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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.

How do I structure my work tasks as an artist?

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Structuring your work requires an understanding of the various roles you have: what projects are you involved in, and what tasks these include. Some projects are temporary, while your core artistic practice will usually have a more permanent place in your work life. You can define goals for the current year, and even think of where you want to be “x years” in the future. This enables a top-down approach, to derive yearly, quarterly, monthly and/or weekly goals to work towards.

Alternatively, you can implement a bottom-up strategy based on your current view of the tasks that require your attention. To do so, consider the following questions:

  • What projects are you involved in? Most artists pursue several creative strands, which can be seen as projects: you might focus on a specific work series, while also experimenting with a new medium. You might pitch a work idea to an open call, prepare artworks for an exhibition, and attend to your inbox. The better your overview of current (and upcoming) projects, the more accurate you can anticipate their workload, and schedule time for the tasks required of them.

  • What tasks do you derive from your projects? Projects consist of tasks; it’s up to you to understand the level of granularity that benefits you in structuring your work life: naming every tiniest task will slow you down, while not naming them at all will make it harder to anticipate a project’s workload – and to understand whether there’s actually enough time to pursue this project. Some people have a good natural assessment of projects and tasks, and might thus not benefit from defining their workload this way. Experiment to find what suits you best.

While your core artistic practice might not require you to define specific tasks (you might simply continue working on what was left unfinished), other projects, especially new ones, can benefit from it: an open call might require tasks like writing a description, coming up with a schedule and a financial calculation. Pursuing a new collaboration for a sound-sculpture performance might require meetings, research, experimentation, setting up social media channels etc.

Understand that some tasks happen outside of projects, but are still important for your work – and require time: cleaning the studio, making and editing photos of your work, sending out newsletters, buying art materials etc.

  • Consider using a task management system: There are endless ways to schedule your work tasks – you can use your calendar, disposable post-its that include each day’s workload, or use online task management systems (like eg. Trello). Experimenting with various options will guide you in understanding what works best for you: do you want the haptic experience of striking through a finished task, or do you prefer the availability of an online history of your previous workload?
    Understand that managing tasks always requires time – time that can’t be used to implement one’s actual work. The idea is not to create too much management overhead, but to establish a lean system that supports your work habits: the structure must not become an excuse not to show up at work.

  • Understand when to pursue which projects/activities: The less projects you pursue, the easier it can be to assign them to specific time ranges; mornings (eg. 9-12am) could be for office tasks, writing or other activities that benefit from a clear head, while afternoons (eg. 1-5pm) could be used for production and artistic experiments. You could define Friday afternoons for cleaning your studio, or establish Tuesday mornings for studio visits.
    The better you understand your biorhythm, projects and tasks, as well as your network and their requirements, the easier it will be to come up with a timetable that works for you. This doesn’t mean that it’s possible to have one everlasting work schedule – the artist’s life is frequently too dynamic and unexpected for this. You will often benefit from an openness to some degree of randomness, which is an opposing force to a fixed schedule. Both forces are necessary though, and require some sort of embracing: total chaos is as inefficient and impractical as total order.

  • Consider timeboxing: Timeboxing is a strategy that defines specific amounts of time for a specific task (or project). This enables an urgency towards this task: instead of having “forever” to finish a drawing, today offers “four hours” to advance it (eg. from 1-5pm). This changes how work feels like, because the few hours that are available every day now matter more – it can be especially helpful to full-time artists, who usually don’t have a predefined daily work structure. It can make it easier to turn off the phone, and to disregard incoming calls. Experiment with various timeboxing durations for various tasks; there will be a sweet spot for every task: painting might not make sense if you have less than two hours, whereas a timebox that’s too big might not lead to a positive sort of urgency altogether.
    As a creative person, inspiration can hit you anywhere and anytime. Ideas will always also emerge outside of the timeboxes you intend for them, even in your spare time. Make note of these ideas so you can revisit them in the timebox scheduled for it, but return to your spare time (or whatever task you’re currently pursuing).

