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Workflow, Time Management and Productivity for Creatives

Lesson 3 of 9

Organizing a Workflow Document

Lisa Congdon

Workflow, Time Management and Productivity for Creatives

Lisa Congdon

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Lesson Info

3. Organizing a Workflow Document

Lesson Info

Organizing a Workflow Document

I'm gonna sh, I'm about to flash onto a spreadsheet and sometimes when people see spreadsheets, what happens? Their eyes roll into the back of their heads and they're like, "No, mm mm." But, I want you to take a deep breath and I'm gonna take you through each column of this and you'll begin to see how it all fits together. This is not something you can keep by hand in a notebook. And actually, there are probably other ways of keeping a document, and again, if you find another way or another system and there's an app that you want to use that, where you can record all this information, I say go for it. This is what I do and it works well for me. So, I keep my spreadsheet in Google Docs, so you'll probably recognize that format, okay? This is a sample template of how I organize my workflow. This is a way of organizing that works for me. And again, I want you to approach this class with a mindset that you can make changes to this system or invent your own in a way that works for you, okay...

? This is a super flexible system. So, in the first column, I'm gonna go through each of these, we've got project, and that's just where you list the project, the date that it was assigned, the client, the name of the client or collaborator, if it's a personal project, you would just write personal project, project description and deliverables, and phase and deadline. And you'll see that filling in, especially, the fourth and fifth columns, take a little bit of time once you've got a new project. There is a downloadable version of this on the course page, so you could take as many notes as you want, but know you will have access to this. And I'm gonna also flash this on the screen a few more times. So, let's talk first about the first column, the project name. So, this is the main identifier in your workflow document. So, this is an important column, just to sort of differentiate between different projects 'cause sometimes you're gonna be doing projects that are actually really similar and so, you want to differentiate between them, give it a unique name. So, in this example that I've shown you, I've got, one example is illustrations for ABC, You and Me children's books. So, again, it's just a very short description. You could even just say, "ABC, You and Me children's book." 'Kay? You need to know what it means, that's the only important thing. I've also got the first column divided into three sections. This is actually something I started doing about a year and a half ago. Previously, I listed everything together, but what's the problem with doing it that way? Yeah, you lose every, not everything's the same grain size and so, I was prioritizing based on when things were due, but it made it look like I had way more on my plate than I did and I realized that I needed to divide my workflow into three sections, large projects, so that when I looked at it in a glance, I could say, "Oh, I have, actually have space "on my calendar to take on this new project "that I'm being offered because I don't really have "any large scale projects right now "or I only have one," right? "I have a lot of small projects." Where if they're all listed and given the same value, it seem, it might seem like you have more work on your plate than you actually do. And I allow myself to have more small projects than big projects. You only want maybe two or three big projects at a time and that's even pushing it. So, it's also a way for you to keep yourself in check about how many big projects you have. 'Kay? So, large scale projects, those are for me, you can define it differently, are projects that I take on that will take a full week to several months to complete and usually these are client projects or a big personal challenge, like, "I'm gonna draw a new portrait everyday "for the next 60 days." How many of you have done a personal creative challenge? Right? And it's hard, again, as I said, it's hard to stay on top of those because who are you accountable to? Yourself. That's it. Everything else on my to-do list is usually a client or somebody who's reached out to me because they want to write something about me or whatever. Those projects, I really highly encourage you to keep them on there and if it's a long term project that you want to complete in a matter of months, keep it in your large scale projects section. Medium projects will take two days to one week to complete. These are projects that are maybe like an illustration for a magazine or something that is not a huge extensive project, like a book or a longer term client project, just something that is not small either. And then small projects. Those are things you can complete in a day or less in time. And the reason it's important to capture those is a lot of times, I will get an email from somebody that says, "I'd really like to publish "a interview with you on my blog "and you have three weeks to get the answers "to these questions back to me." So, I put it in my workflow with the deadline and then, because I track my workflow everyday, every other day, I am constantly reminded that this thing needs to happen in three weeks. Where before I had a central place to dump everything, I might forget that I said I would do the interview and if she never wrote me an email reminder, it might never happen. So, this is, again, a central place to put everything, including those things that you don't have to do right away. In fact, it's the most important for those things that you don't have to do everyday because those are the things you're most likely to forget. 