Three side-by-side images of a tan brown phone with five white dial buttons, numbered one through five.

Mid-year check-in: Four productivity tools I’m loving for creative projects (and how I use them)

In January, I wrote about six smartphone apps and creative writing productivity tools I planned to use to stay motivated on my personal projects throughout 2021.

Am I still using those? Yes.

But now, seven months deep, I’m still trying to avoid work about work.

Aren’t we all? Hell yes.

“60% of time is spent on work coordination, rather than the skilled, strategic jobs we’ve been hired to do,” according to Asana’s Anatomy of Work Index 2021.

Yellow and pink text reading, "We spend more time on work coordination than on the work itself."

I feeeeeeel that. In my professional work certainly, and in my personal work as well. Even though I’m not coordinating with a team of designers, clients, or account managers while, say, drafting a novel or making a new embroidery collection, I still find myself tinkering away for hours on planning, documentation, and (my ultimate seems-like-work-but-isn’t guilty pleasure time suck) video streaming Skillshare/Creative Live videos.

So in July, I reassessed how I was working on these things. It was time to think about my time. Given that the pandemic wasn’t keeping us under lock and key anymore, I needed to adjust my routine for the quicker post-pandem pace and packed schedule. Here are four new tools and strategies I implemented to get myself in a rhythm—and keep myself making.

For writing: Airtable

OMG! I love Airtable! A friend told me about this spreadsheet app while we were on our final quarantine walk. It’s free and the UX is intuitive, especially if you’re familiar with Excel or Google Sheets. My favorite aspect of Airtable is that I can upload documents, jpegs, and various other things directly into a cell block. 

I have one Airtable project set up with three tabs, one for each of my writing projects: a novel, a book of creative nonfiction, and my blog. From there, I’m able to schedule out each piece of the larger work, add photos for reference or posting, and drop in both the Google doc link and the Word doc of the final version so I can move on. 

Pink and yellow text reading, “Writing will always be interesting to me, because even if life has no meaning, writing does. It’s all about discovery, personal and otherwise.” Jo Ann Beard

I know I could keep a folder on my cloud somewhere with all of this content, but it’s so nice to have it linearly lined up, with deadlines attached, and the ability to just dump it when I’m done so it doesn’t take up space in my drive. 

Writing tasks can be overwhelming to me because I get ~too~ into them and, when I’m in that addictive headspace, I feel like I have to write the entire book in the next month. But writing is also my most important thing. With Airtable I don’t fold under the demanding weight of such self-imposed pressure. I just keep ticking things off, bird by bird

For reading: GoFullPage Chrome extension

App fatigue is real. According to the Anatomy of Work Index, U.S. employees jump between 13 tools an average of 30 times per day. Yikes. I think I hit even higher numbers when it comes to things I want to read. GoFullPage has helped with this personal brand of digital distraction. When clicked, the extension will basically scan the entire web page you’re on and turn it into a PDF or jpeg.

Pink and yellow text reading, "On average, we jump between 13 tools, 30 times a day."

I use GoFullPage for saving things I want to read later as well as for capturing clips of my professional writing. I capture what I want to read, download it, and save the PDF in a “To read” folder on my drive. I have time set aside on Saturdays that I scroll through the folder and read whatever still intrigues me and then delete the damn thing when I’m through. 

I tried using the “Reading List” feature on Chrome for a process like this, but then I just racked up links on links on links and never read any of them. With GoFullPage, I don’t have endless tabs open, and there’s just enough effort required to capture and save the page as a PDF that I must decide if I truly, truly want to read it. Adding it to the Reading List was way too simple. The potential discards clogged up the line.

For getting sh*t done: Do not disturb phone setting

I mean, it’s obvious what this does, right? Turn it on for your phone and it will quiet all alerts. I get by with a little help from my robot friends, etc. Every morning I block out my day hour by hour. (I know this is a little intense, but my Meyers Briggs Personality Test confirms this kind of planning is best for my sensitive lil heart/mind. INFPs are for lovers.) I use Do Not Disturb when I’m on an hour-block that requires focus, which is usually writing, but this can also be helpful for administrative work or artmaking.

