The Ideal Week: An Update (June 2015)

May 29th, 2015

Last summer, I created an ideal weekly schedule and followed it pretty closely.

But when my daughter started school in the fall, I started taking her in the mornings. This shifted my day about an hour later overall. I took the middle train to my day job instead of the early train.

As it got dark earlier, the kids went to bed earlier, and I started taking the early train again. My wife took our daughter to school so I could get home around the time it got dark, and I could spend a little bit of time with the kids before they went to bed.

We kept that up all spring. I missed my mornings with my girl. It’s amazing how much bonding you can do with your daughter in just 5 minutes in the car each day. So for the last week or two of school, I took her to school in the mornings and got home an hour later than usual. Now that school is out and summer is here, we are tweaking our schedule again. It’s back to the early train, and the kids can go to bed later if they want.

What’s been key is to recognize when it is time to make a change, and do it wholeheartedly, with everyone on-board with the change. Tweet That

What’s different this time?

The most noticeable change is that I’m not doing much freelance design work these days. So I don’t have that blocked out three or four nights a week. Instead, I’m spending time with the kids as soon as I get home and after dinner.

The men’s group I was in disbanded. There’s another one from our church meeting at the same time, but I didn’t get involved. So that’s not on here this time. I miss it, but not as much as I did at first. I can’t tell if that’s good or bad.

Home church: we are part of a small group that meets on Sunday nights. We opted out of that last year when the one we were in the year before got to be too stressful financially and schedule-wise with how early our kids go to bed.

1-on-1 Time: I get a “date” with each person in my family once a week. Since there are 5 of us and one of me, and there are usually 4 weekends in a month, everyone get one-on-one time with me once a month. This works out really well. If there is a 5th week, well, we usually take that as it comes. The first Saturday of the month, naturally, is the Art Crawlthat I go to with my daughter.

Friday night is Family Night. We pop popcorn and watch a family-friendly movie. Big Hero 6, anyone?

Weekends: My wife and I alternate time in our respective studios so we can get our bigger creative projects done.

Exercise: I do a lot of walking these days. I try to get 10,000 steps in each day, so I walk to and from the train station and my office. I’ve been walking around downtown Nashville at lunch. But it’s gotten so hot and humid already that I may go back to blogging at lunch instead. I’m considering getting up insanely early and getting some of my walking done before the sun comes up.

Early Mornings:

From about 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. my day belongs to everyone else. But the early mornings are mine. This is where the real magic happens. I can use this time to write for my blog or other writing projects, or I can use it to paint. I’ve toyed with the idea of doing a different thing each day or each month, or I might do one thing for a week straight.

Of course, if I am to get up early, it is imperative that I go to bed early. Otherwise if I stay up watching whatever the latest funny or sci-fi thing is on Netflix, I won’t get up in time.

The point is, I’m a work in progress.

What works now may not work in the future. In a few years the kids will get involved in sports and extracurricular activities. I have to be willing to tweak my habits to figure out what works, what makes me most productive and utilizes my time, energy, and creativity. It’s a creative effort in itself.

What works for you?

How have you set an ideal schedule to work with?

Photo Credit: Marcin Wichary via Compfight cc

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10 templates artists can use to be more productive

September 2nd, 2014

The idea of using templates in art sounds boring to us creative types since there’s no creativity involved.

Or so it seems.

What’s surprising is that templates actually help you find more time to be creative. They streamline the often-repeated tasks that can get old in a hurry, making them happen faster so you can get to do what you want sooner. Which in this case is the real creative work.

So what kind of templates can an artist use?

Inventing things is what creative people do. While creative-minded people want to reinvent the wheel every day, it’s not an effective use of their time. It helps to have patterns already in place that let you get to the creative work faster. So what kind of things can an artist make into templates, without killing the creative process?

  1. Work Area You’ve no doubt heard the phrase “a place for everything and everything in it’s place.” When you have a consistent work area, you will spend less time looking for that thing you need.
  2. Palette Setting up your palette the same way every time makes it incrementally faster to find the colors you are looking for. This also applies to Photoshop users who have their palettes customized for the work they do.
  3. Marketing Schedule Having a promotion schedule already in place relieves you of the burden of figuring out when to do what tasks. Now you can spend your creative energy making those messages really awesome instead of wondering when to do them.
  4. Routines If your morning routine or ritual is optimized, you won’t have to think about it so much. Making fewer decisions up front frees you up to make better decisions later. This is why Steve Jobs wore the same thing every day.
  5. Blog Post Michael Hyatt has a fantastic blog post structure that he uses. I’m trying to adapt the same process as well. It works.
  6. Plot Structure You learned about build-up, climax, and denouement in high school. It still works. “The Hero’s Journey” also works. These forms have worked for thousands of years. Figure out how to make your story unique in the way you tell it. Master the rules, then mix up the specifics a bit to make it more interesting.
  7. Poetry Forms Shakespeare wrote sonnets. It’s a poetic structure that follows specific rules. There’s a place for free verse, but those structures have worked for hundreds of years for a reason.
  8. Workflow I have a specific workflow for creating paintings. Doing it consistently can remove a lot of guesswork and save time.
  9. Billing and Paperwork If there’s anything creatives hate doing, it’s billing and paperwork. I like Freshbooks for this reason. It makes it easy to track time on my freelance projects and billing is a cinch. You can bill people from your smartphone, even.

