Want to get shit done? Throw out your notebook and open your iCal.
On a given week, I do a daily comic strip, regular New Yorker and MAD Magazine cartoons, I do stand-up comedy shows all over the city, perform and voice act in TV commercials and volunteer as the Vice President of the National Cartoonists Society. If it sounds like a lot of work, it is. I get a lot of questions as to how I fit it all in.
The short answer is: Time management.
The longer answer is: I have a system that works around my brain and subverts any tendencies to procrastinate — especially during periods of extreme willpower depletion.
One of the biggest productivity revelations I had in the last 15 years while working freelance and trying to juggle a million different projects, was to work directly from a calendar, not a To-Do list.
I worked from a To-Do list for a long time, using a page each day to cross items off. It felt good to run a line through things as I got them done, but sadly, I never really got as many done in a day as I should — or could have.
If you need to write down all of the things you need to do in a list to get them out of your head (especially before sleep on a Sunday night) then by all means, do so. But, once they’re down on that list, start plugging them into your calendar to give you an actual idea of how much time you have to do them.
If you’re anything like me, you probably fall into the ‘dreamer’ category of time psychology. The dreamers are the ones who have poor ability to predict how long something will actually take and show up late to things, miss deadlines and generally end up having all your work snowball into Friday afternoon.
Trick #1: Copy & Paste
To remedy my old dreamer tendencies, I now make a habit of ensuring that on completion of a task, I adjust the calendar event to reflect the ‘actual’ time it took. ie. I may have allowed 30 minutes and it took an hour. I may have thought it would take an hour but it took 45 minutes.
I then copy and paste those similar or identical tasks that I’ve completed before when I’m scheduling for the week ahead. I usually do this on Sunday night. It gives me a realistic idea of how much time I actually have to get everything done, versus looking at a blank calendar. (Note: I’ve tried working from the freedom of a blank calendar… it’s not pretty.)
If you have repeating tasks each week, as I do, you’ll be able to copy and paste entire series’ of repeating tasks that accurately reflect the time it takes to do them. For instance, I have to write comic strips, ink and colour them, I have to sit and draw up my batch for the New Yorker each week, record an episode of the ITSIT podcast and, lastly, I know I always have to go in to the magazine from 11am — 12:30pm every Tuesday to pitch my batch. These things are repeating items on my calendar, and I’ve blocked out the exact time it takes each time (including travel time if needed).
Trick #2: Colour code your calendar
To give you a clearer idea of the kind of work you’re going to be doing in a day, it can help to colour code the kind of work that needs doing. You get a clear, concise 10,000ft zoom out view of exactly what kind of work you’ll be expecting to get done.
For instance, some work I do just needs me to be on my laptop, some needs me to be in my studio with my drawing equipment, and some things aren’t work at all, and need their own calendar like going to the gym, stretching or making a medical appointment.
Trick #3: Know how long to block distractions.
I use the Focusme app on my phone to block websites I know I habitually go to when I’m procrastinating, and SelfControl.app for the Mac to similarly block websites and social media on my laptop until the job at hand is completed. These are timer-based apps, and I know from the calendar how long to set each one.
Willpower is a depleting resource over your day. If you can outsource the amount of willpower needed to stay focused using apps like this, it reroutes it to more important tasks.
Trick #4: Bundle similar jobs or ‘mindsets’
If you know you’ve got a bunch of admin (emails, invoicing, quickbooks, blog posts etc.) and you know it’ll be basically the same mindset and toolset for all of them, block those tasks together. If they won’t require the same amount of energy as, say, the really big project you have to start, leave them for later in the day when your energy is a bit lower.
If you need to move to a different desk for drawing than you use for writing emails, then bundle your drawing desk activities together, and bundle your emails desk activities together. I even have different colour coded calendars for the two kinds of tasks, to make it easier.
If they’re high priority tasks, shift them to earlier in the day so you give them your full attention. Your energy and willpower wain throughout the day, so be sure to get your M.I.T. done first thing, before anything else.