Pink and yellow text reading, "Focus sprints of uninterrupted worked time made teams 43% more productive."

Productivity research from UC Berkeley’s Becoming Superhuman Lab found that 92% of people believe that “carving out a daily block of uninterrupted time called a ‘Focus Sprint,’ where they do not need to toggle between apps or constantly monitor the inbox, would positively impact their and their team’s productivity.” Teams that used these Focus Sprints reported they were 43% more productive. Sign. Me. Up.

For regular to-do tracking: Asana’s board view

“Individuals could save 6 hours and 5 minutes every week—290 hours per year—through improved processes,” like clearly defining roles and responsibilities, the Anatomy of Work Index found. Plus, nearly 70% of respondents said they would feel better-equipped to hit personal targets with clear processes to manage work. This seems obvious, but do you give your personal creative work the same approach? Why not? 

How to save 290 hours per year of wasted work time? Get a better process.

I have been using a free version of Asana for my personal tasks for a while now, but I simply could not make a calendar view of tasks work for me. I would just blow right by the deadlines when paying-work had to rise to the top of my to-do list. I tried switching to board view, et voila. Now we’re cooking.

My board view is essentially a habit tracker with four columns, or boards, set up: Monday-Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monthly. Under each column I have five or six tasks that are related to my creative projects. For example, I write one paragraph a day on my novel every weekday, Saturdays are for embroidery, etc. The task descriptions never change, I just check and uncheck items as I complete them each day. 

This process has been ideal because I don’t have to hold every task in my head or copy-paste the tasks to every day’s to-do list. They’re not tied to a time-specific requirement, so I am able to remain flexible depending on what the rest of my day looks like. And then, since I have a slew of separate Asana projects set up for more detailed notes on each creative task, I can stay within one program to jot down notes as they arise.

Now open! Shop hand-stitched embroidery art

Weeee! Today’s the day! My shop went live today at noon, and I hope you take a chance to poke around. Up now: original hand-stitched embroidery art, collage notebooks, and limited-edition prints of some of my favorite pieces.

Embroidery art on multimedia

Embroidery on historical photographs


Collage notebooks

A pandemic-inspired project

I started building the website in April after it became apparent that any art and craft fairs for the spring and summer would probably be canceled because of the pandemic. Little did I know that art and craft fairs for the rest of the year would indeed be canceled too, and my opportunities to share, show, and sell my work at Chicago galleries and storefronts would also be gone with 2020’s germ-infested wind.

A friend of mine recently told me she had heard on a podcast that the best way to mentally get through the pandemic-imposed isolation so many of us are participating in is to do things that accomplish two objectives: novelty and progress. So, for example, cooking new meals (novelty) every Friday from one cookbook (progress). Building this shop has helped me achieve both of those things. The shop is new and, as I plugged away on it with the new spare time on my hands, I slowly progressed the thing from a blank page subdomain into a working shop.

I loved it. The time-consuming, trial-and-error process of building a website reminds me of the meditative work it takes to thread hundreds of stitches into a photograph. This kind of work is endlessly therapeutic for me. I did the design, the building, the inventorying, the anything-and-everything associated with the site all by myself on purpose. I wanted to own the whole thing so if something went wrong, I had the knowledge of how to fix it—or at least where to start looking for the problem. If that’s not a healthy psychological attempt to give myself a sense of control in 2020, I don’t know what is.

I had to develop my inventorying process, shipping workflow, and branding experience. I used Asana to manage my to-do list, because each step in the development challenged me with new questions big and small. Do I need a Cookies alert? How do I weigh packages? What does the UX look like after someone makes a purchase? Who is cPanel? Why the hell won’t my site load? ~et cetera~ (Shoutout to all my YouTube and Creative Live teachers!)

