Creatives with day jobs — how do you run your life?
September 1, 2020 9:00 PM   Subscribe

I have a practical career with a day job that pays the bills and one that is more fulfilling and artistic / creative - common setup, I think, for artistic types. I’m about 7 years into each of them, so in the thick of things and working on challenging, engaging stuff on both sides (with the inevitable annoyances), but I'm finding I’m often at my limit for how much mental bandwidth to work on challenging projects. If you are in the same boat, I'd love to hear your approach to accomplishing your stuff while staying sane!

My day job is technical / knowledge worky, which I’m doing at home since the pandemic, and it can stay very self contained to the 8 hours per day (realistically I probably do 35 hours / wk) but it does demand my full attention and effort during those hours — I haven’t been able to multitask and get the artistic stuff done in parallel aside from the rare slow Friday afternoon. The work itself is engaging and mentally challenging — and this is where I’m running into the bottleneck with my creative work (I think).

The creative job is pretty much solely for my own fulfillment, and while I do make some money from it it’s unlikely to ever fully financially support me (although I do plan to take some time off in the future to focus more on this). I do love it and am excited about how far I’ve come & feel like I’m finally closing in on that awful Ira Glass taste gap situation, and also feel involved in a small but international community around this that I enjoy. So on a macro level I’m very excited, but on a micro, week to week / day to day level, after I'm done with my day job and the last thing I want to do is do more challenging work while staring at a computer screen. I also find that if I really have a project in my head (to the level where your brain is kind of problem solving it in the background) in the art realm it's hard to really wrap my head around stuff at work and vice versa.

On weekends there feels like there’s finally enough breathing room to dig into work AND have some fun, but it feels at times I’m sacrificing my ability to really recover before starting the next week.

The obvious solution is to slow down my output at work (maybe even on the creative side too?) which I think is an option, but I would be looking for specific tactics / advice on the right way to go about that without losing too much career momentum. I’m also a little nervous as I’m getting to the age where I am seeing the artists who poured everything into their art but never “made it” (whatever that means for them / society) get bitter and frustrated with their crappy careers that were always on the back burner. So that’s in my head as someone who’s always had one foot out the door on their primary career.

Anyway I know this is the eternal question and every artist I know seems frustrated by this exact balancing act, which is why I’m looking for your wisdom and lived experiences.

Things I’ve found help me so far:
- Not thinking about the day job at all after hours / on weekends (if I catch myself mentally going there, I reroute - meditation has helped w being able to do this)
- Exercising right after work to be the transition out of day job mode into creative night mode
- Separate GTD-style task lists for each side, with active projects / next steps well defined
- Saying no a lot of opportunities to leave room for the deep work
- Finding mentors / accountability in the creative side
- All the usual suspects self care stuff — right balance of sleep/healthy food/exercise/social+relationship time/therapy+medication/nature/total downtime/limiting social media. Maintaining a few hobbies unrelated to either work thing is huge for me to maintain curiosity overall
- Reigning in perfectionistic tendencies
- Taking vacations where I do neither type of work

If you have other things that have helped you, or a mindest / philosophy you use to approach your life & work, that would be quite helpful. I don’t have kids, and I’m a night owl so please no tips about waking up earlier to hone my craft...
posted by internet of pillows to Work & Money (7 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Cut out every. single. bit. of. bullshit.
- tv, web surfing (for me)
- boring friends
- commuting
- long lunches
- the wrong partner
- the wrong job
- bars/drinking

I got it down to three: kids, work, music.

Try that for five years.

Taxi driver through middle age, Philip Glass on 'how you do it': You get up early in the morning, and you work hard all day.
posted by j_curiouser at 10:27 PM on September 1, 2020 [15 favorites]

I do 30 minutes of my creative work prior to day job. This is immensely satisfying because I find myself having accomplished *something* prior to drudgery of day job. Also, I find that I have more energy to tackle the challenging bits of my creative projects first thing in the day, my mind uncluttered and fresh.

I have cut my day job hours to "part-time", which means working 4 days a week and the Fridays for creative work. It comes out with sacrifices, obviously. In my immensely-competitive day job, that has meant I have been passed over on promotions and I'm probably one of the first people on the firing line if there's a round of redundancy. I'm okay with potential redundancy because I'm working towards FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early movement). Worthwhile noting that I'm 10 years into my day job.

Speaking of FIRE, you should educate yourself on finances, cashflow, investing, budgeting etc, if you haven't done so already. I am also saving a lot of money to accomplish partial FIRE, so hopefully one day I can pursue creative work mostly full-time and quit my day job with the help of some redundancy money.

Yes, you can hire a financial planner, but anyone with a bit of time (and that's coming from me, a person with young kids) and some numeracy skills can educate themselves. You will know the intricacies of your finances and will be empowered to make decisions that is best for your life AND your finances.

Oh yes and as j_curiouser says, commuting is a huge time-suck. Now that we're all WFH is not that big a deal, but minimise commuting as much as possible. This may mean you live in a smaller property than ideal or you are renting. You may think "oh I can't do that, what a hard life!" but if it gives you an extra 2 hours to do your creative work?
posted by moiraine at 1:12 AM on September 2, 2020 [6 favorites]

My day job is pretty mentally taxing, and for a period of time was 80-90 hours a week. At the end of that period, I took a hard look at my goals and finances, and ended up taking what amounts to a 50% pay cut for a flexible schedule. I am lucky that I had that option to give myself back the gift of time. Moiraine's advice about financial stability is spot on.

