Painting, Karate and Organization

by Shawn Blanc — Sep 4, 2007

My sister recently graduated college and moved out to live with my wife and I for a while. This afternoon while I was helping her get moved in we were in my office getting some manilla folders and she tells me, "I need to marry a guy who's organized."

(Say what? The big brother never wants to hear about his little sister's marriage plans.)

So I tell her -- not because I was trying to dissuade her from ever dating, but because it's truly easier than she thought it was -- that she could learn to be organized. I told her that it is all about discovering the way you work, making new habits and sticking to them.

She is a freelance artist, but not in the digital world. She's a painter. I have a 4'x4' original hanging above the green couch in my living room. And now that she's not in college anymore she's self-employed. That means keeping track of income and expenses for maximum tax-writeoffability come April. It also means keeping track of clients and potential clients.

Like my sister, most people want to get organized, and know that they ought to but never take the necessary time and energy to actually get there. Additionally, those who do begin to get organized often don't survive the initial time of frustration that comes due to the changes in work-flow. Thus, millions of designers and developers out there are living in a world surrounded by clutter, nonsense and junk mail when they could be making beautiful masterpieces.

The Learning Curve

Now let's talk about sports for a moment to discover how being organized could make you the next Bruce Lee of the freelance world. Hai ya!

I studied martial arts for eleven years and something I always had trouble with was my techinque for a basic sidekick. I could get some umph behind it even after several years of training I reached a point where my kick was at a stalemate. Because of my poor form I couldn't get any more power.

At that point I had to go back to the basics of sidekick technique and re-learn how to position my foot and leg properly. By learning the new technique I lost a lot of the power I had once been able to put behind my kick. I had been able to kick through three solid wood boards, but now I could only kick through one. But after a few months of practicing the proper technique I was able to surpass where I had been before.

Now I can demolish 4 solid wood boards and my sidekick is one of my strongest moves. Do you see how this relates to organization? At first it is a bummer to learn new habits and lose what momentum you had, but if you don't learn and adapt then you will never be able to break through to your potential.

Where the Problems Are

There are three primary areas of input and output for the computer-work-junkie's life: email, tasks and files. A major difference between professional designers/developers and noobs is that most pros and major design firms have nailed down a bulletproof system for clean, air-tight organization.


This is old hat on the web these days, but I am still shocked at how many people don't have a system setup for how they handle their email. Keeping it all inside your inbox is not the way to go.

I have been a huge fan of Merlin Mann's Inbox Zero series, but it took me a while to get ahold of it in a way that worked for my daily routine.

The breakthrough for email management came when I realized that there was not just one answer for the right way to manage email. I took some advice and made it fit into the way my brain works. I used a system that works for me and language that I understand.

In my mail application I have four folders set up that handle every single one of my emails. I've labeled them in a way that I understand. When I open my inbox I can quickly sort through all of my emails. Even if I don't have time to reply to them or take necessary action I can still manage the email and get it to a place where it will get the necessary attention.

My Email folders are:

  1. Reply Any email that I need to read and reply to goes here. It's as simple as that. If I have the time to reply right away then I will, otherwise I file i and reply as soon as I can.
  2. Action Any email that contains a 'todo' item, or needs some sort of involved follow up goes here. If I can quickly put that action into my task management system and delete the email then I will. Otherwise the message goes into the Action folder and I get to it as soon as I have time.
  3. Hold This is a temporary archive folder for emails that contain important information that will only be relevant for a short amount of time. Such as directions to my friends wedding next weekend, or flight information for my trip to Canada in October. I filter through the Hold folder about once a week to delete the emails that are no longer needed.
  4. Archive This is where I keep all the emails I want to hold on to forever. They may contain important information or a sentimental note. Either way I want them around.

Everything else gets deleted.


Now that my email client is being put to good use I don't have to live there. But I do still have to manage action items and todo's.

The key to successful task management for me is not only putting the information in, but I have to actually utilize that info. It's important to keep all the communication, specs and other details of a project in one central location. The benefit of this is that I am relieved of the responsibility of keeping edits and due dates in my head. Allowing me to think about more important things like, "Hmmm. Did I leave on the iron?"

Since I'm a Mac user, I decided to give iGTD the good 'ole college try. It has responded beautifully to my needs. It organizes tasks by context and project. It syncs between multiple macs and has Quicksilver support. And did I mention that its free?

File Structure

Having a well named structure to your files and folders with clear distinctions between proofs, finals, mock-ups, etc. is very important.

I primarily use folder heirarchy to keep my files structured while labeling the open design files with concept numbers.

Additionally some custom file icons can help to quickly find what you're looking for and add some spice to your finder window. I've gotten most of my custom icons from the sweet, one-stop-shop: Iconfactory.

How's that Sidekick?

As you begin to put your system together here are a few things to remember:

First of all, make your system work for you. Use language that you easily understand without having to think and structure that makes sense.

Secondly, stick to it. It will take a bit of time to get into the rhythm of organization, but it is well worth it. Even though you may feel like you've lost some of your umph, imagine how awesome it will be when you can worry about your iron instead of which edits you were supposed to make but accidentally left out. Digg Technorati Blinklist Furl reddit Design Float