Turn Studio Time into the Flow State

This is the 3rd post in the series about effective life strategies for working artists.

When I make wishlists, the thing I wish for most is more time.  More time to learn and develop new skills, more time to write, meditate, reflect, draw. More time to study languages and read. More time to make art and still attend to all the other responsibilities of life.  More time to sit in a sidewalk cafe and people watch.

We all know that our perception of time is subjective, and with proper attention time can be extended or shortened based on our own state of mind.

Along with Time Tracking (keeping track of in-studio hours with the objective of 1000 hours per year working in studio), it is important to try to make those in-studio hours effective.

Forcing oneself to do creative work is hard.  It’s better to tease, wheedle, and bribe oneself, and lay out a path of treats so that getting down to work is easy.

Sure, I would (and do) count sitting in the studio staring at a blank page or a box of clay as “studio time”- but it is nice to have some simple strategies to get past the metaphorical blank page.

Tiny Tiny task lists.  Yep, that’s right.  Both the tasks are tiny and the lists are tiny.  To make the whole thing less intimidating, keep a box of scrap paper handy.  The best pieces are about an inch wide and 2 inches tall.

When beginning a block of studio time make a tiny task list on the tiny paper.  And the tasks must be tiny too: simple tasks that are unarguable.  There should be no resistance to the individual tasks, because they are small and simple and easy enough that intimidation is impossible.

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Sound and Scent Triggers. The concept behind creating a trigger is simple.  It is a form of classical conditioning (think Pavlov).  If you have ever trained a dog, this should be easy to understand. With dogs, it can take just a handful of repetitions for them to associate a stimulus- like a bell- with a reward- like a treat.  Clicker training is based on this concept.  Smart dogs will make the association within 3 or 4 repetitions. Humans are equally easy to condition, and it is nice to know how to use it effectively on yourself to modify behavior.

Classical conditioning links any neutral trigger (word, sound, scent, other) with a response.  In this case, your goal is to link a track of music or a scent with beginning a studio session. Do this repeatedly, and your resistance to getting started vanishes the minute you hear or smell the trigger.

Use the same album, playlist, or meditation music every time you enter the studio.  Light the same incense or candle.  Doing this repeatedly, as improbable as it may seem, it will get easier and quicker to get into the flow.

The more you use the triggers, the more “charged” they remain.  No doubt you can identify triggers that remain charged years after you have used them.  (When I hear a certain ringtone that I used from 2008-2012 or so I feel stress, even though I haven’t used it on my own phone for 7 years or more.)

Stories.  My studio sessions range from 2 hours to 12 hours per day, depending on the type of work I am doing and the available time.  My goal is to spend all my flex time in the studio.  I generally achieve 80% of this.

But here’s a thing I notice. Sure, I might get started by using some triggers and a tiny list, but with a day long studio session I need strategies to stay in the flow.

Writers and musicians will experience this strategy differently.  But as a visual artist, there is a certain amount of mindless “making” in what I produce.  During the tasks that occupy my hands but not my chattering mind, I need to keep the flow going.  I have experimented with everything auditory- music, podcasts, television series, educational audio programs, foreign language learning.  The thing that works best for me is long-form fiction audiobooks that have some thematic alignment with the work I am doing.

The long form story keeps me focused and amused at my work, and the thematic alignment provides delicious moments of synchronicity.

 

What are your strategies for getting in the flow?

 

 

Making Art & Keeping Secrets

This post is the 2nd in the series about structuring one’s life as a working artist. Topics in this post: Persona, Pseudonym, and Developing a Creative Language.

In the beginning of a project, it can be good to keep your creative work secret.

Since we live in a world of extensive public sharing, this feels very counter-intuitive.

When I transitioned my life back to working primarily on art, I decided on a few things:

1.  I would develop a persona that handled creating and sharing my work.

2. I would publish- under a pseudonym– but even that would be only after I had spent a year working on developing the work in complete privacy.

3. I would not share my work with family or friends from my real life during the first several years of development. (Excepting my husband, who shares an art-school background and understands the subtlety of useful comment and critique.)

