Time makeover: Make art when you can. Relax when you can’t.

img_1336About a month ago, I put out a call for reader time logs. Laureen Marchand, a 66-year-old Canadian artist, was among the people to respond. She told me that she was "not as productive as I'd like to be," and in the beginning, at least, she seemed to be looking for standard advice on getting more done. She noted that she was frequently distracted, and her schedule agreed. Her time log showed that she was working 41 hours at her various commitments, including supervising an artist residency program, dealing with administrative matters, and working part-time at a local grocery store. Only 12 of these work hours, however, were spent on her top priority of making art.

She wanted this ratio to change, so I gave some advice that a few people have told me is helpful, and that I have tried to follow myself. The gist: when you are combining creative, speculative work with other professional activities, you need to "pay yourself first." If you wait until the end of the day, or the end of the week when everything else is done to make art, there may not be any time left over. But if you carve out time on Monday morning for such work, it will get done. Many of us are extremely responsible people who always meet our deadlines, and consequently, everything else will get done too. It will just happen when it happens, after we invest in ourselves.

She agreed that this sounded like a good plan, and she decided to try to make it to the studio on Monday by 9:30 a.m., and any other day that wasn't committed as well.

A while later, however, she wrote back to tell me that she had just experienced an incredibly annoying, frustrating week. She was also realizing some things about her life and work that she wanted to share with me.

Laureen has had an extremely impressive artistic career, exhibiting in more than two dozen solo and two-person shows, and in 40 group shows over the past three decades. You might think this describes a very cosmopolitan artist, but in fact she lives, "literally in the middle of nowhere." Her village of Val Marie in Canada, has about 130 people. The nearest small town is about 75 miles away. The area is beautiful (right by Canada's Grasslands National Park), and she is well plugged in to her small community. The remoteness, however, has drawbacks. She must drive 75 miles when she has a doctor appointment, or needs to pick up supplies. If she needs service people to come to her house, she is truly at their mercy because they will only come to Val Marie when they want to come. "I'm glad I moved here because I love the landscape and the lower cost of living," she told me. But, "It does add a layer of difficulty to managing an artistic career, especially as I'm 66 and my energy is not getting greater every year."

These logistical issues are what they are, but on top of that, "earlier this year I had what I now recognize was a burnout and a creative block at the same time. I'm still working my way back from those," she said. "I'm a slow producer at the best of times, and this definitely wasn't the best."

So that was the background for her annoying week, in which she "had every kind of interruption – medical, job-related, contract-related, plumbing. I agree completely about spending the best time of the day on the most important thing, so on Monday morning I made a list of all the other tasks that were calling, which enabled me to put them off for later, and I got almost 6 studio hours." Unfortunately, "This was the last time in the week that happened."

Tuesday she had to drive to town for a fasting blood test. "That turned into another trip of the same distance the next morning, Wednesday, for the same thing." Later on Wednesday morning, the plumber came to install a new water pump on her well and the latest resident artist left. "I did manage some studio time in each afternoon but it was less than I wanted. Thursday was my job day, which instead of being just the morning, lasted 6 hours due to the temporary staff shortage. Friday I felt just drained and was incapable of getting going in the studio until afternoon."

And the fun goes on! "Now the new water pump isn't working properly, which means my water supply is uncertain. The plumber is coming back on Monday."

In her ideal world, she said, "I would make art between 9:00 and 4:00 five days a week and go for a walk after that. In the real world, it's 90 degrees by 4:00 p.m. this time of year, the plumbing and lights quit, and every project seems to take longer and be more demanding than I thought it would."

I looked at her log, and had a few ideas about batching errands, but I noted something important: she had been in the studio working on her art for 16.5 hours during this difficult week. This was more than the 12 hours she had done the previous week. She was getting to the studio, which was something to be celebrated. The only problem was that her frustration was likely hindering her creativity.

So I wrote this: "Another way to think of this is just to be gentle on yourself. You're coming out of quite a burnout, as you said, and sometimes that requires time and space. If you managed 16.5 hours on art that's much better than the zero that often accompanies a creative block. Do it when you can, and just relax the rest of the time."

