12/16/2014 10:48 am ET Updated Feb 15, 2015

Time Management for Creative Types


Time management sounds like such a dry topic, but it's really about letting some things go so that you can do what you love. These two strategies won't work for everyone, and it's of critical importance to discern which strategy works best for you.

Strategy 1: Creative Mayhem

Elizabeth Gilbert is my success icon. She's a full-time fiction author and she has made it BIG in self-help circles due to her memoir Eat Pray Love and her participation in Oprah's Life You Want Tour. Lucky for me, Elizabeth reveals quite a bit about her inner workings via social media. Elizabeth says that when she goes on a writing bender, the results are, as she describes it in a Facebook post: "Un-showered, greasy hair, eyes tired, totally falling down the rabbit hole of research... this is me, living my dream."

I have a friend who can finish writing an entire book in a matter of days -- including her book The Time Travel Directorate via the Creative Mayhem strategy by setting aside several hours per day and typing like her fingers are on fire. She's written six books this year. She has a full-time job, so she can't let everything slide, but she lets go of the stuff that will still be there when she gets back. This strategy just plain works for some people.

This is the perfect description of Creative Mayhem: You're singularly focused. You're going to do what it takes to get the most important thing done, and pretty much nothing else. Ask yourself, "What's the single most important thing I need to accomplish?" and then do just that.

To employ in this strategy, you have to be willing to let the small stuff slide, the medium stuff slide, and even some of the big things, at least for a time. You don't need to spend time showering, cleaning, cooking, balancing your financial portfolio, or mowing your lawn, so don't! Go ahead and put your time where it counts.

The Pros
You'll get the most important thing done! Obviously this is a major victory. How many people in life accomplish the one thing that's most important to them? Well, you can too, with a very straightforward and simple strategy. In short, don't sweat any stuff, except for your number one priority.

The Cons

While Creative Mayhem works for some people, it can lead to serious burn out in others. I'm almost done with my second novel in a trilogy, and there are times when I've let creative mayhem creep in; it's not pretty when it happens to me. I've worked so long and hard that my brain finally craps out and I look up in a daze when there's simply no work left in me, the house looks like a tornado just blew through it, and I can hardly carry on a conversation.

When I feel burned out, I'm not as likely to write again for a few days, which can turn into weeks, and even months. It took me YEARS to write my first novel, and it's because I would go in fits and spurts via the Creative Mayhem strategy.

Let's say you're into painting or making jewelry for puppies or whatever, and you go down the rabbit hole and you're unshowered, etc. When you're not even taking part in basic hygiene, maybe there are a few other areas of your life that are in dire straits, like your finances or your relationships, or for others, mental health. This is why it's important to discern which strategy works best for you.

Strategy 2: Creative Restraint

This strategy involves balancing your time between priorities. I've heard that we shouldn't even bother striving for balance, that it just makes people sad and crazy. I tried to find a coherent article that explains this, and the internet is littered with pieces boldly complaining that work/life balance is a big fat myth. Does this mean we should all surrender to feeling depressed and defeated because we will never achieve balance?

I don't know about you, but balance isn't an option in my life -- it's a must. Balance or die, man.

When I'm most productive and managing my time well, I write anywhere from one to three hours in a day, but then I go on to fulfill all of my other obligations in life, like exercising, showering, working and cooking meals. At this stage of my life, I'm trying to take care of my family and every day is just plain better when dinner makes it to the table, even while getting books written.

To reach a balance, I need to use Creative Restraint. This means making time daily to be creative without letting it take over my life. To get it all done, I've got to be creative with my time. Here I am writing this at 1:30AM. I woke up at midnight with this idea and it wouldn't let me sleep. Why waste it? So here I am being creative in the middle of the night.

But I'm not doing the whole "creative mayhem" thing. I'll go back to bed, and when I wake up, I'll work on the novel. And when my daughter wakes up, we'll snuggle and play, and then I'll get her ready for school, then I will divide my time between my day jobs, and then it's back to my daughter and family time.