'Kay? Any questions so far? Yeah? I guess I have a question about ongoing projects. Yes. Because I work in print and pattern and the work sometimes seems like there's no beginning and there's no end and I don't know where that fits in and it feels a bit overwhelming to just feel like you have to constantly be creating and there's no end. Yeah, and yet, that's kind of what you gotta do. (laughs) So, I wonder, if it doesn't make sense to put it in large scale projects, I wonder if you could have a separate category that was just ongoing. And actually, a lot of personal projects are ongoing and that might be a good section for those, as well. I tend to only do projects that have a defined start and finish, but I know a lot of creative people are just constantly needing to create new repeat patterns and designs to put out into the world, right? Or prepare for a trade show that's in six months. So, that might be a separate category. It might go in large scale and it might, the timeline might just be ongoing or if you're preparing for something specific like a trade show or you're gonna present some patterns to a company, we'll talk about this in a second, you're gonna set some arbitrary deadlines. Because if things don't have deadlines attached to them, we are far more likely not to do them. And that's why deadlines, while they feel oppressive, are actually super helpful. When I get, anytime I get a request from anyone out in the world who wants something from me and I agree to it, my first question is, "What's my deadline?" And if somebody says, "I don't care, "you can get it to me whenever you want," I say, "Make up a deadline for me" because otherwise it won't get done. And it's not because I don't care, it's just that if you give me a deadline, I'll do it, otherwise, I'll probably keep putting it off and I think that's human nature, right? Any other questions? We're good out in the internet land? Okay. Pro tip, you never know exactly how long a project will take, so make your best guess, right? I think what often happens is, and I think this is sort of part of psychologically what happens to us when we get a project, especially a larger project that has multiple components and it feels overwhelming, is we are so overwhelmed that we don't even know where or how to begin and that is really the core of why we procrastinate, right? This sense of not knowing where to begin or feeling overwhelmed by the whole and not knowing where to start. And so, part of what I hope you get out of today is this understanding that breaking things down into smaller parts is actually going to help you get started and even if you don't, I mean, one of my mantras is "Begin anyhow," so, basically, even if you don't know how long something's gonna take you or exactly what it's going to entail or look like once you get started, you want to take a good guess at where to start and begin. Okay? Alright. Workflows are flexible changing systems. So, if while you're working on something you realize you have to change the timeline that you gave it, and we'll talk about setting deadlines and intermediate deadlines in a minute, that's okay because it's your system, you get to just go in and change the deadline, especially if you're working with a client and you've agreed with the client that the deadline needs to change, just go in and change the workflow document. That's why I like to keep these as a digital document, my to-do lists, I think, are better written, personally. But, overall, workflows I think are great. And also I highly recommend keeping them on something like Google Docs or in Dropbox, somewhere in the Cloud, so that, if necessary, other people who work with you can access them and also update them. And that you can access them from anywhere. Okay. Column number two. Date. So, this is typically, for me, the date that I've been assigned a job or I have accepted an assignment or I have started a project. It's not the date that it's due, it's, and this is a good sort of record keeping for you, I'll talk about this later, but I have a tab, another, I start a new workflow every January 1st for the year because otherwise I get too unwieldy and I have a separate tab, once something is completed, I remove it and move to completed, the completed tab, so you're not just deleting things and you have a record there. Like if you work with a client or you worked on a project and then a year and a half later, somebody asks you, "When was it that you worked, "did work with ABC Company?" and you're like, "I don't really remember, I'm gonna go back "to my workflow and look." Or a client contacts you and it seems like you just worked with them yesterday, you can go look and see when the last time you worked with them. So, it might seem like a pointless column, but I think it's a good record keeping tool. 