She wrote back later to thank me for this perspective. "The idea of doing art when I can and relaxing the rest of the time is exactly what I would recommend to someone else, and what I find so difficult to do myself. But this weekend, I kind of did. I had an art date with a friend on Saturday morning, did some major and much neglected housekeeping on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, went out for Saturday night dinner, went out for coffee on both Sunday and Monday, and caught up on some necessary paperwork. And even though lots of stuff got done and I entertained the plumber for the entire morning today (will probably have to have a new well put in – money money!), it feels like I had a holiday. Because I wasn't trying to squeeze out art time when there was none to squeeze, and because my home and self feel more taken care of." Looking ahead to the next week, she saw that "I should have at least two of Wednesday, Friday and Saturday this week for art days. And I'll try to take them for what they are."

She tried to keep this perspective of "I will make art when I can and relax when I can't" into the next week, which turned out to be equally challenging. She was working longer at the grocery store than intended and "My water well continued to die, which has meant taking laundry to a friend's and learning how to have the 1-minute shower. Unfortunately my garden is also dying as using a watering can doesn't quite keep up. And everything to do with water except showering takes a lot longer when you have less!" There was a houseguest, which added some stress to the lack of water. "And I waited and waited for plumbers to come." Then they came and the result was that by the end of the day she had no water, and was trying to figure out what kind of well system she could get put in.

"So I was glad to make art when I could, and give myself permission not to on days when I was too tired or there was too much going on." She made it to the studio four days, and generally in the morning. "And on all the days art happened, I was very glad of it. It felt great. And I think it felt great partly because I knew I could relax with what was possible on the other days. I would still like more art days but can cut myself some slack when it isn't possible."

I am trying to adopt more of this mindset myself. I feel like this summer has involved a lot of professional spinning of wheels. I am really not much farther on anything than when June started -- the next non-fiction book, the next novel, anything. There may be some aspects of burnout going on, and waking up early with the toddler is not helping. My tendency is to get frustrated about it all but probably I should say the same thing I was saying to Laureen. I will make art when I can, and relax when I can't. It is not an excuse for laziness. I do believe that I have many more books in me, and they will come to fruition over the many decades I have left in my career, and I will work long hard hours as I coax them out, but being gentle is just as likely to make that happen as anything else.

As for Laureen? I heard from her last weekend that "Yesterday I finished the first painting I've completed since April, and now I'm planning the next one. I’ll have an image of the finished piece on my website later today. I wondered if this day would ever come."

In other news: Thinking of joining the 168 Hours Time Tracking Challenge next week? You can read about J.D. Roth's experience tracking his time here, and Paula Pant's experience here. Favorite quote from Paula: "I waste time like it's a part-time job."

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13 Responses to Time makeover: Make art when you can. Relax when you can’t.


  1. Maggie says:

    I love this! Laura, you are a time use expert, coach, and sounding board. Looking forward to more entries in this series.

  2. MaryC says:

    Very interesting – I love to get insights on lives so different from my own. I use the “pay yourself first” approach for scheduling in exercise time. I do it first thing in the morning, laying out my workout clothes the night before, and putting them on as soon as I’m out of bed. That way, I have fewer distractions/delays and I get my walk in which gives me more energy and a great start to the day. In this case, it’s like “paying for my mental/physical health” first.

  3. Meghan says:

    This is timely! I just wrote a couple of pieces for my firm’s blog last month on roughly the same topic — doing as much as you can when you can (make the most of your time and energy levels), and also “when you can’t, don’t!” (delegate and take real breaks). Now to take my own (and your) advice.

    I’m trying to figure out how to jigsaw my main priorities — somehow, one always gets dropped. I think I need to take a bigger-picture view, and take advantage of the energy I have (I did spend yesterday chasing a short story instead of the indexing job I’m also working on, and am pretty happy about that decision). I’m not a morning person, but with small kids don’t have the energy to be a night person anymore, so it’s more of a matter of making sure it’s not the same thing that gets dropped every week and just working with the time/energy I have, not what I wish I had.

