We all have stories we tell ourselves.
Stories that become so ingrained we stop seeing them as stories, and believe they are just the truth. For most of my working life, this was one of mine: I thrive on a degree of chaos. A messy workspace is a creative workspace.
I don’t know if that was ever really true for me. Perhaps it was, once. But as a writer who is often juggling multiple projects and a coach working with creatives from a wide variety of different fields, I have enough going on without making it harder for myself. I’ve realised that I have more time, focus and creativity when I have systems to keep me on track.
Don’t get me wrong. No one would look at my life or my workspace and mistake me for Marie Condo. But I no longer wake up at 4am worrying if I sent a contract to a new client, or spend my January weekends shifting through mountains of receipts and bank statements while I race to get my tax return filed on time.
I don’t miss deadlines, or spend great chunks of time on trivia, admin and busywork. Because I have systems.
You need a system for almost any recurring task
- You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, every time you want to roll from A to B.
- Routine tasks – even complex ones – can be done on autopilot if you’re just following the same tried and tested procedure each time.
- It eliminates silly mistakes, those basic errors that happen when you’re tired and just forget to tick a box on a form or to double-check something simple.
- Repetition also means you start to see where time is wasted, where the sticking points are, making it much easier to improve. Especially if you review your systems regularly.
- When your time, energy and focus aren’t sapped with trivial maintenance tasks, you’ll have more space for the real creative work, the projects that are important to you.
- Best of all, if and when you’re ready to delegate a task to someone else, all of the steps are clear.
So where do you begin?
In his excellent book Mind Management, Not Time Management, David Kadavy suggests creatives adopt the idea of a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP). Used across a wide variety of industries, an SOP is a list of clear, step-by-step instructions to complete a specific process consistently and efficiently.
To overcome perfectionism, he suggests thinking of it as a Sloppy Operating Procedure while you develop it. This gives you full permission to start messy, and improve as you go.
So when I made an SOP for my bi-weekly newsletter, the initial file was just a long, disordered list of the steps and tasks involved in producing The Creative Companion, and questions like this:
- Who is this newsletter for?
- What do they want to know?
- What am I trying to achieve with it?
- How can I get it done quickly and easily, while still giving the readers lots of value?
- How do I decide what to write about?
- What are the biggest things that get in the way?
- What takes most time?
- What do I need to check before scheduling it to go out to subscribers?
It’s about incremental improvements, over time
Every time I created a newsletter, I’d refine this, answering questions and adding new ones as they arose, trying out different systems, noting what took most time and where the bottlenecks were. Whenever I made a mistake (broken links, missing information), I added it to a list of things to check before I sent out future editions.
I’ve ended up with an efficient system that gives me plenty of time and space to write the newsletter, reducing the rest of the work to a series of small tasks I can pick up and do outside my peak creative times.
I’ve kept the design simple, with a standard template I now use each time. I have a system for saving useful links and resources that creative professionals might be interested in, and I then choose some to share in each issue. A checklist walks me through everything else from picture research to checking hyperlinks before I schedule it to go out.
Refining and streamlining your process inevitably involves some compromise and constraint. I used to do interviews for my newsletter, for instance. But setting them up, transcribing then writing them took up a lot of time.
When I looked at which parts of my newsletter were being read and clicked on, I saw that readers liked the interviews, but they didn’t love them. So I dropped them.
I love doing interviews. I love talking to brilliant creatives about their process. But the gains in time and energy were worth letting go of that. It used to take me two full days to create a newsletter. Now it takes around three hours. (And if you want to see it for yourself, sign up for it here.)
Systems are great for recurring tasks.
For doing the maintenance in your life and your business, keeping the wheels turning without having your time taken up by endless admin and working out what you need to do next.
Here are some of mine.
I used to dread dealing with my accounts and finances. Now I block out two 90-minute sessions every month to handle money admin, and I’ve gradually developed a step-by-step checklist of what to do in each of those blocks, all arranged in a logical order. Paying bills. Chasing invoices. Writing up my accounts. Checking PayPal and Stripe payments. Renewing insurances.
All the tedious stuff I used to avoid all now goes into a drawer as it arrives, and I don’t have to think about it again, because I know I’ll never go for more than two weeks without emptying it.
For me, this will never be fun. But I schedule lunch or a coffee with a friend afterwards, as a reward and an incentive not to procrastinate. And I now know exactly how much cash is flowing in and out of my business. Invoices are issued and chased regularly, I never have to wonder if I paid a bill or renewed the car tax, and there’s no stressful last-minute rush to do my annual tax return.
Pitching, selling, marketing
Whether you’re approaching potential new clients, trying to get your work into shops or galleries, or pitching ideas, systems really help.
You need templates so you can tweak the same idea and send it to multiple people. You need a spreadsheet or some way of tracking exactly who you’re sending it to, when, then following up at the right time and tracking your results.
And you need to do all of this regularly, to avoid the feast-or-famine cycle that most freelancers are all too familiar with.
If you have a social media channel that works for you, batch the tasks and do as much as possible in one session, creating posts and even scheduling them using an app like Later or Buffer. Then have daily/weekly routines in which you interact with comments, connect with new people, answer questions or whatever else you need to do to expand your reach.