Also, be aware of your own individual habits and energy patterns. If you’re more focused and creative in the morning, schedule your creative tasks for then. If you’re more productive in the afternoon, switch to then. Obviously, deadlines sometimes rob you of the luxury of scheduling things for your optimum times, but do this when you have the opportunity to.
Trick #5: Having an end time/date forces you to get it done.
I remember John Cleese talking about creativity within confines. He and the Pythons used to write in 90-minute chunks so they knew they had a deadline. It kicked their brains into gear knowing they didn’t have all day and night to get their work done. The same applies here — twofold:
You know you only have a certain amount of time to get the job done, be it from a self-imposed or externally-imposed deadline
You don’t sit around wondering what to do next because your calendar is telling you exactly what you should be doing and how long it should take. You don’t wonder “Should I be writing that blog post I’ve been meaning to write?” No. You put it in your calendar for Thursday. It’s scheduled. Do the thing you’re doing now.
Bonus upshot: Little to No procrastination, because not only do you know what you’re meant to be doing now, but you know what you’ll be doing next.
Get your head in the game, son!
A great trick I’ve learned for getting into the right mode is to psychologically ‘pregame’ before beginning any kind of creative work.
If I was to sit down and write an essay, then before typing a single word I would spend at least 15 minutes buried in some of the most inspiring and well-written essays ever written. Or, at least, writing from someone I enjoy reading.
If I was about to sit down to draw a cartoon, I would flip through the New Yorker and take a look at this week’s 16 or so cartoons that just ran, or flip through a cartoon collection book. It gets your mind well-and-truly in the mindset of that art form.
If I’m about to go out and do a series of comedy spots at night, I’ll switch gears by putting on a comedy special on the Netflix app on my phone, or looking at late night spots on Youtube.
Look at art that inspires you before you paint. Read writing that inspires you before you write. Watch comedy that inspires you before you perform. It sounds like simple advice, but it really is profoundly effective when you’re having trouble getting in the ‘mood’ to be creative.
I have to create every single day, whether I feel like it or not. Since I was 15 years old, I’ve always clipped out art that inspires me, or sparks off an idea or a mindset, and stuck it on my wall (or in my childhood days’, my wardrobe doors.) I used to think I would subconsciously absorb some of the great artists’ styles, but I’m not so sure about that.
These days I have art all around me in my studio (see above). If I’m about to draw up a rough for MAD, I’ll flip through the MAD 60 book, or a Sergio Aragonés or Don Martin collection. If I’m about to ink a New Yorker cartoon I might flip through some old Thurber, Addams or George Booth collections— or google other artists I’m enjoying right now and scroll through their work on Pinterest. My studio wall looks like a serial killer’s den, sure, and the art is now about 9 layers deep, but it does help kick my brain into gear every morning when it’s time to start work.
Try it out and let me know how it works for you.
Only bring exactly what you need, not what you might want.
I like to work away from the studio as much as possible. It gets me out of any creative rut and in New York, there are countless places to plonk yourself down and get stuck into a job without distraction.
The only problem is, to work remotely, you need to pack a bag with not just things you’ll need for the job that needs doing, but things you MIGHT need just in case. You know, like that book you’ve been meaning to read, and that magazine you saw the article in, and your iPad, Oh, and the legal documents you’ve been meaning to read through. Yes, maybe now will be the time you get the time and focus to read those. OH! And make sure you bring a whole range of pens, pencils, brushes and watercolours just in case you need all of them. You never know. OH! And make sure you pack that digital drawing tablet. And the charging cable. And the cables for the laptop to connect to the tablet. Oh, and the different kinds of stylus. Just in case.
Packing everything for every possible contingency of what your brain might feel like doing is not recommended. In fact, even having a bag/tote/backpack can interfere with completing your task.
By having everything in your backpack, it means you could do an infinite number of different things you’ve been meaning to get to, just in case you feel in the mood. With endless choice comes crippling uncertainty, and inevitably, you, hanging out in Starbucks, scrolling through your Instagram feed, liking photos of pugs holding bottles of wine… I mean… procrastinating.
