I’ll very easily slip, machine-like, into the nuts and bolts of everything I have to do, day after day. What’s in the diary? When will the next three projects be done by? Which is the most pressing deadline? I’m a little robotic about all that. “Grunt work” is my comfort zone, just processing what’s on my plate, as advance planning wasn’t really required in my previous job.
If you stop to come up for air from all that, it can be a funny feeling. Using a period to take a look around, assess things and think onwards can feel like wasted time, so docket-driven as you are. “It’s 11am on Monday, and I still haven’t touched what needs to be done.” This is a little battle your “planning brain” can easily lose, when you’re staring down the barrel of more immediate concerns.
Imagine you have to pick potatoes by hand and throw them onto a moving trailer. Even if you had time to think intentionally about the task and how to improve it, you might not afford yourself the time to stop and implement, when all you’re thinking about is keeping up with the trailer. Your yield is limited purely by how long you spend on the task, and there’s not much wiggle room on that. It makes sense to allow yourself breathing space to stop thinking short-term, in order to design a tool that harvests more effectively.
The things that tax your brain a little, or can introduce a dilemma or a little tension – those are often less pressing, but arguably far more important. The making of this blog itself actually helps me in that regard. It lets me collect and index my thoughts, before really paving the way for plans devoted to (in descending order of immediacy, but in no prescribed order):
- general wellbeing,
- genuine productivity,
- sales likelihood, sales fulfillment and the longer term,
- even career direction.
Those who really excel in their work (whether or not under active guidance) take initiative, and a mindful approach to growth and development. As a freelancer especially, you’re in the driver’s seat, and keeping tabs on how things are going is nobody else’s business.
So, make it your business, regularly!
Drop frequent planning sessions into your schedule. It’s a much more healthy, agile approach than making one “grand scheme” every year or so, as I used to do. Plans, circumstances, available information, even your own thoughts are subject to change, so committing too heavily to the future can indeed end up being a waste of time.
The lion’s share of your planning can be carried out in 90-day blocks. Three months is far enough in the future to make some really conscious, directed targets (while evaluating the last three months), and close enough to the present not to lose interest/track, or have too much of your time wasted by the aforementioned shifting sands. It’s a time period that can span every concern, ranging from the day-to-day, right up to what your career aims are.
Otherwise, you can at least check in with how that plan is going every couple of weeks to keep yourself focused, and see if you need to adjust anything. A little regular reflection breaks your month up, too.
Plan your average day
You’re in a unique position as a freelancer, in that you can find endless amounts of that lovely wiggle room, and you can use it to your advantage. The most obvious one is that you’re in charge of your hours, your daily tasks and when you perform them. I could write for hours about how to maximise the potential of your day, but the jump-off point for this will be different, depending who you are. Instead, I’ll give you a taster or two…
The book “Productivity Ninja” (Graham Allcott) presents the idea of “attention management” in a much more attractive way than the classic “time management” way of thinking. Whether you’re aware of it or not, there are times of the day you’re more attentive, and more capable of getting difficult work done. Since you have this freedom, choose the best time of day for the toughest tasks, ensure you can’t be disturbed, and save any easy or mundane jobs for when your brain isn’t working so sharply.
In the book “Why We Sleep”, Matthew Walker reveals from his studies that the sleep patterns of “early risers” and “night owls” are, in part, genetically determined. This throws up sizeable concerns about the accepted model of a working day, and any ill-informed malignment of the night owl! They make up around 20% of the population, and they are hugely disadvantaged, often unable to function at full capacity until well beyond 9am.
The above points are linked. Efforts can only be sustained if you take care of yourself as well as you can, so get to know your own rhythm, and use it to your advantage. Break your day up into workable chunks. Go for a little winter walk at lunch time, because it’ll freshen you up, that’s when there’s enough daylight to do so safely, and…you flippin’ well can, guilt-free.
Use your flexibility to your advantage. Keep a little time to honour commitments related to family and all those unexpected events, as your boundaries are honoured in turn.
