Tuesday, March 06, 2007

How to Juggle & Other Parlor Tricks

Of course, by juggling, I mean juggling priorities to be a halfway decent mother, wife, artist, businessperson, dog owner, cat owner, writer, sometimes-house-cleaner, etc. without cloning yourself. Do not clone yourself. Watch "Multiplicity" with that dude from Beetlejuice to see why.
I want to emphasize before I describe my "secrets" that this is what works for me. You may hate my suggestions and find that starting the day with 3 hours of yoga or rewarding yourself with gin or employing two nannies is the way to go for you.

For those of you who don't know me, here is my life: I'm a full-time, professional artist making a 5 digit salary that I'm not going to reveal on the world wide web. I have a cop husband who works full time evening shifts and two small children under the age of 3. I also have two cats, one which does not bury her poo in the litter box and one who is criminally insane. I have two dogs (more on this later). So my life is busy, basically. I also am a musician and an aspiring novelist and so time must be made for playing music and writing.

All right, that aside. First of all, I want to say that the most important element of the equation is my mind-set. I was not always a chipper, productive Maggie. In fact, before 2006, I was constantly griping that I could make a full time living at my art if I only had time. But who has time with two toddlers and everything mentioned above? My husband pointed out that if I took all the times I was griping and all the brief times I had during the day and smashed them together, I wasn't completely without time. I have found this to be true again and again. When someone tells me they don't have time to do something, I don't believe them - I believe they don't have the motivation yet to do whatever that something is. If you want something, you make time.

Which brings us to inspirational lesson number two. Set goals. I'm a very goal oriented person. I don't have to know how I'm getting somewhere, but I do want to know where I'm going and about how long it will take me to get there. And subconsciously, if you make a very specific goal, you'll change your habits to make it happen. This really works. It's not just psycho-babble. It's been proven time and again. I have great, ambitious New Years Resolutions. They read like a megalomaniac's diary.

When I say that I set goals, I mean I set a lot of them. Every morning while I eat breakfast (not a big fan of breakfast foods - sometimes it's cookie dough I end up eating) I contemplate what I want to accomplish that day. You can definitely tell the days when I haven't made a definite plan. You wanna sample set of goals? Yesterday, my goals were:

1) finish one 6 x 6" painting for eBay
2) send off two more query letters for my novel
3) work some on my large commission portrait
4) get the kids up earlier than usual from their naps and do something really entertaining with them like playdoh
5) make something with that sausage in the fridge before it goes bad

Sound mundane? Yeah - but managable. And if I don't add something to that list, I guarantee it won't get done. For instance, I had thought about calling my grandmother yesterday but forgot. I made it a goal for today and we had a great long chat. Also I'd like to point out again that the more specific the goals, the easier it is to accomplish them. For instance, #3 was very non-specific. "Work some" turned into 10 minutes of diddling around on the paper before finding something better to do. Today I made the goal "finish the shoulder" and I did just that.

Okay, by now you guys are all saying, "That's great, but it doesn't change the fact that I have maybe 1 hour a day to myself and the rest is for everyone else." Right? Yes, I am a mind-reader as well. Well, first of all, you have to learn to watch how you're spending your time. I'm a great procrastinator. I'm a great time waster. For instance, instead of writing this blog post, I spent 42 minutes reading this really great thread that Dianna Ponting is writing on how to use pastels. (Here's the link so you can waste the time too.) Now, don't protest. Look at the following list and put a mental check by everything you do:

  • write e-mails
  • talk on the phone
  • watch tv in the evening
  • sit on the couch trying to work up the nerve to get going
  • cleaning up
  • getting dressed/ ready to go
  • playing solitaire
  • surfing on the web
  • reading my blog
  • getting your art supplies ready to go
The list goes on and on. The truth is you can streamline all of these things and free up time. The key for me is to get two chunks of time in any given day. I really need at least two hours at a time to not feel rushed while painting. My kids are still of napping age, and I've slowly gotten them used to napping at the same time. My 2.5 year old takes a shorter nap but likes to play with the toys in her room, so she plays happily for about 35 minutes while the little guy naps. That gives me between 2-3 empty hours after lunch. They go down to bed at 7 for little guy and 7:30-8 for Victoria, the eldest. I usually plan on being in bed by 11, so that theoretically gives me another 3 empty hours if I work the entire time.

