Thursday, March 27, 2008

Maggie on Time Management, Part II

all artwork in this post are 1 minute sketches from life at a Lunasa concert
copyright 2008 Maggie Stiefvater
(please note all
sketches posted in this blog are from my current sketchbook, which like the last one will be given away to a random blog subscriber when it's full -- so if you read regularly, make sure you subscribe so I know!)

As promised, today is the follow up post on time-management -- what I do to keep myself on track in the midst of a crazy world.

In the last post, I pointed out the top reasons that kept me from working: excuses, funky priorities, aimlessness and self-doubt. Those are the top reasons. Here are some others that might sound familiar to you: lack of energy, distraction, procrastination, and misdirected energy (fake usefulness).

And here's what I do to counter-act them. Maggie, Future Queen of America, tells all.

1. Excuses

This is a bad one for me, because I can think of so many: toddlers not taking as many naps, new puppy needing lots of walks and making lots of epic puddles, too many commitments, not enough hours in the day, need to cook dinner, need to clean the house, need to finish reading that novel that is burning at me to read it . . .

And I have to confess that for me, the biggest defense against excuses is my husband. He knows what I can do and he can see write through my excuses. He has a very low BS titer. Everyone has someone like this -- it could be a sister, a friend, a husband, another of your personalities -- someone who knows just how much you can do and will hold you to it.

If you don't, use me. I know what you're capable of. Shove those excuses under the rug. They're not doing either of us any good. This is about good habits, too -- the more you stop leaning on your excuses, the weaker they'll get, until finally you can blow them down like a straw house.

2. Funky Priorities

Funky priorities, as you remember, is when you think that there are things more important than your art, your writing, your music -- whatever it is that your dream is. For me, there are only a very few things that I consider more important that what my dream is, but I know that just because this is a concept that comes easy to me, it's not necessarily one that comes easily to others, especially if you've been raised to have an eye constantly on the reliable and the tried-and-true.

I do, however, have funky priorities when it comes to choosing between my various interests -- music, writing, and art, and I think the method I use for straightening out my priorities applies across the board. I ask myself constantly

  • do I need to be doing this? (watching a TV show, signing up for a new artists' community online, etc)
  • will it matter in the long run? (fretting about not making it to a show opening, knowing who the front-runner is in American Idol)
  • does it make me feel good to get this done?
  • does this touch upon more than one of the goals that I've set for myself?
And I know this last one is silly, but as a writer, you have to indulge me -- it really does work for me.

  • If I were a character in a book or movie, would I be sympathetic for the character that I am? Would I think that I was doing all I could to accomplish my goals?
3. Aimlessness

This is one that used to torment me a lot. I would clear my schedule, allot time for work, sit down at the desk, and sort of . . . fritter around. It wasn't that I didn't have things to do -- I had lots to do. Too much. Way too much to accomplish in one day. Way too much to accomplish in one week. Give me a month, maybe. It just piled around me like . . . like . . . stuff that piles around you (my powers of metaphor momentarily failed me).

So I started setting goals. I got myself a notebook and started putting down my daily, weekly, and monthly goals. I got out of the habit of the notebook once the year was done, but I still have a stack of index cards and a calendar on my desk now. The calendar has long range goals and deadlines and the index cards have the week's goals on them, one day to each card. I also have my 2008 Goals/ New Years' Resolutions taped up next to my desk (Out of 11, I've already crossed out 2 and I'm this close to the next two - I can taste it).

Tada! My aimlessness was gone. I could get right to work. But it's not something I ever grow out of. If I try to go a week without my daily goals . . . nothing gets done. Work crawls to a halt. I don't think I'll ever be able to manage without them written down.

4. Self-Doubt

Yes, I still get it. Yes, I still foolishly think I can get around it by getting praise from outside parties. No, it never works.

