Sunday How Do You...Create a Schedule?

Welcome again to my new blog series "How Do You...?" in which I answer readers' questions about how I organize and conduct my life as an artist. Today's question is closely related to the first one I answered: "How do you manage to get so much art done with all the obstacles you deal with?" (Part 1 here and Part 2 here

"How do you create a useful art/life schedule?"

Having a daily schedule isn't for everyone and I've only started using one religiously in the last year. I used to begin each day with a general list of things I wanted to get done but that method was a bit too haphazard and stuff kept falling through the cracks. After a period of trial and error, I figured out a way to construct a workable schedule that accounted for all those things I needed and wanted to do. I'm someone who is more productive with the imposition of some structure. Your mileage will vary depending on your personality and your life.

Just a heads-up, this is a super long post that doesn't lend itself to pictures, so run and grab a cup of whatever makes you happy and settle in for a bit of a read. I'll break this post into lots of little paragraphs so perhaps it'll be easier to consume.

First and foremost, I want to say that living by a schedule does not mean jumping on and off the hamster wheel of life at certain chimes of the clock. Allow yourself to change things up until you find the right fit for you; I like to create a schedule and then tweak it after a couple of weeks of putting it into practice. And by all means, if something unexpected comes up, don't feel guilty if you need or want to abandon your preordained schedule either temporarily or permanently. 

A schedule is a scaffolding for your days, not a set of prison bars!

Step 1: Make a Set of Lists
(Note: All examples listed are from my personal perspective. Your lists will, of course, be unique to you.)

  • Regular, Must Do Commitments (i.e. work, doctors' appointments)
  • Things You'd Like to Do Regularly (i.e. gym, reading, baking, blogging)
  • General Areas of Art You Want to Focus On (i.e. journaling, painting, crafting)
  • Things You Need to Do but Would Like to Limit (i.e. checking email, time online, cleaning)

Step 2: Draw Out a Weekly Grid
This doesn't have to be perfect; you're just starting with a rough draft. Make it large and work in pencil at first. When I settle on a schedule that seems to work, I make a nicer, color-coded version to post in the studio where I can easily refer to it throughout the day.

Some Notes Before the Next Step:
* Think about how much time you need to finish each task and how often you need/want to do it. Add those time estimates to your lists. Work time is easy; that regular commitment comes with specific time allotments already attached. Art time is more amorphous and how much you want to devote to your artistic pursuits can vary widely from day to day. 

* Think in terms of blocks of time, NOT hour by hour (trust me on this!) Initially, I tried out a schedule that organized each day from the moment I woke up to bedtime. Horrible idea! It was far too restrictive and I immediately felt panicked if I got off track (which usually happened by early morning.) Now I develop schedules with blocks of time. With the exception of things that have a specific time frame (i.e. work), other to-do items can be assigned generalized blocks of time. (Sometimes it is important to me that an activity occur either in the morning or the afternoon. In the photo below, you can see "Open Time Till 1PM." This just means that I've placed that block of time somewhere in the morning hours.)

* I do not worry about completing a task in consecutive hours; instead, I look at the total number of hours accumulated during the day. For example, if I allot four hours on a Sunday for art time, that means my goal is to devote four hours on a Sunday to art, not four hours beginning at 1pm and ending at 5pm. I might do two hours in the morning, take a break, do a couple of chores and then put in another couple of hours. I don't use a timer. I just generally aim my brain in the direction of my goal and see where I land. I'll get back to this idea in a moment. For now, back to plugging in your tasks.

Step 3: Plug-In Your Commitments
* First things first, block out time for those absolutely have-to-do items like work or regular weekly appointments. Allow a bit of extra time for these tasks. For instance, if I know I'm at work for four hours on Monday, I add an extra hour to that to account for getting ready, travel, and post-work decompressing.

* Next, plug in those tasks you have to do but want to limit such as checking email or housecleaning. Be forewarned: These time blocks will be the hardest to stick to until you develop a new, more reasonable habit. In order to do that, you really need to stick to the time limits you give yourself.