  4. How wonderful to read this, and to be reflected back to myself. I almost wept from gratitude at your generosity and helping me put things into perspective. For some reason, seeing myself better wasn’t what I expected when I started time tracking. I thought it would be all about schedules, and never imagined it was also about how we feel about schedules. Thank you for this gift and for the many gifts you bring. You give me courage.

    • @Laureen – thank YOU! I appreciate your letting me include your story. It will definitely be helpful to others.

  5. Emily says:

    This post comes at a perfect time! As a novelist with a teaching day job, I’m always working to manage my time in the way that serves my art and my career. I was actually planning on reaching out to you to see if you ever did time makeovers or features for those of us who count creative work as part of their regular routine (which I know you do, too). So thank you for this. Any more tips or strategies for working artists would be much appreciated. PS: I’m on week three of tracking my time with your method, and really enjoying the process as well as what I learn from it.

    • @Emily- that’s a good question, when to do any sort of sideline or creative work when you have a 9-5 type job (or 8-4 or whatever). I have seen a few things work. One is to build it in as part of the morning routine. Particularly people who start work later find that this amounts to paying themselves first. If you don’t have to be at work until 9, you can do a lot between 6-8 a.m. four days per week. If that doesn’t work (and it doesn’t for many people because they work early or they have young kids who are up at the crack of dawn) another good option for people is to carve out two blocks. One evening a week you get a sitter or get your partner to cover, or if you don’t have kids you clear the calendar and find a good spot to work and go for it. And then one weekend spot, with the same strategy. 6:30-10:30 a.m. Saturday morning can be good for many people too — many households aren’t doing much of importance before then. Assigning two longer slots means you get the benefit of long, focused hours (good for fiction!) but choosing two days means you can let yourself relax the other 5. It’s not always something you feel guilty about not doing, because there’s a time for it, and now is not that time.

      • btw- I’m hoping to do a blog post on this coming out of some other reader makeovers that are in the works.

        • Emily says:

          Great suggestions, thank you. I’ll keep an eye out for that blog post for sure. Let me know if you need any raw timesheet data from a novelist/teacher with two school-age kids!

      • Jennie Evans says:

        I find myself in this position as well. Teacher day job 7:30-4:00. I run an independent editing business on he side, but would like to spend more time writing as well. Short stories not novels. (Hats off to those who can write 50k+ words!) I have been doing a time study for awhile, and plan on participating more formally on this upcoming week. I am curious to your thoughts on this as well.

  6. Jennie Evans says:

    This was indeed timely. I am at a point where I’m starting a new venture and it is going slower than I wish. Part of that is anxiety on my part procrastinating details that are hindering progress which then leads to restlessness and an overall sense of frustration. I am putting off important work from fear, but then get caught in this vicious cycle. The reminder to take it easy on myself was much needed today!

  7. Kim says:

    I notice the same effect when I had a very rough night with my small children and seriously lack sleep. If I let go of my expectations and just take my time and go from one task to the other, I am so productive! Most of the time, I get more done than when I’m well rested.

  8. Maureen Nevers says:

    Thought provoking…I have struggled recently with impatience and frustration and somewhat of a lack of interest/motivation around creative art activities. I would have a block of time – an evening or Saturday – to get into my studio and really make things happen, but somehow it never went well. Coincidentally, I was working on my work/personal ‘balance’ began a ‘sleep first’ plan where I prioritized getting enough sleep as the #1 activity for me, and then when/if I achieved that each day I would identify what else I wanted to do. This exercise in my ‘real life’ has yielded some very positive results. One is the realization that taking advantage of these ‘opportunities’ was actually a PRESSURE on me, not a pleasure. I felt like I HAD to go and make and sew when I had that time, but sometimes I didn’t want to do that. Since my one measure of ‘being creative’ was time in my studio, I felt like I had failed. So last week I gave myself permission to NOT do the expected thing. I turned off my machine and immediately felt relief. Instead, I watched some Creativebug classes and did handwork in my bedroom and had a great night! So it feels like that is connected, for me anyway, to your message in this post. Thanks, both of you, for the in-depth walk through your process.

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