Freelance Illustration with a Day Job: Time Organization

the book that started it all

organization07I have learned a lot in the three years I have called myself a freelance illustrator. I consider my starting date in early 2012, after I left school. A book I got for Christmas that year was called Breaking Into Freelance Illustration: The Guide for Artists, Designers and Illustrators by Holly DeWolf. I remember reading that book religiously for a few months – marking up the pages, circling things that stood out to me, putting tabs on pages that I thought were important, etc. One of the main themes Holly talks about in the book is the importance of creating a routine as a freelance illustrator, and how it allows you to structure your day and form work habits that become easier and easier to repeat. For another few months, I wrestled with this vague concept that I wanted to make art full-time – but of course I hadn’t done the legwork yet, having just left art school after 2 and a half years, and not having prepared myself for an editorial career yet (which is ultimately where I saw myself).

finding balance

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Am I where I am today because I read a book back in 2012? Maybe partially, yes. It definitely took me a while to implement a lot of the things I read in Holly’s book into my daily life. A big struggle, I found, (besides dealing with my natural ADD), was dealing with this concept of managing a freelance career while having a day job. It took me a while to figure out how to work all day and then come home and have the energy to work on anything to do with art responsibilities. One thing that I had read in Breaking into Freelance Illustration, however, kept cropping up from the back of my mind: this idea that I needed to set a schedule for myself. It was not until the beginning of 2015, however, when I really set a “New Year’s resolution” for myself, that I really started to implement this into my everyday life.

Something I needed to get me to this point, besides some physical materials, which I will list below, was a resolution to myself to see through my own endeavors. Of course, this is easier said than done. Realizing one’s internal motivation is pretty paramount to this determination – what motivates you to create your art and for what purpose your art is created for is extremely personal and can be a huge hurdle when you are just starting out. Just like the whole getting my work time and free time more organized-thing, this has also been a slow moving, but every-day process for me – and trust me when I say that it’s okay to not know on any given day, or even for weeks, months at a time what you “want to do.” Fortunately, as an artist (starting out and new to the field especially), you don’t need to feel like you have to pigeonhole yourself – now is the time to try it all! – pattern and surface design, product design, editorial, children’s book illustration, bookbinding, screen printing, whatever. (Of course this is not to say that one can’t change their style or target market once they are established or experiment – just that in my experience, once art directors and clients come to have a certain expectation of your work, it can be difficult to break out of that particular style).

My own personal realization of my internal motivation to make art did not come easily or quickly, nor did it hit me like a bolt out of the blue. I can’t say that I was just sitting there one morning and inspiration suddenly struck me over a cup of coffee. Nor is this to say that I fully know “what I want to do” either. While figuring this out over the last three years, I have also tried out a lot of different things. I have spent a lot of time sketching in coffee shops, experimenting with media, making zines, creating products from my patterns and textile designs and marketing them at craft shows, crowdfunding, writing, illustrating and self-publishing a book, working on many commissioned portraits for clients, expanding my social media presence from Tumblr to Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, a newly redesigned website and blog and a newsletter, and finally coming full circle to sending out mailers to art directors again. And while I definitely know for sure editorial illustration has a big place in my future, I do still see a lot of these other elements still being a large part of art journey.

organizing mindset

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Even though the long-term path in front of me isn’t necessarily clear, it helps to keep smaller amounts of time – weeks, maybe a month in advance in focus by doing a few simple things which you might find helpful too:

  • set goals – setting both long-term and short term goals for yourself is really helpful. Setting a few long term goals for the next several months is good to have in mind – but hard to achieve if you don’t set up a daily structure for accomplishing them. So I set many, small-term goals each week that get me steps closer to what I hope to accomplish for the month. You can even break it down daily like I do if that helps.
  • create a system of organization – it goes an immensely long way to make a very small investment into a few key organizational tools like a day planner, a notebook, some colored pens, page tabs, a time management app such as Pomodoro, etc. (see next paragraph for what I personally use). If you can visualize your goals rather than just keep them resting on some imaginary mental back-burner, you will accomplish more things, more quickly and more efficiently.
  • use to-do list motivation – it can be a small motivation but a powerful one to create a to-do list for yourself every day. I find that when I break down my goals into monthly, weekly and then daily tasks, it is very satisfying to put a check mark next to each item as I accomplish it during the day.
  • set an hour-by-hour schedule – it may seem excessive, but being able to break down each day’s to-do list into a (rough) hourly schedule for yourself is extremely helpful in keeping yourself on track. When I can look down and realize that I need to be working on the next phase of a project or doodling or even cleaning my dwelling for the next thirty minutes, it pulls me out of a dreamlike trance that I am prone to falling into when I get overly involved in a project and keeps me focused on moving forward.
  • practice self-love – reward yourself for accomplishing your goals. I always work break times – time for rest, time for video games, time for walking my dog, time for friends, etc. into my hourly schedule. In addition to practical time you need to allow yourself to simply enjoy life, you should also reward yourself for accomplishing larger weekly and monthly goals. You could buy yourself something you’ve had your eye on for a while, or take a weekend off, or binge-watch a show on Netflix – whatever it is that feels like a substantial, out of the ordinary reward to you. Also, trying not to be hard on yourself is really important when you don’t accomplish everything on your to-do list. Of course life happens, and you don’t always get around to finishing everything you wanted to finish. That’s when it’s important to remember that there is always tomorrow.