I do this with a timer on, to stop me falling down the rabbit hole.
We all have a lot going on, and we’re bombarded with information: email, messages, podcasts, talks, articles, books, documentaries. So it’s good to have a way of capturing useful information as you go, then regularly moving it into some sort of system where it can easily be retrieved.
If you’re constantly juggling multiple work projects, personal responsibilities, your to-do list and notes, I heartily recommend Tiago Forte’s book Building A Second Brain. I’ve written more about it here.
For me, it’s been life-changing. I used to spend hours looking for quotes I remembered in books, or rifling through multiple notebooks to try and find an idea I remembered jotting down. I had a constant nagging feeling of forgetting something important. Now it’s all stored in my note-taking app Mem.ai, and can be retrieved in a couple of keystrokes.
Creativity can be unpredictable, but it can help to develop a system to help you get into the right state of mind, at the right time. Playing a certain soundtrack; laying out your tools in a specific way; lighting a candle; going for a quick walk before you begin, in which you think about the work; repeating a mantra, reading a poem.. all of this can help you get into flow faster, and put create the right mindset for making your best work. Ritual helps here, deliberately setting the scene and getting into a focussed mindset. Notice what happens when you do get into flow easily – and reproduce that on other days.
All of my regular social media posts are made from templates I’ve created in Canva. If you have email you send out regularly, keep it and just tweak it each time to personalise it, rather than writing it from scratch every time. Whenever you create marketing materials, keep them so you can just adapt them next time.
Equally, if you find a graceful way of saying something difficult – letting a client go, putting up your prices, withdrawing from a project, admitting a freelance job didn’t work out – keep it. You won’t need it often, but you’ll be grateful it’s there if you need it again.
So you have a new client. Congratulations! There is probably similar information you need from them, every time. You’ll need to agree a contract perhaps, and get more detail about the client or the job. If you have a process that moves them smoothly through booking, payment, contracts and whatever else needs to happen to do the job, it can save you hours. Checklists and forms can really help here.
There are probably also questions new clients ask, every time. Create a FAQ page on your website, and refer them to that. Make a PDF running through what to expect, to send as soon as they book you. Have an automated email sequence that it triggered if they sign up to know more about you, or buy something from your website. If you answer their questions before they even ask them, it saves you time, and makes them feel seen, welcomed – and that they’re in safe hands.
With any repetitive tasks you’re doing regularly, see if there’s a way of automating it. My booking system saves me and my busy clients endless rounds of email ping-pong while we try and arrange appointments. They can see when I’m available, and book a time that suits them. If their schedule changes – as it often does, for self-employed creatives – they can simply go back in and change it.
If you’re regularly moving information between different software/apps in your tech stack, you can often use Zapier, IFTTT or Make to automate your workflow. This might sound complicated and scary, but they are made to be as user-friendly as possible. If I can do it, you can!
My system for creating a new system
1: Decide what you want to achieve
Create an SOP page, and get clear on what you’re trying to do, and what you’ll gain by doing it. If there isn’t a clear and relevant reason, do consider whether you need to do the task at all, let alone create a system for it!
2: Get to the root of the problem
If you’re trying to streamline your email, for instance, it isn’t just about processing more email, faster. It’s about questioning why you get so much email in the first place.
- Where exactly are the snags, the drains on your time/attention?
- What do you end up searching for, every time? (Passwords, links, information, specific tools.)
- Where are you over-complicating? What would the simplest, easiest version of this task look like?
3: Research and learn
Once you’ve identified the core problems, look how others have solved them. Find a few alternatives, if you can. There are plenty of people out there selling supposedly foolproof systems and making grand claims that their way is the best/only way. Ignore this. Find what feels right for you, and for the way you work.
Experiment. Tweak and adapt. Keep it as simple as you can. (Remember this is about saving time and bandwidth, not building a complicated engine with lots of moving parts to maintain.) And no matter how highly-rated it is, don’t commit to expensive software or kit without looking for free alternatives, signing up to a free trial first, or renting it for a while to test it. We’re all different, and one person’s dream tool is another’s nightmare.
4: Set intentions
Once you’ve identified the actions needed, commit to implementing them. Be specific. “I will [ACTION] at [TIME] in [LOCATION].” Then put it into your calendar, task list or whatever else you use to track your days, and do it.
This can involve putting aside a one-off block of time to create templates, set up software or automate processes. Or it might be scheduling regular time to deal with a recurring task.
5: Review regularly
Track any new system and review it regularly, improving as needed.
- Is it solving the problems you wanted to solve?
- Are you progressing on the big project you wanted to complete?
- What is working? And what is not?
- How could it be easier?
- And how could it be more fun?
Approach this with curiosity, not judgement. See it as a set of experiments you’re running. It’s about finding out what works for you, for your business, and for your clients/audience.
If you’re building new systems for something quite complex, or if you’re changing habits that have been ingrained for a long time, be patient.
Take it one step at a time. Let your system evolve. And go for the easy wins first. Gradually, you’ll free up more time, focus and energy for the things that are truly important to you. Which is worth a bit of tinkering, no?