It's easy to dream of a creative life.
To build one that fits with everything else in your life is harder.
A sustainable creative life is one where you can keep creating and keep living, without burning out. I'm not talking money here, I'm talking life.
Finding creativity among dishes and bills. Creating in spare moments when you're tired and overworked. Getting out of procrastination mode when there's endless other things you could do. Not pushing yourself so hard that life becomes stress. Making time for making.
It's not easy.
Creating is occasionally scary, rarely neat and easily procrastinated. If we don't intentionally plan our creativity, we risk not making anything at all. It's so easy to stop without meaning to.
It's what I did for years. I meant to create, but I didn't. When I actually did, I often worked too hard. Finding balance is the key to designing a sustainable creative life, and it's probably the most important thing I've learnt this year. I'd like to help you do the same.
You make the rules
Life as an adult has one big perk which is also a struggle: you make a lot of the rules. It means you decide if you create or not, when and how. Unless you create for a boss, you're in charge.
This is a power over your life that you can decide to take or don't take. Just because we have the power doesn't mean we use it. It's easy to fill our lives with stuff and shrug off dreams and longings with excuses like:
I don't have time.
But it's never about having time lying around, it's about taking and making time. It's about deciding to make up your own rules and intentionally designing a life that works for you. Whether it's a creative one or not.
What I want to say is this: use the power you have over your own life. The circumstances around you are there, but there's no point in blaming them. You just have to work with them.
With that in mind, let's have a look at your life and your creative dreams.
An inventory of your time
Time puts down frames for what we're able to do, so we'll start there.
I want you to write down all your time, every little moment that could potentially be used for creating. If you have a regular job, think commute time, lunch breaks, evenings, weekends, mornings - everything.
When trying to change your life in some way, taking inventory of your time is an important part of redesigning how you live.
The other part of time is all the things we do and want to do. List the things you need or want to keep in your life that isn't creating.
It could be time with family or friends, workouts, reading, watching TV series or whatever it is you fill your life with. Try to make a rough estimate of how much time per week or month that you want for each of these activities. You decide how detailed you want to get.
An inventory of your creative projects and dreams
Creativity is often more than one thing. Maybe you dream of writing a book, but you also want to knit socks and try out pottery. Or, you blog and want to work on a book at the same time. Managing multiple projects can be difficult.
I want you to list all the creative projects you do or want to do. Big and small.
In my creative life, I write for this blog, I work on a novel, I paint for my Instagram and I work on an illustrated email course. Apart from these things, I have other projects I want to do in the future - a few book ideas, course ideas and selling art. That's a lot of projects and finding a balance has been crucial for my well-being and for being able to work on them all.
Look at your list of creative projects and think about how you can divide them into categories.
Are some constant, short-term things you do often? Long-term projects that demand you work on them consistently over a long time? Easy and hard projects? Experimental or routine?
I realized I needed to plan my creative life when I found myself struggling to work on long term-projects, because I filled my time with the short-term ones. When we have constant projects that have short deadlines, they have a tendency to push out other projects. But it's often in the long term ones that we grow and create something really great.
What makes you stressed and what calms you down?
We could list our time and our projects and fit them together, but that wouldn't be a sustainable plan. There's other things to take into account, and one of them is stress.
For example, short deadlines can be very stressful. Having to do good work when you're tired can be another. Taking photos in nature can be calming, or writing for an afternoon. Knitting while watching Gilmore Girls. Sketching on the train home from work.
I want you to think hard and make two lists - one of what stresses you in creativity, and one of what calms you down.
The trick, of course, is to minimize the stress and maximize the calm. For me, working constantly towards short deadlines makes me stressed. Since I post Instagram pictures almost every day, it could mean that I have to create for that day every day, with deadlines every night. I have done that, and I was stressed all the time. It's now on my list of things to avoid.
When do you work best?
Since we often lack time, we're told to fit in creativity whenever possible, but I don't agree with that idea. If we work at every spare moment, it will probably make us tired and stressed. Creating in situations that aren't ideal is often necessary, but choosing moments that are less good for us when we have an alternative is just inefficient.
Look back on your list of time and think about which moments during your week is better and worse for creating. Some times may fit some projects, but not others. Write it down.
Many talk about writing in the mornings as a wonderful routine. I tried getting up before work and write for an hour, and I encourage you to try morning hours if you haven't. There's definitely strength in doing work early to be done with the most important to you when the day starts, but I found that writing in the morning was much slower, I struggled to fall asleep as early as I needed to, and it takes me a little while to get my brain awake enough to write well. So morning writing was not for me. Instead, I write best on weekends and on evenings when I'm not too tired.
Putting it all together
You should now have an idea about how much time you have, what creative things you would like to work on, what stresses you out and what calms you down and what time is the best for creating. Now we'll try fit it all together.
The first rule to not burning out is this: you can't do everything at the same time. If you're like me, there are far more things you'd like to have time for than you actually do. So we prioritize.
Look at the things you want in your life and at your creative projects. Try to decide which are more important to you and which could wait or get less time than ideally.
I have decided that I can handle two bigger projects at the same time - right now it's my novel and the illustrated email course. Instead of trying to work on three courses and three books at the same time, I have chosen one of each and if I'll finish one of them or if they enter a slow face, I can pick up one of my ideas.
Unfortunately, there are also things that I don't have time for. I'd like to go out with my boyfriend more often, cook and exercise more, watch more movies, but these are things I've had to do less of, because creating is so important to me. It's the reality of priority - not everything can fit in your life. You and I both have to accept that.
If you try to work on everything all the time, you'll become a stressed and inefficient creator. Instead, you need to block off time for different things.
There's one thing I highly recommend: focus. Don't write five things to do for Saturday and five for Sunday. Write one thing to work on for the whole weekend, or one for each day.
When I made my monthly plan, these are some important things I kept in mind:
- My best time to create is weekends.
- I don't like to create all the time - I want to focus.
- Doing too much work on evenings makes me stressed.
- I need to do both long term and short term work.
- I want my plan a bit loose and flexible to fit it around other things.
The plan that I after some experimenting ended up with is this:
- One weekend per month, I write the four blog posts for the upcoming month.
- One weekend per month, I plan and put together all the Instagram pictures for the upcoming month.
- Two weekends are blocked off for long term projects, and they are planned depending on what I work on for the moment.
- I write one Teacup Owl letter every week.
- I use my evenings for filling in if there's something I didn't manage to finish, to paint for the Instagram pictures and engage in social media.
Now it's your turn.
Make one or a few different plans based on all the things you have written down.
- Try to use your best time for creating as much as possible and the worst as little as possible.
- Minimize the things that stress you and maximize the things that calm you down.
- Use your priorities to make a realistic plan.
- Remember that you need time to rest and recover.
Trial, error and evaluation
When you have a plan or a few alternatives, you need to try them out to see if they actually work. If things don't go as planned, change as you go until you find a rhythm that feels comfortable and balances the different parts of your life.
I firmly believe that it's possible to design a sustainable creative life, if you're just willing to grab the power over your life and choose what to keep and what needs to go. Be mindful of how your plan affects you and your projects, and don't be afraid to change it until you find the best one.
Because finding a routine that works, the plan that helps you to keep creating and not burning out, it's what will make your dreams come true.