All of you with children know that you can't do art or write novels or anything introspective while they're wide awake, so that's what the "empty hours" are for. Don't use this time for anything else. There are things you can do on the list above while your children are awake and wild. For instance, I encourage my toddlers to help me while I clean up the kitchen and do a load of laundry, and I have special toys that I only let them have while I'm writing e-mails in the morning. I get the things done that don't require creativity while they're awake. Including them in the process means that they aren't sticking pens in outlets while I'm doing chores and plus they get to gloat over every "good job!" they get. Really works. Two year olds can flip pancakes with your help and one year olds are actually very good at putting dish detergent into the dishwasher and closing it up for you. Oh, and I like to make lunch for the next day at dinner time, because morning's can be hairy and lunchtime even hairier. And yes, I love to cook and eat so I don't think scrimping on making a good lunch and dinner is a time-saving option. Depending on your lifestyle, you may think otherwise.

Okay, onto those "empty hours." The art hours. The real key is focusing during this time. I already know when I sit down that I have about 4 hours to get my art goals done in a day. First, I establish which of my art goals I need to be more alert for - which is more difficult. That gets done over lunch, after I've had my single glass of caffeinated beverage for the day. I usually give myself a plush easy job for the evening, and I'll usually drink a cup of tea with some sugar in it to keep my blood sugar even while I work. While I'm painting or drawing, I don't consider between pencil strokes or brush strokes. I work very intuitively now, and if I make an error, I'd rather quickly paint or work over it then agonize over a piece. I do a lot of preliminary sketches for pieces I think will be squirrely, and that takes out a lot of guesswork in the finished piece. This is where it's so important to have work goals for the day. I HAVE to have goals for the day or I spend the time fooling about on various art websites or googling my name or something stupid like that. Or making myself tea or switching the laundry or something I can pretend is useful but is really just avoidance.

Another thing I have to do is reward myself. Let's say I'm dying for cookie dough. Well, I can't just have it. I tell myself that I have to do such and such amount of work before I go make cookie dough. Or say I want to change CDs (I always, always, always work with music in the background - it helps focus me). I'm not allowed to get up from my desk and riffle through my CDs until I've finished such and such. Because this busywork will eat up my time.

I also schedule my week. If I didn't do this, I would never get time to write or play my harp. On Friday nights and Sunday during my "empty hours," I write on whatever project I'm currently working on. It doesn't sound like much time to complete a novel, but throughout the week I'm always thinking about what I'm going to be writing next, especially when I'm driving or in the shower, and so when I sit down at the computer, I can be efficient. I write the same way I paint - fast, with no self-editing until later when I go back over it. I also schedule time off. This is often based on television shows, because I'm shallow. For instance, for a long time Wednesday evenings were time off because America's Next Top Model (a horrible vapid show I can't seem to stop watching) and Top Chef came on. And when my husband is home in the evenings, I try and get my work done before 9 so I can join him for a movie or watching a Scrubs marathon. Sometimes he'll come down and read the paper or a magazine in my studio while I write or paint so we can feel like we're together though I'm working. You can accomplish the same thing by bringing your art into the living room and working on it while watching a movie.

Now, the hard part. Discipline. You thought what I just wrote was discipline? No. Well, not like the next bit. Discipline is choosing my battles wisely. This is sort of like Thanksgiving dinner when you could make mashed potatoes from scratch or use flakes, and your pride tells you to spend the time to make it from scratch even though your non-picky relatives wouldn't notice the difference. If you're a hobbyist, fine, go with your principles and your pride. If you're a business person and the flakes make sense, for crying out loud, don't spend the time peeling potatoes if the outcome is the same.

My example for the week? We recently acquired a new dog, Bailey, on a trial basis, and were charmed by him. Great personality but it turned out because of a previous owner, he howls all night and has a great passion for making pee spots on our white carpet. Before I started working for myself, I would've seen it as a challenge and taken the time to retrain him and make it work. But now, as a business person, I weighed the pros and cons and found there was no sense to keeping him so long as the breeder would take him back (and she would). Yes, my pride wanted very badly to retrain him, especially since I'd told everyone in the world I'd gotten this new cute dog. But I wasn't emotionally attached yet and he was robbing time from my other projects. Not a battle that needed to be fought right now. It was harder than I thought to decide it. You all probably don't have small, evil dogs with bad habits tempting you to spend time on them, but you can probably think of a parallel in your life - be it that yoga class you go to only because the neighbors have goaded you or the lunch party you're going to only because your sister's going. I have to decide if I want something because I want it or because my pride or ego is encouraging me to. Sometimes it takes a lot of deep digging in my strange and fascinating brain to find my real motives - I hide them even from myself sometimes.

