When I work with artists one-on-one I have them fill out an Awesome Artist Assessment Form before we get started. It's a five-page document that asks a series of questions to help me get to know who I'm working with, what their immediate and long-term goals are, how visible and savvy they are online, what drives them to create, and more. On the form there's a checklist asking them what their current objectives are for their creative work. Folks check all that apply, then rank each item according to which are most important and pressing. Nearly everybody checks off "time management" and ranks it high on the list of things they need help with.
I'll be honest, I'm not a time management wizard. Admittedly, I waste time daily. (Facebook, I'm shaking my fist at you!) But, I never give up trying to stay on track and continually refine a system that works for me. Over the years I've accumulated lots of tools and insights that help keep me moving forward. I present them here as a fancy little list. And, as it turns out, lists are part of the list.
1) The busier you are the easier it will be. You ever hear that quote, "If you want something done, give it to a busy person"? That's because when we're crunched for time we tend to keep moving, keep doing. We don't procrastinate. We're in the flow, so to speak. When we have long stretches of time we can get confused. "Should I paint first, then do the bills?" or "Should I work on that client project, or do some writing?" It can be hard to prioritize our time in those moments. Have a plan. Do not go into an unscheduled stretch of time without one. When nothing is urgent or pressing we dilly dally; we procrastinate; we justify; we allow ourselves to slack. Create an hour-by-hour plan or schedule to keep yourself moving forward BEFORE you head into one of those glorious, beautiful stretches of precious time.
2) Write it down. I'm talking about To-Do lists, yearly plans, goal lists, weekly schedules and the like. I recommend putting an actual pen or pencil to paper and creating a tangible list. I think the act of writing longhand and the physicality of a paper list is important. But, of course, this is the digital age, so if you know that's more effective for you, go for it. Either way, writing down your tasks and plans will help you organize your brain. A warning: don't be the person with 9,000 pieces of paper. I'm talking about one list or a couple lists, not a visual representation of your scattered mind!
3) It's not about time, it's about expectation. If you're anything like me you need to adjust your expectations around the way that you work. I can't tell you how many times I've fooled myself into thinking I could write a screenplay in a month or do a body of artwork in a week. When we find ourselves getting all wound up by our lack of time, it can often be that we've not set realistic expectations on the front end. When you're diving into a project, check your expectations first and be honest about who your are and what you can realistically accomplish in the timeframe that you have.
4) Do what you love FIRST. This is where you put your artwork at the top of the To-Do list. Don't wait 'til the bills are paid, the kids are washed, the grocery list is made. The more tasks you put between you and your artwork the farther away your work gets from you. Make your artwork a priority.
5) Say no. Time is the most precious commodity we have. You are literally guarding it - or not guarding it - with your life! Saying no to things, even and, perhaps, especially things you want to do, is important to keeping your time sacred. Recently, I read an interview with Michelle Pfeiffer and she said this quote, "I've learned you can have it all, but you can't do it all." Amen, sister.
6) Get focused. This one goes hand-in-hand with #5. To keep a manageable schedule you gotta stay focused, you gotta KNOW what's most important in your life. Write down the three things that are most important to you. Maybe it's "Art. Family. Volunteering." or maybe it's "Teaching. Travel. Creativity." You get the picture. Whatever those three things are, make sure your day-to-day tasks line up with them. Anything extraneous or additional should be prioritized differently, and by "differently" I mean lower on the To-Do list.
7) Get up earlier. If you're having time management problems, get up one hour earlier than usual. (Ideally you'll go to bed one hour earlier, too.) This is simple, but SO effective. Our brains are in a different state in the morning. They're not cluttered with the tasks of the day. They're fresh and ready. No matter how earnest we are about getting stuff done at the end of the day it's just not the same. Getting up an hour earlier will literally add more time (and checked off To-Do's) to your life.
8) Assume everything takes longer than you think it will. When making your lists and schedules, build in more time. Add more minutes, hours, days and weeks to your tasks and projects. Pad your schedule with extra time and you'll find you needed it. Or, you'll find you had time to grab a few meditative minutes here or, hot damn, get ahead of some of the other tasks on the list.
9) Change your mind. What you think about you become, so retrain your brain for peace and success rather than a frantic whirlwind. Stop saying things like "I'm crazed," or "Things are nuts here." You know, I'm talking about those constant exasperated phrases that just roll right off the tongue. It's time to practice new thoughts. Start saying to yourself, "There's always enough time," "I have a good handle on my schedule," or my favorite, "Everything always gets done." (Because somehow it really does!)
10) Slow down. It's hard to slow down when THERE'S JUST SO MUCH TO DO. But seriously, slow down. Be still for a minute... or ten. Take a day off. Remember the tortoise and the hare story? The great irony is that when we are more rested and refreshed, we get more done. Oftentimes when we're overworked, burnt out, or Busy to the Max we don't realize that we're less efficient. Slowing down, and even stopping for a bit, will provide a necessary recharge to our batteries.
11) Start your week off with a scheduled time management check in. Once a week, every week, have a date with yourself to go over all your lists, schedules, etc. These are organic, working documents, not rules and laws. They need to be looked at, adjusted, played with. Starting your week with a review and check in of your tasks and goals will make you feel empowered and on top of your schedule. When you feel on top of your schedule, you feel on top of your life.
12) Use tools. There are lots of tools to help you maintain your tasks, projects, goals and schedules. Some folks use a physical hourglass when working. I love to use Internet-blocking software like Freedom for Mac to eliminate the possibility of distracting myself with social media. I know other folks who swear by the Pomodoro Technique. And, plenty of smart artists use coaches or consultants to help keep them accountable and on track. If you're struggling to keep things in order, look for and use tools (a.k.a. "life preservers").
13) Keep it together.Together is the operative word here. I mean, take all your schedules, calendars, scraps of papers, project files, notes, documents, etc. and put them in one place - a system, if you will. Get file folders, binders, clips and sticky notes. Throw out old papers. Put your bills and high priority items in a special folder. Set phone alarms two days before every bill that's due. Organize yourself! If you need help with this part - ask. Have a friend come over for a few hours, or hire a personal organizer. Simplifying is key. You want to create a flow so you aren't wasting time looking for things, paying overdraft fees, sending apology emails and other time suckers that result from poor organization. What's most important is that you make a system that works for you, one you can maintain. If it's not sustainable it won't matter.
14) Make yourself a priority. When you make a dentist appointment, you show up. When your mother-in-law asks for help with her garden, you set a time and you show up. When your kid has a hockey game, you make it there. Funny how when you say you're going to sit down and get your creative work done it gets pushed to the back burner. Why is that? Because you haven't prioritized yourself the way you prioritize others. Know that you are important and your artwork is important - in fact, it's your lifeline! Schedule dates for you to hang out with you. Show up. Don't cancel. This is your LIFE we're talking about.
Now that you've read the list, think about which things you can begin to implement in your life. Don't buy into the hype that artists are freewheeling scatterbrains with nary a care in the world. I'm the Queen of Spontaneity and a serious Hater of Routines, but I know that my plans, schedules and lists are what allow me to be as free as I am. Time is, as the old song goes, on our side. At least it is when we intend and plan for it to be.
(Hourglass photo by bigbirdz.)