Control Your Time and Become a More Successful Artist

Several months ago, I was on the edge of overload. I had a number of great projects in progress, gallery sales were humming along, and the little things that a business owner has to deal with were beginning to compound. Add to that dealing with dozens of emails each day, random phone calls, traveling and meetings, (not to mention writing for this blog) and, quite simply, there weren’t enough hours in the day to get it all done.

Though I am fortunate to have a high stress tolerance, I was beginning to feel the weight of carrying a workload that was simply too high. Many days I would start work before 8:00 a.m., work all day, come home and, after dinner, work again until 10 or 11 at night. Even so, each day I felt I was falling just a little further behind in accomplishing everything I wanted to get done.

On a regular basis, I have the opportunity to talk to artists and have found that many are experiencing exactly the same predicament.

 You might not think of it this way, but as an artist you are the owner of a small business

You might not think of it this way, but as an artist you are the owner of a small business, just as I am.  As the owner of your fine art business, you have to manage your accounting, your inventory, and your marketing. You have to find time to build and maintain relationships with galleries. If you sell your own work, you have to manage your sales, both by making sure that you are developing new leads and following up and closing sales. You are responsible for managing your website and following through with your social media. These tasks alone could keep you busy most days, and we haven’t even mentioned your most important work: creating art.

I am sure that many of you can understand the desperation that was beginning to creep into my days.

Luckily for me, I was directed to some tools that have changed my day-to-day life and helped me get control of my time.

I don’t want to cast myself as a time-management expert, nor is my intention to write an all-encompassing post on how to get control of your life. I just want to share a few things that have had a huge impact for me, and could help you become more productive and feel like you are in control of your day, and more importantly, your over-all direction.

 

The Ideal Week

Many of you know Barney Davey through podcasting and workshops we have done together. Barney is a fountain of great information and he is particularly good at finding great tools and resources online. I consider him to be my digital guru. Several months ago, Barney pointed me to Michael Hyatt’s blog.

Hyatt is the former president and CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers and blogs about leadership at michaelhyatt.com. While his blog posts cover a wide range of leadership topics, Barney directed me to an article on planning, where Hyatt describes how he designs an “ideal week.” I recommend you read Hyatt’s post by clicking here.

I won’t attempt to repeat everything Hyatt writes. but the basic concept is that by creating a template of your week – scheduling out your time in blocks – you become more efficient and complete your most important work. Obviously Hyatt isn’t the first to discover the concept, this is a bedrock time-management principle, but the timing was just right for me. I read his article at exactly the moment when I needed to have more control over my activities. Hyatt includes a downloadable spreadsheet that you can adapt to your schedule, and I did just that.

the act of creating the ideal week was revealing – it forced me to prioritize so that I could allot my time to those tasks that are most important to me.

Again, this isn’t rocket science and after creating my own ideal week, it seemed so obvious I couldn’t believe I hadn’t done it before. Just the act of creating the ideal week was revealing. It forced me to prioritize so that I could allot my time to those tasks that are most important to me. Reading Hyatt’s post, you’ll see that he suggests starting your day with your long-term priorities, rather than your day-to-day tasks.

Prior to this exercise, I would sit down at the beginning of each day, look at my task-list (more on that in a moment) and try to plan things out as best I could. The problem with this is that prioritizing on a daily basis often caused me to work on projects that were urgent rather than important.

I encourage you to try and plan your own ideal week and see what it looks like. I suspect that the biggest blocks of time on your schedule will be for your creative process and production time.

Once I had my ideal week on paper, I was surprised by how easy it was to begin following my plan. I created my spreadsheet in Google Docs and I have it set as a permanent tab in my browser so it is always easy for me to access. I look at it every day to make sure I know what I need to be working on that particular day.

 

The To-Do List

I have long been a fan of the to-do list. I always have dozens of little tasks pending, and prior to using a to-do list I would often drop the ball on some of these minor tasks. Several years ago, I converted to managing my email in Outlook and started using the integrated task list in the program to make sure I was getting everything done. This was another revolution in my life. Any of you who have used Outlook before know how easy it is to create a task or convert an email into a task, set a due date, and then manage the list.

