The Art Biz ep. 152: How to Squeeze More Time from Your Busy Calendar

As an artist and 1-person business owner, you are the talented maker, gregarious promoter, delightful conversationalist, and head honcho. All. At. The. Same. Time.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by all of these simultaneous roles.

Landscape painting by Kim T. Richards
©Kim T. Richards, Morning Dunes. Oil on aluminum panel, 11 x 14 inches.

You’re juggling all of the moving pieces of your art business along with the responsibilities and joys of your personal life.

Perhaps … Just maybe … It might be heartening to remember that you are no busier and no more overwhelmed than the next artist. Everyone has something that steals their energy.

On the home front, it might be school-aged kids, struggling adult children, or aging parents. I also have clients whose work is sidelined by moving and building projects. And artists who deal with chronic pain, illness, and life-threatening health issues.

These are all real reasons for lower productivity.

Every artist I have ever worked with would like to squeeze more time from their busy calendars. After all, you are overflowing with ideas. You’ll never have time to make everything you want to make, and that is incredibly frustrating.

In this post and episode of the Art Biz, I'll share 8 tips for time management along with 2 truths to consider.

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Recovering Productivity Geek

Before we get deep into productivity tips, I must confess that I am a recovering productivity geek.

I used to read everything about the topic that came into view—subscribing to productivity newsletters and investing in more productivity courses. I still get caught in that trap.

But my interest in productivity has evolved since reading Oliver Burkeman’s book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. I find myself recommending this book to everyone. (affiliate link)

His introduction is titled “In the Long Run, We’re All Dead.” Sounds fatalistic, but he speaks the truth. We’ve been given an average of 4,000 weeks on this big blue marble called Earth, but we act and work like we have infinite amounts of time. Trying to get more done, adding more to our calendars, isn’t necessarily the best way to spend our time.

Burkeman writes, “Productivity is a trap. Becoming more efficient just makes you more rushed, and trying to clear the decks simply makes them fill up again faster.” Chew on that for a while. Preferably while sipping a watermelon margarita by the pool.

Acrylic painting by Sierra Bailey
©Sierra Bailey, Confessions of a Domestic Failure. Acrylic on museum cradled panel, 24 x 30 inches.

Time Management Is a Lie

In sharing these time management tips, I’m not encouraging you to do MORE. I’m encouraging you to be more efficient so you can enjoy, as Mary Oliver wrote, this one precious life.

I’m just going to jump in with the first truth, which is this: Time management is a lie.

It’s impossible to manage time. The clocks keep ticking and the sun continues to rise and set. There’s nothing you can do about that.

Rather than talking about Time management, you need to focus on Self management.

Use these 8 tips to help with self-management and stick with me until the end because I’m certain you’ll be comforted by the second truth.

1. Make time for planning.

Planning time is your best friend.

If you think you’re too busy to set aside a couple of hours a week to plan, you will have no one to blame but yourself when you lose sleep. You’re likely feeling swamped because you didn’t make time to plan … when you stumbled from task to task because you had so much to do.

In my experience, overwhelm happens when everything is up in my head. I don’t know what happens up there and who is responsible for such shenanigans, but my brain in overwhelm gear is pretty worthless. It’s unfocused, directionless, fearful, and anxious. This makes it impossible to get anything constructive accomplished.

The solution is to get out the calendar and task list and map out everything on my plate.

I am speaking from experience as I’ve been in this state recently. It happens! In fact, it happens more often than I’d like to admit. But I can always find my way out of the overwhelm when I set aside time to plan.

Quick tool: The Brain Dump

Acrylic painting by Alexandra Leadbeater
©Alexandra Leadbeater, Jug Red. Acrylic on paper, 49 x 39 centimeters

2. Understand your natural rhythms.

When do you do your best work?

If it takes you 2 hours and 4 cups of coffee to wake up in the morning, don’t attempt your most valuable work during that time. Know when you are your most productive self and hold that time sacred for your art or writing.

As a corollary, if you aren’t currently productive in a particular area, monitor your calendar and figure out what you might need to switch around to make the most of your days.

3. Honor your calendar.

If it’s important, schedule it. Block out time on your calendar to take care of tasks that need significant amounts of uninterrupted time.

My calendar not only has my timed appointments with clients and coaching groups, but also blocks of time for creating content and making connections with people.

Review your calendar at the end of each day and again before you begin work in the morning.

Watercolor and pastel by Cathy Earle
©Cathy Earle, Summer Living. Watercolor and pastel, 22 x 26 inches.

4. Turn repeated tasks into systems.

Stop reinventing the steps it takes to publish a newsletter or blog post, or to promote an exhibition. Create reliable systems for every task you undertake on a regular basis. Well-defined systems will save your behind and help you rest easily.

A system is a series of steps that answer the following questions.