'Kay, column three, this is where you name who you're working with and you'll notice here I, so in the first, and these are very, these are fictitious examples, they come some, from some of my actual experience, right? So, in the first column, I mean the first row, I've got a large scale project, illustrations for ABC, You and Me children's books. S,o that's the job I'm working for, working on, it's an ABC book for kids. The author is Mary Jones, I'm just illustrating it, so I put her name on there. I really don't have any contact with Mary, I have, my main contact is, oh actually, Mary is my contact, yeah, and the publisher is Sunny Books. Sometimes your contact's the author, sometimes it's the editor or art director at the publisher. And I've got my main contact's email in there, sometimes I'll accept a job and I don't start it for a few weeks, so instead of having to go, when I know it's time to start having to go back and look for the person's email in my email, I've already got it in my workflow and I can just cut and paste it. My medium sized example is illustration for Arrow Book Publishing Book on Civil Rights Quotations, my client is Arrow Book Publishing, again, these are fictitious, my contact is Ebony Wilson, I've got her email in there. Illustrations for a new peanut butter packaging, Jenny's Peanut Butter Company, contact: Joe Smith and I've got his email. And then, down below, written interview for Artsy Magazine, I got assigned that on June 1st, Mark Jones is my contact, Okay? So, just a place to put all the names of the people and the names of your client. Okay, columns four and five are the most important in your workflow, so we're gonna spend more time talking about these, feel free to ask me any questions if anything doesn't make sense. This is the, one of the most important columns because it's going to drive the order in which you complete things. And more specifically, it's going to drive what goes in your to-do list each day. Both column four and five and they're very relate, can't have one without the other, okay? So, column four is the project description and the deliverables. In that column, you want to write a few detailed sentences or an entire paragraph or two that describes what you're going to do for the client or collaborator. And again, this is important, it's not necessarily all of the art direction or a detailed list, it's just the most important stuff, like the stuff, information that came from an email or a creative brief or a combination of places. It's where you take all the disparate information you're gathering when you get an assignment or a job and you put it in one place and you sort of pair it down to the essential information, 'kay? It's a place to record all of the stuff that are a part of what you are responsible for delivering to the client. And again, these things are called deliverables, okay? What you're delivering to a client, to the press, to a shop you work with and wholesale to, whatever. In this column is all the information, so if you're like, "Oh darn, I can't remember "if I told her that I was gonna deliver "five of that product or ten of that product." "I know, oh, I wrote it down in my workflow," you go check, you're gonna capture any important details, 'kay? File format requirements, how often do we forget those? Like dimensions, bleed size, all of that stuff. Specific art direction, all that stuff goes in this column. So, let's look at an example. So, in ABC Book, I say, "26 full page illustrations," 26 letters in the alphabet, "Each page is dedicated to a different letter "of the alphabet." "Client is sending color pallet, "illustrations to be rendered digitally." "Full list of subject matter for each letter "in a separate list, see tab four." That's fake, but what I often will do, so, in Google Docs, how many of you have used spread sheets in Google Docs before? They're great because you can make a new tab or sheet. So, for example, back in March, I did this big two week residency at a college in Southern California and I had a exhibition in a huge gallery and then for a week, I was gonna be demoing drawing a painting for students and answering questions and I had a lot of preparation to do, especially for the exhibition 'cause it was in a very large space and there was hundreds of pieces of art that I had made over the years in this show and I was working with a gallery curator. There is no way I could've fit everything I was responsible for, I mean, it would've taken up the whole thing, so I made a separate tab just for that project 'cause it was so big. Was still in my workflow, but it was like tab two or sheet two or whatever. And then I would go to that just to check in about that project 'cause that's mainly what I was working on early this winter. So, you can, if you think something's gonna take too much space in Google Docs, it's great 'cause you can just add a separate tab. Alright. Another example, we're still in this column D, the fourth column, illustration for Arrow Book Publishing, one illustration, you can see why this is a medium sized project as opposed to a large one, "One illustration for a book of civil rights quotes." "The book will be 8 by 10 inches, vertical, "and you will have a full spread, 16 inches wide, "10 inches high, within which to work." "You may size your art to sit on one half "of the spread or to cross the spread as you choose." One thing I notice is not in there is what quotation I'm illustrating, so I would probably want to add that. Here's another example, here's the illustration for the peanut butter packaging. "Create bold and colorful background illustration "for peanut butter label." "Client is interested in modern and minimalist design "that uses their four brand colors, "see style guide from Joe for more information." "They love your quirky abstract patterns, "but they'd love for you to add some peanut shapes "to the design." "First round, three different concepts "in the form of rough sketches due June 8th." "Final artwork due June 10th." Now, this has more information than the other two. You'll notice that the, I've got a little information here about deadlines, we're gonna really flush out the deadlines and the phases in the next column, but that's just stuff I gathered from the email communication and it gives me a general sense of what I need to do, so that I can always refer back if I forget what it is they're looking for. Finally, in small projects, "Answer the following six questions," this