I also find it helpful to schedule "creative" time (I work best in the morning, but evenings/late night could be fine too; just schedule it in your calendar). Pomodoro is also very helpful. Another useful thing I heard from an interview with Yaa Gyasi was to set a specific daily goal; hers was 400 words per day. If she did more than that, great; but at least 400 words will give you a novel in a year.
posted by basalganglia at 5:30 AM on September 2, 2020

I used to work with a fairly successful artist friend, and part of the reason she worked there was for the schedule. We worked three 12-hour days each week and then had a four day weekend. Personally, the schedule did give me quite a bit of time to do me-stuff, whether that was creative stuff or just going on dates with my now-wife. The thing is, a 12 hour shift is enough that you don't really have much time or (especially) energy to do much else. You come home, eat, and go to sleep. Those three days are for working. The other four days, though, are for you. Even if you're one of those Smonday people where you dread Sundays because you have to prepare for going back to work the next day, and even if you're the kind of person who needs an entire day on the weekend to wind down from the work week, you still have two full days to yourself. (And if you're not either kind of person, of course, you have all four!)

I don't miss that job for a variety of reasons, but I do miss the schedule. See what you can do to condense your work week. If three 12s isn't possible, four 10s is fairly common.

There's also a book I recommend often called "The Artist in the Office" by Summer Pierre. I don't know how useful it will be for you, although there's a lot of stuff about making use of lost time like your commute.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:29 AM on September 2, 2020 [2 favorites]

A lot of it for me comes down to figuring out the balance between my work life and my creative life. (I write and self-publish romance novels: 1920s + magic, to put this in context, and I am reliably doing four books a year right now.)

For me, writing something every day (not necessarily fiction words) turned out to be critical for keeping momentum. If I give myself a break, the break gets longer and longer... Other people don't work like that, but figuring out that I do helped a lot in long-term planning. I write last thing before bed, and it lets my brain stew on the next step all night and through the next day.

I love my day job, but i'm a librarian, and a lot of what I do is reactive to what questions people ask, so while I have a general sense of how busy my day might be in terms of meetings/things I'm planning on, that can also change on short notice (and thus affect how much energy/focus/creative work I can do later.) I have also learned that I can't do more than really rote editing on a work day.

I also have something that matters to me (witchy coven life) on weekends, and I don't get much focused creative work done after those gatherings. I am currently working on how to sort out tasks so it's clear what I'm spending Sunday (my one free day on), figuring out if I can free up somewhat more Saturdays, and otherwise redistributing things a bit.

What's helped me:
1) Figuring out what works for me, regardless of whether that makes sense for anyone else. (I took Becca Syme's Write-Better-Faster class in July which was great for this, glad to talk more about it with anyone curious). I also do a lot of poking at process stuff on my own.

She works with the CliftonStrengths model, and one of the things I got out of this was that the time I spend reading lots of blog posts and websites is in fact pretty critical to my process (high Input and Intellection and Context, in that model of how brains and people work). That has helped me a lot with figuring out which parts of that help/feel good/work well, and how not to get stuck in the parts that aren't so useful or good.

2) Having things I can do that move me forward in the creative projects if my focus isn't there (wiki editing for my projects, some marketing tasks, rote editing, etc.) and writing I can do to keep momentum that doesn't take as much thought/creative energy (Pagan non-fiction for me.) These go into lists so I don't have to think about what things I could do, just do one.

3) Routine steps around food, sleep, reading time, etc. that help me regrow as needed. As others said above, figuring out how to reduce or eliminate stuff that takes time that isn't doing me any good helps.

4) Figuring out what my sustainable pace is for my creative work. I spent a year just seeing how much I wrote, gathering data, before making plans that depended on any kind of pace goals. I adjust based on circumstances, but it gave me a really solid baseline to plan with.

5) Taking vacation time regularly to spend a week (or a long weekend, or whatever) working on creative stuff without having to juggle the day job. (My day job is very generous with vacation for the US, though there are times of year where taking time off is a bit tricky.) I especially use this for the hump of editing, for example, where I want to do a lot of focused creative work in a short period of time.

6) I am super bad about taking actual true vacations and complete breaks, but I am trying to figure out how to arrange a bit more of that. (Possibly even a day this weekend, bar hitting my minimum writing goals for the day.) That appears to be a fairly hardwired part of my personality and brain, so mostly I work on making sure I'm not burning out.
posted by jenettsilver at 10:52 AM on September 2, 2020 [8 favorites]

after I'm done with my day job and the last thing I want to do is do more challenging work while staring at a computer screen.

Yes! I know that feel.

You might try to create some after-job down time (during your commute is good, if you have a commute, but if you're WFH, can you take a walk?) during which time you are NOT looking at a computer screen, and you're thinking in a low-key, positive, friendly way about your creative project - not "I have to finish this part tonight!" but "tonight I'm going to try working on the scene where they meet the trolls, that will be fun." Find little things that can get you in touch with your excitement about your work, that keep you connected to the things that pulled you to the project in the first place.
posted by Jeanne at 11:34 AM on September 2, 2020

Seconding kevinbelt's suggestion to condense your work week.
When I began to transition away from office jobs to freelancing, switching to a 4-day work week was the first step and it was a game-changer.
In my case, I took Wednesdays off because they tended to be lighter on meetings and it broke up the office work into two 2-day micro-weeks with a creative day in the middle. Highly recommend.
posted by D.Billy at 4:58 PM on September 2, 2020 [2 favorites]

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