  • What, precisely, do you want to happen?
  • What tools and technology will you use?
  • Who else will be or needs to be part of it?
  • What are the repeatable steps—exactly?
  • What kind of review process will you put into place to make sure the system is working?

In his book, Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, James Clear encourages us to focus on systems instead of goals—systems comprised of tiny (atomic) improvements. He writes, “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” (affiliate link)

As I say in the Organize Your Art Biz lesson on systems, one of the key benefits to systematizing as much as you can is that reliable systems eliminate the need for making decisions—saving precious brain power for the most important aspects of your art and business.

5. Group similar tasks together.

You have heard this advice before, but it might be time to revisit it when it comes to your art business.

Use the momentum you create from starting a single task to complete other tasks that are similar.

For example, write four article drafts in one sitting rather than doing one a day. It’s easier, I promise! It sounds crazy, but it’s true. Something happens when you devote a couple of hours to focused writing. It’s like your ideas start having babies. They multiply and feed off of one another, so pretty soon that one little idea becomes four.

Same thing happens when you schedule social media posts for an entire week or month of content.

Other tasks that you might group together include the following:

  • Run all of your errands or do all of your online shopping in one, dedicated, afternoon.
  • Process email in your inbox during two daily sessions rather than “checking it” throughout the day.
  • Save packing and shipping for dedicated time slots rather than doing it as orders come in. When I used to sell copies of my book directly from my website, I had text right there on the order page that said I shipped every Tuesday and Friday. The automated email buyers received included the same notification.
Acrylic painting by Francesca Bandino
©Francesca Bandino, Mystification. Acrylic on canvas, 12 x 16 x .8 inches.

6. Stop multitasking.

Multitasking is working on diverse tasks simultaneously and, usually, doing them all half-heartedly: responding to email while attending a webinar, texting while trying to write a newsletter, or just moving back and forth between your inbox and another open window on your computer.

Research shows that only about 2.5% of college students can multitask effectively.

And get this: Switching from task to task and back again adds as much as 25% more time to what it would normally take to complete each task. Twenty-five percent!

You don’t have 25% more time to waste.

If you want to save time and be a better self-manager, stop multitasking.

With so much demanding our attention these days, we all fall into this bad habit. When you catch yourself, feel free to snap out of it by reciting a mantra I devised for these moments: I do one thing at a time to completion.

7. Automate everything possible.

What happens when someone signs up for your email list? And then what? And then what? 

You can automate those responses when you use an email marketing platform.

Inside of my Grow Your List program is a lesson titled Designing a 5-Star Customer Experience which will help you figure out the steps so you can use autoresponders to do much of the heavy lifting.

You'll also find lessons on networking, using sign-up lists, segmenting your list, and more.

Also consider automating:

  • Savings. Take 10% out of every payment and put it in a separate interest-earning savings account or retirement fund.
  • Meals. I love to cook, but we went through a meal-delivery period. My favorite thing about meal delivery isn’t the meals themselves, though they are delicious, but that it removed the need to make a decision about what to eat. (See #4.)
  • Orders for supplies you use regularly. For example, I love that Amazon sends us a package of 2 electric toothbrush heads every 3 months.
Oil painting by Jessica Pisano
©Jessica Pisano, The Kiss. Oil on panel, 24 x 24 inches.

8. Learn to say No (and mean it).

I saved the most difficult for last.

Invitations bombard you from every direction, and you have to have the strength to know what is critical to add to your calendar and, more importantly, what doesn’t deserve a place on your schedule.

It’s fairly easy to say No to what isn’t palatable or what doesn’t sound fun. It’s harder to turn down the things that are more enjoyable in order to give your best effort to long-term progress.

Clarity is key.

When you are very clear about your direction, it’s easier to say No to the opportunities and requests that don’t serve your best interests. This is the toughest lesson you’ll learn when trying to build your art business. 

If you master saying No, you’ll master yourself and your business.

The Second Truth

Those are the 8 tips.

I promised you a 2nd truth around time management, which I hope you’ll find comfort in. And that is this:

The important stuff always gets done.

Somehow, magically, amazingly.

It gets done because it’s important! You recognize its value and somehow manage to make it happen. Knowing this truth is a relief.

Remember: You have an average of 4,000 weeks on this planet. Don’t try to do more. Try finding ways to enjoy what you’re doing and to make time for the things that feed your soul.

If you find it difficult to manage yourself and your time, support and accountability might help. I give you that inside the Art Biz Accelerator. It’s a community of trusted artists who are on a similar journey and get you. I lead the coaching and conversations

Check it out and join us if it’s right for you.  You can join anytime but the sooner you join, the sooner you’ll reap the benefits.

First published August 6, 2015 and updated February 7, 2019. Updated and podcast episode added with original comments intact.