Self-doubt is sort of like a cramp when you're running. It makes it hard to run at first, then intensely painful (and still hard), and finally impossible. You want to stop. You have to stop. You just can't keep going -- but you do. Well, most people don't. Most people stop and say, "$%^&! Blinkin' cramp! #$%^!" But those people who push through the cramp -- it goes away and you can keep going, good as new.

Well, I assume so. When running, I've always stopped for the cramps. But I don't stop for the self-doubt. Even when I think a piece is complete crappola, I push through it. Because I know the next one won't be, even if the current piece is a write-off. And I'll never get to the next piece if I stop then.

6. Lack of Energy

Sleep isn't something I like to compromise on, though I hear through the grapevine that most Americans do. I become a raving banshee hair-pulling lunatic without at least seven hours of sleep, so I try to get as much as I can. I also try and work with my circadian rhythm as much as I can. Meaning? I'm a morning person. The days I got to bed early and manage to get up early before the kids, I can get a lot more work done, because I feel good. Hard to remember that when I want to stay up and watch a movie.

Also, I watch what I eat. I'm of the opinion that Americans are guilty of eating a lot of junk, and it makes us uncomfortable, sleepy, and depressed. I'm allergic to preservatives of all sort, and it's an allergy that got worse as I got older. The early symptoms of my sensitivity? Depression, tiredness, headache. (then all sorts of fun gross painful ones later, but that's for another time, my pets). I don't think that I'm the only one that doesn't react well to preservatives, I just think I take it to a slightly higher level than most people. On my preservative-free diet, I have lots of energy and I stay fit.

Also, some of this is habit. People used to sitting stay sitting. People used to moving stay moving. I suppose if I stopped moving and being energetic, I might stop moving and being energetic altogether. I'm not really prepared to find out. So I keep on motoring.

7. Distraction

Oh, I'm bad about this. There are lots of things to distract me. The neighbors' dogs barking. The birds on the feeder. My cat feeding on birds from the feeder. Children hooting in their rooms during "nap" time. Husband watching interesting television. The thoughts rambling around in my head.

For me, headphones are the answer. I pick a CD suitable to what I'm doing -- nice uptempo stuff when I'm on a deadline -- warn my husband that I'm going to another planet, and put on the headphones. I must have music to stay focused. Otherwise, I can guarantee you my brain will be off holidaying while I'm trying to work.

8. Procrastination

*coughreadingblogscough* I'm a good one for procrastinating. I always waited until the last moment to do my papers in college too. The way I kicked this one (though it still plagues me) is fooling myself. I set false deadlines, well before the real deadline, and make myself work to that deadline instead of the proper one.

Example? My deadline for getting Ballad written isn't until the very end of the year. Plenty of time to write it. I can play around, right? Wrong. I'm giving myself a fake deadline of Halloween. If I have it done by then, I can play afterwards.

9. Misdirected Energy

This goes back to priorities, but unlike the more general priorities, misdirected energy is more insidious. See, with this one, I'm talking about things that seem useful for your work, but aren't really. For instance, investing a lot of time in an exhibition that won't really pay off. Or spending a few hours creating a pretty profile page on an artists' forum. Or going to art group meetings that aren't productive.

These are really hard to identify, because they feel like they must be useful. But time's at a premium, and the truth of the matter is you have to be like an emergency room doctor. Triage, it's called. It's looking at a room full of sick people and deciding who's most likely to kick the bucket and who's just there for the lollipops and Snoopy band-aids.

So look at your waiting room of tasks carefully. Who's really going to bleed to death first? And who can be shunted to the end of the line or off the line entirely?

10. There has got to be a number 10 to this list. This is going to drive me crazy. I'm going to make one up. Um.

Man, I couldn't think of one. I really am creatively stifled tonight, aren't I?

Okay -- you guys know the routine -- questions in the comments section and I'll answer them tomorrow. Also, any solutions that you've come up with, share!


Anonymous said...


Great post. You are one of my primary sources of outside motivation. Thank you.