Plan the foreseeable
This is where the 90-day planning segments really come into their own. Especially if you’re an exhibition artist, you can start getting specific about which pieces are in the pipeline for upcoming relevant show dates, which reference images have piqued your interest and need scheduling for a few rounds of editing/tweaking, and some daily/weekly completion targets.
If you sell anything directly to customers by yourself (i.e. commissions and prints), there’s also marketing to be done in one form or another; you know this. You might have a general plan, but you need a solid sales funnel, to have advertising copy written down in black and white, and scheduled times to deliver it.
This is the heavy-lifting session; your game strategy where you’re putting all the chess pieces on the board, managing how and when you’ll do what, and putting it all in a backed-up calendar. Much of your stress arises from the list of “easily forgotten, not-yet-done and currently unscheduled” things. It’ll sit and fester in the back of your mind until you’ve come up with a way of not having to think about it. This is all in aid of keeping your daily life free from such stress, so you can just go ahead and do, with clarity and purpose.
Plan your year
This one really is in danger of sitting in the background so consistently that you never bother thinking about it. Next January is well out of reach, and you can deal with it later, but there’s little more satisfying than reading the tea leaves early, in the name of maximising sales opportunities, keeping the timing of everything extremely convenient, and nudging the needle towards your career direction.
As time rolls by, it’s worth getting to know what exhibitions, associations, galleries and extra sales opportunities are out there, and how to pace all of that. Think carefully about the nature of each. What’s the desired theme, or what’s commercially popular? Can you cover more than one theme with a single piece, so you can enter into a different show later if it comes to it? Is shipping/framing required before the event? What are the issues surrounding shipping abroad, and what does that mean for the size and weight of such pieces? Who are the buyers at each particular show, and what tends to sell there?
Tip: I’ve begun to “pay forward” the creation of my wildlife pieces. I’m happy not seeing a sale for a little while, and I may not submit a piece I’m making now for competition/show consideration until this time next year. “Why’s that, Flembag?”
- In order to print my pieces, I have The Studio professionally photograph them. Finishing, submitting and possibly selling a piece never to be seen again, to shoe-horn all of that into quite a short time frame…I need a one-off photo session in amongst all that. My photographers are busy, so beyond this current period, I don’t want them to be bothered by me more than once a year ideally. That time of year is now August. NOT September, as that’s when a rush of business from local schools comes in for those new term photos. A convenient follow-on is that the year’s large format wildlife work is now all ready to be released in print form, right when I’m best suited to start releasing them (ahead of the Christmas season), and when the commissions side of things takes over in earnest. I’ll not start new wildlife work til at least January, and my portfolio is now fully up to date til then.
- I have to operate under the assumption a work may not leave my possession for a good while, and since available storage space is always a concern, it’s far more sensible for me to defer framing and submit a piece for an online show or two before any other. Some buyers also prefer to frame to their own tastes, so if I make an early private sale, this option remains open, along with the allure of being able to ship without the risk of broken glass. Meanwhile, a specific “real life” show may not come around for many months. Once you’ve spent good money on framing, and increased the need for storage space, it’s hard to go back.
If you pin your hopes on just one or two points of sale, and try to enter everything you’ve made through those, you may come up short. Be it online, at a physical show or gallery, or through direct channels of your own, put a chain of potential “points of sale” in place for each planned piece, in logical order, and diarise each before you’ve even begun the work. Maximise those potential points of sale, expose your work to as many people as you can, and get a feel for the right pricing as you speak to more and more people at these events. This will vastly improve sales of your wildlife work.[Extra notes: take a look at your accounts and bookings for the last year. Where did most of your spending go, and can any of it be reduced without compromising your quality or your brand? When did most enquiries come in? This is starting to sound like a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) analysis – and that’s no bad thing!]
Plan your career
The ideas that pop up here speak to the lifelong sustainability of an artist’s career, and taking it in the direction that suits you. By that, I don’t just mean “make your particular style of artwork”. It’s a little pedestrian of me to keep limiting thoughts to the most tangible aspects of being an artist.