Simplicity breeds productivity.
If the job really only requires you to bring a sketchbook, a pen and a phone (to scan it in.) then just bring a sketchbook, a pen and a phone. That’s it. Don’t even bring a bag. Carry the things so they’re the only thing you’ll be doing while you’re out. It helps you focus, and it stops you from potentially returning home frustrated that you wasted another day and got nothing done.
Back in 2010, there was a trend in the minimalism community of photographing the contents of your bag from above, all perfectly knolled to show how efficient you were at packing. I’m not going to lie, I had a Pinterest board of them… they were organisation porn. But many of them had way too much stuff — plus, they never showed an aerial photo of the owner of the backpack crippled with anxiety over what item they should take out next to get shit done.
Try it at home, too.
The same principle applies when you’re not working remotely. If you work from home and do all your work from the one spot, try switching it up.
Maybe if you have laptop work to do, get it done while sitting on the bed with no other distractions around you. If you have drawing work to do, do it at a drawing desk with nothing but drawing equipment around you. If you really want to read that book, find a chair and sit with just the book. No phone, no tablet, no laptop. Just the book. Preferably in a room separate from the one where you usually do your work.
We live in a time where the attention economy saps all our focus. The least we can try and do is limit the amount of willpower we spend making decisions on what we’re going to do where, and when.
One of the best pieces of advice I ever read, from everyone from Larry David to Bill Watterson, was if you want to have great ideas, always carry a notepad.
I’ve been carrying a small notepad in my back pocket for over 15 years and it hasn’t failed me yet. Ideas don’t come when you sit down to write. They come at that moment between swiping your Metcard on the subway and walking down the steps, so you’d better have a pen and a notepad to catch it at the bottom of those steps.
That way, when you get home and sit to write out ideas, you have a whole notepad full of sparks to work from. You aren’t tapping your pencil against your chin wondering how the hell to make up a funny idea.
It’s the number one answer to the number one question that myself and every other cartoonist gets asked: Where do you get your ideas?
It also helps if you’re learning to draw, or just want to get better at spontaneous doodling. I always had trouble drawing hands and mouths, so every time I had an idle moment I’d opt against fiddling with my phone (a miracle) for the only thing I enjoy more, which is filling notebooks with all kinds of mouths and hands in all kinds of positions and angles.
Want to advance to master-level note-taking? Get your best ideas in the shower?
Do what I do — grab yourself some waterproof Aqua Notes. A comedian friend of mine recommended them to me a couple of years ago and they’ve been amazing for capturing those soapy ideas before they circle the drain. The time between turning on the shower tap and drying yourself off is the number one best time to get creative ideas. Make sure you don’t play music or listen to podcasts during this time. It’s critical!
You can grab yourself some Aquanotes at Amazon.
Today’s question comes from Mel Wilson. Mel writes:
How do you label and store all your cartoons? Also how to you keep track of them all? Do you have flat files, or do you scan them and have a digital inventory?
Thanks for the question, Mel. The answer is: It depends!
For digital cartoons, I store them according to date and topic, sometimes caption.
For example, I date each cartoon according to: year/month/date (space)-(space)topic/caption
So a cartoon about space monkeys would be 20190122 - Space Monkeys Hiccup.jpg
I save all the high res jpg files in a folder called “Cartoons” with a folder for each year (2017, 2018 etc.) My entire hard drive is synced to Dropbox.
I also have another folder called xPSD where all the high res 600dpi PSD files are kept, and that, too, is synced to dropbox, but using Dropbox Smart Sync, it is only ever in the cloud to save hard disk space. When I need them, I download them individually.
For hard copy drawings, I have various labelled drawers. For sketches that might be something, I store them in “sketches”, for finished artwork that has been published, (and is for sale on the store) I put it in “Published”. I also have one just for my New Yorker cartoons.
How are they organised? …well. They aren’t. I just pick up the pile and shuffle through until I find the one I’m looking for. It’s not a fool-proof system, but it works for this fool.