Persona and Personality

The delicious potential of creating a new version of yourself- perfectly constructed and optimized to deal with the task at hand- this is the magic of persona development.

A persona, in this context, is the public facing personality that you choose to develop along with your creative work. Yes, it is a facet of your gestalt self, but it is a clarified facet that has the strength and skills to share your work. It does not have all the insecurities that follow you around through an average day.

And the brilliance of this charade is- you do not need to maintain the persona 100% of the time.  It can be like a jacket that you put on for going outside in the snow.  It protects you.

When I was in art school I took a class on performance art.  Not the performative arts, mind you, like dance and theater. Performance art, that odd and ugly duckling sister of fine art.

For one project in the class, we were asked to develop a persona.  This persona needed to have a way of talking, moving, dressing, and interacting with the world.  It is an opportunity to explore a hidden or neglected aspect of your complete self.  It can be quite therapeutic to realize how constructed our outer facade is.

I am also reminded of reading a fictional story of a spy, living under cover in another culture.  The steps required to become “invisible”- to disappear into the fabric of the society, are an example of the power of persona development.  The spy, a woman in her mid thirties, identified a few sample women of the target culture she wanted to embody.  She purchased clothes and makeup that matched their style.  She did her hair the same way.  She ordered the same types of food and beverages, imitated their body language and habits, until all these tricks became second nature.

Much like that, if one is going to be in a foreign country for a period of time and wishes to blend in a little, it is useful to arrive with an empty suitcase and purchase clothing and a haircut after arrival.  By skimming off and replacing that outer surface of the public face, we relax into to the mode and pace of a foreign culture just that much more easily.

Likewise, we can use these techniques proactively to create a structure for embodying and enhancing our creative-work persona.  The persona becomes something we use to interact with the art world, and it becomes a habit that helps us get into flow state.

Costume & Wardrobe

For example: when I work in the studio, I prefer to wear dresses and skirts.  It doesn’t make sense, of course, to wear some of my nicest clothing while working with paint or clay, but feeling my body clothed in certain types of apparel helps with creative flow.  My art work is very much related to femininity, and so there is some logic behind the effectiveness of wearing more classically feminine clothing.

Food & Drink

My art-making persona drinks sweet Middle-Eastern tea out of little glass cups, poured out of a silver teapot.  Or, she drinks pale green tea from Japan, from a ceramic teapot. Studio work, for me, must be accompanied by tea in little cups, and small plates of cookies.

Taste & Preferences

Likewise, my working artist persona listens to specific types of music for specific modes of making. There’s a perfume I’ve associated to studio work (Patchouli by Le Labo), and an incense (Sandalwood), and a style of writing. I have a specific writing approach I use in publicly describing my work.  I chose never to analyze my own work in writing, but rather to describe it objectively and pragmatically.

 

Anonymity & Pseudonym

My choice to use a pseudonym for my return to making art was multi-fold.

Using a pseudonym allowed me to publish creative work that I otherwise would feel nervous about having associated with my public persona.  I am involved in several other businesses, and I did not want my public business life associated through the magic of the search engine with my new art projects.

Using a pseudonym has freed me from worrying about public perception of follower-counts or activity or style of work.

Using a pseudonym, ironically, has reduced my self-criticism and enhanced my objectivity with regards to the work and how it appears to the public.  Going anonymous has helped me approach sharing and publishing work in a more rational and scientific fashion.  It has improved my constructive self-criticism and reduced my negative thinking about the work.

Choosing to not share my work with family and friends has restricted the number of clumsy comments or questions I am faced with.

This stance on anonymity is not a forever choice.  But it is appropriate for the first several years of developing a new project.  Of course, this route might not apply to a self-assured extrovert who thrives off feedback, regardless of quality!

It is funny to think back to the internet twenty years ago, when anonymity was the default and it was a challenge to link a person’s public persona with their online activities.  Now, the default- pushed by the big internet companies- discourages anonymity.  Try to sign up for a twitter account or email account without providing a phone number and you’ll get a sense of how much anonymity is discouraged.

(Just in case it provokes a question, this blog is NOT written under a pseudonym.)

