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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.