    This is also where promotional resources such as an up-to-date résumé, curriculum vitae (called a CV in art circles), or even an artist statement is useful. If someone asks for it, you already have it prepared and can quickly tailor it to the situation at hand.

  10. Fee Schedule There’s nothing more awkward than being in a meeting with a potential client who wants to know how much your work costs while you silently try to figure out in your head how much your work costs. You should have this memorized, or at least have a simple way of calculating it without showing your hand. On my computer I have a one-page PDF that has all my rates for various design projects that I do. Hint: there are only about three price points, and the bottom price is about $1,000.

The key takeaway here is that nearly anything can be systematized and streamlined.

What are some examples of things you can rework into a template in order to speed up your creative process?

Photo Credit: Eric Fischer via Compfight cc

How to do more of what you love doing with an ideal weekly schedule

July 8th, 2014

“Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” — Gustave Flaubert

Some time ago Michael Hyatt shared his “Ideal Week,” where he carves out blocks of time for certain tasks so they actually get done.

One neat trick of his is that each day has a particular theme. One day is for creating content, another day is for meetings, and so on. It can be easier to do certain kinds of work in big blocks like that.

Michael shared a nifty Excel spreadsheet that has his blocks laid out. It’s pretty cool, but I never use Excel, so I left the idea alone.

Recently I saw where Dave Delaney has shared his own take on the ideal week concept. He made a calendar in Google Calendar named “ideal week” that has the ideal week set up in it.

So now when he is scheduling things, he can toggle that ideal schedule off and on. If he sees that from 5 to 6 in the morning he wants to be reading, he won’t schedule anything for that time.

I use Google Calendar, too, so this was appealing to me.

Inspired, I took this a step further.

First, I created some goals for myself in terms of what I want to do with my freelance graphic design business, my fine art, and my relationship with my wife and children.

I know about how much time I need to spend in those areas each week. With that in mind, I created an ideal schedule in Google Calendar:

There are a number of things that happen daily or weekly. For example, I catch the train at 6:12 in the morning and the 4:20 train home in the evening.

If I am going to meet my freelance goals, I have to spend a certain amount of time on that each week, so I’ve blocked out time for that around the absolutes in my schedule such as my day job and the train schedule.

I want to keep up my blog, so I try to work on that at lunch every day. And I try to journal in the morning while I’m on the train.

Studio time is a must since I have set a quota for the number of paintings I want to produce each month before the end of the year. I know roughly how many hours that requires, so I’ve built that in. I’ve got big blocks for that on the weekend and smaller blocks in the early mornings.

I need to keep my mind sharp, so I try to read on the train home, though oftentimes I doze off. But that’s okay.

Last but not least, I want to stay in touch with my wife and kids, so I actually have time scheduled for them.

The “Approved” Schedule

Once I ran all this past my wife and she gave me the go-ahead, I worked this into my real schedule and assigned things to their own calendars. For instance, my lunchtime blogging is on a calendar called bradblackman.com. My freelance schedule is on a calendar named Chrome47. My dates with Hope are on a calendar named 1:1. I try to give myself enough wind-down time before bed.

Holy Moly! You’re busy!

Yep, it looks pretty full. Believe it or not, there is some amount of margin built into this schedule. Eagle-eyed GTD (Getting Things Done) nerds might notice I have “Weekly Review” on here twice, one on Saturday morning and another on Sunday evening.

That’s because some Saturdays are busy (we have three kids!) and it just isn’t possible to get a weekly review in. In that case, my wife and I will see what we can do Sunday night after the kids go to bed. Or we will coordinate our calendars on Saturday and review the family budget on Sunday.

The point of the schedule is not to be rigid. Rather, it should be flexible and allow for things to come up. It’s more of a set of guidelines. I try not to get too hung up if things don’t happen as planned.

I know this flies in the face of David Allen’s idea of using the calendar as a “hard landscape” but it works for us. (Nothing is truly concrete when you have small children!)

