How to be organised when your head is a mess — The Ultimate Guide

Sometimes, i'm very productive. For periods of time which usually last no longer than a week or so, I'm full of new ideas and enthusiasm, getting everything done and more. Going to bed at night feeling fulfilled, waking up feeling content and proud of my achievements.

Then the dark cloud of illness floats over, raining down its destruction upon me. Maybe I did too much and became overtired. Maybe something triggered my anxiety and OCD. Maybe it was a combination of both. Suddenly I find tasks ten times harder to complete because I have to wade through a brain overheating itself and ignore my general fatigue. 

Such extremes can be difficult to navigate, and I know there are people out there who go through the same or similar. Sometimes, illness can be one of the reasons why we are so driven and productive, but equally it can be our downfall. We are all very familiar with the saying "Two steps forward and one step back". 

Even if you don't have an illness, but rather a tendency to get distracted or pre-occupied, or you're going through a stressful life change and find it hard to structure your time, I have written this guide for you. 

I look around at people in my life who have families, travelling jobs and pets and I see them building businesses and achieving dreams. No one is problem or stress-free, so there must be a way, with a little tweaking, that we can follow their lead and achieve our own dreams. It's a quest i've been on for the past couple of years. Trying to find a balance between feeling good and getting things done. Through trial and error, i've found ways to cope. The ideas presented in this post may not work for everyone, but they work for me. I hope that you may find at least one of them useful. 

The Starting Point

Everyone is at a different place in their lives, but I guarantee that each of us has a goal or two. It is here that we all start — sat in our dressing gowns watching the darts, wishing we could do more or be more (not that there's anything wrong with watching the darts). 

And it's here that you should pause the darts, get a piece of paper (or word processor of your choice) and write a list. But instead of being overambitious and listing every single thing you've never quite gotten round to, be realistic.

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What controllable elements of your life would you most like to change? What would make you happier than you are now? What would you like to achieve over the next few years?

For me, this is the following:

  • Get more sleep
  • Have a greater mental balance
  • Spend more time with family
  • Perform more live gigs
  • Practise yoga more regularly
  • Study music theory
  • Learn more production techniques
  • Improve guitar skills

Your list may be shorter or longer. Once you have this list, you can start tackling the fun bit.

The First Steps

1 - Map out your current typical week in detail

From the time you get up in the morning to the time you go to bed at night, list down everything you do each day during a typical week and when. Don't forget to include even the smallest activities such as watching TV or cleaning — time adds up.

2 - Work out your time drainers and issues

Take a look through the current weekly schedule you created in step one, and highlight the activities that are absolutely essential. For example, you may have a commitment to work a certain amount of days or you may have other responsibilities that cannot be avoided. Take a look at everything you have left in the schedule. Which activities can you pinpoint as time drainers? Perhaps you are watching too much TV while you could be doing something else, or maybe you are having a nap in the evenings because you aren't going to bed at an appropriate time. Maybe you are spending too much time doing certain things, which is causing stress and fatigue.

3 - Write down the things you need in your day in order to maintain a balanced mood

Specific to your needs, and completely unrelated to your goals, write a list of the things you need to do each day to essentially keep yourself sane. For example, I need to have at least an hour's time out each day to clear my mind from everything that's important in the world. I also need to meditate and spend time talking with friends and family.

4 - Create a revised schedule with realistic new additions

Combing your essential tasks and responsibilities and the things you outlined in step 3, create a new schedule. The time left over should be spent working towards the completion of your goals. This step may take a while, as you will most likely need to juggle various things around in order to find time for everything and create a realistic plan. Some adjustments you may make could include moving your bed time an hour forward so that you have more energy to do things during the evening, or cutting down time watching YouTube videos from an hour to half an hour. Every change, even the tiniest and most ridiculous sounding, truly do work. 

It's only by mapping out the time you spend each day that you truly realise how much time you are potentially wasting. Or, perhaps a nicer way to put it would be not utilising. 

Depending on how busy you currently are day to day and the challenges you may or may not face, it is possible that you will have to make some compromises such as shortening your goal list or removing some leisure time. It's all about what you want to achieve and how you can be the best version of yourself, while maintaining a balanced mood. If any proposed change to your schedule makes you feel anxious or upset, don't do it!

 A shoddy picture of some of the things I used to keep myself organised.

A shoddy picture of some of the things I used to keep myself organised.

Things to help you out

Unless you are a superhero, you're probably going to need a few things to help with motivation and organisation. Being someone who changes from super-productive and outgoing to basically struggling to be a human being (slight exaggeration), I have had the opportunity to discover the tools that work best for me. Here are my top tips:

1. Alarms are your best (and worst) friend. Set a load of them up on your phone for everything from "have some food" to "go to bed", but only if you have it with you at all times. Otherwise, you'll have angry people in your house having to switch your alarm off when you're not there. I speak from experience here. If you're one of those people who leaves your phone upstairs when you're downstairs, a smartwatch or fitness tracker with the ability to set multiple custom alarms might be a good option. This goes off silently and it's (in most cases) strapped to your wrist. 

2. Get a good planner. There are many options, but I would definitely recommend The Happiness Planner, which I have been using for a few months now. With the aim of encouraging mindfulness and positive thinking, you are prompted at the beginning of each day to write the things you are most excited about, and at the end of each day to write the things that you enjoyed most. If you're not into that, a simply trip down to your local Paperchase, WH Smith, Ryman (probably) or a quick online search if you're not in the UK will reveal a load of other planners and journals to choose from. Sometimes I find it best to have paper copies of my schedule and goals, as there is something about staring at something that is physically right in front of you. It makes you think and assess things differently than you would if they were on a screen.

3. Spreadsheets are your other best friend, but only if you're a bit of a nerd like me. Some people hate the thought of using spreadsheets in absolutely any capacity away from the office, but I find them really useful and I sort of enjoy them. Using a cloud-based service like Google Sheets means you can access your documents from any device you want. Writing formulas in your lunch break, anyone?

4. Put a giant whiteboard somewhere, if only to make you feel good about yourself. Use it to write down your tasks, draw little pictures and stick motivational magnets to. Use it as a way of thinking in the moment — what am I going to do in the next half hour? I'll write it down on my whiteboard. Just make sure you actually do the things you write down, or you might as well chuck it away.

5. If at work you feel more tired than you expected and won't be able to do exactly what you planned when you get home, write notes on your phone or send e-mails to yourself containing your revised to-do list for the day.

6. Sparkly star stickers. Get loads of them and use them for everything. Use them to reward yourself for completing a task, stick them on your whiteboard. Stick them on yourself. Look at and enjoy the sparkles. We can do this.

Got any tips of your own? Share them in the comments below!