This, the year of our lord baby Beyonce, has been a doozy. Having a digital space to call my own, structure and design at my own pace, and turn to as an expression of creative optimism for the future, has been, well, essential. A new study released in September by Harvard’s School of Public Health found that an optimistic outlook may be a healthier one: “In a population of relatively young and healthy U.S. Army active-duty soldiers, we found that those who tested highest for optimism at the start of the study had a 22% lower risk of developing hypertension during three-and-a-half years of follow-up than those who scored the lowest.”

I’m certainly not soldier-level stressed, but the study’s findings aren’t surprising to me. Building out the shop has been an exercise in escape as well as positivity. It helped me escape into something productive and it pushed me to consider what my future creative practice would look like. Why build a shop if I don’t believe the future will be good? Why work toward something to share in the future if I don’t believe there will be one? Why share my art if I didn’t believe it was going to continue? The shop has been a lighthouse for me in a dark storm cloud year.

Pushing my practice

The other important benefit I discovered while building this shop is that it has helped put boundaries around my current visual art practice and consider how all of my work fits together under one big umbrella that is me.

I think of clearly defined boundaries/constraints in creative practice similar to bowling with bumper lanes on. It helps.

As I worked on laying out the pages, I had to think about how the shop would connect to this site, which then brought up questions of my content on here. I think of as an archive of my creative life, as well as a space to jam on current works-in-progress, but what does that look like when I now have a secondary site I want to drive people to, and how do I shape the experience so that it isn’t burdensome for me or the people who visit my sites?

Other questions this work answered: How do I maximize my time working on my many projects, and how do I do it with intention? Am I an embroiderer or an illustrator or a photographer or a writer? All of the above? I think I’m all of the above, but thinking through all of this forced me to outline a hierarchy of these practices and shape an idea of how I envision them all coming together and growing in my next visual project. This work will be pivotal to my decision-making about what I work on next. It gave me guide rails and helped me define what I want to do with myself and my creativity. That, my friends, comes as a relief to a narcoleptic overachiever with a million and one ideas. It gives me something to refer to when I need to say no to myself and get down to the doing.

How did I go about all of that behind-the-scenes figuring-out-of-stuff? I journaled the shit out of it! In my professional work, I write about artists, their practices as individuals, and how they have come to find and refine their voice. And, bonus, I write brand guidelines about voice, tone, personality, visual language, and more for companies with seemingly disparate, quickly moving parts. So, I decided to do all of that work I usually do for other people, for myself.

I audited my current work and thought a few years ahead of what my dream life as a maker might look like. I defined my visual language (ie., Why do I use pink so much; what does the color represent for me? Why thread? Why old and found photos? Why do I love those slash marks so much?). I wrote out what I did and, importantly, did not want my work to be for me. I wrote about why I make all of this in the first place. I thought of ideas for how the illustration, embroidery, photography, and writing could merge together long term (a direct result of this particular piece of this exploration: My homepage design, which I made in Illustrator using cut-outs of a photograph of flowers I’d taken during quarantine).

In the final stages leading up to launch, the shop also presented an opportunity to learn and experiment with other modes of making. I watched YouTube videos on how to animate photos in Photoshop, and made a few animated videos to announce the opening on my embroidery Instagram gallery. I’m excited to play with this more!

Whew, OK. There’s a lot here, and I have so much more to tell you, but this will do for now. I feel totally geeked (and, per usual, annoyingly sincere) about how focused I feel now because of putting together something as seemingly basic as a website for my work. The project unlocked a lot of understanding about who I am, why this work is important to me, whether I’m a professional or not, and how it will all evolve in the future. Like they say on the Twitter, “Thank you for coming to my Ted Talk.” Now, go visit my shop.

Go to

Be sure to sign up for my email list while you’re there so you can receive monthly alerts with new inventory and stories about the work.

