In my career as an illustrator who has been published by The New York Times, Penguin Books, Buzzfeed, and more, I have to balance freelance gigs with teaching and other obligations — and I’ve found developing a time management matrix that reflects my personal priorities as an artist to be essential.
My schedule isn’t gridded out into even 9-5 days, and the amount of work is uneven. Jobs tend to ebb and flow — every assignment due all at once, and then nothing at all. When you’re dealing with a glut of projects to juggle, it can be easy to forget what your ultimate goals are.
I’ve had to develop time management strategies over the course of my career to make sure all the work I take on is completed on time and at the professional level clients expect when they hire me — and that it matches what I want to be accomplished, too.
If you’ve heard of Covey’s Four Quadrants of Time Management Matrix, this is the version for creatives. Below is a list of key areas where I’ve learned how to juggle my time and assignments based on how important the job is, how much it pays, and how much other work I already have on my plate. And remember: Be sure to take time for rest.
Determining what’s important in the time management matrix
Cribbed from “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen Covey’s time management matrix seeks to help organize your priorities by dividing work activities into four quadrants. He divides professional obligations into what’s important and what’s urgent. Important activities help achieve your personal and professional priorities, while urgent activities are the type of pants-on-fire deadlines you encounter when you’re a freelancer working on someone else’s schedule. (Learn more about Covey’s time management matrix and find sample time management templates here.)
For creatives, my top advice is this: Always prioritize your own work. Whatever you prioritize will naturally be the thing that takes up most of your time and becomes the most important thing you are doing. So make sure you are focusing your time and energy on the thing that you want to be the center of your life.
There will always be something waiting to eat up all of your time if you let it. The work you need to do might be the thing that pays the bills — for instance, designing layouts for grocery stores coupon flyers — when you WANT to be concept and character designing for Cartoon Network. It does you no good to be a perfectionist on something you don’t love when it takes time away from the task that may not pay what you want now but will lead you to the future career you hope to have and be known for. Never take a job that you have to be good at unless it’s the one you love.
The two ways of assessing value in a work is to determine its monetary value or its personal value. Monetary value is easy. Are you getting paid a lot or even enough? Personal value is tricky. I believe that, for the most part, going into art for the money is an unfulfilling endeavor and, a bit like playing the lottery, not at all a safe bet. There are far easier ways to make money and get rich. Going into art as a career for personal fulfillment is more realistic. So evaluating the importance of a job based on personal goals is a smarter approach than focusing purely on financial gain.
If all the work you do is purely for monetary gain, the potential value of your work may actually decrease over time. Your work may end up very inconsistent; you will always be creating work based on other people’s opinions, aesthetics, and desires, and you will rarely, if ever, be in a position to be the author of your own ideas.
You need to make money to survive, but you want to build a recognizable and personal body of work that attracts clients based on YOUR personal vision and aesthetic. This is where free work is useful, either self-generated work or work for others. Some examples would be a new publication with amazing content and great design, but no budget approaches you or a band you really like. Is it wrong for them to ask you to work for free? I don’t think so.
It’s also fine to tell these people no. But if you say yes, only do so if you feel like you are in control of the assignment. If the pay is small or non-existent, the compensation should be you showcasing new work in the best possible light. It’s a situation where you should feel totally comfortable taking complete control.
If the client doesn’t have a budget, they don’t get to tell you how to do your job. You should be able to make a piece that shows off your talent, a project that you can turn into your dream job, and something you can easily use to promote yourself. It should be work that you can use to get more work.
Under no circumstances should you do work for free for any client, except your parents or siblings, which you are unhappy with or are not in complete control of. And if you find that you’ve done a project for free, and the client starts to ask for changes, walk away from the project.
Any potential client that offers work for free automatically relinquishes any final say or right to revisions. (There are a couple of important exceptions, including not-for-profit or charitable clients where the work would be for a good cause you support.) So do not be afraid to say yes to free work as long as it’s a project you can get excited about and make exceptional work for, work that you are in control of, and that advances you towards a personal career goal.
Set limits with the amount of freelance work you take on
The most important way to manage your time is to not take on more work than you can handle. As a freelancer, especially a freelancer that is just starting out, the tendency is to want to say yes to everything, but this can lead to a bottleneck of work. There will come a time when you inevitably have to turn down assignments, either due to a full workload, travel or illness, or any number of other issues.
How do you decide what work to prioritize? you have to decide which work is the most valuable to you, the most valuable in terms of money, or the most valuable to your career; in other words, does the work achieve or advance any personal goals of yours?
Taking work for money is practical, but if it is not artwork you will show anyone, or that you are not proud of, or will not get you more of the kind of work you want, it may not be valuable. Well-paying work that you are not proud of only serves short-term goals, not long-term ones.
If you have to turn work down, ask yourself what your most important goals are, and assess the value of the work from most to least important. Don’t be afraid to turn down the lesser important jobs. When you’re a freelancer, you often face the anxiety that every job is your potential last job and that turning anything down is bad for your career and reputation.
But I’ve learned to look at it another way: burning time on jobs that aren’t moving you forward can be more detrimental by shifting your energy and focus away from your goals. If you are in a situation where enough people are contacting you about work, you can turn down jobs periodically and not have to worry that work will disappear.