shopping list

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A quick trip to Target at the beginning of the year, and I had everything I needed to keep better track of my time. I picked up a few simple essentials:

  • A 2015 day planner
  • An 8.5 x 11″ lined notebook
  • A pack of six colored ballpoint pens
  • A pack of five highlighters
  • A pack of sticky page tabs
  • An organization app like Pomodoro
  • Some cute, puffy fruit stickers (optional, but they help motivate me!)

I made sure to pick economical supplies, but still all items that were aesthetically appealing to me, because I think it is important to surround yourself with things that inspire you and make you want to create.

Adorable sticker courtesy of Sarah Soh (@sohsilly)

Adorable sticker courtesy of Sarah Soh (@sohsilly)

First, I picked a nice, medium-sized 2015 day planner in a lovely mint green with gold embossed lettering. My day planner is where I keep my more general art deadlines as well as personal appointments, birthdays, shows and other events. I flip through it at the start of most days to get an idea of what’s ahead in the coming days, weeks, and month.

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I also picked out a large, 8.5 x 11″ lined notebook (on clearance!) that had a pretty geometric pattern on the cover, and was bound in a plastic sleeve. A little bonus I discovered when I cracked it open at home is that at the top of each page it has a box where you can check what day of the week it is, fill in the date and write what the subject of the page is.

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The majority of the page I devote to my daily to-do list. The bottom portion of the page I devote to sectioning out an hour-by-hour allotment of my time. On days I work at my day job, I draw two timelines: one of the way I plan to spend my time before work, and one of way I plan to spend my time after. These timelines I portion into half an hour blocks, and try to use in conjunction with the Pomodoro app (more on that below). For the beginning of every week, I devote one whole page to a broader to-do list in which I list each day and a few general goals I hope to accomplish on those days.

A screenshot of the Pomodoro app - a worthwhile $1.99 investment for your smartphone

A screenshot of the Pomodoro app – a worthwhile $1.99 investment for your smartphone

A very useful app I have discovered is called Pomodoro, and is based on the Pomodoro Technique. It is based on the concept that you structure your working time in intervals with short break intervals in between. The app gently reminds you when you are at the end of your first working interval and it is time for you to take a short break. I believe when you download the app, the intervals are set to 25 minutes of work and 5 minute breaks in between, but you can structure them however best fits your needs. The idea is that with a timer running, you will be more inclined to eliminate distractions such as replying to a text message or getting on Facebook when you know you have an allotted 25 minutes to work. You can change the Pomodoro settings to be noise responsive and tick as seconds pass and ring when your work/breaks are up or you can set it to silent/vibrate. You can read more about the Pomodoro Technique here.

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Next, I picked a six pack of inexpensive colored ballpoint pens (there used to be a purple, but it broke :S), and a pack of five inexpensive highlighters. I use different colors in my day planner for different events, and different colors in my to-do list notebook for different tasks and their completion. Occasionally I will highlight things that are important and/or big goals for me. Not only are the different colors useful for me visually, but they are also just plain fun to use. I also use page tabs and put a tab on the beginning of each week’s page in my notebook where I plan out my general goals for each of the seven days.

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You can, of course, add fun things to your own personal line up like stickers, and anything else that gives you incentive to work and dedicate yourself to your to do list.

find your own organized zen

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I hope it goes without saying that these ideas are things that have worked for me, and I’ve discovered through making a bold commitment to my own personal brain and time organization. What may be right for me may not be right for everyone, and what may seem excessive in my personal organization methods to some is actually incredibly helpful for me in trying to manage both my freelance work and my ADD. This mental health problem is something I have learned to live with since early on in high school, and I have slowly learned that to deal with it I need to work with myself and not think of it so much as if there is something wrong with me, or as if I need to battle myself to get things done. It involves realizing my limitations are going to be different than other people’s and practicing what I mentioned before – self-love, as well as patience and persistence. Find what works best for you through trial and error, and try to stick to it. But remember not to beat yourself up if you don’t meet all your goals every day – that’s okay! You’re trying and that’s all that matters. Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ve enjoyed/learned something.