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!

Mandalas are Representations of the Light of the Soul: My Daily Mandala Habit

I try to draw a mandala each morning as part of my daily routine.

Mandala drawing is part of my daily routine.

Somewhere throughout the course of my delusional disorder I conceived of the idea that the soul is made up of light. I imagine that some people can see this light come and go into bodies, but I am blind to this light.

Indeed, it is interesting to note that one highly refuted scientist once claimed to have determined that the soul is something separate from the body, and the soul weighs 21 grams. Apparently there was even a movie inspired by this “scientific” work, but I have not yet seen it.

Now each morning, I try to draw a mandala in observance of what I imagine to be the beautiful light of the soul and in reflection of the amazing things that always manage to exist just beyond our vision.

I use spirographs and a compass to draw each mandala with color pens and and color pencils.

Each mandala is given a name. I am currently using The Name Book by Dorothy Astoria to assign names. Although, it was not my intention to mail-purchase a biblical name book, I find the definitions and passages of reflections helpful in inspiring each mandala design. Sometimes I supplement the definitions I find in this book with additional material I find on the internet for design inspiration.

After each day’s mandala is drawn on A5 heavy-weight paper, I write a little something about each soul on the back and file it in a portfolio.

My daily mandala habit acquaints me with the soul light within each of us. I highly recommend the practice.

Claiming the Bliss Station

Last week I wrote about Joseph Campbell’s thoughts on the essential role of the bliss station in a happy, productive life.

The bliss station is a special place where the artist (or any individual) can go to dream and work uninterrupted for a special time each day.

When I first wrote about the idea of a bliss station, I was working on the couch and dining room table of my apartment. After I wrote that article last week, I had a good hard look at my setup and decided that my work space simply was not adequate. I did not have space to sprawl out and leave stuff, and I did not have reliable hours of uninterrupted time.

So, I spent the better of this week claiming a real bliss station in a storage room on the ground floor of my building. I wish it had natural light, but it is fairly large and away from distraction, so I am pleased. The space is now mostly clear, and I spent the better part of the day resuming my activities.

There is still work to do to organize the junk in the storage room so that the whole room is more comfortable and functional, but now I have a couple work tables and few shelves in a fairly large, quiet space. I believe this is more of a true bliss station, and I am already feeling better about my promise for focusing, reflecting, and working. So, I think last week’s article has precipitated a positive change in my work setup.

This is the small work table I set up for writing, drawing, and typing.
I have a couple shelves for storing supplies and reference materials.
I have a dedicated table that I can use for painting, paper-crafts, and sculpting.
I picked up these doors/drawers/shelves at a used furniture store a couple months ago. My portfolios don’t really fit, but the storage is good enough for now to store my portfolios according to day of the week that I use them.
There is still a lot of junk in the room, but once I straighten it up and move most of the junk to the loft that is above this view, this should be a nice, quiet, productive bliss station.

An Easy Way to Draw When You Can’t Draw: My Tracing Projector System for Cataloging and Studying Earth’s Life Forms

I like to think of myself as an a amateur artist, but the truth is that I can’t even draw to save my life. I have no skill for realistically representing things on paper or canvas.

The iPhone sits above the semi-transparent, reflective lens and the viewer traces the reflected lines by looking through the lens from the top.

Still, it is one of my goals to make a thorough study of the external features of Earth’s animal and floral biota through handmade art. My hope is that by studying forms and colors of living organisms, juxtaposing the ideas, reorganizing them, and adding twists of my own, I can design some interesting new creature for the simulators my fantasy calls for designing.

To study the biota closely, I want to draw individual organisms. I believe that by closely studying the forms I can better get to know them. I can internalize their shapes and colors in an intuitive way.

So, since I can’t draw, how do I do this?

I discovered this handy and very cheap tracing projector. I place an image on my iPhone, and lay the phone in the holder on the projector. The image of on the iPhone reflects in the semi-transparent lens, and while looking through the lens from the top, I can use my pencil or pen to trace lines. I then go back and color the images with pencils from my 150 color Prisma pencil set.

After I make an image of each organism, I add scientific notes to the back of the image. Then I file the image in a portfolio. I hope that as begin to make more of these images and review them, I can begin to make interesting juxtapositions and recombination.

I will eventually begin to draw and sculpt new external forms and design new internal physiologies.

Every Artist Needs a Self-Written Library

Notebooks I use to record my library.

I have become a true documentarian. I try to record as many of my interesting thoughts as I can.

I think this habit is hereditary. My paternal grandmother also kept a massive filing system. She read the newspaper from cover-to-cover each morning, took notes in the margins, and saved clippings that interested her. This was just the beginning of her documented life.

I use two kinds of notebooks to record my work.

First, I use A3 portfolios from eco eco to record information I glean from podcasts, audiobooks, music, and academic courses I find on Wondrium. I take notes and write reflections on large sheets of heavy-weight Canson paper using colored pens and washi-tape, and then I store them in the portfolios moving from back to front. I probably have about 20 of these notebooks, each on a different subject.

Second, I use Leuchtturm 1917 notebooks to record personal reflections and activities. I also keep a calendar of my planned activities in a Leuchtturm academic planner.

These notes eventually inspire academic essays or creative writing pieces that are stored in a final digital form. Visual and tactile art pieces are also generated and kept in in eco eco portfolios or in some other storage format.

I call the whole of the output of my personally-produced library the Spielpresse.

I find it very satisfying and comforting to turn my never-ending curiosity and thought into concrete pieces of written art.