Balancing Full Time work with Personal/Freelance Work

My friend Jess asked me a great question the other day: 

“What are your experiences in being a busy person and still finding the time to do freelance work on the side, or sticking with sketching on the regular?”

Jess and I went through the same design program, but she graduated 2 years after I did. Rather than just answering her in an email, I wanted to break it down here in my blog because the answer is applicable to more than just her situation. So let's get into it.

Being a “Busy Person”

Being busy comes from various responsibilities we have and commitments we have made. If you have a full time job, a family to raise, a sick relative, and a pet to take care of, then you will be pretty busy. However, there are definitely people out there that have all of these things, and somehow manage to spend time on doing what they love.

Taking Inventory

One of the best things I ever did to boost my productivity was I wrote a list of all of my current commitments and responsibilities, to see how busy I actually was.

I did this a couple years ago when I decided that I wanted to focus on creating more personal work. After I made the list, I realized that I had way too much on my plate, and I needed to scale back. For me, this meant dropping an ongoing pro-bono client that I loved working with and going to less events during the evenings on weekdays.

I would recommend trying this exercise. Just write out a simple list. You might realize that your busy-ness is a result of optional commitments that you have made (ex: organizing that event) that you decided to take them on anyway.

Practice Saying No

Stereotypically, creative people are not good at managing time or planning ahead. This was my problem: I was being over-ambitious with my time. I wasn't taking into account that things might take longer than planned, and because of that, I didn't have much balance (or sleep). 

If that’s your case, definitely do not take anything else on until you have those things under control. Instead, just leave some margin in your schedule for when things take longer than expected. If you don't end up needing it, use that time to rest or do something you love.

Once I got on top of my immediate commitments, I started thinking more long-term about my goals. I was declining new things that didn't line up with those goals, and carving out time to do the things I really wanted to do, like personal projects.

What Else Are You Doing?

Once you can see all of your commitments and responsibilities, consider what else you do that fills up your time. I’m talking about the time-wasters. Maybe you like to sleep in on the weekends, watch Netflix at night, or browse Facebook in your free time. I am not advocating that you should stop doing these things all together. I just think it’s important to know where your time is going, so you can match it up with your priorities. 

If you find it valuable to decompress every night and watch an episode of your favorite show, then watch away. But if you want to focus on your artwork, and you don’t feel like you have enough time, then something’s gotta go.

I used to watch multiple hours of Netflix almost every weeknight before bed. Now I watch while I am eating dinner, and then I turn it off. This way I still get to watch a little, but I spend the rest of the evening working on my lettering. This is just one example of how I have adjusted my lifestyle to make time for what matters to me.

Setting Aside Time

Just like most animals, we are most productive when we have a routine. As much as I dislike boring, repetitive days, I do think that it is helpful to get yourself on some kind of schedule. Setting aside time to be creative may sound silly, but it really does have an incredible effect on your ability to focus.

Everyone works differently, and you need to find your own schedule. Jessica Hische does her client work at night and personal work during the day. She says she has no problem staying up late because the deadlines motivate her. She says if she did it the other way around, she would never get any personal work done.

Obviously not everyone can work like this, especially if they have a full time job. Here's what I do: I wake up a couple hours early before work and get in some clear focused time before I clock in. This way when I come home I don't feel like I absolutely need to keep working, unless I really want to (or I have a deadline coming up). Regardless, I always try to get to bed at a reasonable hour so I don't mess up my sleep schedule. I have only started doing this schedule recently, and even though I don't consider myself a "morning person", it has been working great for me.

Getting Rid of Distractions

You can’t expect to have any kind of deep focus if you are constantly getting interrupted. For example, you can turn off all non-important notifications on your phone and computer. (Seriously, just do it – there's no reason not to). It is insane how much time people waste by checking their phones when it’s not important, just to get a little dopamine rush.

In addition to unimportant notifications, try to eliminate even the possibility of distraction. If there is a chance you might get interrupted, then you will constantly be looking out of the corner of your eye, giving up mental energy. To get this under control, you can just simply turn your phone off or on airplane mode. You can also tell your roommate or spouse that you need to focus during this special time you have set aside.

As I mentioned, I really don’t like the monotony, so instead, I created a schedule that has repetition with variation. Last summer I started a project called “Summer of Sketching”. For this series, I traveled around the city and sketched in a different place every Sunday. I told people I was doing it, so they held me to that commitment. This proved to be a great way for me to get on a schedule, but still keep it feeling new and fresh.

Snowball effect

The best thing about that project was that it conditioned me to create regularly. I had formed a habit, built the muscle of drawing every Sunday for an extended period of time. Even after the summer was long over, I would feel a pull back to my sketchbook every weekend. It was no longer a choice that I needed to make. I didn’t have to *choose* to draw, I just did it because it felt normal.

Sketching became an addiction. 

After a while, once a week was not enough for me, so I stepped it up to multiple times per week. I had it in my schedule, just like I did on Sundays over the summer. This proved to be really successful for me, and now I draw every single day.

Some people choose to go all in at once. They say they will create something new every single day, and they just go for it. The tough reality is that it’s much harder to build (or destroy) a habit like this (“going cold turkey”). Most people end up falling off, only to feel guilty for not delivering on their promise.

I chose to protect myself from this feeling by starting off with a small actionable goal that fit into my schedule, and building it up slowly from there. It’s still difficult every time when I sit down with a blank page in front of me, but the sitting down and starting part is not nearly as hard as it once was.

Bottom Line:

“Finding the time” to do what you love is a myth. You will never “find” the time. You have to make the time.

Some actionable steps:

- Assess your situation and start with a small, achievable goal. 
- Hold yourself to it, and get other people to hold you accountable as well. 
- Step it up little by little and turn your growth from a choice in to a habit.

Thanks for the question. I hope this helps. Good luck!

If this article was helpful, or if you have other questions you'd like answered, definitely reach out to me — I'd love you hear from you.