You sign your name on everything you do – what does that actually count for? What’s actually driving you to do X, Y and Z, and what are you getting out of it? How are you protecting yourself, how are you balancing and honouring those close personal and professional relationships, and what kind of impression are you leaving behind when all’s said and done?
An example on personal protection, and balanced relationships…
When I first dug into gallery representation and exhibitions, their fees and commission seemed very high at face value, and the rules of engagement were occasionally foreign to me. As the nature of a gallerist’s/show manager’s day-to-day has become more clear to me over time, these days I know all of the above is very fair. Selling is their job, and that can be as nuanced and involved as the art itself being sold.
That said, there’s no rule out there saying you can’t try to set your own terms too. If you see a glaring gap in any written agreement that puts your work or your wellbeing at risk in some way, you should clear this up at the earliest opportunity. How is your work insured, and who is responsible for damage? Are all changes to the agreement you’re signing notified in advance? Is proof of every sale, delivery or exchange of work retrievable on request?
Asserting even-handed and thorough written terms isn’t being “difficult”, it’s called being a professional. As long as they’re as equally fair as those presented to you, and clearly set out for everyone’s protection, your representative should honour them and give you nothing but due respect. If their response stops short of this, a longer conversation is needed. How could anyone deny you security against something that, after all, shouldn’t ever happen anyway? If they haven’t covered absolutely everything that affects you, you were aware of that from the outset and you did nothing to change it, the risk is yours.
Last year, I was accepted into the Society of Animal Artists as a Signature Member. I believe it’s the most significant benchmark I’ve observed to date, but even in my overwhelmed gratitude, and while vindicating and legitimising certain choices, it doesn’t dictate my career intake or direction. This is a crucial distinction to make.
Your “career direction” is one that should make you proud later in life. In my more excitable, impetuous days, they were all about the quality of the art itself, but these days it’s about the impression I leave behind. As environmental concerns grow, art is slowly becoming a global engine for raising funds and awareness for wildlife, so I relish being right in the thick of wildlife art, and generating funds in my own small way. I will also prize the people I’ve met, be they customers, peers or representatives, for the rest of my life. I get a lot more out of at least trying to be a consistently “good” chap however I can than just about anything. That’s the impression I want to leave behind! <Insert corny outro music>
There’s no real order of consideration when it comes to the above timelines, as long as you keep all of them in mind at some point. I’ve found the 90-day cycle is key, though. A little fortnightly check-in is great too. You can just jot ideas and queries down as they come to you, for more in-depth review later.
If you’re feeling as though you’re swept along by prevailing winds within your career, I’d implore you to really sit for a moment and contemplate the state of play. That exhibition deadline is so close, and it might pass. In the name of thoughtful decisions…let it. The entire world isn’t going to slip from your fingers if you just stop for a little while and think onwards.
As the rhythms of my career have continued to unfold, I’ve instilled a greater sense of agency and purpose, and learned to give myself much more professional credit in the decisions I make, allowing due time for each one. You are in charge, and it’s up to you to figure out where the wiggle room is, which can be truly illuminating once you do, and lead not only to better productivity, but a much more fulfilling life.
Thank you for such a thoughtful article Alex. I find the freedom to choose my career and day to day activities is a little overwhelming due to having many options, but in a good way.
I’ve tried several avenues resulting in small but regular positive achievements – print sales, sales of originals, charity donations raising a respectable amount, a few commissions from direct marketing and social media, a local craft fair generated sales and gallery interest but now I’m not sure which area of these to focus on and strengthen, a little like the Jack of all trades dilemma 🙂
Your guidance above is sure to help me, thank you again.
Oh any time, and thank you for your feedback! The lovely thing about all that is you can weather far more storms with so many strings to your bow and avenues you can pursue. Some things can fall by the wayside so it’s important to be able to fall back on others if needed. You’re also ensuring you’re not overexposing yourself to one group, and are staving off potential boredom with the variety! This counts for a lot in the long term 🙂