is for an interview I'm doing for Artsy Magazine. I often do this, I'll take the questions out of the email and put them in my workflow. Especially, 'cause a lot of times for interviews, people who ask you to do written interviews, they'll give you a few weeks to answer the questions. "Answer the following questions: "What inspires you?" "What are your major influences?" "Tell us about how you became an artist." "What does art mean to you?" "What advice do you have "for an aspiring professional artist?" Okay? So, that's like basic information. Any question about the workflow so far? Okay. Oh, we just talked about that. Alright. This is, I think, the most important part of your workflow and this is the only part that the, most of the other stuff is cut and paste. You get an assignment, you gather all the information about it, if you listened to or took my class on working successfully with clients, you know that I'm big on gathering information from a client and housing it in one place, this is a good place to go get all your art direction and plop it. But, often times, when you're working on a job, you have a start date and you have a deadline, but you don't necessarily have intermediate deadlines. And so, this is your place, if you haven't started to break the project down into smaller parts, that's where this is going to happen and this requires a little bit of thought as opposed to just taking information and pasting it into a cell in your spreadsheet, okay? So, just to review, your workflow is everything, then, you're gonna, this is going to inform your rolling to-do list, which we're going to get to in a little bit, and this column on your workflow is the most important column because it's the thing that informs your to-do list everyday or every week. So, just to look again, here's what I've done, we've got phase and deadline, that's our column five, and so, basically, this is where you work to break down how you're going to approach the project or assignment. And I was, you had asked earlier about what about these big ongoing things? And so, in that case where you don't necessarily have a specific deadline, I think it's important to invent one for yourself. It might be like, "Preparing for 2019 SURTEX, phase one" and then you've got a set of deadlines, by a certain date you're gonna make this many patterns and then by this date you'll have an entire collection with the same color pallet, whatever, however it is you approach and then you hold yourself to those, okay, that's the most important thing and that's where your personal responsibility comes in. Nobody can do that for you. (laughs) A lot of people are like, "Deadlines are great, "but I can never follow them" and I was like, "That's not my problem." So, alright. Maybe you're in the wrong line of work. Okay, so, let's, I'm gonna, I'm blowing these out a little bigger, so. Let's see. For a project or a book, it might look something like this. So, written list of illustration ideas to the editor, May 4th. So, sometimes what happens is the, you're working with a publisher, you've got, one time I did a, I illustrated a children's book that had 150 illustrations because children's books are very heavily illustrated and often times what they'll have you do is, even if you know generally what you're illustrating, they'll have you turn in an art list or a concept list first. So, this is an arbitrary example, I'm not saying that's how it works in every situation. So, my first deadline for myself with this project is to get a written list of illustration ideas to the editor, and maybe it's May 4th because that's when the art director or the publisher said I needed to turn them in or maybe they were like, "Here's the final deadline, "let's set up some intermediate deadlines" and in that case, when you have control, always try to think about, "How much time will I need for this thing?" Right? So, it might be an arbitrary deadline that you set, it might be one that they have given you. Feedback on written list of illustration ideas from the editor, May 8th. This is always a little harder to control, when you're gonna get feedback. We always hope that we get the next day after we turn something in and some clients are really great at, if you're doing client work, are really great at giving pretty quick turnaround, feedback and that's always the best situation, but I do recommend if you're working on a long term project with a client and you want to have some control over your deadlines, maybe ask in the beginning, "How long does it typically take you to give feedback?" or "Is there any chance I could get feedback "on this list by the 8th?" because ultimately, your goal is then to get sketches for the first six illustrations by May 25th and you want to have some time to do that. So, letting the client know that you'd like feedback by a certain time, of course without being too pushy, you don't want to push them too hard, but let them know, "I'd like some time to do this, "can we set an arbitrary deadline for when," or not an arbitrary, but "a deadline for "when you're gonna get me feedback on the stuff "that I give you, so that I can actually start working?" Sketches for illustrations 7 to 12 due June 6th. And again, sometimes when you're working on a big project, everything will be due at the end. So, what I will often do when I have a big project to keep myself on track, is I'll give myself deadlines in between and I'll even turn the thing in early to the client. So, I'll say to the, our director, "Would it be okay if I turned in the first six "by this date and then the second six by this date "and the second, the third six by this date "and then all of the final ones by the final deadline?" "That helps me keep on track." And