See, I know that I won’t always work on freelance every single weeknight. And I won’t always catch the 6:12 train. Fortunately, there are 2 other trains that I can catch.

And You?

Have you done anything like this? If so, what does it look like? How is it for you? Sound off in the comments.

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Photo Credit: Jano De Cesare via Compfight cc

The Case of Too Many Inputs

April 1st, 2014

I often have way too many inputs. I think I need to put myself on a mental diet with the constant barrage of information online, mostly coming from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, RSS feeds, email, email, email.

Too. Much. Noise.

I can’t hear myself think. And it’s not just the kids running around in circles breakdancing around the house. (Yes, I made the mistake of introducing that term to them. Now it’s all they want to do. “Daddy, we’re going to breakdance in the kitchen.”)

On the flip side, there are so many great resources out there. So much to learn. I don’t want to miss out on any of it. I know I need to get better at listening, and there are so many ways to listen nowadays. We live in the age of Big Data. It’s a blessing and a curse. The information is overwhelming, and so is the information about the information (which makes it metadata).

Of course, we all know that iron sharpens iron. We learn best from interacting with other people. From listening to them. You can’t listen only to your own thoughts. My own thoughts get old after a while like a broken record.

You can’t operate only on your own.

If you never listen to anyone, your ideas get stale after a while. You have to test them, share them, grow them by rubbing them up against other ideas. Watch what happens. Maybe there will be an amazing chemical reaction. Or it will fizzle and die. Maybe your idea isn’t as good as you thought. Or you are stuck with an idea and it isn’t going anywhere. Or too precious with your ideas, unwilling to share.

It’s the old existential question: if an idea is never shared, did it ever exist in the first place? It applies to art, and it applies to ideas as well. After all, art is just another way of expressing an idea.

So get out of your own head and talk to people! Two are better than one, for sure.

Back to the problem with too many inputs.

Your brain needs a bouncer.

In this day and age there is such a glut of information, so much noise. Total silence isn’t good, either. So what do you do?

You have to be very selective about what inputs you let into your life. Listen to anything and everything with discernment. The internet is a veritable buffet line. You can sample from just about everything there is to learn.

The key is to take stock and get rid of anything that is unhelpful. Be picky about who and what you let stay with you. Your brain needs a bouncer. Is this information really getting you where you want to go? (Do you know where you want to go?)

See, I find “Family Guy” entertaining, but I don’t need to keep watching it. It’s crude, juvenile, and degrading.

And I probably subscribe to too many RSS feeds and email newsletters. It’s not that many, compared to some people I know. But it’s overwhelming to me. I’ve lost interest in so many. Maybe you need to unsubscribe to mine. It won’t hurt my feelings if you do (yes it will but I’ll get over it.) It’s okay to delete what is just slowing you down, what has become just another thing to do, an item on a checklist. Or maybe some input is a negative influence. A few years ago I used to enjoy listening to Rage Against the Machine. Great music, but it always made me angry and start kicking things. So I had to quit that. Honestly, I haven’t missed it.

What inputs have you had to get rid of over the years? Or what inputs do you need to get rid of now?

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Unplugging for Lent

March 4th, 2014

Last year I read an article by Baratunde Thurston about how over the December and New Year holidays he unplugged from the Internet for 25 days.

I thought it was a neat idea. Then I put it away in the back of my mind for a while.

It wasn’t until I heard Eric J. Fisher interview Baratunde on Beyond the To Do List that I gave it more serious thought.

Then, cleaning up my home office right after Christmas, I found the issue of Fast Company that I had misplaced. Baratunde’s head was on the cover, kind of small and toward the bottom, with big letters floating above him: #UNPLUG.

So I re-read all the articles about unplugging. Baratunde had been living like he was running for President of Planet Earth, going from one speaking engagement to another, promoting his book and checking in all sorts of places online. By the end of the year, it had burned him out and made him cranky, and he needed a vacation.

He considered going to some remote island paradise, but that wasn’t what he wanted. What he needed was a vacation from the Internet.

He stayed in his adopted hometown of New York, but he completely disconnected from social media and email. He did a lot of socializing — offline.

This was the holiday season, so business slowed down anyway. Yet I’m sure he was tempted to check in on Foursquare and say he was at such and such a restaurant with these friends at a Chrismtas party, and post a picture of himself and said friends at said restaurant. Like anyone else with social media habit would do, right?

But after the first couple of days, he says the itch went away.

I did something similar last year for Lent.

And I’m thinking about it again this year. Last year, I gave up Facebook for Lent. However, I stayed on the other social media sites.

But this year, I will be off social media from March 5 to April 20. That’s six weeks and four days. 40 days.

40 days of no Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Netflix.

I might check off books I read on Goodreads, but that may be it. I know Netflix isn’t really a social network but it sure eats up too much of my time.

