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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.