if they say, "No, I'd rather have them all at once," then at least you try to abide by that deadline yourself and get a certain amount done every week. And I talk a little bit more about how to break down really big projects into discreet parts. Feedback on all 12 illustrations arrives from the editor, June 11th. And any revised sketches due back to editor June 1st. And again, this is just your own list in your workflow. This is not for anyone else to see. This could change, this doesn't have to be super accurate, it's your best guess about when you're gonna try to get something done, when you might get feedback on that thing from the client. You're gonna also do projects where there's not necessarily feedback involved, right? Sometimes you're just doing a personal project or you're not necessarily working with a client, but you still important to set the deadlineS for yourself, even if you can't set deadlines from you think you're gonna get feedback. Okay, all 12 final illustrations due June 19th. This is for a book where you've got 12 illustrations, right? So, here you've got a project that started in early May, the final illustrations, according to the client, weren't due until June 19th, so instead of waiting until June 12th to start the project and try to whip all of them out in one week, you've done it in a very systematic way, so that you're not overwhelmed at the end. You've broken down the job, you've decided you're gonna do it in phases, this is super important. Here's another example. Or is this a new example? Okay, collect remaining art direction and finish asking all client clarifying questions by June 2nd, this is a new example. So, if you're doing a project for a client, you're going to make sure you have all the art direction you need to get started, you're gonna do that by June 2nd. And again, this is a deadline you're giving yourself. This is not something the client is telling you. This is in your workflow because it's helping you to stay on track and it's also gonna help you decide, know what to put on your actual to-do list. This is not your to-do list, by the way. This is just you laying out how you're going to approach a big project. By June 8th, you're gonna submit three sketches for the concept that you're doing for the client, the client is hopefully gonna return feedback by June 10th, it's only got two days, but let's be hopeful, and then you ask all clarifying questions of the client by June 11th, you said, he says, "I'm not happy with this," you assume that you're gonna have to go through a second round of sketches, you get those done by June 13th, you can think of this as a best case scenario timeline. If everything goes smoothly with the client, this is what it's gonna look like. Start there, assume the best. Client returns feedback by June 14th, submit final artwork by June 20th. You're doing this before you've even done the project. This is you trying to plan how you think it should go and then trying to stick to these deadlines. Okay? Don't rely on the client to set the intermediate deadlines for you. Set those yourself. Often, they are up to you since the client will only tell you when the final thing is due or when there's definitely, or when the sketches are due before the final artwork or whatever. Pro tip, mark major dates on your calendar too. And you'll get, hopefully, a reminder from your calendar. Okay, let's talk about the importance of checking in with the workflow document each day. At a glance, it's your reality check about what you have on your plate at any given time or into the near future. Everything should be recorded there. Sometimes when I get a new opportunity, in my head, I'm like, "Oh, I got some time "in the next few months, I think I can say yes "to this opportunity" and then I go over to my workflow and I'm like, "Oh, I forgot, I have way more on my plate "than I realized." So, checking in with it is really, really important. It's only gonna be useful to you if you check in with it frequently and use it to guide what you work on each day. So, before I became an artist, I worked in the nonprofit world, which is actually where I learned a lot of project management skills, and every few years organizations, nonprofits and even for profit businesses go through what's called strategic planning. Has anybody ever been through a strategic planning process? So, often times a management consultant or a strategic planning person comes in and helps an organization decide what they're gonna do, how their mission and vision is gonna guide their work and what exactly they're gonna try to accomplish over a two to five year period, sometimes even longer. All this work goes into strategic plans that everyone, all the stakeholders buy in, everyone agrees to it and then it gets printed, put on a shelf and no one ever looks at it again. And then what happens, right? They're not, all that work to plan and then it's not used, and that's often what happens with any kind of plan. That's a big example, but in your business, it's the same thing. If you're planning, but not using the plan, it's not helpful. This is a working document that you should be engaging with and looking at and checking in with and adjusting every single day. Organizations, individuals who run their own businesses spend a lot of time planning, but then never actually follow the plans. The same is true for workflow documents. It's only gonna be useful to you if you check in with it frequently and use it to guide your decisions about your work. It will become your best friend if you do, I guarantee, it's, it's a spreadsheet, but you'll grow to love it. You want to use it to guide all of your decisions about what to work on and whether to take on additional projects.

