Warning: long post and there’s no tl;dr.
I was recently in the studio with a group of choreographers. One of the things that came up was how they found it difficult to juggle the demands of being a freelance artist: administration, writing funding proposals, work to make money, the artistic work itself (which wasn’t necessarily paid work), and having a life.
My goal in this post is to provide some practical advice on time management so that a freelance artist1 can make work on their own terms, and sustain that practice over, say, 20-30 years. I am less interested in helping artists to be productive (i.e. doing more in less time), and instead want to help them create the work they want to make while respecting the time it takes to seed and develop creative work.
This post contains two principles: 1) reduce context shifting throughout the day; 2) keeping one’s value in mind with time-block planning. Both principles are based on my reading of Cal Newport’s books: Deep Work, Digital Minimalism and A World Without Email.
Context shifting happens when we abruptly change what it is that we are doing. Context shifts aren’t necessarily bad, but they are cognitively demanding, and sometimes stressful. They happen all the time, sometimes by choice, other times by habit. For example, you might be doing creative work and during your break you pick up your phone and check your email. This is a context shift that creates what Newport (based on the work of David Allen) calls open loops. These open loops tax our brains: an email from someone asking for something, a message letting you know that you need to be somewhere at a certain time, etc. During work (like artistic practice) that demands focused attention and deliberate presence (what Newport calls deep work), these context shifts pull you out of that attention. They create the feeling of being always on, and are exhausting and stressful. They also mean, in this example, you do not get the break that is required for you to continue to pay attention to your practice. This is a context shift that can be avoided and mostly we do those email and phone checks by habit.
The principle then is to plan your days (and weeks) so that you have as few context shifts as possible. During breaks in deep and focused work, do something that is restful and that avoids receiving more attention-demanding inputs like messages, emails or doom scrolling through social media. Something restful would be to walk, lie down with your eyes closed, have a cup of tea, or pretty much anything that doesn’t include looking at a phone. The purpose of the break is to make it possible for you to re-enter the demanding psycho-physical work.
To be clear, I don’t mean value based on how much you are paid to do something. I mean value as in what you do that adds something to the world. For example, a freelance choreographer gives value to the world by making (and presenting) choreographies. In order to create and give this value a choreographer must spend time doing choreography.
The example I’m going to use is for a choreographer whose paid job is not the same as their work creating value as a choreographer. The example is based on the choreographer spending 40 hours a week working (but this number can be changed depending on circumstances and the kind of life you want to lead).2 In this case, the choreographer has to work 20 hours a week doing paid work so that they can get by. This gives them 20 hours a week to spend on being a choreographer. Let’s say there are four broad areas of work3 that they must do in order to be a choreographer (i.e. create choreographies): a) creative practice;4 b) administration (including meetings); c) funding; and d) communications.
If this choreographer were you, what percentage of your 20 available hours would you choose to spend on these four areas?
My suggestion is that more than half need to be in practice,5 so what if you decided that each week looked something like this:
Does that seem about right? It is not about how long you think each of these areas will take but rather how long you are prepared and able to spend on each of them in order to make choreographies.
The last thing is to plan each week so that you block out precisely when you will spend time on each area. The goal of the weekly plan is to reduce context shifting and be able to focus your attention on what it is that you are actually doing, rather than having half your mind in the studio, a quarter of it thinking about emails, and the other quarter worried about a twitter storm involving some choreographer in Belgium. This process is what Newport calls time block planning and it means putting these timed blocks for each area in your diary so you know exactly when you’ll be working on each of them.
Using the hours above, a weekly plan might look like the following (depending on when your paid work is happening):
This will take discipline and commitment (not things that artists tend to lack). You could tighten the schedule depending on your paid work, but this structure would mean you aren’t working on the weekends (time to rest), and you know precisely what you are doing and when you will be doing it. Of course, the time spent on each area will change depending on circumstances. For example, one week you might have a funding proposal due, so that week you can make a plan and decide what it is that you won’t do to create time to finish the proposal: administration? Three hours less practice? Another example is perhaps you have funding for four weeks and you can afford to spend 24 hours a week in the studio. By and large, you want to be sure that the thing you are doing most is practice (i.e. the thing that draws you most directly towards a sustainable way of adding value to the world). A weekly plan takes a bit of time to prepare each week (I tend to do mine at the end of the day on Friday), but it is time invested that will be hugely beneficial. Weekly plans are very structured or programmatic, but paradoxically they create a feeling of tremendous ease and relaxation (I was going to write “freedom” there but thought better of it).
I’d also suggest making a record of these hours each day and week. (I go full nerd with this and graph the weekly percentages spent on each of my four main areas). Then, every 3 months, check to see how it is going. Are you able to get the work done that you want to do? If not, then you’ll either need to do more hours in a week and adjust the proportions of time spent on each area, or take on less work. Which would it be to help you build a sustainable career?
Let me know if you have any questions or if see some things here that you just don’t think would work for your situation.
The same principles apply to anyone whose work provides a lot of autonomy over what they choose to do and when.↩︎
The most complex situation would be if you had a full-time job and on top of that you were attempting to develop and present choreographic work. How much time could you afford to spend on top of that work in a sustainable way? 10 hours? 15? (Any more starts to seem unmanageable in my mind, particularly beyond 2 or 3 years).↩︎
My suggestion is to not have too many areas because it will make weekly planning unnecessarily complex. But you also want the areas to be specific enough so that you do not spend those hours context shifting within the area. Remember, the goal is to context shift as infrequently as possible.↩︎
I’m being deliberately basic here. Choreographic processes and practices are diverse and complex.↩︎
If you spend less time on practice than you do on admin, comms and writing funding bids combined, then I think you might be kidding yourself about being an artist.↩︎