The single most important skill a professional artist must learn to manage is also the most difficult master: time management. Closely linked to that is mastering self-motivation. I’m not talking about the motivation to achieve long-term goals like securing work or even changing the art industry. We all want that. I’m talking about the commitment and fortitude required to to your mind, eyes, and drawing hand every single day.
I’ve met many skilled artists and a few that blow me away with their work. But I’ve also heard as many complaints about how they either haven’t grown as much as they wanted to, or need to be around other artists who are working in order to get their artwork done, or burn out during finals, or are distracted by other activities (like playing games or browsing the internet). If this sounds familiar, then take it as a sign that you aren’t managing your time well. And if you aren’t, then it will kill your career if you don’t learn how to.
Why is that? Well, a few reasons. First, while you are doing other things, your future contender is training right now for that job you will be applying for. While you are inching along they are growing by leaps and bounds. Only the best get hired, only the best get commissions, and only the very best change the industry. The time to train for those juicy assignments is now.
Second, if you are a student and can’t deliver on your assignments for classes, then how will you deliver on assignments for your clients or art director? If you’re already working and unable or unwilling to deliver on time, then your reputation is already suffering. The field is very insular. That means everyone is connected and you will (or are already) developing a reputation for missing deadlines. Someone less skilled, but dependable, will be hired over you. If you are a student, you are building your reputation right now with your instructors. When you apply for work and ask them to recommend you, they will remember if you turned in late or incomplete work and won’t want to put their reputations on the line for you. The same is true with employers.
Third, if you can’t motivate yourself to work on projects you don’t initially enjoy, you are going to be very unhappy working in the industry and your work will suffer as a result. We and our clients get out of our artwork what we put into it. Most of the time, you won’t get to work on something you feel innately passionate about because it will be someone else’s idea. You won’t always have other artists to depend on to set your work schedule and atmosphere. Instead, you need to develop strategies to motivate yourself and get the job done on schedule and without burning out. Find a way to be passionate about creating art for its own sake. That’s why you’re doing this, aren’t you? Because you love to draw, paint, and design, right? If you don’t enjoy spending hours every day creating, you need to find a different line of work. If you do have that motivation, that passion, that hunger to create and improve, then an art director shouldn’t be able to tell which pieces in your portfolio you enjoyed creating more – and if asked you should be able to honestly answer that choosing one piece would be like asking a mother to pick her favorite child.
Are you ready to get to work, but just don’t know how to organize your time? Remember, this is a lifestyle change, and they say it takes 28 days to establish new habits. If you’re ready, use these tips for 28 days and I guarantee you will be more productive and grow faster.
Five Tips for Better Time Management
- Write down your goals and break them down into realistic, bite-sized, lists.
- Start with your ultimate goal and aim high! Be ambitious and aim for something like, “I want to change the art industry forever.” or “I want to be spoken of in the same breath as [insert favorite artist here].” or “I want to found my own company.” This is the point where you put a ceiling on your success. So shoot for the moon; that way, if you miss you’ll hit the stars.
- Work backwards and break that goal down into self-development goals for each month, then week, then day. These are achievements you will make outside of your assignments. It is the first step to organize your time and it will put you in a goal-oriented mind-frame. If you like, you can set aside rewards for each goal you meet. As a bonus, it will feel great when you get to cross those goals off your list!
- One of my mentors, Michael Buffington, once set a goal of drawing 1,000 simplified but realistic heads. Even as a professional, his craft improved immensely. Not many artists have that kind of commitment, but his book of 1,000 heads is set to be published in order to inspire other artists.
- Assign daily routines.
- This critical for those who procrastinate or burn out when deadlines approach. It’s important to both pace yourself and balance other demands on your time. If you have a blog or online portfolio, set aside time to update that. First, set your priorities – list them and put them in order in terms of both importance and immediacy – be ruthless about this but don’t forget your non-work needs. Then set time aside in order of your priorities. If you have a significant other, set aside time with them. Set aside time to network, research, get inspiration, exercise, eat, and sleep. If you don’t, your body and/or support network will quit on you, it’s just a matter of time.
- On a similar note, get dressed in the morning. Yes, it’s fun to work in your Pj’s all day at home and nobody will know if you do. But getting dressed for work is a routine, even a ritual, for establishing your working mood. You’ve already established this mindset for work and school, just apply it at home to counter that all-too easy temptation to goof off or spend too much time consuming information (See No. 5). It’s surprising how preparing yourself like this to work will set the tone for your entire day.
- Break down your projects.
- Feeling overwhelmed by a looming project? Try breaking it down into smaller bite-sized pieces. Focus on the project one stage at a time and then look at it in terms of 20-minute-intervals. You can work for 20 minutes, right? Well, when you’re done, take a 5 minute break. Don’t forget to set your timer!
- Pay attention to how long it is taking you to complete your tasks, and revisit your lists. You’ll want to update them and re-evaluate your short-term goals and bring them into line with how long it takes you to complete your tasks. Eventually, it’ll take less time to accomplish them, but for now this is a reality-check and a good way to adjust your pace. It’s also important to keep track so that you can give clients and/or your boss an accurate estimate of the time it’ll take you to complete a project.
- Set up an efficient workspace.
- Decide on the area you want to do your work in. This will depend your personal preferences and on what you are distracted by. Some artists can’t work if they’re by a computer connected to the internet (that includes smartphones) which are constantly pinging for your attention with email and Facebook alerts and texts. However, some artists need online reference photos or other resources and will instead need to turn off those alerts and summon the self-control not to give into temptation. Whatever space works for you, carve it out and make it your own.
- If you live with someone else, set up a sign that lets them know if you are available to chat or not. Have a kind conversation with them about what it means. This will both ensure that you can maintain your focus and that you won’t have to defend your boundaries against your well-intentioned roommate or loved-one. It’s pro-active and prevents arguments. If you’ve set aside time to be with them (see No. 2), they should be able to respect your work space and time.
- Keep your workspace organized and clean. Some people, like me, can’t think very clearly among a lot of clutter. But even if you like to work with everything related (and not) spread out over your workspace, you probably still won’t like your artwork marred by a glob of yesterday’s lunch.
- Draw Right Now!
- The availability of information (both related to artwork and not) is a wonderful thing. It inspires and motivates us to create something new and learn new skills. But too much consumption and not enough production will cripple your career. So take action!
- Maybe you’re staring at that blank page, ready to draw but afraid of creating something lame. The key here is to practice on cheap paper. Take out cheap copy paper, newsprint, or even the blank backs of junk mail you have laying around. Start with warm-up exercises and move on to quick 3 minute sketches. If it’s a bad drawing, you only have to live with it for 3 minutes before moving on. The important thing is to get those bad drawings out of your system and start carving away at those 10,000 hours to master your craft.
- So unplug yourself from social networks, email, the work of other artists, your phone, and this blog. Stop consuming and start producing! Stop thinking and start drawing now!