How do I handle overtime as an artist?

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Passion favors overtime: working beyond the schedule will often feel exciting and positive if you like what you do. When getting into the arts, all matters of craft are new and challenging; working additional hours leads to more progress, which in turn results in more happiness – it’s a perfect feedback loop. Yet over time, progress will always slow down in a way that additional hours can’t compensate for: the better you get, the less frequent heureka moments will be. Instead, it’s the downtime that often generates epiphanies about how to think or adapt one’s approach – when your brain can process what happened during its more active phases.

That’s why your work should happen within a specific structure in regards to time; for a full-time artist, 40h per week is the norm: this allows for your personal life to develop as well. Your personal life matters because the experiences you make there are ultimately the basis for your artistic output: we’re always humans before we are artists.

Whenever you work beyond your defined amount of weekly hours, you’re doing overtime. Self-employed individuals often don’t want to see this overtime, instead opting to interpret it as “time invested in their future”. Yet the more sensitive you are about overtime, the more sustainably you’re actually treating your job – and thus your future. You should notice overtime not “even though” you’re passionate about your work, but way rather because you’re passionate about it 

While your work is a marathon, overtime is a sprint – it needs to be temporary, with clearly defined reasons and bonuses.


Consider the following strategies to treat overtime:

  • Understand the reason for overtime: Your predefined number of weekly work days (and hours) can obviously be adapted if specific demands need to be met. Yet once you intend to work beyond these normative work hours, make sure to understand the “goal” towards which you do so: is it clearly defined, and thus obvious for you to realize whether it was reached? How many days or weeks do you intend to keep the heightened pace?
    Verbalize and write down the goal you want to reach, and the reasons why it matters to you. This helps you understand why overtime is required, and makes it less likely to misinterpret overtime as “normal part of the job”.

  • Schedule your “return to normal”: While your decision for overtime can be positive and necessary, overtime always needs to be temporary in order not to become a bad habit (never underestimate the power of keeping a bad habit). Once you adapt your work pace to more hours than ordinary, make sure to:
    • Discuss the heightened pace with your inner circle. This enables your colleagues, friends and family to be on board with your decision, and stay aware of your energy levels and mood changes.
    • Define an accountability buddy that reminds you about having reached your goal, and to return to a normal work week and pace: Make sure they understand their importance, but even more so, make sure you understand why it’s important to return back to normal; ideally, you’re always your first and most trustworthy accountability buddy.
    • Define and actively schedule personal gratitude activities to pursue upon having reached your goal: a weekend trip, going to the spa, organizing a BBQ: this event (or events) become another, yet personal goal to work towards, a symbol of transitioning back to your ordinary work rhythm.

  • Record your overtime: Any employee will be very sensitive to their employer demanding overtime; depending on their contract they’ll get financial compensation or compensatory time-off. Some countries or industries even have laws requiring the payback of hours to exceed the the overtime hours, with eg. one night or weekend hour leading to 1.5 or 2 hours payback.
    This payback requires a clear recording of overtime; so during overtime, make sure to always note the hours worked beyond your ordinary work structure. This enables you to get this time back – and even if such a compensatory time-off isn’t feasible, you still manifest overtime as a temporary anomaly.
  • Imagine yourself as your own employee: When considering overtime, try to imagine yourself as an employee of yours – someone who gets paid to work a certain amount of hours, who might love their job with you, but really also has their personal agendas to attend to (family, friends, after-work drinks, hobbies etc). As self-employed artists we’re often very easy-going with committing ourselves to overtime, accepting and glorifying it as a positive step towards success, a proactive attitude towards building a brighter future. While this can be true, we might not ask the same of our employees, whose rights for personal space we might respect way more than our own. Think about it: are you a good employer to yourself?

  • Don’t glorify overtime: We all know people who define themselves as chronically overworked. While some voice their concerns about this, the path towards being overworked often includes some sort of overtime glorification; after all, adamantly pursuing work can convey being a sincere, serious person. While an identification with work will add to a satisfactory life, this life must be balanced with one’s personal needs: sports, hobbies, meeting friends, etc. Although socially accepted, glorifying overtime can hint at someone not seeing their personal life’s value – which to an artist is the basis of their world experience; they feed on it.
    Be mindful about your willingness to work overtime. While it can enable projects that would otherwise never exist, and which can be a source of joy and pride, don’t let yourself glorify all actions leading to it. Understand that the more overtime you accept, the less likely your long-term usually vision becomes.

Consider reading the chapters about the anatomy of work-life balance for artists, structuring tasks, and structuring tasks.

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