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50 thoughts on “The Art Biz ep. 152: How to Squeeze More Time from Your Busy Calendar”

  1. Wow, you really hit the nail on the head with this one, Alyson! Not only did you tell us time-sucking activities but you gave us straight-forward solutions for them. I continue to be amazed by your gems of wisdom. Thank you so much!

  2. Hello Alyson,
    You are right on with every point as usual. After recently planning and hosting a large (for me) studio event I observed that, yes indeed, everything important got done! There were moments when it did not seem possible. Your points on setting aside REGULAR planning time and honouring that is the next habit that I am going to implement. Thank you again for support throughout the years of my art career 🙂

  3. I followed the email link because I am searching for any helpful tips to manage time that I can find. I am not an “official” artist yet, but am working in that direction as I search for retirement income. Signing up for your emails is one of my efforts in that direction. I think the biggest tips you have (for me) all are planning related. It is so HARD to set aside regular time for any activity, even art and planning, but I am getting better at it. Thanks for more encouragement with handy tips.

  4. The most important advice for me has been saying No to things that don’t contribute to my goals. I have to have a list of important goals nearby so I can review them; otherwise I forget to say the magic word.

  5. Found this really helpful & timely (forgive pun) – I went off the rails of my own schedule this week, good to be reminded about saying no to anything that diverts you from your path, also grouping similar tasks/doing one at a time great. Thank you.

  6. Thanks Alyson. I’ve got to think about #3. I write a little here, a little there. Maybe I should block out more time and knock out a few articles at once.

    #9. Take time to sit with yourself a little each morning before the craziness of the day begins. I find this keeps me centered and focused on what is most important. If I do that, the rest is not so overwhelming.

  7. Colleen Lynn Curley

    My dad has a great little productivity tool I have adopted called “The Top Three.” After I make my always lengthy “to do” list at the start of the day, I then decide which three items are most important, put them on a post-it note, and proceed to cross them off. Once that is accomplished, I immediately make a new “top three” list. This works great to stay focused and prevent overwhelm on high stress days, when you have a deadline or guests coming over, etc.

    I also want to share an inspirational quote I recently came across:
    “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” – Nelson Mandella

    Happy Friday!

  8. I am teaching design foundations for the first time and am incorporating a “studio practice development” portion to it.

    Love your phrase “well defined will save your behind”!

    If you do not mind I am going to use that this semester with my students as they start to formulate their own systems for managing their creative practices. Thanks Alyson!

    PS I ADORE Golden and have got fingers crossed for 2106…

  9. Thanks so much for this post Alyson. A great reminder.

    My issue is that I get a schedule down and and something pops in to disrupt the whole thing. I admit it’s usually something good (a show opportunity, commission, invitation to teach a class), but how does one keep a routine while still keeping things flexible enough to embrace the near constant change of owning one’s own art business.

    There’s the inevitable ‘must attend’ meeting, show, etc. that occurs when the “sacred art/planning/business” time is scheduled. I feel a slave to the show season too. Any tips to shift things seasonally, monthly, or to acclimate to the “art world” schedule? Thanks A!

  10. Excellent list Allyson!
    Especially ‘Automate everything you can’
    I wish they had taught us Excell in art school…hard learning spreadsheets and to database now.

  11. Thanks Alyson. Your article is very helpful.

    My husband is always looking for ways for me to automate my art and art business. It is very helpful to have a set of eyes other than my own.

    As a relatively new artist I realize I need to focus on a lot more than just making art. So I am now setting aside time to learn about marketing best practices and organization.

  12. Great article – the saying no ‘hardest lesson’ is something I am in a co start loop of learning it seems!!
    On systems, I recently setup a whole system for harnessing blog ideas and dealing with my art biz to dos . Managing multiple projects without overload and getting stuff out of my mi s and into a safe storage place were my aims and by coincidence I am in the middle of a four part series about it on my blog now in case it can help others too. http://www.helenconwaydesign.com

  13. Great post, Alyson! I’m doing a lot of this but I could be automating more, grouping my tasks more, and not begrudging the time I need for planning. Thanks for the tips.

  14. Gunes-Helene Isitan

    Hi Alyson,
    Great post with very good advice! If I may add another step/suggestion?

    I tend yo get quite overwhelmed when big projects happens, and then I find myself frozen in a panic state. One day I walked passed a store that had this quote written on the door: “you eat an elephant one bite at a time”. This stuck with me. Now, whenever I am facing a huge task or tackling a large project, I take time to separate it into smaller, manageable tasks (on a to-do list to not forget any step or have to think it through again!). It takes a bit of time to dissect and analyse, but afterwards it’s cut into smaller steps and easier to plan and do. And I loose less sleep and other precious time to sheer panic.