In May of this year, I moved the gallery’s email to Google for hosting through their gmail system. I kept hearing how wonderful gmail was at cutting through the clutter of the inbox and making it easier to manage. I’ll have to write another post on how amazing I have found gmail to be, but the one downside was losing Outlook’s great tasking system. Gmail offers a to-do list, but after trying it I found that it simply wasn’t robust enough to deal with my tasking.

Barney Davey saved me again by pointing me to todoist.com. Todoist is an online task and project management web app that not only gave me back a lot of the flexibility to move tasks around and prioritize them (as Outlook had) but gave me a cleaner interface and a workflow that felt more natural to me.

Quite simply, whenever a project or task comes up, I put it into todoist.

Prior to using a to-do list, I would be tempted to simply go to work on every thought or idea that popped into my head. Consequently, I would bounce around from project to project because invariably, as I was working on one project I would have an idea for another.

Now if I have an idea or realize I need to do something, I pop into todoist (also a permanent tab in my browser), create a task (by simply hitting ctrl+q), assign it a date, and go back to my original project. Because I am secure in the knowledge the task won’t be forgotten, I can now forget about it and get back to the original work I was doing.

My to-do list works in tandem with my ideal week. I plan out my broad strokes with the ideal week schedule and manage the little tasks involved in each project or day to day activity in my to-do list. I do have to be a little bit careful about not looking at my to-do list at the beginning of the day for fear that I will be derailed by the little things it contains. I work on my big projects in the morning and through about 2:00 p.m., and then I look to my to-do list to manage the rest of my day and get everything done.

 

Delegate

Perhaps the hardest thing for any small business owner to do (and remember, I consider you a small business owner) is to let go of some of the control of any aspect of your business by delegating it to someone else. As small business owners, we often have to figure out how to do everything on our own – all the way from the most important business decisions down to cleaning the bathroom. After a while, it becomes a way of life and we feel pretty good about the fact that we can do so much by ourselves.

Ultimately, however, our self-reliance can become a hindrance to our long-term success. Yes, you can do your own bookkeeping and taxes, and yes, you can ship your own art, and yes, you can clean the bathroom, but is doing these things the best use of your limited time?

A week consists of 168 hours and every minute you spend on one task is a minute you can’t spend on another.

I am fortunate to have great people working for me, and the work they do for me frees me to focus my efforts on the work that I have prioritized as most important for our long-term success.

You might say “I’m a starving artist, I can’t hire anyone.” Indeed, you may not be able to hire someone to work full-time for you, but if you can simply farm out some of the more basic parts of your business, you will find you have more time to create. Consider having a bookkeeper take over your day-to-day financial record keeping. Hire an art-student to come into your studio weekly to organize and clean the studio and catalog your artwork. Have your spouse take over your website maintenance.

To my delight, I have found that not only can others do the work I was originally doing myself, after a little training they often do it better than I could!

Learn to say “No”

While you may have countless great ideas and opportunities, none of them are any good to you if you can’t get them done. Sometimes you just have to learn to put your foot down and say “no” to things that are going to prevent you from accomplishing your priorities. Again, your ideal week can be a huge help in budgeting your time in relationship to “opportunities” that might pop up.

You might be approached by a charity that is looking for volunteers to help with an event. If you believe in the cause it can be very difficult to decline. Before you accept, however, go to your ideal week calendar and ask yourself where you can fit in the commitment and how much time it’s going to require. If you’re not willing to give up other priorities to fit the commitment in, decline the opportunity.

Michael Hyatt has another great post on saying “no” in a positive way: http://michaelhyatt.com/how-to-say-no.html

Eliminate Distractions and Create a Buffer

Prioritizing and planning are meaningless if you can’t stay focused while you are working on your priorities. We live in a world of constant distraction. Email, phone calls, television and even friends and family can intrude on our productive time and prevent us from accomplishing our goals. Once again, the urgent can get in the way of the important.

I experienced another huge productivity increase when I simply changed my habits around my email. I used to work on my email first thing in the morning. I would arrive at the gallery before 8:00 a.m. and open my inbox to get to work on clearing it out. Inevitably, I would end up stuck in my email for hours, and sometimes all day. Email comes in at a steady stream, so just when you think you have it licked, another message rears its ugly head.