 

A Year of Seclusion to Develop a Visual Language

I committed myself to one year of work in private without the pressure of sharing, finalizing, or explaining.  This timeline made sense for the medium I chose.  I needed to learn a variety of new techniques, tools, and materials.

When I began I had a sense of what my goal visual language was, but it took time to actually develop the materials and art objects to look like the images in my mind’s eye.  I had chosen to learn a completely new set of sculptural techniques, and I expected it would take some time to bring them together in a coherent fashion.  A year of private development proved to be an accurate timeline.

For an artist or writer working in a familiar medium, a year might be too long.  It also might be too short, depending on the complexity of the work.

The important concept is: protect the work from outside commentary until it is ready.

Developing a Language: Visual Language, Symbolic Language, etc

This is what might be otherwise called style. It is that ephemeral combination of approaches, words, metaphors, textures, and modes that marks a period of time or a body of work in an artist’s portfolio. It could be visual, semantic, kinesthetic, or auditory.

And, to flesh out this example:  it took me about a 1000 hours of work to reach a point where I felt like my visual language was coherent enough to begin sharing.

 

Do you keep your work private or secret when you are getting started?

 

 

 

 

Protecting Your Time to Do the Work

This post is the 1st in the series about top strategies for working artists to protect their time and make creative work.

Discipline is a funny topic, and for an artist it gets very complicated.  Art making requires that willingness to get into the flow and let it take you where it takes you.  But in order to do that, you need to create blocks of time.  You need to protect that time from all the other responsibilities of life.

When I began the inevitable self-analysis around birthday 39 (the beginning of one’s fortieth year) I discovered two things:

  • I have a history of not completing creative projects, whether large or small.
  • I have an endless supply of creative ideas, but lacked the discipline and self-trust to follow them through to a mature state.

I found that my inherent discipline was actually working against me.  My discipline had been coded up as responsibility to others.  It was deeply coded that way by decades of putting my own creative drives second or third or eighth, and even though that responsible discipline had already created plenty of material comfort and abundance, I was afraid of letting go or redirecting the discipline towards making art.

So I set to work.

These are my strategies for shifting the focus of your discipline.  I hope they work for you.

Top Strategies for Protecting Your Creative Time

Time Tracking

Being of an analytical type, I love an excuse to track things.  At the beginning of 2019 I had taken up using a bullet journal.

Like millions, I was inspired by the gorgeous bullet journals on social media (see examples here: #bulletjournal ) However, much as the inventor recommends, I prefer to use the journal as a practical tool.  I spend a minimum of time each week setting up pages, perhaps 20 minutes.  That’s an effective and appropriate amount of time to review and plan a week.

The secret brilliance behind writing things by hand is that you are more likely to remember, synthesize, and add efficiencies.

This strategy of time tracking was inspired by Jim Collins (Good to Great).  In an interview with Tim Ferris, he describes his yearly goal of doing a thousand hours of creative work.  From his experience, doing that quantity of creative work on a yearly basis will lead to finished products of value.

That sounded like a reasonable approach to me.  That is only 20 hours per week of creative work.  So I set about tracking.

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At the beginning of each month, I set up a vertical calendar in the bullet journal that allows me to track these items on a daily basis:

  • hours in studio
  • location
  • a “rating” for the day – generally, an emotional rating.  I used the same system as Jim Collins recommends.  It’s an arbitrary scale that goes from -2 to +2, with 0 as a neutral day.
  • my period.  (Guys, you might track that supposed 35 day hormonal cycle. I certainly notice my husband’s moods fluctuate cyclically.)
  • climbing (something that has had major influence on my mood in the past)
  • notes about the day

This daily data gets collated into a yearly tracker with 52 weeks.

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You can see I started tracking in March, above.

On the yearly tracker this data is shown:

  • numbered week of the year
  • emotional tally for the week (sum the daily “rating”- an incredible week would be a 14 using this scale, the worst week ever would be a -14)
  • hours in studio
  • estimated yearly total at current rate (I use an excel doc to come up with those numbers accurately.)