  • Understand work happening outside the ordinary working hours: The fine art industry constantly offers networking events, which often happen in the evenings: exhibition openings, artist talks, curator roundtables, studio invitations etc. Since artists need to network, these events are essential – yet also blend work and personal time, which often hides the fact that they require you to work overtime.
    Understand that such events are work events, even though they might offer drinks and the chance to meet friends. To an artist, an opening rarely is “just” personal pleasure. It pays off to realize that evening events require you to work overtime (if you already have a full work day behind you). Stay sensitive to doing overtime, and work on establishing a balance in regards to which events to attend to.

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

How do I structure my time as an artist?

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An artist’s life can sound endlessly romantic to non-artists: self-expression, focus on aesthetics and an unusual disregard for social norms. Yet there can be no continuous self-expression without a reliable, balanced work structure; without it, artists aren’t likely to pursue their practice long-term. This structure is the consequence of decisions regarding two main points: time and tasks.

  • Time: How much time do you want to invest in work?
  • Tasks: How do you fit which tasks (or projects) into this time?

A balanced work life is the consequence of a balanced life

Work within a balanced life

Your work time’s “inner balance” is the consequence of the tasks you pursue: certain activities will make you feel more balanced than others (you might love to sculpt, but not enjoy the networking required to sell your works). Yet as a fellow human being, a more holistic balance can only be achieved by focusing on what happens beyond your work schedule:, work needs to be embedded into a (personal) life worth living. A balanced work life is the consequence of a balanced life; it’s hard to imagine someone who’s work time gives them pure pleasure, while their personal life feels like hell. What gives you joy and satisfaction outside of work? How do you replenish your energies? Is it meeting people or doing sports, family events or solitude? The better you understand your psychosocial needs (what relaxes you, what benefits your overall satisfaction), the easier you will be able to build a life around it.

How much time do you have?

Artists tend to love their artistic practice. They’re passionate about it, aiming to work as many hours as possible to dig ever deeper into it. This works for spare-time artists, because they have an undeniable day structure defined by their job or school or family requirements: when to get up, when to go to bed, etc. For full-time artists, every hour of the day could potentially be used for work – yet using every hour for work isn’t sustainable. Instead of trying to work as much as possible, full-time artists need to define a reliable long-term work structure. 

A straight-forward way towards this simply defines the time allotted for one’s work: (a) how many work days do you have per week, with (b) how many work hours per day? All work tasks should happen within this time: office work, transport and insurance of artworks, the actual artistic practice, cleaning the studio, hosting studio visits. You can see these numbers as most personal metrics of your professional life structure, since they ultimately define how your professional persona is connected with your personal life – and how sincere you are about taking your professional art role “professionally” (working more doesn’t make you more professional, but working sustainable might). Understanding these two numbers also allows you to make smart choices about temporarily ignoring them for overtime, while being unclear about them tends to enable an unhealthy work-life balance.

Structuring your time

To understand how much (work) time your week has, consider doing the following:

  • Define the number of days of your work week: The Western work week usually consists of five working days, with the weekend being used to replenish your energies for the upcoming week’s challenges. Is there a valid reason to  temporarily work a sixth or even seventh day?

  • ​​Define the ratio between sleep, professional and personal life: In a day consisting of 24 hours, how many hours do you need to sleep? If eight hours suffice for regeneration, the rest (sixteen hours) can be allocated for your professional and personal life. You need to define the general ratio between these two – is it 50:50? Do you temporarily change this towards more spare time (because of guests visiting you this week), or the other way around (because of an upcoming solo show)? This ratio shows you how many work hours you have; it might be six, eight or ten daily hours, and can vary from day to day.
    Every minute you work beyond this is overtime; are you sure there’s a valid reason for it? Strictness about not working overtime will benefit your long-term work motivation, and thus be beneficial to your overall life experience.

Stay mindful about your sleep/work/life ratio, and how changing it affects your moods and overall life experience – it really is the foundation of your work-life relationship.

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

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.