Golden desk lamp in green dumpster

Wear the perfume, walk the alley, do the work

The week-three Wednesday of shelter in place, I had an important video conference call. I got ready in the mirror and, per my usual routine, reached for perfume to spray on my neck and wrist. This gave me pause. What’s the point? It’s not as if these people I’m video-calling can smell me. And my husband, the only human I’ve had physical contact with for almost a month, already knows alllll the smells.
Lime Basil & Mandarin, the label reads. That’s as far as the name goes. I like that. This scent just is what it is. It’s not a sexy scent, but that’s not why I bought it. I bought it because of the way the lime basil and mandarin transform on my skin throughout the day, as if it knows and shape-shifts around me. In the morning, the citrus is always sharp. By mid-afternoon the soft warmth of basil holds me instead. By evening it’s a quiet musk, like the burning embers of a campfire. It lasts on my skin longer than any perfume I’ve worn before. I like that too, that I can smell and appreciate throughout my day. It’s one small thing I can wear to make my day the tiniest, air-particle-sized bit better.
Doesn’t that still apply in lockdown? Aren’t I still here, in this place? Don’t I still have a neck and a wrist with a healthy, wild heart beating underneath? Don’t I want them to pump something lovely into the air, even if only I can experience the joy of it?
Yes. Yes, I decided. Yes.
I spritzed the perfume, returned the bottle to its shelf, shut off the bathroom light, and took my silk-bloused and sweat-panted self to my work chair in the office five feet away. Nothing to see here. Just a grown-ass woman going to non-essential work. But, my friend, if you could smell her…
I’ve been working from home for almost three years now. This process of separating work / from / home? I’m used to that. I’ve got that down. What I’m not used to is the lack of choice. This restriction is what alarms me and spends my mind spiraling. I know how precious freedom of choice is. I worry, worry, worry about what this pandemic means for choice in the future. I’m so worried about what’s coming and the people who will struggle, who will hurt.
To keep from running my head around in these circles, I’ve, instead, tried to keep said head down. Keep working—on professional work and creative work alike. I like to stay busy. I’ve used the time to write and make art. I’m still sitting with all of this; I’m just doing something with my hands while I contemplate it all. Movement makes me feel just as strong as the scary thoughts I’m facing. Staying productive is how I puff up my chest and stare down a problem.
For my husband, it’s the opposite. His anxiety right now stems from the crowny little thorns of that microscopic virus and towers into shadows of the potential pandemonium that could ensue as resources decline and demand explodes in the opposite direction. He thrives by being still with things. He stalks the prey, the problem, silently and with stealth. He wants to sit with it, watch it, to see it from every angle. To not move and scare the scary thoughts away.
Him and I have been taking “sun breaks” every other day. We go stand in the alleyway behind our apartment building, leaning onto our neighbor’s chalky beige garage like a masked Jay and Silent Bob. He likes to just stand there, face to the sun like a happy little lizard. If he had it his way, this is all we would do during a sun break. But after about five minutes, I get antsy. “I need to walk,” I say. “Let’s walk around the park. At least up and down the alleyway. We can take the sunniest path.” He says I need to relax, stay calm, be still. But, I explain, the moving, the doing, is how I be still. I’m not avoiding when I work and walk. I’m working it all out.
Maybe you’re productive in a traditional sense during this time and like being motivated to act. Or perhaps your productivity takes the shape of something more subtle, doing the basics and taking care of yourself is how your self-care presents itself. Does it matter? Are these two reactions really that different? Do we need to fight on the internet about who is doing it right and who is doing it wrong? “Getting through” is not an either/or proposition. This discussion isn’t really about “productivity.” It’s only the fact of how you hold yourself in a moment of fear, so you can better hold others in theirs.
I need to show up. I need to feel like I’m doing something in a situation where I am largely powerless. Showing up means I’m clear-headed and willing to try. Showing up means I’m alive. Means I’m hopeful.
So I wear the perfume. I walk the alley. I do the work. This is how I survive.

The three P’s of productivity

#1: Pomodoro Technique

What it is (in 60 seconds or less): A productivity hack in which you work for 25 minutes straight on something without any distractions. When that 25-minute period is up, take a break.

I try to do 25-minute sprints, and five-minute breaks in the morning/afternoon, eight-minute breaks after 2 pm because, hi, fatigue. My favorite thing about Pomodoro, other than that it works for me, is that it’s named after the Italian word for tomato. Why? The guy who made it up used one of those cute little tomato-shaped kitchen tickers to time his tasks.

