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?

 

 

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!