7 Time Management Tips for Self-Employed Creatives

When I first became a self-employed pianist, piano teacher, and writer, I’d done my preparation: I was an accomplished pianist.  I’d taken classes on how to teach piano.  I’d published many articles and stories.  I’d even spent half a year working as a corporate sales representative where I learned how to sell.  I eagerly anticipated the freedom to sleep late, practice when I wished, write when inspiration struck, and teach the many eager piano students who would find their way to my studio.  

Well, that was the fantasy.  What I never planned for was how little I got done in a day as I flitted from task to task and spent way too much time “taking breaks” to talk to friends, enjoy a long lunch, or watch TV.  It didn’t take long for me to learn that success or failure as a self-employed Creative required I learn one more essential skill:  time management.

Time management isn’t sexy and it sure as hell isn’t what Creatives like to think about when it comes to our art.  Decades of self-employment have taught me that despite its stogy image, time management is one of the most important requirements for artists in any discipline. It separates a “wanna-be” from a professional, and for many of us (myself included), time management is the difference between paying bills or being cash poor.  

Excelling at self-management means we learn to work with who we are, not who we wish we could be.  And since we’ll be at our most creative when we’re happy and healthy, here are some tips on creating creative structure to every work day.

Schedule creative work when you’re most alert.  As a self-employed professional it’s important to know when you feel most alert and motivated and when you’re groggy and distracted.  Schedule creative work for those times when you’re most alert.  Just be sure to include regular breaks.  The 50-minute hour has always worked well for me—I work hard for 50 minutes and then take a 10 minute break.  After 10 minutes, I’m back to work.

Communicate on a schedule.  Email eating up your day?  Social media sucking all your time? This stuff will expand to fill any schedule space you give it so self-imposed time limits are a must if you want to get any creative work done.  I’ve found (even in my busiest times) that scheduling communication time in the morning and then follow-up time in the afternoon allows me to be effective and responsive but doesn’t consume my whole day.

Let others know your schedule.  Don’t want to be interrupted while working?  Tell people your schedule and let them know you’ll be available to them when you’re done with your work hours.  It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of being perpetually available.  Guard your time kindly but firmly.  And while you’re at it, mute those calls and texts while during work hours.  

Plan for consistency.  I’ve found I do my most productive work when I stick to a regular schedule.  Yes, there are changes here and there, but I’ve learned that if I don’t keep the basic outline of my day intact I don’t get much done.  It felt a bit inflexible in the beginning, but once it became habit it was just the structure of my day.

Don’t neglect the rest of your life.  Every one of us needs to eat, sleep, exercise, relax, spend time with loved ones, and fulfill non-work responsibilities.  When designing your master schedule, make time for everything you need and want to do or these things will end up taking over your work hours.

Leave a weekly 4-hour schedule hole in your calendar.  This advice—given to me years ago by a pianist friend—has saved me more times than I can recall. Whether it’s racing to meet a deadline or scheduling an unexpected rehearsal, that once a week 4-hour block allows me to keep the rest of my work schedule intact.  In the weeks where I don’t need the extra work time, that 4-hour window is a delicious block of time for me to do something I want to do.  

Take one day (or two) off per week.  No one can be creative all the time.  If we want to be at our best when it counts, we’ve got to give ourselves time away from our work to rest and refill the creative well.  Bake, bike, watch college football—it doesn’t matter what you do on your day off, just take a break from all your creative projects.  You’ll come back to your projects brimming with energy, new ideas, and a fresh perspective.

Ultimately, time management is about self-management.  And when we give ourselves the structure we need to be productively creative, we give our art freedom to soar.