Setting up the Studio: Planning Ahead, Preparation, and Staying One Step Ahead of Yourself

A little meta-note

I started this blog in 2014 as most blogs start—an experiment. I wanted to write about what I’m interested in and what I’m learning, and see if any patterns emerged over time. Looking back from the beginning of 2015, I’ve been noticing one of those patterns. I’ve written a lot about… how to work independently.

Many of us want to do creative work that matters to us. Often that also means working on things that are self-directed rather than assigned by an employer or a teacher. It’s not really that one way of working is better than the other, or to say that you shouldn’t collaborate or do work to help other people. But working independently is uniquely rewarding, uniquely challenging, and often a key part of doing the things we care about the most. But when it comes time to actually do it, we usually realize it’s harder than it seems. It has major challenges that just aren’t there when you’re doing other kinds of work for school or an employer. In 2014, I often wrote about those challenges and what I’ve learned from trying to do this kind of work.

So, I’m going to keep going with this for a while and see where it goes. Here are some thoughts from this week. Thanks for sticking around with me as I find my writing feet and stumble around a little bit. I’m having a lot of fun.

Normally, when I’m going to paint or write or anything of that nature, I decide that I’m going to do it right before I start. I don’t have too much of a plan in place ahead of time. I might have a vague idea during the day that I want to paint later when I get home from work, but the plan doesn’t get much more detailed than that. This is my default mode, but earlier this week I discovered that there are some major benefits to putting in a little bit of effort to do a little bit of planning ahead.

Last monday, I knew I wanted to spend the night drawing. Instead of getting everything ready when I got home from work for the day, I decided during lunch and got everything ready then. I planned out what I would do for the entire drawing session, and set up all of the tools and workspace I would need. My goal was to make the most of my time after work and make starting to draw as easy and seamless as possible. This made a huge difference when I actually sat down to draw later that day. Setting up the workspace took much longer than I would have thought, so I’m glad I did it ahead of time otherwise it would have eaten into the time I got to spend actually drawing. I looked forward to it all afternoon, and the whole process was a hundred times smoother.

In my mind, there are two parts to this: planning and preparing. Planning is deciding what you’re actually going to do. Preparing is about getting the right tools and setting up the space in order to do those things. You can plan and prepare for the short term (what you’re going to do tonight) or the long term (what you want to do over the next 6 months).

There are two things to watch out for when planning ahead. One is to make sure that all plans have some flexibility. Leave room for spontaneous ideas and be ready to change the plan when necessary. It can lead to a lot of frustration and missing out on cool things if you cling to a plan and refuse to let it go. The other is to not let planning get in the way of actually doing the work. Too much planning is unnecessary and a huge distraction. But a little bit makes a huge difference.

Here are the four main benefits that I’ve experienced from planning and preparing.

Less decision making

Making decisions is distracting and slows you down. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you have to spend time deciding which uses a lot of energy that could be going toward the thing you actually want to do. If you have a rough outline of what you want to do and what order to do it in ready ahead of time, and the space is set up with everything you need, you’ll have a much smoother experience. It’s about making as easy and seamless as possible for you to pick up the pen or the brush or the laptop.


The thing you’re planning to do is probably something you really like doing. Looking forward to something can brighten your whole day, and make doing it itself more enjoyable. Looking forward to going home and doing something you love is energizing, motivating, and helps you overcome any hesitation or uncertainty that may be discouraging you from doing it.

Preparing the headspace

If you have an idea of what you’re going to be doing later, it’s human nature to think about it and do a lot of work in the subconscious in preparation. This isn’t just about physical preparation, it’s about mental preparation so you’re ready to go into the activity with full attention and energy.

More efficient

Efficiency isn’t the goal to end all goals, but having to set up your space before you start working is a huge distraction and cuts way down on the time you get to spend actually doing what you want to do. This goes along with the point about less decision making, but when you can move from activity to activity smoothly you get into a helpful, healthy rhythm and momentum.

Have you had similar experiences? Do you prefer spontaneous decisions or planning ahead? If you do plan ahead, what do you do to prepare? I’m on Twitter.

Kevin McGillivray is a teacher and web developer from Wisconsin. He writes about creativity, mindfulness, code, and tea. He tweets and tumbles.

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