Now, I don’t even open my email until after 3:00 p.m., and yet, amazingly, I can still manage to respond to all of my correspondence before the end of the day.

I try to do the same thing with phone calls – I ask my staff to take messages or I let calls roll-over to voice mail so that I can deal with them on my time. Obviously there are exceptions, but most emails and calls aren’t so urgent that they can’t wait a few hours so that you can stay focused on your most important work.

I have also found that I am less distracted if I create a physical and psychological buffer between myself and the world around me. A closed office door (or studio door in your case) and headphones create enough of a barrier that all but the most insistent distractions are blocked. While the wrong music could be another distraction, I have found that classical music and instrumental movie soundtracks actually help me focus.

The Payoff

I know these suggestions are pretty simple, but it’s amazing how taking control of my time has impacted my outlook on life. At the end of each day, I can now look back with satisfaction on the work I’ve accomplished and the progress I’ve made toward my goals, instead of feeling guilty that I didn’t get everything done.

Managing my time more carefully has, almost miraculously, given me more time to stop and smell the roses of life. Over the last several months, I have read two lengthy books to my children and spent more time with my wife, Carrie.

There is still much more I need to do to optimize my time and work and I’m not always 100% consistent, but at least now I feel like I am on the right track and have the tools at my disposal to take advantage of the time I have available.

What are your greatest time-management challenges? What tools do you use to maximize your productivity? How does your control of your time impact the art you are creating?

About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of the Art Business Academy. Jason has helped thousands of artists prepare themselves to more effectively market their work, build relationships with galleries and collectors, and turn their artistic passion into a viable business.

14 Comments

  1. I’ve used these time management ideas before with success, but always seem to drift away from them.

    I think the key problem is admitting I can’t do it all myself and I do need a system. Dropping the Superman cape is the first step. Choosing then using a time management system is the next.

    Thanks for reminding me of these important thoughts. As an artist I AM a small business owner.

  2. Great suggestions here as usual Jason. I definitely need to get more of this in process! I am now in 2 business mentorships, which are taking a lot of time, so painting has been falling to the back of my priority list. I find it difficult to balance working IN my business, and working ON my business, never mind the work/life balance.

  3. Love this post – time management is everything as a small business owner!

    I’ve used a number of systems, but now my favorite is my apple calendar. Every Monday morning I block out my week starting with big Projects (one color) and then filling in with Tasks (another color). I agree that focusing on big Projects BEFORE diving into the mundane tasks is critical to accomplishing big goals.

    Every now and then, folks ask me how I have been able to accomplish so much (changed my career from engineer to artist, written 5 books, taught in-person retreats while doing all of the cooking, created online courses, raised kids, lived in a never-ending house building project, taught art in the schools, and run a successful online art business) and the entire key to all of this is mastering time management – and focusing on Projects first before Tasks.

  4. I have been studying acrylic painting with an excellent instructor for over four years. I am a widow, and my daughters are grown with families of their own, so I only have to “manage my time” each day. After working as an executive assistant for over 45 years, my mornings were never my own most of my life. I worked fulltime, raised a family, spent lots of fun time with my husband and family, took care of a five bedroom home, helped with yard work and still found time for my three daughters, their activities, and played a round of golf every other week during the summer with my husband. Now that I am retired, I keep “my mornings at home” to myself for coffee, catching up on the news, excising, and, without a doubt, painting! My studio is in my former dining room with a large east facing window. If you are having trouble finding time to paint, I highly recommend leaving your mornings open just for you and your creativity. This will change your life! During this pandemic, having my mornings filled with painting has been a gift. Something to look forward to each and every day! Hope this helps a little bit! Best wishes to all!

  5. All great suggestions. I really needed this. So much of what you address are issues I struggle with, especially emails!

    Another time management tip: Many times art students are available to work as interns in your studio. In exchange for their time, they get valuable real art world knowledge and experience. If you have the space, you could even offer to set aside a small area of your studio for them to create.

