“Brain Fog”, “Cloudy Consciousness” is a cognitive disorder common in people with chronic illnesses such as Lupus, Multiple Sclerosis, Lyme Disease, and many auto-immune disorders. This is Part II in a series of posts about how I deal with it and how it affects my art making life. PART I is HERE.

Some years ago, I hired a professional organizer service to help me get my scene together, and I learned some great tips. Unfortunately, organizing tips that work for most people work against people who have cognitive dysfunction.

You let papers pile up. You intend to clean out that inbox, but you never do. Then you need another inbox. Then another. Then you are piling up boxes in the closet. Soon your papers are out of control.

Ideally, this is how you handle paper.

1) Handle each piece of paper only once.
2) File it. (Have a unique spot in your system so you can locate it quickly)
3) Containerize it. (Put it away in a drawer or cabinet)

This all sounds like great advice, and it is the way I try to handle things like receipts. Usually I don’t need to see a receipt except when I get it, and then when I add it up for the tax man.

It comes in, it goes in the bin.

The End.

Not quite.

If you have brain fog, this system won’t work for daily assignments. That goes double if you are working with scripts, sketches, and ideas. If you are one of those people who became convinced putting everything on computer would de-clutter your office, you probably ended up completely forgetting whatever the hell was on your computer. Neatly filed assignments and reference in a cabinet was like throwing it all down a well.

People with brain fog process information differently. It’s not that we can’t remember things, it’s that we have brain hiccups so we have to reinforce our memory, back it up like an engineer, and add sensation to the experience to make sure information sticks.

I forget the name of books I am working on. Commissions go undone. I lose original art.

Out of sight is out of mind.

There is mess and then there is meaningful clutter. My studio is full of meaningful clutter. My assignments are where I can see them, and almost everything gets a label.

Project board with a couple of titles scratched out so you can’t send the info to Bleeding Cool.

Here is my project board, two cork boards nailed to the wall with a label for each assignment, and room to post the script, reference, layouts, and whatever else I need in that column. The board is right in front of me every day. I can’t help but see it.

If I put those jobs in a file or on the computer, they are out of my sight and I will focus on the one I am working on and forget all the others.

This sounds completely unbelievable, especially when you consider the workload I carry and the level of detail in my art, but it’s true.

Brain fog isn’t dementia, it’s misfire. Your deep memories are still there, but your working memory is shot. It comes and goes in waves. I can be fine for weeks and then for weeks more, I’ll feel like every little thing is a major drain. I’ll look at the ruler and think how hard it is to draw a straight line with one.

Organizing your studio so that you can have constant visual and tactile reinforcement for your memories and ideas will take the load off your working memory and give you more than one path in your head for what you need to remember. You see the item. You feel the paper. Sensation is important. I keep a bottle of aromatic oil by my drawing board such as eucalyptus or rosemary and take a sniff when I need to remember something.

A bottle of oil looks so nice next to the hand cream and the Porsche iPod dock.

In addition to my assignment board, right next to my drawing board I have this flat file. I put a label on every drawer and anything that doesn’t fit on the project board that I need for a job is in there. As assignments change, they get new labels. As assignments get completed, they go to permanent storage in the flat file or file cabinet.

It’s very important to handle paper consistently. If you don’t, in no time, you’ll be overwhelmed by piles of it.

All of your techy friends will giggle and swear that because you aren’t dripping with gadgets and apps, and aren’t just going total tech, you’re a luddite. No. It’s because your mind does not process information the way theirs does. Tech gadgets confuse, distract, and raise anxiety levels. There are too many choices. And the lack of tactile sensation can make it hard for memories to take hold. Many people with brain fog get completely overwhelmed and lost in web surfing.

As paradoxical as it sounds, I do a lot of my writing on computer, and have no trouble remembering the writing, where the files are, or what I was doing. But it doesn’t work for my daily art assignments. If I put an art commission list on my laptop, it’s like it doesn’t exist. I back things up on my computer, but I display them on my assignment board.

Something I do the exact same way every single day, like writing for an hour every afternoon, sinks in and stays. I’ve been writing a novel for a year, it’s not going away.

But art making means I use THIS tool for THIS many days, then I don’t use it for awhile. And I forget where it is. I work on THIS assignment for THIS many days. And then I work on something else and forget the other assignment. This starting and stopping really messes me up.

Dealing with brain fog isn’t about logic. The secret love child of Aristotle and Martha Stewart is not going to come in your studio and make you rearrange things.

This is about managing a symptom of chronic illness. You don’t have to explain to anyone why you do the things you do. They just have to work for you.

Keep stuff you don’t need frequently filed away.

Keep stuff you do need frequently in a format where you can see it, access it, and where it doesn’t create visual stress.

Out of Sight is Out of Mind.

Keep it in Sight and Keep it Simple

Gratuitous shot of my day planner.

If it works for me, it may not work for you. That’s OK. Go do something else.