Question about priorities: do you ever have to turn down commissions because your backlog is too long? If so, what's your max #? Do you prioritize by how much money you're getting, or how long someone's been in the queue, or how much you like the commission?

Karen Mathison Schmidt said...

Both of these time management posts are great, Maggie! Some of these I'm pretty diligent about, but some I needed reminding of ... thanks for the "booster shot"!

One thing you didn't mention that helps me make the most of my time is developing a routine, which may seem counteractive to creativity, but being strictly routine about some things really saves time for the creative stuff.

Example: It used to take me almost half an hour to set up my easel and palette (and brushes and water and glaze medium, etc.) for a new painting session. Developing a routine - setting everything up in the same order and the same way every time - has helped me whittle that time down to 5 or 6 minutes. And treating it like a game - trying to beat my own best time - makes the nuts and bolts of setting up kind of fun, too!

autumnwillow said...

Like a Nascar pit-stop, eh, Karen? (ok, ok, so I married a southern boy!)

Maggie, I am amazed at how alike we are... it's pretty scary. Though I have no desire to be Queen of America (though I say you should just go all the way for Queen of the Universe, but that's just me...), we have similar challenges, and it's truly inspiring and comforting to know that someone of your caliber has the issues that I tend to assume are "special" to me alone. I get easily distracte.... Oh, look, I found a dime! Oh, sorry... got distracted... ;)

Bottom line-- THANK YOU for sharing your struggles so hopefully it can help me battle mine...

Mary Sheehan Winn said...

Who me?
It's good to know that we're all fighting the same demons!
I particularly like the paintings on the masthead of your blog. The cat's eyes are so full of expression!

Anonymous said...

I am VERY grateful for these two posts on time management. Really. This has been a tough month for me and my work habits have all but vanished. Thanks for the kick in the backside and the reminder that I CAN and WILL do this art thing!

johnk said...

Have you ever tried a GTD "Getting Things Done" system. I've recently moved from a Covey background and found it much easier to maintain a GTD and get more done with less planning. I use an application that provides access to my GTD from my Windows computer at work, my Mac at home and even my cell phone. I've written about my experiences with the GTD app in some recent blog posts at

Reflections From Life Art Blog said...

Yep, I am constantly fighting AL nine of those!! For instance, I've watched two movies and am now blogging rather than finishing an art piece. Guess I lost my motivation. Did you have that one listed too Maggie???


Rafi said...

A couple of things. Firstly, sleep. I get by on too little and by the end of the week it does sometimes prevent me from working effectively. What I have found is that exercise makes you need less sleep and generally makes you feel more alive. I reckon that most of the time invested in exercise is actually saved from sleep so it is worth it. However, the excuses, lack of energy, procrastination kick in. The most difficult bit about exercising I find, is getting out there to exercise.

On the subject of aimlessness, that's what day jobs are for ;-). Get all your aimlessness and bad priorities out of the way while you're at work and that leaves one less obstacle when you want to get painting.

Katherine Tyrrell said...

I bet there's a #5 too! ;)

You're blogged for Sunday - linked to a reference to what are some of the benefits (for you) of managing your time better......

Karen Thumm said...

What a great list, Maggie!

I especially like the triage reference. That's a useful one for when faced with too many tasks and too little time, which for me is a constant.

What's worked really well for me is to add a weekly task list in addition to my daily to do list in my planner. I bought a pretty colored clip board and loaded it with notebook paper. Every Monday I cross off what I got done the week before with a pretty colored highlighter. Then I make a new list for the week ahead. I try to limit the list to ten things. Otherwise it overwhelms me. Then I hang it up in the studio where I'll see it every day and be reminded of what I need to get done that week. It's really helped to keep me focused on those things.

Lara Harris said...

I am so glad you wrote these, I need to be using my time in the studio more wisely for glad to know I am not the only one who has struggled with this! :o)

Maggie Stiefvater said...

Thanks, Lara!