    A tool I developed for those big and thus long term projects is a custom calendar: each month is on an 8×10 sheet, but separated in weeks only, not days. I slip it into a plastic protective sleeve. Then each task is written on a thin post-it, and spread on the calendar. I tape together as many months is needed, in an accordion fashion, so I can see the whole project at a glance. And the tasks being on post-it, I can rearrange the schedule as needed, and it keeps the schedule looking clean (and for me having it not written down in ink creates less stress, as I know I can move it around as needed; the project will evolve in an organic fashion and I need my calendar to not feel like an immutable thing, but that’s mostly all in my head 😉). Having it in weeks instead of days makes it less overwhelming to look at too. From that calendar, I make my weekly to-do list on my phone.

    Hope this helps someone, as I often find bits of helpful info in other people’s replies too and wanted to share back 🙂

    http://www.gunesisitan.com

  15. Way To Go, Alyson! I’m a time management diva, but found myself off track at the beginning of the New Year. With a preponderance of monthly / quarterly / annual planning on my plate, I became engulfed in Major Overwhelm. Consistent as ever, you’ve come to the rescue. I’m balanced and on track, again!

  16. A wonderful piece. When I taught time management students
    kept a journal of every minute of the day (except private
    time) for one month. That changed their lives. I did it too
    and it astonished me. Lists and planning are great, and forgiving
    ourselves when we have to change the plan.

    Love this! XOXOXOXOXO Barbara

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Ya know, I STILL have never done this, Barbara. I think it would be eye opening. Wish you had been one of my teachers!

  17. This is a great post because everything written bears repeating again and again. I feel much more “in charge” when I take the advice offered here. One of my major bugaboos is that darned multi-tasking issue. Thank you for the reminder to stay on task, and not shuffle back and forth like a squirrel looking for the next shiny object. Working with you has been a life-saver many times over. Thank you for all that you do to help artists have better lives.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Lynn: You are so incredibly productive and organized. And yet … none of us are immune to everything that wants our attention. Glad we have each other!

  18. Google Calendar syncs with my phone and allows me to stay on schedule. I also use a daily planner and a quarterly planner for goals. I post the quarterly calendar so that I can see it and start each day with my daily planner.
    Additionally, a studio schedule posted on my door helps. Lastly, Facebook has an app called Blink that will pop up with my to-do list. Hope this can be helpful to someone.

  19. Many years ago I read a short article about something called the Salami Technique. When there are many projects on the boil (and when are there not, if you factor in daily life stuff) – you bite off a piece of each one in turn, complete it, and repeat the process. This goes counter to your advice not to jump around, but finding out late in life that I have ADD explained why I found this technique so useful. It’s true, you go for weeks sometimes not completing anything, but then there’s that one magic week when you eat the final piece of several projects and finish them all! Now I use a couple of apps on my phone to keep track of all of the projects and steps within projects so I can tick them off when completed. This is also useful when you have made a specific plan for the day and something out of your control gets in the way (like being snowed in) – you simply consult your tasks and select the ones that can be done in that place at that time. Eventually everything gets done.

  20. Use tools. I know it might sound like an unusual tip, but I think it makes lotsof things easier, even when you create a painting. Of course, things like coming up with the idea can’t really be planned or measured, but all the steps that come after can be treated like any other project. What I do when I create is I plan bigger steps using kanbantool.com and just tick them one by one. It’s especially important when my projects involve more than just painting – for example, adding a blog post about what I’ve just painted or how I did it.

  21. Alyson, thanks for the timely (sorry about the pun, but it’s true) reminders about how to do what’s most important to me. I have used your systems approach for years, and I found it especially helpful.

  22. Ah, you nailed it again! I am a victim of the Shiny Object Syndrome so systems are important for me. As a member of your Accelerator programme I find so many useful systems to build into my routine. I find I am a morning person, so computer work, emails etc are done first thing. then I ignore the computer til late afternoon. Then more creative writing later in the day/evening. If I do that 3-4 times a week I have masses of content to use. Then being able to schedule posts, newsletters and blogs mean Im not whittering away bits and pieces of time and procastinating over the small tasks.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      I love how you know your schedule well, Susan. And you have us to lean on.

  23. Hi Alyson,
    Thanks so much for this. When I taught School Success — Positive Psychology, I was
    worried when I was told I’d have to teach Time Management. It was a key topic at
    the beginning of the course, and I am glad I learned what I had to teach. The
    textbook recommended a 6 things list every day. It could expand — sometimes
    to as many as 11 or 12 key tasks. And as you went through your day you crossed
    off what you’d accomplished. This and keeping a minute by minute time log, really
    helped students to see where their time was going. I have kept making the Six Things
    list with a date ever since, and it is helpful.
    This practice was a turn around concept for the students. They managed
    their time, and had a 75 – 95% rate of completing college in two years, and going on to university.
    This was way above the North American average at the time of 6 years to complete a college
    two year diploma. Thanks so much for this.

    These podcasts are wonderful.

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