And finally, I have to say that I have a wonderful, supportive husband who believes in me and all of my bizarre habits. On his days off, he helps to watch the kids so I can eek out more productive hours in the day, and he bunts me into action if I'm wasting time in some sort of avoidance activity. If your spouse is not supportive, get another one. Ha, you think I'm joking. I'm serious. If becoming an artist full time is important to you, your spouse should respect that priority and make it a priority themselves. Of course you have to reciprocate. It's about respect. This doesn't mean they have to like your work or think art in general is wonderful. But they have to understand you need time and sometimes it'll be leftovers for dinner. If they pack your car for art shows and hand out your business cards to complete strangers like mine does, it's a plus.

This post turned out wordier than I expected, but I hope it's helpful. If nothing else, I hope it convinces you that you can do it, whatever it is. I'm a 25 year old with a degree in British history, turned down by the college art department, and I'm making my living from my art. I'm not the best artist in the world and I've seen other artists far better making far less. The only thing that makes me any different from anybody else is that I tried and believed I could do it. Not amazing talent. Not superpowers. Not a mean potato salad (though I do make a great one). If that doesn't inspire you, well, man, you need some cookie dough.


Susan Borgas said...

Maggie I find it difficult to pace myself and basically feeling worn out so this excellent post is timely and at the same time motivating. I am very lucky to have a husband that is supportive of what I do and will pitch in when necessary so I don’t have to get another one….chuckle! Just take care that you don’t burn out as I have been there and done that when I was in my early thirties when I had a small non-painting business. One thing I had to learn is to say was “no” and boy did that create a stink when that happened.

The time has come for me to say “no” once more to a number of people within my work so that I can pace myself that my creativity isn’t destroyed as in my previous career. You are right in making plans and so forth. Mine are made for a year ahead and it just doesn’t work that way because of the unforeseen things that crop up. I am already a painting behind and doubt that it will be caught up because of a leg injury which affected the way I work.

Your idea of setting goals weekly and breaking it down daily is a good one. A year ahead as I have done is Ok but shouldn’t be set in cement as it is impossible to do and can have the effect of dorm when getting behind. We do need to make plans ahead to accomplish what is needed for exhibitions and such but perhaps not to be so rigid with them. Sometimes an amount of time set aside for a painting is way off if the subject matter or technique used is different to what we are used to painting or using. That is what I am finding with my latest painting and yet I am enjoying it so much but worried it is cutting into my year of planned work.

Well I better get back and pick up my paint brush although later I am going to sit down and write down tomorrows goals and the day after and so on……right up to the 13th of this month when my dear husband and I head off for a two weeks holiday, traveling interstate and visiting many places. Mmmmm I better make sure I have goals set for that holiday as well so that we do not miss any of the good spots that we should visit….wink!

Katherine said...

At last - the BIG REVEAL!

OK, so I knew most of this as you preach it to us non-stop in the Fine Line Artists Forum ;), but I'm going to blog this over at Making A Mark just to make sure a few more people get to hear about it to!

And people - Maggie really does 'walk the talk'. I've watched her do it for a long time now and seen the amazing results that she gets. This is why I blog about her so much - this is stuff that should be shared.

If succeeding as an artist is one of your top priorities then you should try following Maggie's guidelines - you won't regret it.

Jeanne said...

Thank you very much for this!

Your blog is definitely part of my procrastination scheme. Just as I celebrate when I see in my RSS feed that you have a new entry, I despair thinking "How can she update so regularly?" And when I see your new work I ask "How does she get it all done?"

I try goal setting all the time, but I always seem to regress to looking at other artists' work and despairing instead of working. I'm glad you wrote this essay because hopefully now when I go to your log to procrastinate I will remember why you got something done yesterday and I didn't.

A.K.Ard said...

