“I don’t know how you do all you do!” People say this to me a lot. Like, on a weekly basis. And I very often say it to Laura who, as a wife and mom of two wonderful young girls, seems to accomplish Herculean tasks in a single bound.
Creative types are often stigmatized as being really good at the free-floating, abstract things but not-so-much on the organization. While we think that’s a bit of a gross generalization, we do know of some artists who struggle with checking things off their “to do” list. Call it genes, astrology… that’s never been a problem for us. Sure, we’re creative types, but we also seem to be able to spin plates pretty well.
Since it’s a new year, we thought we’d share some of our “secrets” of how to stay on top of the ever-evolving list of tasks artists face on a regular basis. So, move over “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” David and Laura have something to say!
Every summer when I was a kid, my mom (then a preschool teacher) bought two huge pieces of white poster board – one for my sister and I – on which we wrote our “Great Expectations” for the summer. Hung in the bedrooms of our little cottage in the Adirondacks, the list would include things like: “read four books,” “learn the names of three birds” and “pick wild berries.” It was an eminently practical way of making sure we had things to do when we complained of being bored (And that happened somewhat often. More for my sister, says her little brother, always the tattletale…).
When I was in grad school, I decided to adapt the “Great Expectations” list to my career goals. I made a list of the different categories (composing, performing, etc…) and what I hoped to accomplish in each of those categories in 3-6 months. I then spun out each item into the multiple steps it would take to complete them. When I found myself feeling listless, I’d go to my “Great Expectations” list and see what I could cross off. I found it to be a highly effective way of getting things done.
Related to this, I’m a huge list maker (also something I inherited from my mom). I keep a running tab of things I need to do in the “Reminders” app on my iPhone and even set alarms at about the time I should try to complete the task. The satisfaction I receive from crossing things off my list borders on the absurd, but it helps me stay on track. It’s also great to look at the “Show Completed” tab on the app to see what I’ve accomplished day by day.
Yes, there are times I don’t complete tasks by their alarm. I’ve gotten OK with leaving them red (meaning unfinished) until I can complete them or reassigning the due date and time. It’s important to give myself flexibility so I leave room for me in my daily life.
I’ve gotten really good at looking at a list and sensing how long each item will take. Because I usually teach or coach singers 6-7 hours a day, I often have to sandwich my “to do” list into a free hour here or there. I’ve learned how to efficiently use my time, making sure I leave time for myself as well.
For instance, instead of listening to music on a couple subways rides (which I usually enjoy), I wrote my half of this blog. Three round trips later: done. In fact, most any blog I’ve written has been composed on the subway. Thanks MTA! I just find it a particularly fruitful time to read ideas over and write/edit. That gives me more time for my Netflix binging (see below).
Take Things in Chunks
I find I’m more successful if I take bigger jobs apart and do a little at a time. I find it much less overwhelming. My “Great Expectations” list and blog writing are good examples. I can’t accomplish those tasks in a single setting, but doing a little bit every day is enough to quickly chip away at them.
I am a huge advocate of a 15-20 minute nap every day. Nothing hits the reset button like a mini snooze, even if you don’t fall asleep. Anytime I feel overwhelmed, I take a quick nap. It’s amazing how a quarter of an hour can help completely change your perspective on what needs to get done when.
Listen to Your Body
As I get older (ahem), I have become more aware that my mind and body are in dialogue with me if I choose to listen. The Sunday after Thanksgiving, I had several things I needed to do in preparation for a busy week ahead. Yet, all I wanted to do was lounge around and binge watch Louie (yes, I’m very late to the game on this one…). So, that’s what I did. Like, ALL day. Finally, at 9 PM, I coaxed myself out of my stupor and did everything I needed to do that day in the two and a half hours before going back to bed. I probably could have arranged my day differently, but I listened to my mind and body, and trusted that everything would get done when it needed to.
As a wife and mom as well as a working director, time management is not a choice for me — it’s a necessity. Because certain parts of my day are automatically claimed by family tasks, I have to force myself to be structured with the rest of my time. I, like David, am a big advocate of daily ‘to do’ lists. Even if I only get one or two things done and I have to move the rest of the items to tomorrow’s list, seeing them written down makes them tangible and makes me accountable.
The Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins with a Tiny Step
I think one of the biggest time management challenges of being an artist is that we are forced to be our own bosses. That means we don’t have someone else setting our priorities or giving us deadlines so we need to learn to do that for ourselves. One challenge I find in setting my own goals is the temptation to only complete small tasks and leave the bigger, more overwhelming tasks until “later” when I’ll have “more time.” Thus, big tasks (overhaul my website, organize my office) somehow keep getting pushed off while the smaller, “easier” tasks get done. My trick? Commit to tackling one task towards the big goal every day. For example, “overhauling my website,” may be overwhelming, but “looking online at friends’ websites and making a list of stuff I like” seems doable today. The interesting thing is — once I have momentum, I often find I will do much more than just the one task.
Get A Buddy
My other favorite time management tip is to get a buddy. Just like a workout buddy, having a time management buddy can keep you on task and accountable. Tell your buddy what you plan to accomplish this week and then set a phone call for Sunday night. And to help each other out, plan a “check in” call on Wednesday to see how they’re doing.
Give Yourself A Break
Don’t give up! If you feel frustrated your time management didn’t improve in a few days, give yourself a break and try again tomorrow. I’ve been told it takes 21 days/or 30 times to form a new habit so make a commitment and make 2016 the year you make time work for you.
Happy New Year!
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