Managing Time and Being More Productive as a Creative Professional

I’ve done a lot of things over the course of my creative career. In addition to working as a freelance illustrator, I’ve run a blog, written many tutorials, made videos, built websites, written books, kept an ongoing webcomic, and on and on. And one of the biggest questions I get is – Where the heck do you find the time??

The truth is, I don’t always know the answer to this question, and I have not always succeeded. It’s one of my biggest challenges. There have been times when I feel like tearing my hair out under all the stress. Recently I sat down and tried to evaluate what has worked and what hasn’t, what has driven my career forward, and what has gotten in the way. Here are some of the thoughts I gathered…

Create first

Above all, make things. Draw art. Write stories. Do the things you most want to do and share them.

So many artists struggle with maintaining blogs, keeping up with social networks, organizing promotion, and improving their skills. They often come up dry and frustrated, and I have found that it usually comes from not producing enough. For example, some artists worry about posting on their blog once a week, but never have any significant new artwork to show off. Or writers will spend hours researching publishers and reading about how to make a pitch, but then complain about how they never have time to finish writing their story.

Create first. The rest will fall into place.

Finish

How many of you have a million graphic novel ideas or a sketchbook full of half-finished drawings? Do you struggle with keeping your portfolio updated or following through on personal projects?

When asked about writing tips, Joss Whedon said simply this – finish it. “I have so many friends who have written two-thirds of a screenplay, and then re-written it for about three years. Finishing a screenplay is first of all truly difficult, and secondly really liberating. Even if it’s not perfect, even if you know you’re gonna have to go back into it, type to the end. You have to have a little closure.”

I cannot emphasize enough how much this philosophy has guided my various projects over the years. If there is something I really want to do, I try to follow through, whether that’s a comic or an illustration or a picture book story. It doesn’t matter if it’s perfect; what matters is that it gets done. Even if it’s not perfect, at least it exists, and if it exists, I can do something with it. You can’t do anything with a notebook of things you want to do.

Finish it, then move on to the next thing. After a while, you will be amazed at how many things you’ve done.

Focus

As my freelance career has gotten more successful, and as I’ve developed additional personal projects, I started to struggle more and more. My stress skyrocketed. I was doing too many things, and not enjoying doing them.

One bad habit I constantly have a hard time with is procrastination. I would have two weeks to do an assignment, but find myself doing most of it in the last few days. I constantly ask myself, why couldn’t I be this productive the entire time? I would have been done long before!

I’ve been recently trying an experiment to counteract this: If I’m given two weeks for a job, I try to do it in one. Or I might spread this out daily and say, I can only work four hours on this today instead of eight. Crazy, you say? How does giving yourself LESS time to do your tasks help you? Well, I have found that this causes me to focus more on what really needs to get done. Distractions become less distracting because I HAVE to get my daily work done in those few hours. And it’s not so hard of a strategy to implement because in my head I’m thinking, I only have to work on this for a few hours today and then I can do something fun!

The amazing thing is, I haven’t seen my productivity drop at all.

Set limits for yourself. Work fewer hours. Keep your to-do list short. You will stick to what is truly important for your day-to-day productivity. Things that really don’t matter get left behind. If you give yourself more leeway, you find ways to waste that extra space.

Take a break

The last tip I’d like to offer is to take time off! This sounds like it would be easy, but in the life of an independent creative professional, it’s not. Your work often becomes your life, and you can’t separate the two.

I have rarely worked an evening or a weekend. It was more common for me during school and in the early years of my career, but I’ve been even more strict about it as time goes on. This surprises a lot of people. It may seem impossible to some of you. I’m here to tell you it’s not.

That is not to say that if you work evening and weekends, I think you’re a hack. You’re not. I admire you. I don’t think it’s bad to work long hours in dedication to your craft and do well at your job. Those of you who have day jobs and children that eat up your daylight hours might need to work those weekends, and I applaud you for being dedicated to a creative career. However I do think it’s bad if you work those hours out of warped expectations, bad time management, or at the expense of personal life and health.

Long hours is not a prerequisite for artist living. The value of a day is not measured in hours. It’s what you do within the time you set for yourself.

How do you do it? If you don’t want to work weekends, decide right now not to. Don’t leave it up for debate. This brings us back to the principle of focus – if you don’t give yourself the extra hours, you have to get more done within the time that you do have. It helps you prioritize and say no to things that aren’t important. It might take practice, but it’s not impossible. I only work weekends if I literally cannot make a deadline without it. This happens less and less as time goes on and I get better managing my time.

Breaks provide many benefits. You can relax. You have time to do other things, things that have nothing to do with art (gasp!). You can learn a hobby. Read books. Go to the movies. Hang out with friends and spend time with your family. Become involved in the community. All these things enrich your life and in turn help your art by keeping your creative batteries charged. If you let every waking hour drain you, you will have trouble making art.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, if I’m going to do this job, I want to be happy doing it. If making art 24/7 makes you happy, then I say go for it. But if you’re like me, you need room for all the other stuff. It won’t happen by itself – you’ve got to make the time.

Being an artist, and life in general, doesn’t have to feel like a ten ton boulder strapped to your shoulders.

Focus. Relax. Be happy. Create.