Spring Cleaning for Creatives: Author Fay Wolf on Getting Organized

March 15, 2017


If you’re drowning in paperwork like I am or your workspace looks like the site of an office supply shop explosion, then spring is a good time for getting organized—not just at home but also in your work life.

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Author, professional organizer and actress/songwriter Fay Wolf helps creative people find the organizational system that works for them. In her new book, “New Order: A Decluttering Handbook for Creative Folks (and Everyone Else),” she shares bite-sized tips on how to rearrange physical spaces and tweak your digital life for better productivity. In a fun, friendly voice, it explains how to reduce the amount of email and paper in your life, why your email box shouldn’t be treated like a to-do list (guilty) and where to donate everything from gift cards to wedding gowns.

We talked to Wolf about why creative professionals think they need chaos, how to use timers to work more productively and more. The following excerpts of that conversation have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Why do you think traditional organization strategies may not work as well for creative people?

A lot of the conventional strategies out there are based on the idea of a before-and-after and getting the task done, as opposed to looking at it as an ongoing and human process. Certainly for creative people, it’s more relatable to know that they’re not supposed to get it right. When you’re a creative and making art, it’s not about what’s right or wrong—it’s about what’s coming out of you, what’s natural and what’s human.

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There’s a huge myth that the creative space thrives on chaos—this does work for some people. I believe that’s a very, very small portion of the population. What I have found, when I worked with primarily creative people over the past decade, is that they feel stressed in their space. They can feel the clutter of chaos and it doesn’t work for them, even though they heard that it might.

Are there any common mistakes you see creatives make in their organizational systems? (Or lack thereof?)

The only thing I would term a “mistake” is to not take action at all, or think you’re not allowed to. Beyond that, anything you try is going to teach you something about the process. You’re going to find out what works for you and what doesn’t.

Underneath the creative umbrella, we’re all different kinds of people. I’ve seen creative people who aren’t visual—things that were organized but hidden away worked better for them. Then I’ve seen someone with the same job benefit by having all their stuff in front of them, again, in an organized fashion. It’s not one size fits all and it doesn’t need to be done a certain way.

Your book includes a section on not only organizing physical spaces, but also our digital lives. With better search tools available, why does having an organized digital life really matter?

If it works for you to keep 30,000 emails in your inbox, only take advantage of the search function and be cool with that—that’s awesome. But I think your inbox functions similarly to a physical space. When there’s no bottom, you don’t have complete control over the situation and there’s more clutter in your brain. It’s like walking into your bedroom and seeing clutter.

I’d advise to have as clear an inbox as possible because I’ve seen it completely change people’s lives. When they do start to learn how robust the search function is, it blows their mind that they can archive an email and access it later without leaving it in their inbox.

Is hiring a professional organizer *like you* a good way to create accountability?

Accountability is key and that is one of the reasons to hire someone, but there are a lot of different ways to produce accountability, and it’s not always hiring someone with a high hourly rate. You can do it with friends, family members or by yourself by setting timers. That’s what worked for me when I was writing the book.

I wrote the entire book while a clock was ticking on me. There are ways to get accountability and if all those ways are exhausted and you really want to hire someone—great, absolutely.

Would you tell us more about the ticking clock throughout the writing process?

I’m a procrastinator, so when I had my writing days, I would want to start at 10 or 11:00 and then all of a sudden it’s 2 p.m. and I have made excuses. The only thing that would get me to start was just the simple act of pressing start on a timer.

Even if I was at a coffee shop, sometimes I would just hop on internet and go to sites I didn’t need to be on. But, as soon as I went to the timer and pressed start, for some reason, that just worked. I used a third-party website, which is based on the Pomodoro technique. That’s a 25-minute increment of time and then every 25 minutes, you take a five-minute break. If you’re in an office space or at home, those five minutes should theoretically not be spent checking emails or on the computer. It should be spent getting up, walking outside—or something like that. At a coffee shop, I would just stand up or go to the restroom or get another cup.

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Do you have any other tips as spring cleaning approaches?

With spring, in particular, it’s time for a new beginning. It’s really about experimentation and seeing what works for you, knowing that a little better is a little better. It’s a process. You can spend 10 minutes and get more done than you ever thought possible so it’s about taking action.


about the author

Freelance Contributor Freelance journalist Susan Johnston Taylor covers entrepreneurship, small business and lifestyle for publications including The Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur and FastCompany.com. Follow her on Twitter.