Read more:

#2: Parkinson’s Law

What it is (in 60 seconds or less): The idea that work will expand to fit however much time you’ve allotted for it.

So if you’ve given yourself a whole day to “blog”… it will take the entire day. Maybe longer. If you, instead, time block the job and write it on your to-do list as a specific directive, such as “9-10 am: Sit the ef down and write your blog about productivity,” it will happen in a much shorter amount of time—usually the amount for which you’ve planned it.  

Read more:

#3: Pareto Principle

What it is (in 60 seconds or less): This one’s a numbers game that says 80% of consequences come from 20% of actions.

In terms of productivity, this is just something to keep in mind when you determine what tasks to tackle in a day. If the majority of your benefits are coming from a small portion of actions (or, for example, accounts), say yes to those actions and a #HardNo to the other things you could spend your limited time doing.

Read more:

Bonus #4: Pizza

What it is (in 60 seconds or less): It’s pizza.

Because sometimes you just need to treat yo’self for a job well done… or a job not perfectly done, but done nonetheless.

Every image in this blog is from my trip to a hidden gem of a museum in Evanston called the Halim Time & Glass Museum. That is, every image except this image. This image is a gift from the internet. Thank you, internet. Thank you, pizza cat.

My new fave app reads books for you (!!!!!)

Remember that age-old party game question: If you could have any super power, what would it be?

I am always prepared for this one because I always answer the same thing: My super power would be the ability to put my hand on a book and immediately have read, understood, and retained all of it.

Then I usually bow.

Because it’s a really great answer. (One I definitely stole from some awesome adult who answered with that when I was a kid.)

I mean, there are definitely books (most books, in fact) that I’d want to take the time to read during my superhero holidays on a secluded beach somewhere, but how cool would it be to read some books faster?

Particularly, nonfiction self-help sorta books. The kind that you’re interested in learning more about, but of which dedicating the time to reading all 200 pages (about, ironically, something like how to manage your time) is a no-go.

My Blinkist app landing page.

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Blinkist!

My favorite new app. I’m still in my free trial week (they’ll let you test it out for seven days before making you pony up—$7.50 per month or $89.99 for the year), but I’ve already decided to, well, pony up. I’ve had my free trial for about two days and have listened to 12 books already.

How it works: Blinkist’s profesh readers (hello, dream job) read self-help, business, and other nonfiction books and then distill each book down to ~15 minute synopses that you can read or listen to. I love it! I just pick a book, pop on my wireless headphones, and listen to the “blinks,” as the book breakdowns are called. I feel productive and have learned a lot listening to them while I do chores around the house, walk to the grocery store, or ride the CTA to the latest superhero convention.

My current library.

Granted, you’re not going to get as much out of the book as you would reading it cover to cover, but with the books I’ve been hitting up with Blinkist (ie. “The Story of Sushi,” “5 AM Club,” “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck,” and “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning” (ha!)), I get the key takeaways. And that’s really all I want out of books like that anyway.

Try it for yourself or check it out here! And let me know if you have any good “blink” reccos … and/or a better super power wishlist Q&A response.

I’ll be waiting. 😉

The 1% you can actually control

I keep listening to this speech by writer James Clear from the 2017 Craft + Commerce conference. In it, he gives great advice for staying productive throughout the work week. For example, he has his assistant change his social media passwords every Monday so he can’t log in (and, thus, be totally distracted) until the weekend. I know most of us don’t have personal assistants, but we do have opposable thumbs that can turn off our phones during precious writing hours. But the most meaningful aspect of his talk is how succinctly he puts something we all know instinctually but don’t act on realistically: If you get 1% better at whatever you’re working on every day, you’re going to be in a much better place after a year has passed.

Whenever I get down on myself about not accomplishing enough in regards to a pressing deadline whose harbor I’m about to crash into, I remember this speech and I’ll ask myself, “Am I 1% closer to my goal? Is what I did today 1% better than what I did yesterday?” The answers are usually yes and yes. And that’s a win.

What are you doing today to make yourself 1% better or push your project 1% forward?