Thanks for posting this! I'm so glad you didn't say you had a nanny that watched your kids all day while you painted (not that it is a bad thing, but it's not in my budget, LOL!)

Everything you said makes perfect sense and is exactly what I've told myself again and again would work if I just did it. I too have a problem procrastinating (my remaining vices are the phone and internet during Brynn's nap time - I've already given up TV.) After reading this post and seeing that it really does work when applied, I'm determined to follow your advice to the letter.

Thank you for being an inspiration!
(and for the cookie dough recipe) :-)

Elizabeth Perry said...

Came here via Making a Mark, and am delighted to read your advice. Thanks for the long, thoughtful, and practical post.

Karen Schmidt said...

Thanks, Maggie, for taking the time to write this luxuriously wordy encouragement!

As an artist who also loves to cook, I usually give my kitchen a good cleaning once a day, and thanks to your entry I've already decided to change that from first thing in the morning (my high creativity time) to last thing before bed, because let's face it, cleaning doesn't require (much) creativity! I also have given myself a personal deadline for starting my art blog - yikes!

I, too, am blessed with a husband who "bunts me into action" if I'm engaging in avoidance activity - like suddenly deciding to arrange all my CDs by genre when I'm supposed to be setting up my palette.

Thanks again, and now I'm off to solidify my goals for the day ...

Kathy C said...

Wow Maggie! Thank you so much for sharing. So much you have written is true to my own life.

Now I am off to organize my day because the biggest correlation between your life and mine is the goal setting that has to be set each day to accomplish anything!

Thanks again!

muddy red shoes said...

Maggie, that is a great and honest post and I congratulate you, you deserve to go far and get everything your arty heart desires, well done and bravo.

Belinda Lindhardt said...

Maggie, thankyou so much for writing this. I think you and i must be twins! Except you write much better than what i do. I have recently come to much the same ideas about art and life and juggling and i have found myself in much the same routine as you are.
Except i allow myself 2 caffine hits a day !! :) lol

Thanks again

Linda said...

Great post -- well written! I think it may be a "bookmarker" post!
Now -- to quit reading blogs and go paint a bit -- oh, no wait -- I wanted to check out that pastel site you mentioned ...

Jo Castillo said...

Maggie, you are superwoman times two. I'm inspired to try harder. I have been somewhat better this year with goal setting, I think Katherine (Making a Mark) had a hand in that.

I say I work better with a deadline, but I think it is just that it has to be done or else. Daily goals (deadlines) should become my habit.


MrsSnowy said...

Just when I was muttering to myself - 'How does she do all that?!' Congratulations, great blog and great motivation to many.

Rhonda said...

Great advice! But what's even better is we all get to watch you DO it.
Your blog is part of my morning routine (it's actually on my list) because you are such a motivational role model for me. Thanks for letting us peek behind the curtain today.
I also think you have the makings of another book here....

H Malott said...

Thank you Maggie! I am a list maker, but have fallen away from it lately. This helps me to get back on the horse. ~Heidi

Regula Scheifele said...

Maggie - just wanted to thank you for this great post!

As Katherine suggested I'll print it out and pin it up somewhere. Probably next to the bathroom mirror, 'cause that's where I'll surely see it every day.


holly said...

Thank you, thank you!!! I actually bought into the opinion that all great artists were/are single, or all their non-art needs and responsibilities are/were taken care of by others. You've proven that even someone with a life on overload *can* make the time, if they are determined to.

You've changed my entire outlook, and your thoughts on setting goals will probably change everything else for me.

Very generous of you to share all this with us. And there's no doubt you'll succeed in anything you set your mind to. Thanks *very* much, Maggie.

Holly (JSS still reigns)

Maggie Stiefvater said...

You guys are all welcome and I'm SO GLAD that this could be helpful. I hope this puts a collective boot up collective arse for anyone stalling doing what they really want to do.

Also, Mrs. Snowy, you have to schedule that muttering to yourself during times when you can't do art. I do it during yard work.

I forgot to mention another thing . . . at the grocery store I shop for the week knowing what I want to make for every meal in advance - and planning on things that make great leftovers (I've got suggestions, people . . . great recipes . . . ). Because I want to cook every meal but I need time too.

Serena said...

