A Creative Director’s top ten tips for staying on top of your task list

Tip #1: Keep a List

This tip is number one for a reason. I keep lists of everything from groceries, to tasks, to photo ideas, to quotes I like. If I don’t, they disappear into the abyss, never to be remembered again (or to be remembered at 2:37am on a random weeknight when my brain wakes me from a dead sleep to tell me that it finally found that tidbit of information I told it to search for).

As a creative, I’m a visual learner. Seeing my thoughts physically materialize is what actually helps me remember them. Don’t get me wrong, I DO refer back to my lists quite a lot. But I also visualize my lists in my head which helps me remember my ideas better. I make lists on my phone, sticky notes, my hand (just kidding), and actual paper … which leads to my next tip.

Tip #2: Use Actual Paper

Some people are going to disagree with me here, and that’s fine. Call me old-fashioned, but I love using actual paper. There is just something about the connection between thinking the thought, my hand actually writing it, and my eyes seeing it that helps it stick in my creative mind. It’s just not the same if I type it. Maybe that’s because I grew up using actual paper in school...

I also take notes and keep lists on my phone (because paper isn’t always available or practical to carry around), in Notion (our office-wide digital note-taking and sharing platform), or a Google Doc (which makes them much more sharable). I also transfer my hand-written notes to digital by typing them up or just taking a picture.

While digital notes may be more practical, I still prefer to use paper when I can, because I can’t doodle with a keyboard, and because I can use colored paper and colored ink. I can scratch out a task when it’s complete and rip out, crumple, and throw away an old list, which is perfectly satisfying.

Tip #3: Color Code Everything

I love to color code, and I know I’m not alone. Color coding creates visual separation within my lists. It helps my creative brain translate them more quickly and remember them better. I often tell people I’m a shapes and colors person, not a numbers person. While it’s meant as a joke, I’m actually serious. Numbering my lists wouldn’t help me at all, but color coding makes a world of difference.

We have even color coded our Storm Cloud Team (I’m the Pink Ranger). We use assigned colors to note task responsibilities and to separate who’s who on our shared calendars, so we can see availability blocks for everyone at a glance. I also use colored ink to color code my hand-written lists on actual paper (that sentence just made Dustin -shudder a little).

Tip 4: Prioritize Tasks — Important vs Urgent, Quick vs Intensive

When there’s a lot to get done, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the mountain of tasks ahead of you. To help me prioritize, I ask myself which tasks are urgent, which are important, and which are neither. I also decide which tasks can be completed quickly and which will take some intensive time dedication.

Obviously, urgent tasks always have priority, but the key is to be sure they are really urgent. Don’t let greedy non-urgent tasks masquerade as urgent, cutting in line ahead of other tasks who’ve been patiently waiting their turn. Many tasks may be classified as important, but only true fires should fall into the urgent category

At any given time, I’ll have several important tasks on my plate. Here’s where quick vs intensive comes in. I prefer to do a handful of tasks that I can knock out quickly (10 minutes or so), followed by one time intensive task, then a few more quick tasks, and another time intensive one. This way, I am not spending all of my time working only on tasks that I can accomplish quickly, and I’m not procrastinating on tasks that I know will take a while. Plus, I get to scratch out lots of lines on my list, which makes me happy.

Lastly, I address tasks which are neither urgent nor important. These tasks are few, but they do exist. They will occasionally get bumped for tasks of higher importance, but I’m careful not to forget to do them or let them drop off the list.

Tip #5: Keep a Clean(ish) Workspace

I can’t deny that feeling when I sit down at my recently organized desk, get into my freshly detailed car, or walk in the door to my newly deep-cleaned house. I just feel lighter. I can think more clearly and relax more easily. It’s my favorite time to tackle a big project.

My workspace is by no means an around-the-clock model of perfection, but everything has a home, and I know where I can find it. I keep clutter to a minimum (or at least consolidated to a certain area) and make sure to always clean up food dishes, trash, or dust bunnies that come to visit. It is so much easier to focus on the task at hand when the space around me is tidy.

Tip #6: Minimize Distractions

I’ve learned that a good pair of noise-canceling headphones is worth its weight in gold. I work best in total silence, while others in my shared office space work best to heart-pounding, repeating-beat techno. So, we compromise — I put on my headphones (this is a true story, but not as awful as it sounds).

In all seriousness, the ability to shut out noise and let others know that you’re in focus-mode is of the utmost importance when you’re trying to be productive. That can mean putting your headphones on, shutting your office door, or (if you’re Davida) putting a blanket over your head.

Tip #7: Take Brain Breaks

You’ve heard it said that you should get up and move around every 30 minutes throughout the day. That’s not just for your body, it’s also for the benefit of your brain. I focus better when I take an occasional brain break and reset my thoughts, especially if I’m working on something that requires a lot of focus.

It may seem counterintuitive to stop focusing when you’re trying to focus, but it’s not if you do it the right way. I focus hard on my task for 30 or 40 minutes, until I get to a good stopping point (like the end of a page or halfway through). Then I stop, save my work, get up, and walk to the door and back. When I return, I dive back in with a clear mind. It only takes a couple of seconds, but it gives my brain, my body, and my eyes a much-needed chance to reset.

Tip #8: Keep a Consistent Schedule

I know a lot of creatives who are night owls. I’m one, too. We like to work at 3 am, when the rest of the world is sleeping. That’s totally fine, as long as we consistently sit down and do the work. It’s when we tell ourselves we’ll work an hour here and two there that our productivity goes down the drain. It’s easy to say “I’ll do it later” when there’s no definition of when “later” may be. But, if you schedule a time for work and keep it consistent from day to day, then there is less opportunity to put your work off.

I have always had a set work schedule and I actually like it that way. I prefer to be on the clock at a certain time and off the clock at a certain time. A consistent schedule keeps me accountable, helps clients know when they can and can’t reach me, and allows me to achieve my next tip:

Tip #9: Separate Work and Home

This one is very important to me. I firmly believe in working to live and not living to work. I love what I do, but it is not my whole entire life. If it were, I would get burned out and not be able to enjoy doing it or do my best at it.

By clearly separating work time from personal time, I give myself permission to pursue passions that are unrelated to what I do for a living, avoiding resentment toward my work for keeping me from pursuing those other passions. Then, when it’s time to go back to work, I’m motivated to do so. I sometimes even find that I’ve missed it.

Whether you own your own business, work for yourself, or work from home, you should still separate your work time from personal time. Designate one room or a certain space in your home to be your work area. Make sure that you’re in that space when it’s time to work, and that you leave your work there when it’s time to be home. You can also schedule time to focus on the other important (not work) things in your life. Just don’t let your work creep in.

Tip #10: Work With Your Brain, Not Against It

This tip may actually be the most important. While this entire article is comprised of tips that help my creative mind be more organized and productive, you may find different systems that work better for your creative mind. After all, no two creative brains are alike.

I experiment quite a lot with different ways to stay on top of my task list. Sometimes I prefer a spreadsheet. Other times I prefer a whiteboard. Some of my experiments I adopt for the long haul, and some I abandon immediately.

It’s all about being creative (go figure). Learn what your brain likes and then work with it, rather than against it.

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