Class Description

Short on time? This class is available HERE as a Fast Class, exclusively for Creator Pass subscribers.

You have everything you need to create and implement effective, lasting organizational systems, whether you know it or not. As creatives we’re taught to believe this isn’t true.

Do any of these common myths about creatives sound familiar to you?

  • Creatives are inherently disorganized
  • They’ll never get a handle on their workload.
  • They lack the ability to create solid systems for getting things done.

These false ideas keep so many creatives from even trying to seek better workflows and organization systems, and ultimately bars the creative from doing better work. Not only that, believing these negative perceptions leave so many feeling stressed, scattered and unable to fully capitalize on their artistic strengths. It’s time to shatter these myths and learn to create the systems you need to to your best work as a creative.

Fine artist, illustrator and author Lisa Congdon has worked with over 75 clients around the world including MoMA, REI Co-op, Harvard University, Martha Stewart Living, Chronicle Books, and Random House Publishing, among many others. In this class she will teach you how to establish effective, workflows and time management strategies that will to streamline your processes and maximize creative work time. Lisa has spent years developing these systems. The monumental success of her career is proof these systems work. Join us.

In this class you will learn:

  • How to organize and implement a workflow system.
  • How to manage to-do lists effectively.
  • How to utilize time-blocking.
  • How to identify and manage the distractions that keep you from being productive.
  • And so much more…

Class Materials

Bonus Materials with Purchase

Workflow Bonus

Ratings and Reviews

Student Work

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Tessa Crowther

Overall, I'm super happy I took the course! As an entrepreneur, artist, and tiny business owner, it's nice to hear perspective from people who have gone through and are going through similar things. Be prepared for some slides to be read word for word (not my favorite thing), and for some thoughts to be a bit scattered and unorganized. However, I got some good information and will implement some of her ideas in my own time management. I paid for the class as a single class, so I'm not sure I'd recommend paying that full single price, but I would definitely recommend the class if you have a class pass! Overall, I would recommend, thanks Lisa!

a Creativelive Student

Thanks Lisa! Wow. I found this class very inspiring and exciting. Besides the logging and planning parts that really amuse me in general, I found the idea of setting boundaries and working while keeping distractions in check quite revolutionary. I can see how working focused on x thing for a period of time over several days can work wonders in completing projects. Super recommended.


I just love love love this system(s) AND the fact that Lisa explains them so clearly -and leaves the space to each of her students to "be creative" and adapt the system to your own way of working too. I found this course right on time in my life where i needed to clean out things, become more efficient and calmer too. I think Lisa's systems are indeed a perfect way to calm down any anxieties caused by too much / too few work, overwhelm and such... THANK YOU Lisa, merci beaucoup !