Maggie, thanks for the great motivational post! I really needed that as I'm a born procrastinator. Like some of the other's comments, I too have wondered how on earth you manage to be so productive, especially with young children. I used to make a daily list of what I wanted to achieve for that day but somehow it was gradually phased out....can't even remember how or why. I definitely need better time management skills and your post has motivated me to get back to it.

Thanks too for your cookie dough recipe.....I can't wait to try it out. Just one question - Do you use plain or self-raising flour?

As for weekly meal planning, I'm hopeless! So any tips or recipes you want to include in future posts will be greatly appreciated.

Dee said...

The recipes would indeed be most welcome - we're wanting new things to try and leftovers are perfect to take to work for lunch.

Just wondering: do you have a plan for when the little ones no longer need a nap?

Ujwala said...

Came here from a link on Making a Mark. Loved your post. Thank you. I used to be better organised when i was working but then I gave that up over 7 years ago. Is there a word coined as yet for a person who sits in front of her computer from morning to night surfing? I'm a big time procrastinator.

On the positive side I have a v.v.supportive husband and do like what i paint (not many others do :P as yet) when i paint. now I need to get off my b*** and set doable daily goals and execute them. :D Will be back to leave a comment if I do. Thanks again for sharing.

Monica Gillis said...

Thanks so much for this post, Maggie. I've been keeping up with your blog for a couple of months now, and I've wondered how you do it all.
I'm a mom to two small ones, too (including a 2 1/2 yr old daughter!). I decided last fall that it is possible to make art a priority and juggle all the balls a mom has to juggle. I've spent the time since then trying to figure out exactly how. Some of your secrets I'd already figured out for myself, but I learned a lot from your post. I've even printed it out to peruse at leisure and keep myself on track.
I'm a procrastinator, and the form that usually takes is housecleaning... you can always tell how big of an artistic slump I'm in by the cleanliness of my house. I have to ask myself what is more important- making art or a spotless floor.
Again, thanks so much, Maggie. You are my hero... and proof that it can all be done.

Rafi said...

I enjoyed reading your post. As well as being an artist, I am a full time computer programmer and actively involved father of five children aged 2 to 14. I am also religious orthodox Jewish which means that one day of the week I take a total timeout from all my everyday pursuits.

When I tell people I paint and show them my work (see here) they say "wow, where do you find the time?" I um and ah a bit and explain that I have time that I use well. I thought I was a bit crazy and sometimes I wonder what it's like to laze around, but this way I get things done. The downside is that creeping feeling that maybe I'm missing out on enjoying something by trying to be too focused and efficient.

I too make to-do lists. I try to plan my evenings a week at a time (around shopping, ironing, school meetings, family occasions and whatnot). I don't own a TV which saves a bit of time.

Good luck everyone with your self discipline! :).

Stacy said...

Maggie, thanks for the great post! It is a relief to know you haven't cloned yourself. I can manage with goals and organization, but a clone of me would just be scarey to everyone!

I am glad your logical approach to art has been successful for you. It shows me I am on the right track. I also make annual goals and break them down into daily ones. But after your post I think I might be ready to set the bar a little higher.

I hope you don't mind, but I plan on mentioning your "Juggling" post in my blog. I think it is something all artists should read.

Anita said...

I have been saying the same thing for too long. SLightly different situation. I work full time, and have to in order to be with my husband (we live abroad and I am only allowed to accompany him if I work too). But I want art to be my work, so I recently decided to stop moaning about how I don't have time. I'm getting up at 5:00 now to paint for two hours before I go to work and when I get home in the evening I make myself do a minimum of another two hours and preferably three or four.
I do know that I have to also allow myself days when I do the other things that I love - cook, sew or my artwork suffers. Sometimes a small break is a good thing!
So I better get off the computer NOW as I am losing time.

misti said...

I was link clicking and ended up on your blog and then clicked on your current last post and found this post. Wow. This is what I need! yesterday I did everything but paint. I've avoided finishing a painting for a month now. It could have been done and over with but I find something else to do. I'm going to print this out and keep it in my inspirational notebook.

Anonymous said...

Hi! It's pickledherring from LJ - you left a comment with a link to this post for me and thanks so much! It is really encouraging. I think what you are saying is spot on and I've found it heartening. :D I'd like to both write and paint professionally and it's been hard to juggle all of it. You're a great inspiration.

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