  6. I agree that productivity is directly linked to planning out and managing your time. I have used to-do lists since I was in college. For years, I ran a global business and then was a management professor. I take a slightly different approach, weighing factors such as importance, urgency, whether others are needed to complete, and time to complete. In general, I always did those things that I could “get out of the way quickly” (which often included delegation, but was also things that just didn’t take that much time–sometimes they were important but quick ones) so I could clear my plate, and my mind, for those things that were more creative or required more time and thought. Never forget: Just because something takes longer or is a bigger project doesn’t mean it is more important or interesting. So I would get all kinds of things done by, say 11 am, and spend the rest of the day in larger blocks of time. Those things requiring large chunks of time should always be assigned a priority and follow a different schedule than the ones that can be gotten out of the way. I still follow the same general approach now that I am an artist, except that I have split my “get out of the way” things between early morning and late in the day because I like to paint when the light is good–roughly 9:30 or 10 to 3 or 3:30.

    I use Gmail calendar as my “plan your ideal week” calendar; I block out what I want to do during the week, along with appointments and other required activities–ie, my gmail calendar is always “full.” It is easy to move things around by dragging or editing, and to create labels.

    Oh, and I NEVER go out to lunch unless it has a business (art-related) purpose. It totally screws up the day. That’s my best piece of advice.

  7. I come and go on how well I do with this. One of my biggest issues is that my laptop is in my studio. It needs to be – I use it for design work, or to reference an image. I’ll be working and think of a text I need to send, or an item to add to my web-based to-do list (they are super helpful!). But the problem is those awful little red notifications! While I have most turned off, when I flip open my laptop, it’s hard to resist what that new email or message is about. Suddenly, 30 minutes later, I realize I fell down an email rabbit hole.

    Now, when I’m smart and doing well with the time management, I close my laptop and set a small pad of paper and a pen on top. All those random things that pop into my head while I’m working go on the pad of paper, and then I open my computer when I’m ready.

  8. It sounds good but I have no idea how to incorporate it. Art is not my only job. We also ranch and that is a 24 hr a day, 7 day a week on call sort of thing. Not only do I do the books, pay bills as well as other paperwork for that but I also have to work cows etc and that is the bread and butter. It sure isn’t the art. Social media is also a side track but it isn’t just about the social. Actually it isn’t social at all with all the serious things going on these days. I sometimes wish I didn’t have political concerns. The answer? I don’t have one except to make every free moment count and sometimes I just get burned out.

  9. Good post topic! The biggest take-away for me is setting deadlines for those bigger projects. I work best under deadline pressure. But my own self-imposed deadlines are too often pushed back. I’ve often thought I should be taking them more seriously and set firm dates; thanks for that reminder!

    I use a system something like bullet journaling. To do lists for daily tasks, weekly, monthly, and 6 month out plans and that seems to work well for me. I’ve also learned that the time of the day has a big effect on how productive I am. I’m have more mental clarity in the mornings; more creative in the afternoon and evening.

  10. I love the list-making activity. When we can travel again, I shall definitely put the TRAVEL back into the mix, as the travel creates a deadline, which is helpful and for me, necessary ( so I tend to give myself deadlines for whatever activity is going on).
    The idea of planning the ideal work week is intriguing. I’m going to try that. It seems as though at present I am living my ideal work week because the pandemic has eliminated certain distractions. But it will be a good tester to do this exercise. Thank you!

  11. Jason, thank you for your tools and your insights in working with them. I am going to incorporate some into what I learned years ago. I was a working artist in my 20s and 30s but fell, delightedly, into a full time position as a museum curator in my late 30s. I spent 30 years in that type of career before retiring to do my art again full time. I mention this because I learned during those museum years to plan out up to five years in advance: exhibitions, calendars for how to get a new exhibition installed using my volunteers, etc. I am using this plan now for getting my own exhibitions finished and installed. Basically I create a calendar with the deadline and work backwards setting dates for all the tasks that need to be accomplished: hang the show, frame the art, photograph the art, varnish the art, final date oil paint can be applied and still dry, final day that works on paper can be completed, etc. Then I place blocks for these tasks in my pocket day-timer. Of course, I always add family and friend events, too!

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