Monday, May 18, 2015

The Seven Healthy Habits of Highly Effective Freelance Artists

So much has been written in career columns about how to survive as a freelancer, that it's daunting to offer any new insight.  How to stay positive amidst the slow periods? How to get things done when you're your own boss? How to say "no" to friends and family who think you're home on vacation?

While advice on these topics is valuable for the freelance artist, anyone who finds it a challenge to work independently at home will appreciate these SEVEN simple points as essential to your health and well-being.
1) Get 8 hours sleep.
In my twenties, I would deprive myself of sleep, thinking that I could accomplish more creative artwork if I could sleep less. Twenty-plus years later, this same behavior will threaten to kill me. Caffeine, Ginseng and 5 Hour Energy Drinks are no substitute for what your body needs.  With 8 hours sleep, I'm less cranky and more able to deal with adversity than when I burn the candle at both ends. Sure, I still pull the occasional all-nighter when needed. But having a full 8 hours sleep is the key to a productive day. For creative night owls like me, this reality was a hard one to accept. Listen to your body when it craves rest. You will enjoy the stamina you get in return.

2) Write it down and get it done.
I keep a "to do" list of things I must do every day, and star each in order of priority. In this manner I can balance my day and quickly recollect what I need to accomplish to stay on the success path. Write down your dreams, your goals, your plans. Make a separate list for today's goals, short term goals and another for long term goals. You are more likely to reach them once you can verbalize them and put a deadline to them.

3) What do you listen to while you work?
When I'm cranking out frame after frame of storyboards for my latest commercial spot, I've got to determine what background noise will make me most productive. Music sites like Pandora, iTunes, podcasts,  audio books (LibriVox has public domain audio books that you can download for free), or my CD collection all provide choices to complement my mood. TV show reruns, movies on Netflix or DVDs like Family Guy, Star Trek or Columbo are great for those late night deadlines. It's key that you've seen the program previously, so you aren't compelled to watch while working. Directors commentaries add an informative listening experience that will entertain you while conditioning you to embrace your workload. 

Listening effects your work speed and concentration levels. Know what makes you productive and what slows you down. What you listen to is as important as when you listen to it. Although I love BBC World News, I can feel myself shifting to slow gear after an hour or two. In this case, I'll change my state of mind and my physiology by jacking up some Blondie or B-52's.  In some cases, silence may be all you need. "Know thyself" and you will feed the artist within.

4) Break regularly.
I've learned that working long hours builds stamina and promotes artistic break-throughs.  But sitting too long in one position isn't good. Experts say a break every 25 minutes or so maximizes your focus. Get up and grab some coffee, take out the trash, empty the dishwasher… just step away for five minutes. If you don't, your neck, back, and hands will notice. Try hitting a deadline with a stiff neck, achy back, or cramped fingers…it ain't fun. Healthy habits will avoid that problem.  No matter how euphoric you may feel while painting your latest masterpiece, take breaks often. When you return to your desk you'll evaluate your progress with more objectivity.

5) Drink water.
Sounds boring doesn't it? That's because it is, at least for me. The only time I crave water is when I am parched with thirst. If that is your experience, your body is crying out for hydration. We all know muscle cramps can result from insufficient water intake, and who needs aching hamstrings when on deadline? If water doesn't tempt your palette, try adding a squeeze of lemon to each glass. It stimulates your metabolism and adds some flavor to natures' universal solvent.

In love with your favorite coffee blend? No worries. I love coffee and can drink it all day, and I would, too, if Chock-Full-O-Nuts wasn't so Chock-Full-O-Bad Breath. After one or two cups, wash those coffee beans down with a big glass of water. You'll feel a bit cleaner and healthier inside.

6) Exercise!
If you're anything like me, you let the exercise slip all too often. Jog, lift weights, jump rope like Rocky, shoot hoops, play Frisbee, rollerblade - whatever floats your boat. Stay active and hydrate. After a morning run or hike, I feel energized and focused for a day in the studio. And that habit from #5 is a heck of a lot easier to enforce, as your body craves water after fitness. If jogging is your latest thing, here's a tip: The app "Map My Run" is a free download for your mobile device that will help you track and measure your progress. You can share your results with other runners in real-time, which makes it more fun to exercise.

7) Motivate yourself.
How do you keep plugging away when you have an onslaught of storyboards to finish by midnight? Can't get through that dull bookkeeping or the next round of phone calls?

Whatever your task, find motivators to get you through each phase. Maybe 5 minutes of your favorite movie trailers, an after-lunch frappuccino, or a bite of that dark chocolate you hid in the freezer for special occasions may serve as a small motivator. The smaller and less frequent the reward, the more relevant it will be as an instant motivator.

It's important not to use motivators continually or they will lose their effectiveness. 
Dolphin trainers in parks like Sea World reward their mammals with a fish snack after every few tricks they perform. The dolphins don't know when their reward is coming, but the possibility of getting a snack any minute for their hard work keeps them motivated. This technique may be controversial, but it shows that the principle of random rewards is effective at bolstering peak performance. As a result, you are building good habits and experiencing a gratifying feeling of accomplishment. 

8) Socialize
I know, I promised SEVEN habits, but hopefully you aren't counting… .
Make it a habit to reach out to an old friend, acquaintance or family member on a regular basis. A five minute phone call to say "hello" helps reassure you that you are not alone in the world. Schedule a short lunch with a friend or colleague during the workday, or meet for a coffee break.

I have a daily ritual where I call one of my best friends  who I've known since fifth grade. We were clowns then and we are still clowns now. Although we have plenty of serious business and personal matters to discuss, every phone call is punctuated with seemingly pointless joking and humor. The light-hearted vibe that ensues reminds us that humor is present in almost any situation.

Old friends are like throwing on old pair of jeans, sneakers and a tee shirt. One always feels comfortable with them. If you haven't caught up with an old friend recently, make some time for it. Your soul needs it, your friendships will flourish, and your effectiveness at work will strengthen.

If these habits sound familiar, good for you.  If not, I hope you will find success with just ONE of them.
Ultimately, good habits mixed with talent and perseverance will lead to your freelance longevity and lasting career rewards. Good luck, and get busy!