A lot can happen in 40 days on the Internet. Then again, on the Internet, not much changes in 40 days. There’s always sensational news about this or that celebrity. The weather is too hot or too cold. People complain about the government. People share pictures of funny cats and their kids or grandkids.

But 40 days is a good time to set aside to focus on something important. To cut down on the noise and listen. To really form a new habit. It takes 21-30 days to form a new habit, depending on who you ask. It seems to me that 40 days would really cement it in place.

I’ll keep blogging and emailing. I still have to pay the bills so I’m not in a position to shut down completely, and I have no assistant to notify me if there is a fire I need to put out. So I’ll still be checking my email every day. But I won’t (and don’t) live in my email. (Never have, never will.)

I’m not Catholic. I grew in a household that’s about as evangelical as it gets. So the idea of Lent or fasting was never really brought up. But a few years ago, I started hearing of “tech fasts.” And I got it, seeing how things like email can overwhelm a person. And then social media got popular. And social media overwhelm became a thing. Slowly, the idea of tech fasting started to grow on me. Now that I’ve done it in smaller increments, I’m ready to do it more fully.

The whole point of the exercise is to take a break from all the noise that happens online, and focus on reading, writing, making art, and spending time with my family.

Do you have plans to give anything up for Lent? I’d love to hear about it.

PS: For those about to #Unplug, here’s a bonus freebie.

I’ll be changing my social media profile pictures to one of these just so people don’t think I’ve disappeared off the face of the Earth. If you want to use one, feel free. Just click on the image you want and you’ll be taken to the big version.

Photo Credits:
Thomas Hawk via Compfight cc
eflon via Compfight cc

How to Do More Art By Delegating Everything Else

January 21st, 2014

Michael Hyatt is an author and speaker and former President and CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers. I worked a few levels under him for a few years when I was a baby graphic designer. He has many talents, but the things he enjoys doing the most are writing and speaking. He writes with a distinctive voice on his blog and in his books, and is a sought-after speaker. His very popular podcast, This Is Your Life, is the one I make sure to listen to every week.

A while back, Michael did a 2-part podcast series and a blog post on the topic of delegation titled “How to Do More of What You Love and Less of What You Don’t.”

He outlines how when he left his role as President and CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers to go out on his own, he did everything himself. Which is not a bad place to start. However, he found himself overwhelmed and burned out. Of course in his former life as an executive, he was able to delegate a lot of tasks since he had a staff. But not anymore.

So he figured out what his strengths were. He identified what only he could do. Then he offloaded everything else and found people who could do those jobs instead. This accomplishes two things: it allows him to become more focused on what he does best, and allows other people to do what they do and enjoy best.

How Can an Artist Delegate?

It has me wondering how an artist might apply the same principles in their own work. How can I do the same?

When I shared the Michael Hyatt article with my wife, who sells Rodan + Fields Dermatology products, she told me she would like to get to where she can hire someone to do the laundry and put it away, do our bookkeeping, clean the house, and do some cooking while she grows her business. And in a year or two, we will get there.

Likewise, I could probably offload some tasks such as website maintenance, a bookkeeper, and a manager.

And someday I’d like to take on an apprentice, who in a traditional artist’s studio does things like stretch canvases, prepare paint, and varnish completed paintings, all while being instructed by the master artist.

There are other things that I can outsource, such as photographing artwork and preparing it for the website.

Right now I don’t have the budget or infrastructure to support these things, but this is what I aspire to.

How about you? What are some things you can delegate so you can focus on your art?

“We do a kind of a baseball season”

October 4th, 2013

Recently on Back to Work, (Episode 134Dan and Merlin talked about how Fred de Cordova (from Late Night with David Letterman) mentioned how they approached the show’s failures and successes like baseball, since they do a show every night. In the NPR article he said they didn’t have time to get hung up on what went badly:

“If you do one show a year or one show every three months or one show every four months, you have an awful lot of time to realize what a failure you’ve been,” he said. “But we do kind of a baseball season: We do a show one night and we hope it’s wonderful, and if not that, we hope it’s good and we hope it isn’t bad. But even if it’s a great show or even if it’s not such a good show, we do another show the next night and we have no time, except in self analysis, to decide why it wasn’t good or even why it was very good.”

As an artist, this can by encouraging only if you do the work day in and day out. If you make art only when the mood strikes or infrequently, you will be more crushed by failure since you’ll have more time to worry about it rather than moving to the next project. Take stock and move on. Baseball players play about nine out of ten days during the regular season from April to September.

In other words, lower the stakes. Keep up the good work, and don’t give up!

Photo Credit: Werner Kunz via Compfight cc