This advice is not meant to ignore having to work to support yourself. If you are just starting out and not fully supporting yourself as an artist, it is important to think of a part-time job or any work that is done purely for income but otherwise not part of your career as something that should be less demanding and less important. This may mean temporarily living with less for a period of time, having roommates, not eating out, etc.
When I first started out, after my undergraduate studies, I had to get a job making pizzas to pay rent. I also worked as an artist’s assistant to gain experience in my field, and the rest of my time was dedicated to making my own work. My workdays clocked in at about 12-16 hours. This was an exhausting balance to maintain, and sometimes it meant going a week or more without making any of my own art.
A side effect of the fluctuations in freelance — the classic feast-to-famine cycle — is that other less important but still important things get pushed aside. Promotion, social media and website maintenance, invoices and taxes, and everyday healthy habits like exercising, buying groceries, and cleaning, are all put off, along with personal passion projects, and your own work may get sidelined.
It’s inevitable that certain things will get neglected; the danger is losing touch with or focusing on those peripheral things. To stay focused, keep a list of tasks to focus on during downtime. It’s easy to lose focus or not know how to switch focus from professional work to personal tasks. Not knowing where to start on a day off is a common problem.
Keeping lists seems like a simple thing, but it’s essential for staying focused. Once you have free time, look at your list of tasks.
Make artistic decisions based on the time you have
In my time management matrix, I’ve had to make decisions about my style that reflect how long I have to complete the work — meaning what I have time for often determines stylistic and material choices. I’ve learned to make quick drawings that are striking to accommodate short deadlines. I would never try to do a painting for an assignment that I only have a day to complete.
Because many of my dealings are short, I have learned to work effectively in simple lines and minimal color rather than highly rendered drawings and paintings. It’s also just as likely that I get more jobs with short deadlines because art directors recognize that I have a style that is highly effective and bold due to its deadline-oriented nature.
Budgeting time for specific projects is important. How do you know how long an assignment will take? How do you know what process to use to get a piece done on time?
There is no perfect answer to this; the only solution is experience. It’s important to develop an artistic practice that doesn’t lead to overwork. It’s also not a good idea to experiment with new ideas on a short deadline. Knowing your process is important in being able to gauge how to make good work on a short deadline.
Some deadlines can be as short as a few hours. In cases like this, the concept and style for the art have to fit the timeline, your artwork is a product of the limitation of the deadline. It’s not realistic to think in terms of making the perfect image or dwelling on how the work could have been better once you’ve turned it in. It’s more productive to consider an approach that allows the work to be as good as possible within the timeline.
Over the years, I have tailored my process to fit within the kind of deadlines I get. Parts of my process I have shed over the years that take up too much unnecessary time. My lifework became less fussy and more to the point, my color became simpler and bolder, and I developed a reliable palette that I can return to without much deliberation or second-guessing. If you find that your workflow leads to constant all-nighters, you may consider implementing changes in your artmaking approach.
Watch out for red flags that can lead to overwork
Setting limitations on a project at the very beginning is important. A project that seems straightforward can easily get mired in revisions. Beware of art directors who don’t give clear instructions on what they are looking for. “Approach this project however you want” or “we want to see your interpretation of this” can sound fun, but in actuality, they are warning signs.
It usually means the client doesn’t know what they want and wants you to create something as a starting point for the client to discover all of the things they don’t want. Or it means that the client thinks you can read their mind and see the images in their head while lacking the skills in language to tell you what they want clearly.
In any case, this can lead to endless and frustrating revisions. So it is very important to state at the beginning how many rounds of revisions on sketches and revisions on finals you are willing to do before the budget has to increase to accommodate the extra work. If you state this at the beginning, the client’s direction usually becomes much clearer.
Sometimes you don’t think to make these stipulations up front, which is OK. If you make it to the second round of revisions on either sketch or final, and you don’t feel like the budget, or your schedule, accounts for this, then it’s OK to tell the client that after this round of revisions, the budget needs to be increased to accommodate more revisions.
It’s not practical for you or your client to be a perfectionist with each job. Sometimes good is good enough when time and money are limited, and you do not owe any client a masterpiece unless they are paying you masterpiece rates.
Don’t forget the importance of rest
When I was in college and as a young professional just starting out, overworking and all-nighters were glamorized and considered a badge of honor. In reality, overworking, all-nighters, and in general, pushing yourself to extremes and exhaustion is unhealthy and generally unproductive (though sometimes unavoidable).
The truth is you make better decisions — and better art — when you are well-fed and well-rested. If you absolutely must work all night, be sure to eat and stay hydrated; otherwise, your brain will shut down before you need it to. It’s good to remember eating and drinking water, especially drinking water, are far more effective ways of staying up longer than just drinking coffee.
One incredibly important thing I’ve learned over the years in freelance is to not forget to take breaks or devalue my personal time. Learning to take rest into account is easy to forget but important to consider. As a freelancer, you still deserve a personal life and free time, so always account for that.
What time management techniques do you use in your creative life? Let us know in the comments.