The purpose of time tracking is to really make clear, in a pragmatic and easily visualized way, why or why not you are creating art work.  It’s simple.  If there are no blocks of time filled in for a day or week, I need to restructure my time.  It is no longer abstract.

 

Structured Mondays

This is the second important strategy for protecting your time.  I chose Mondays; you could choose any day of the week. This is the day that I do not expect to work in the studio.

On Mondays, I do these tasks:

  • bookkeeping (we have several LLCs that require bookkeeping or bill paying from different accounts)
  • bill paying- both personal and work
  • email followups (bank, accountants, lawyers, whatever is pending from last week)
  • bank account reviews (checking for any issues)
  • sales tax, quarterly tax prep, yearly tax prep as appropriate
  • inventory – monthly

I used to just pay bills as they came in.  This seemed like a non-issue, because nearly everything was online and it only took a minute.  But, that minute actually represented a distraction and a break in the flow.

Now, I have a draw and a folder.  Any bills that show up digitally get dumped into a shared folder called “1 Bills to Pay”.  My husband and I both add to the folder.  Any physical bills go into drawer and get handled on Mondays.  By simply saying “I pay bills on Mondays” I batched the process and removed a level of stress and annoyance from my day.

Then, if by 3pm or 5pm I have time for a few hours in the studio, I’m thrilled!

 

Working From Home

This step can provide the single biggest gain in efficiency.  For years I had a studio outside of our home, because our home was tiny and my tools were big (industrial sewing machines.)

Your creative medium and your personality will really affect the best choices for you with regards to this strategy. For me, shifting to working at home has been essential to my efficiency. If you are a writer, this should be no big deal, but depending on the tools you have and use, this can be a major challenge.  We moved from a tiny downtown condo to a house outside the city. The move was prompted by a perfect storm of life factors, including a high energy dog, but it has resulted in my ability to now work from home.

Specifically, this means I am now able to work creatively and productively after 6pm without feeling like I am neglecting my marriage or home responsibilities.  Reducing car time or travel time is a magic efficiency gain of 10 or 20 hours per week- just enough time to really make a dent in that 1000 hours yearly goal.

In Summary

These are the three most impactful strategies I have found for protecting time in studio.  Being a working artist means that you are committed to making art, sharing art, and selling art.  In order to do this, you need to get past the idea generation stage and into the making stage. These strategies revolve around this idea that if you can put in 1000 hours of studio time a year, you can complete meaningful work.

  • Track time. The goal is 20 hours a week in studio. Keep it visual and easily understood. Visual data has an impact on the subconscious mind at levels that numbers do not.
  • Structure one day a week to handle all administrative tasks – such as Mondays.
  • Work From Home. Eliminate Travel Time.

 

What are your top strategies for protecting your time as a working artist?  Please leave comments and share your thoughts.  We really appreciate it!

About This Site

Hello There.  My name is Brook.

I’m writing this site to document tools and strategies that work well for working artists.  These are my questions:

  • How do I stay motivated?
  • How do I stay productive?
  • How do I keep completing work?
  • How do I share work?

I am deeply grateful to the work done by Julia Cameron (The Artist’s Way), Steven Pressfield (The War of Art), and David Lynch (Catching the Big Fish).  I have read these books several times and highly, highly recommend them.  These are not affiliate links.

But I find that these books speak to the challenges of getting started and finding one’s passion– they don’t speak as closely to the challenges of staying motivated and productive.  The discipline of passion.

So that is what this site is intended to be.  A document of ideas and strategies for staying productive on an ongoing basis.  A site about structuring a life as a working artist.

Some background:  I have had several careers in my life, as most forty-year olds have done in this day and age. Everything from clothing design to technology sales to real estate.  And I have returned to primarily art making.

I structure my life the way many academics structure their lives:  I work part time doing something tangential in order to create and publish (art)work.  And the question I ask myself every day is: how can I become more efficient and productive at the money-earning work I do, so that I can have more time available for the art work?

This is why the analogy of an academic is useful:  we need to create and publish, but we can’t also burden that creative work with earning money, not at an incipient stage.