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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.

What’s the anatomy of work-life balance for artists?

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An ideal work-life balance will have an equilibrium between the requirements of your professional and personal lives; instead of conflicting with each other, they have an equal, balanced position – which can enable synergies between the two. For people who over-identify with their job, this balance can be hard to reach and maintain. 

The creative safe space

Artists usually begin as idealists, with a deep yearning and passion for their work; their focus often isn’t about being pragmatic, but about enabling experiments, about creating a vision, about expressing something relevant. It’s not so much about money or economics, but about creating a safe space – for themselves. Who wouldn’t want to over-identify with this?

Most often an artist’s practice is subject to tight time constraints; you pursue it while attending school or university, or while also attending your career and/or family. This results in your artistic practice to organically always be timeboxed: it’s the one activity for which there isn’t ever enough time, plus the one thing that isn’t (yet) judged by the outside world. As a result, artists often dream of “going pro”, which most often is thought of as “being able to work on one’s art full-time”. This would enable them to pursue their work without having to fulfill the requirements of the outside world. It would enable them to live in their own safe space. 

Reality is usually different though – going pro changes the entire dynamic: suddenly work needs to be made visible in order for money to come in. A price-tag wants to get attached to what used to be one’s pure, personal expression. This can let the safe space crumble; where one’s artistic practice was a hiding place to process the world, it now becomes the economic basis to survive in the world. Since an emerging artist’s visibility is usually low (and the visibility of successful artists is always high), it can sound smart to “work more”. More hours, more days – benefiting an unhealthy, unsustainable work-life balance.

Part-time vs. full-time artists

Most part-time artists are acutely aware of the three roles that define their life, which tend to collide with each other – and usually demand each other’s time and focus

  • being a work professional,
  • having a personal life, and
  • pursuing one’s artistic practice.

For full-time artists these three roles can blend into one larger-than-life idea of oneself: “I am an artist, and an artist only. If art matters so much to me, then of course I will pursue it happily 24/7, 365, in all my roles”. But where does this leave the artist’s requirements for a personal life, and the energy, motivation and general input that one’s personal life can bring into one’s artistic practice?

It’s important to see that we are humans before we are artists.

Being “an artist, and an artist only” is usually not feasible for a multi-decade, long-term work practice. It’s important to see that we are humans before we are artists. We need to satisfy both our personal and our professional desires, with each of them potentially being diverse: an artist often won’t just paint and draw, but also pursue office tasks (invoicing, insurance and taxes, organizing work transport, etc.) and additional projects (a book collaboration, an illustration or teaching gig, etc.). In addition, there needs to be space for your personal life: sports and hobbies, dating and family, movie nights and vacations. There needs to be time and space for your personality to develop, for your tastes to refine, and for your mind to wander. You mustn’t just be an artist, if you want to be an artist.

Part-time artists often want to work on their art as much as possible, using any unused time to feed their hunger. Full-time artists have so much more time for this, that their work can take up too much energy – eating up time better used for their personal persona. Where part-time artists need to make sure that they find enough time for their practice, full-time artists need to make sure to frequently disengage from their work. To make room for life to happen.

The unlikeliness of a 40-hour art week

Being a full-time artist means to invest roughly forty hours per week into one’s work, which can never only be one’s production process. Instead, it will include experimenting (to find new avenues of investigation), but also more mundane tasks like networking, branding, social media and office work. It will be a rare week that allows for forty hours of production – this mostly ever happens at art residencies, which often absolve artists from their usual everyday responsibilities.

Part-time artists can sometimes implement non-production tasks in their other roles (writing an invoice or organizing a work transport while actually pursuing their paid office job), which can have the benefit of their studio time being exclusive to work production. This doesn’t work for full-time artists, since they tend not to have “other roles” in which to pursue these activities. This sometimes leads them to imagine that more work hours could help them produce quicker (and thus more) – the idea of overtime emerges. While overtime can work short-term, it’s a fallacy when considering its long-term effect: these newly gained work hours always reduce the artist’s personal life – and thus become a threat to a healthy work-life-balance.

Instead, one’s artistic practice needs to be understood as a life-long journey: a marathon, ideally of joy and excitement. This marathon can include sprints (overtime: longer work days or even more work days per week), which can make sense when working towards specific deadlines (a portfolio review, an exhibition opening etc.); but if the sprints become the norm, the whole marathon will be in danger.

You need to become mindful about the time you invest into your artistic practice. When as a part-time artist this means to work towards finding enough time, a full-time artist will often have to make sure not to work too much. You’re never just an artist, but always a person with a complex set of psychological and social requirements. The more balanced your life’s various roles are, the easier it will be to work away for years.

Consider reading the chapters for specific strategies towards structuring time, structuring tasks, and handling overtime.