself about what I am actually working on at any given time, but I still want to keep track of how I actually spend my hours. I want to be able to look back and see what I actually did and for how long so that I can evaluate my behaviors and goals. I actually log my hours spent on each task in a different application by WonderApps called ATracker. It is an excellent application and it synchronizes well across devices with a subscription. I have the general tasks listed in ATracker. I just click on them to start the timer, and I am able to take notes about the specifics I do for each task after the timing is completed. I let the application record my activity to my digital calendar so that I have a log of what I actually did each day, and the application itself has some excellent graphing and analysis capabilities.

I still use my digital calendar even though I am easy on myself about my schedule. When I have a fixed appointment (usually a doctor’s appointment these days), I add it to my digital calendar with alerts. This record, combined with the log from ATracker, makes and excellent log of how I actually spend my time. I try to look back at the log on a regular basis, and I try to evaluate whether or not I need to do something to change my behavior or goals based on my current goals and tendencies.

I even still use a paper calendar, but I use this more for planning the details of the general routines. The paper calendar serves as a to-do and check-off list for the specifics of the general routines that I have listed in Productive and ATracker.

I love paper. I believe that we make the best connections when we work with our hands. After I have my morning coffee and do the necessary time letting my brain make connections, I jump start the activity part of my day, by doing morning pages. I first learned about morning pages from the source, Julia Camron’s Artist’s Way. The idea of the morning pages practice is to write three pages of stream of consciousness each morning no matter what. I find that this is an excellent process for clearing the head and for jump starting the reflecting mind into output mode.

I keep MANY notebooks. I have so many notebooks, that I even have one notebook that is the index or table of contents of all of my notebooks. It is the one place I can go and see a summary of all of my work in progress.

I think of my notebooks as works of art. I use color pens and washi tape. If I could draw, I would do that too. I’m a little crazy about notebooks. Some types of notes I keep in hard bound notebooks. Other types of notes I sprawl out on large heavy-weight A3 paper like the piece of art that they are, and I file them in a large A3 portfolios when I am done. Whether I take the notes in a notebook or on art paper just depends on the subject and purpose of the note. It’s another part of the creative process for me.

So many great creatives have been excellent notebook keepers. I just ordered a copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, so soon I’ll probably post a review of the book I found that presents them.

I also use 4X6 cards index cards and an index card holder. My 4X6 index cards are for what I think of as “actionable items”. These are ideas or things that I want to keep actively in mind at the moment. One way that I use 4X6 cards heavily is to plan future writing topics. I write down the topics and add notes as I think about them. When I sit down to write and I need a topic, I can search through my cards to find a subject to churn out. Parts of this article come from notes I made on a 4X6 card a few days ago.

My index notebook even lists my digital notebooks. I do use digital as the final storage place for my work, and I put polished summaries in digital form. Since most of my work is reflective, I like to use the Day One journal application by Bloom Built to record polished reflections. Once I week, I write up a summary of the most salient reflections of the week in my Day One application. Once a month, I add a copy of all of my handwritten notes to Evernote so that I have a digital, searchable backup of everything.

I guess my process is cumbersome, but that is the kind of guy I am. I love processes and routines. The problem is that I am also a daydreamer, and I easily get off track. I am trying to work with my two tendencies.

Most importantly, I think that in order to be a good creative it is key is to give the brain plenty of time to rest and make new connections. That is the neural reality of the creative process. Hopefully, the planning keeps everything moving in a forward direction.

I’d love to hear how other creatives organize their days. I think our routines says so much about who we are as artists. If you haven’t read it already, Daily Rituals: How Famous Artists Work by Mason Currey is a fascinating read. Written as series of short chapters that each focus on the routine of a specific artist, it is an excellent source of inspiration.

You can inspire me in the comments with some of the unique and essential specifics of your routine!

Author: Darren Roesch

I’m a former academic and current amateur philosopher and artist. I’ll give you the world and everything in it. The rest is up to you.

2 thoughts on “Scheduling for Writers, Artists, and Creatives: Paper and Digital Notebooks Calendars, Trackers, and More”

  1. Oh wow, we are so alike! First of all Julia Cameron’s “Artist’s Way” is amazing. Have you read the two books that follow; “Walking in this World” and “Finding Water”? They are great as well. As for notetaking I am so serious about my notetaking that I have a reputation as being the notetaker at work as not only am I organized using Microsoft’s One Note but words flow from my ears or mind to my fingers. I can type as fast as I can hear it. It is a gift. I am going to check out the apps that you have featured here as the one thing I cannot seem to get under foot is a solid place to keep my To Do lists as well as my routines. I am also structured and love routines. I use Outlook as a calendar and am relentless at making sure my calendar is on point. Despite all of my self-imposed rigidness I am still searching for time and tools that keep me more structured. Thank you for this blog, loved it and feeling a little less alone in my quest for efficiency to allow more time for creativity. Lori

    1. Thanks for the reply, Lori! I did not realize that Julie Cameron had follow up books. I’ll have to check them out. ATracker is a solid app for what it is built to do: keep track of how you actually spend your time. It also has excellent data analysis tools, and it syncs amazingly well across devices with a subscription. I highly recommend it. Productive is the best app I have found for routines. It does have some flaws. It doesn’t sync across devices, and I, at least, can not figure out how to change the order that habits appear within a given time block. I wouldn’t call it a place for to do lists, though. I don’t have many set tasks that I have to do in a day anymore, so I don’t really use to do lists any longer, except for the occasional list scrawled on a post-it or planning that I do in my hard bound calendar. I don’t know of a good one-stop app for both to-do and routines. Thanks for sharing some of your routine! I find it fascinating to learn how others do things, and I’m always stealing ideas!

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