The creative life conjures images of artists and writers lingering over their journals or taking leisurely strolls to spark their imagination.
But if you do creative work for a living, you don’t always have the luxury of waiting for the muse to strike. Your office, clients, and collaborators are all counting on you to effectively manage your time and get your work done.
At the same time, constant creative output can be exhausting. We can’t keep pushing ourselves to innovate and problem solve as if we’re competing in a creative iditarod. In fact, doing so will only impair our optimal state of creativity. We need time and rest to allow ourselves to be relaxed enough to do nonlinear thinking and make connections.
So how can we harness creativity and productivity to work together instead of being at odds with each other?
In the examples outlined below, you’ll find different time management strategies to benefit creative people. Whether you’re a freelancer or working at a corporate job that requires creative output, you can employ these strategies to maximize your productivity without risking burnout.
1. Create a daily action list
Before you can add structure to your day, you first have to examine and set your priorities. The best way to do this is to make a daily list of things you have to do. These include work deadlines and your own personal projects. If you’re having trouble discerning which action items are your real priorities, you can check to see if these items serve your monthly goals.
You should also add any personal tasks and errands to your list, like “make doctor’s appointment” or “pay cable bill.” Just because they aren’t work-related doesn’t mean they don’t need to get done; you’ll have more effective days when you incorporate the personal along with the professional, where things can’t slip through the cracks.
Afterwards, review the action items on your list and evaluate them by importance and urgency. Some refer to this method as the Eisenhower Matrix. (If anyone knew something about efficiency, it would definitely be the 34th President and former military general.)
According to the principles of the Eisenhower Matrix, you identify your priorities by evaluating which items are urgent, important, and not important. Then, you sort your items into the following categories:
- Do First – Important items that needs to be done that day (ex: submitting a report to your manager).
- Schedule – Important but not time sensitive (brainstorming ideas for your novel).
- Delegate – Urgent but not important (an office meeting).
- Don’t Do – Neither urgent nor important (this is contingent on your own personal and professional goals).
You can also put an asterisk next to the items that are time sensitive e.g. submitting a proposal to a client in the morning or picking up kids from school at 3 p.m. You can use those time sensitive items as anchors in your schedule and work around them.
2. Give yourself work hours
If you’re self-employed, you have the benefit of developing a schedule that suits your needs and interests. But having an abundance of time can also feel overwhelming and even counter-productive. In her book Art Inc, illustrator Lisa Congdon offers helpful advice on how to structure your day as a freelancer.
If you’re accustomed to working at an office job or if you enjoy the predictability that a daily schedule provides, Congdon suggests assigning yourself work hours and breaks. You can stagger your breaks throughout the day or just have one long break. Make sure to allocate time for eating or even taking a walk. Allowing yourself to step away from your work can re-energize you for when you return to your task.
It’s harder than you might think when you’re working alone to remember to give yourself breaks, so making them a part of your schedule will ensure you actually take them and avoid burnout.
Congdon also offers the option of organizing your day into different genres and tasks. If you like to conduct your creative work in the morning, use your afternoons to do administrative or marketing tasks: updating your website, paying bills, promoting your work on social media etc. Your evenings can be reserved for quiet time and inspiration, like seeing a movie or reading a book or meeting up with friends. Yes, it’s important to socialize! Being in the outside world and stepping away from your desk can re-invigorate you, which in turn, can replenish your energy tank for creative work.
3. Identify your peak hours
Are you a morning person? Or a night owl?
Similar to Lisa Congdon’s system of dividing your day into genres and interests, organizational psychologist Adam Grant writes about scheduling your work around your peak energy levels. If morning is your peak time, do your analytical work in the early morning hours and save your creative work for the evening, when your mind is at rest and more receptive to nonlinear thinking.
For those of you who have creative roles in a corporate setting, you can still find a way to utilize your peak hours to do creative work.
If morning is your ideal time, try waking up an hour earlier to do your creative tasks. Does your office always schedule morning meetings? See if you can delegate the meeting to another colleague. You can also try working from home on certain days of the week. If your office doesn’t have flexible work arrangements, try to make the case that extricating yourself from the office (and its distractions) will only help you focus more on the project at hand, which will ultimately benefit your company in the long run.
According to Grant, time management is less about managing time, than it is about timing. By sequencing your action items and tasks according to interest and energy levels, you can set yourself up for maximum productivity, without depleting your creative resources.
He also recommends doing your routine tasks first and then saving the activity that you’re excited about as a “treat” afterwards. You can pay your bills or work on expense reports first, then reward yourself by doing your exciting assignment later.
4. Eat your frog after dessert
Another way to manage your time is to abide by the Mark Twain saying, “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”
However, this doesn’t work for everyone. Yes, doing the worst task first is a good way to get it off your plate — but if you think that it will cause lingering stress throughout the rest of your day, then maybe it shouldn’t come first thing in the morning.
Let’s say you need to settle a billing dispute with your health insurance company and you’ve been dragging your heels — after all, customer service calls are never fun! But if you aim to do this first thing in the morning, you run the risk of having the stress of the phone call affect the rest of your day and distract you while you work.
If a routine task seems like it could be emotionally taxing, consider scheduling it for later in the day. Worried that you’ll only keep postponing it? Then break up the task that you’re avoiding into easier segments that you can complete earlier in the day.
- First thing in the morning, create a calendar entry and enter all the information you’ll need so it’s easily accessible — include the customer service number, your member ID, an attachment of your statements, etc.
- Then, reward yourself by doing the assignment you’re most excited about.
- When you’re done with that task, you’ll be ready to make the phone call. And, you won’t have to stress yourself out and scramble for your information, because you’ve already gathered everything and entered it in your calendar.
By sequencing the action items in this way, you can enjoy the double satisfaction of accomplishing a task that you really care about, while also eating that frog!
Whether you’re a freelancer or a 9-5 employee with a creative role, having to meet regular deadlines while also being creative can feel like competing obligations. But you can overcome these challenges by considering your priorities and interests.
By being honest about what energizes you and what drains you, you can manage your time in an impactful way that supports your creativity and productivity.