* Plug-in "Studio Time." I break my art time into leisurely, low pressure activities (journaling, crafting) versus more important, higher intensity activities (painting, sculpting.) The former gets plugged into the day where I have less energy (early morning, late evening) and the latter gets assigned to my most productive, clear-headed time of the day. Again I am aiming to complete a total number of hours per day. Interestingly, I have found that when I get my schedule in tune just right with my natural daily rhythms, I do actually complete my tasks hour by hour.

Protect your studio time!
Do not automatically sacrifice art time for other things, especially those tasks you really don't have to do right that very moment. If you really want to make art a regular part of your life, eventually you will need to view (and treat) your studio time as just as important and inflexible as your work commitments.

* Plug-in Things You'd Like to Do Regularly but Often Overlook:
I want to read and go to the gym more regularly so I give those tasks their own little block of time. Again, these things will need to fit into your natural rhythms. I'm too tired to concentrate in the evenings so I read each morning while eating breakfast. I assign gym visits or walks to days when I'm not overwhelmed with work. (On top of trying to get things done, I am also trying to be mindful of my health needs as well.)

* Plug-in Open Time:
I have blocks of time that I leave unassigned to any particular task. This allows for unexpected appointments or chores. This way, I don't automatically have to sacrifice anything in order to cope with the unplanned. Depending on the chaos level of your life, you may need open time every day or you might be able to get by with this schedule component less often. 

* Plug-in Down Time:
I make sure that I create time in my schedule to do nothing besides relaxing and self-care. I am especially drained after work so I rarely plan anything specific for this time. I've discovered that forcing myself to a task at a time when I have the least energy is completely counterproductive and even destructive. If you have chronic health issues to work around, you must account for that reality when creating a schedule. I have a tendency to be very neglectful of self-care time; I typically just run until I drop. In this case, it is helpful to make "self-care" a "must do" item and plug it in to your schedule just like you do a job.

Step 4: Put Your Schedule into Practice:
Be prepared to adjust your blocks of time and where you place them until you discover the schedule that works for you. I have found that schedule-making gets easier as I have become accustomed to living by a schedule. I make a new schedule for each teaching semester and one for summer. If a major, long term change shows up in my life (like different work hours or frequent regular appointments such as physical therapy,) I will make a new schedule. I make it large and pretty with colors assigned to each different type of task but that's just me; I have OCD so I adore color-coding and labeling. All in all, new schedule development takes me about a hour and a half to complete. 

A Few Final Thoughts:
* Don't schedule out spontaneity! Use your down time or open time; don't sacrifice it to "must-dos."

* Try to meet your time goals but adjust as needed. If I have assigned myself to the studio for three hours on a Monday, I work really hard to meet that goal. However, if after a while, it seems to be a consistent struggle to meet that goal, I lower my expectation for that day. Conversely, if I find I can consistently do more than I thought, I expand my goal.

* Not finding enough time to do what you love? Be ruthless with those things you need to do but that can get out of hand needlessly like being online. In addition, use time more wisely; if you have some down time before an appointment such as waiting to pick the kids up from school, spend those moments doodling. It all adds up!

Now that you've reached the end of this mammoth post, you might be thinking "Holy Sh*t! This all seems like a lot of work!" Take a breath and remember that you might already be making daily "to do" lists or keeping a planner. Some of the legwork is already complete. And remember that this is how I personally organize my life. This approach may not work or appeal to you. I will only do this as long as it is useful. At some point, I may not even need a written schedule to get everything done in a day that I desire. New habits will develop and I'll be able to do all this without a visual reference. My daily rhythms and needs will evolve with my health. All in all, I have found that having a weekly schedule has greatly increased my productivity and attention to hopes and dreams that might otherwise have been overrun by the "must do's" of my life.


Daisy Yellow said…
It was fun to read about the way that you look at your days in terms of blocks of time which are flexible with regard to the actual time. I love reading different perspectives on time/life management!
Angie said…
I printed this out to read last evening. very interesting and helpful. It is obvious that much thought has gone into how you structure your day. Thank-you for sharing this with us.
Unknown said…
Thank you so much Michelle for your wonderful schedule tips, I will indeed try some of them, and find my way step by step. Keep on the great creativity. Corinne.