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How do you balance art and a job?

Like many artists and writers, I’ve usually had two jobs: the job that earns money, and the job that is being an artist. Sometimes the art earned good income and I didn’t need other work, but often it didn’t and I struggled to find the right balance between money and art-making. It’s like the Pushmi-Pullyu of Doctor Doolittle, two minds, two main needs, pulling each other in two different directions.

One mind pulls to the left, and says, “Look! Creativity! Make that book / painting / photo and bring home the meaning and joy!”

Something like 70-80% of all artists sooner or later take on non-art employment to pay the bills. It’s normal. Most artists juggle art and non-art sources of income. Every job can be the Artist’s Gambit: just enough work to make ends meet, and not too much, so that you have a great deal of time to do your art outside of work hours.

How do you balance two jobs at once, art and the other job?

How do you make sure there’s time in a day to get the art done?

Here’s my top ten list of questions to consider when finding a balance:

1. How much time per day do you need to make your creative work happen? Some artists require huge amounts of time to mull over their work, others are quick and fast-moving. For me, it helps to have an hour or so dedicated time per day, plus fifteen minutes here and there throughout the work day. When I can manage it, blocks of three hours are really great. Painting requires bigger blocks of time for set-up and clean-up compared to photography, compared to writing which seems fastest.

2. Can you afford to work part-time or quarter-time? If you can manage it, half-time or quarter-time work is an awesome way to stabilize your income but gain enough time to make art, writing, etc. Instead of 40 hours per week, if your job is 20 hours then you still have the other 20 to make art and more than enough time outside of those hours to have a life. Another alternative is seasonal work, earning enough money during the work season that you don’t have to work the rest of the year.

3. Is the non-art job something you’re good at, that has its own satisfactions outside of your art-making? Some jobs demand so much emotional or cognitive attention that you have no energy left for creative work after the job. It may be better to find a less intense job. Be wary of leadership roles. They may pay more but they will demand a lot more of your mind and attention. Attention that you need to focus on writing that novel, making that painting, etc.

4. What expenses can you cut? Is it possible to spend less money? The less money you need, the less you will need to work at some non-arts job. Any expense that you can reduce is time gained for your artistry.

5. What’s the best way to set aside enough time for art-making? In my experience the best way is to Block Schedule: set aside an hour or two to get the art done, and aim for some time every day. Treat this as the most sacred time of your day. In my own practice it’s a lot easier and healthier to maintain a project when I set aside a block every day, compared to once every few days or once a week. I suggest you tell people when you’re in focused artmaking time and are not to be disturbed. If all you can do is five minutes a day, that’s good: make that initial habit so easy to do that it works and you can build a track record of daily focus on your creative work. Start easy, increase to six minutes and then seven after a few weeks. If you increase a little every week, in a year you’ll have a strong daily habit. Habits form when they’re easy to accomplish.

6. Am I focused on the product or the process? It’s easier to be motivated if you stay focused on the ongoing process, that every project is a work in progress. Even if you didn’t do a good job, at least you were working on the art. Action produces motivation. Once a project is moving along, it’s easier to attend to the work. So even if you don’t know what you’re going to create, start scribbling, sketching, writing out sets of words. The art will build as the pattern-seeking portions of your mind start to take over, naturally. Focus on the process is more like letting the artwork to grow rather than planning every element out in detail ahead of time.

7. Did I exercise and fuel myself right? Exercise and diet: okay, I know it sounds a little goofy and I’m not a nutritionist and certinaly not a jock. But exercise helps me recharge, and it’s fun. It’s kind of like a giant reset button. Good exercise almost always improves my mood, and thus amplifies creativity. Eating reasonably well is important, because it’s the main fuel source: good fuel makes more creativity possible. Bad fuel clogs the mind. Exercise doesn’t have to be something you hate. How about instead of jogging you crank up the music for five minutes and dance? Wiggle break!

8. When’s my next mini-sabbatical? How much do I need to save to take a few months off? Look over your finances: how much money do you need to survive for one month? How much for three months? Can you save enough that you can take one, two or three months off? There’s artist’s and writer’s residencies that you can apply for, that provide housing and sometimes food (and rarely, a stipend). The power of being frugal and saving money is the opportunity to take months at a time off from any non-art employment.

9. Shouldn’t I say no to this? I frame this question in the negative because my natural inclination is to want to say yes to other people. But really to have enough time to make art, I’ve got to say yes to the art, and no to many other activities. It may help to be able to offer alternatives… when a friend wants to head out for a beer but you need to paint in the studio, instead of going out why not ask the friend to stop by and crack open a brewski after you’ve finished your block of time?

10. Can I make my art-making methods more efficient? What can I do to make art more quickly?  For example, what if you chose fast-drying acrylics over slow-drying oil paints? Do you write faster by hand in a notebook, or when typing? Along with the efficiency it’s important to take into account what’s more satisfying… sometimes I just like to turn everything off and write by hand in a notebook, which seems more direct, especially for shorter forms like flash fiction or poetry. Although I type a lot faster, I produce better poems by hand. Timing isn’t the only measure of efficiency.

Bonus tip: “Tactical ADHD” Can you shunt small blocks of time into your work day to help the art happen? Carry a sketchbook to write quick notes or make little drawings?  Use a note-taking app on a smart phone to keep phrases or snippets that could be poems, scenes, character notes? Use a drawing app to rough out an image? Five minutes here, ten minutes there can be snuck into the job. If you have Internet access, Evernote is a great companion for saving, tagging and storing all sorts of snippets. Retail work often includes down-time between hordes of customers. Obviously when customers are present you have to give them attention. And little odd-jobs such as cleaning have to get done too. But as you get more efficient at these tasks, you probably will find that sometimes there’s a good gap of ten or fifteen minutes between customers. That’s a great time to take notes, sketch, observe the world. I bet as long as you’re getting your critical job done (what your employer is paying you to do), then probably your boss won’t mind if you have an odd habit of sometimes working in a little sketchbook now and then.

If you liked this post, a variation on its themes are also in this essay:

Gregory Scheckler

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