How do I do this? I go to bed obscenely early. I mean OBSCENELY EARLY. I was asleep by 7:30PM last night. You just gotta do what works for you. And what works for me is chunking out my time into one or two hour blocks between several priorities, such as creativity, family life, exercise, healthy meals and working my jobs.

The Pros

You can choose several of your highest priorities and make sure they're addressed on a daily basis. You can achieve a balanced existence, which is great for mental and physical health.

The Cons

It's a delicate eco-system. Some days, certain priorities get completely neglected and the whole balancing act falls apart. It's hard to reach a sense of completion, and each item takes longer to accomplish over time.

Let's say one day you wake up with a lovely, boogery, winter cold. Your energy is low and you feel entirely miserable. You'd like to curl up and hibernate in front of the TV for a week. When you're sick, it's harder to do anything, from work to getting dinner on the table. If you were singularly focused, via Creative Mayhem, at least you could dedicate time to ONE thing, even if just for a short spurt. Instead, nothing gets done.

And even if you're not sick, when you devote your time to several different priorities, then as each daily window of time closes, it's not like, "Oh hey I completed everything I needed to do in that window of time, everything is so perfect!" No, it's not like that at all. There are loose threads hanging, every day, at the end of every window.

For some people, making these tiny strides is an exercise in futility. If they can't take massive action and see huge gains, they feel discouraged. The biggest risk of people using this strategy when they aren't suited to it is that they will ditch their dream in a fit of frustration and die unfulfilled. Yikes.

Every day, I get up and I have all my windows to revisit again. Some loose ends get wrapped up, and other loose ends flap anew. If you're suited to it, then the biggest downside you may experience to chunking out your time via Creative Restraint is that you need to get comfortable with those flappy ends flapping in your face as you close your window and move to the next activity. That's life. We're never done, until it all ends.

BONUS: The "Give Back" Caveat That Works for Both Types

I think it's really fun to believe in the myth that you could be some solitary creative genius churning out work for an adoring public and people are just going to show up and give a crap. Actually, that myth sucks. Let's get rid of it.

In order to live our dreams, we need to involve ourselves with other people. But it doesn't work (usually) to just be a narcissistic windbag shouting, "Look at my selfies!" on Instagram. Okay, maybe that does work for some people, but that doesn't feel good to most of us. So how do we get peoples' attention?

Back to painting or making jewelry for puppies or whatever your dream is: that's great if you can dedicate your life to it, but how do you get people to care? If you're just filling your garage with paintings as a lone, tortured artist instead of offering your creativity to other people to look at and maybe even consider buying, then you're just a painter with a hoarding problem.

The antidote is to give back. Even my author friend who can write a book in five days takes the time to give back, in the form of chairing and hosting a monthly writer's group.

But when most of us hear the term "give back," we feel pressured. We feel like we can barely keep our own lives together, so how the heck are we supposed to spread ourselves even more thin?

First, here's a fantastic idea of how not to do it. I volunteered at a hospital when I was in high school, and I witnessed a fair amount of tragedy and loss. I couldn't process what I was seeing, and I found myself distraught every time I set foot in the hospital. Could other teenagers who were more worldly, more capable, and more self-assured than I was have had a wonderful experience doing the same thing? Of course! And hats off to all of the caring medical staff who can make a hospital run. I hope that way of giving back brings them joy.

My point is that when we think of "giving back," we often think of working in a soup kitchen or volunteering in a million other heroic ways that might not work for our specific nature. You have to find a way to get involved with other people in a way that gives you joy.

For me, it's blogging. I try to write helpful blog posts. This is how I give back. For Elizabeth Gilbert, it's writing a near-constant stream of encouragement and love letters to her Facebook followers. Some people don't want what we're giving, and some people love it. That's cool. Don't worry about the people who don't need what you've got to give. They'll find somebody who's got what they're looking for, and the people who need you will find you.

But no one will find you if you don't give back. Try out some things. Find out what way gives you joy. And then do it. When it comes to time management, it's not just about getting stuff done; it's about making room for the stuff that matters.

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