It’s About Time

July 3rd, 2012 | Posted in Freelancing

I received this email the other day from a reader:

Hi Tom,

You are a prolific artist. I was wondering if you could do a blog showing the time-line of your normal work day? I think this might help to explain how you get so much done and what new artists, (including my self), might wish to emulate to achieve more productivity in their own pursuits.

Thank you for all your insight.

Tom Breitling

Thanks for the email, Tom! I thought this would make a good blog article rather than a “Sunday Mailbag”.

I can’t really put together a daily “time-line” because there really isn’t one that is consistant enough to qualify. Since everything I do is deadline-driven, I am usually working longer hours as various deadlines approach. I also sometimes get into time crunches when I either take on too much work, or when unexpected things happen on one job which pushes it into the timeframe of another. Then my hours can get ridiculous with all-nighters or several days with 3-4 hours of sleep a night. I usually get up about 6 am, check email and do a blog post if I didn’t have one done already, work out at 8, walk the dog, then after that it’s anybody’s guess. I can, however, write a little about time management (or lack thereof) and productivity.

I have a bit of a reputation of being both prolific and fast in producing my work. The truth is I suffer from the same time-management issues most self-employed people struggle with. There is no boss or time-clock dictating a freelancer’s day, so it’s up to the individual to keep on track. Some days I am better at that than others. Managing your time as a freelancer is an exercise in self-discipline, priorities, and responsibility. It can be so easy to put off working on a project using a variety of justifications. For me, two of the biggest offenders in that department are:

a.) thinking I have plenty of time to do that later, and
b.) getting distracted doing something else that should have been a lesser priority but suddenly seems very important to get done right now.

Both of these pitfalls I sometimes succumb to, among other excuses. I have found a few tricks to help avoid or at least minimize time-management issues.

Identify your Weaknesses

First, you have to recognize where your weaknesses are with respect to time management. Are there things that tend to distract you? If so, eliminate them from your environment entirely, or at least during certain stages of a project. For example, I often close my email program and sometimes shut off my computer completely when I am working on the pencils or inks of a job. I don’t need the internet to do these tasks (I can google search for reference with my iPad, and stay off the rest of the internet), and the distractions of emails and checking internet sites I frequent is something I don’t want when I am at the drawing board. Even shutting that stuff down for 3 hours or so will really help your productivity. The internet is a distraction for me, but shutting things down for a time every day helps greatly.

My major weakness is an odd one…I am reluctant to start a job. I’m not sure if this is some kind of fear of the empty paper, a deep-seeded insecurity, or what. All I know is it’s hard for me to sit down and get started on a new job. Once I do get started, then it is like a snowball rolling down a mountainside . . . the job gains its own mass and momentum, and then I can’t stop working on it until it’s done. There isn’t much I can do other than to stop messing around and get started. Even if that means I am just sitting at the board doing small, thumbnail sketches, I just have to start something. I’ve found the trick is to just begin moving a pencil over paper and get my head into the job, then it starts to flow.

Set Small Goals

Staying on task is also a challenge. I have to discipline myself to not get distracted by other stuff, even with the computer off. Going up to the kitchen to get a snack ends up being 3o minutes of putzing about, reading some of the newspaper, etc. I have found setting goals to really help with this. I don’t mean saying I’ll be done with a project by Friday. That is too distant and big a goal, and it is too easy to say “Oh, I’ll just work harder on it tomorrow and still get that Friday goal accomplished.” You have to set more immediate and smaller goals, ones that you can only make if you keep on task over a shorter time. Saying you’ll have the pencil sketches for a job done before you break for lunch, for example. Make these goals realistic and attainable, but don’t allow yourself not to meet them. I usually make two a day, one for the first half and one for the second, with a third if it’s crunch time for a job.

One other trick I use to keep on task is to listen to audiobooks during the parts of a job where I can share my attention between the work and the audio. I’ve written about this before, but the short version is that the story keeps me interested in sitting for long periods at the drawing board or computer when inking and coloring.

Give Yourself a Reward for Meeting Your Goals

I’ve found Scooby-Snacks to be an excellent reward for meeting a goal, except for the drool stains I sometimes leave on my board from the Pavlovian anticipation. If you have no access to Scooby-Snacks, you’ll have to come up with a less tasty alternative.

Seriously, I don’t mean getting to go out and buy a new laptop for getting your sketches done by noon. I mean simple stuff you deny yourself until you meet your goal. Like getting to turn on your computer again and check your email, and do a little web surfing. Or just getting to go make yourself some lunch. I often make it a daily evening goal that I can watch a movie that evening after dinner, rather than coming back down to finish my goal. As long as your goals are realistic, and you deny yourself the reward until you meet the goal, it’s a good motivator.

Make a List

This sounds ridiculously simple, but creating a daily list of tasks and timeframes, and crossing them off as you get them done, can be a big motivator. There is something psychological hardwired in most humans that makes them want to complete things when there are visual cues. Anyone with a “collector’s mentality” can relate. I know I get obsessive over my lists of tasks. For some reason it doesn’t work for me to do this with a to-do list on the computer. I need to have a handwritten list near at hand, that I am staring at when I raise my head. I physically cross out the task when complete. It’s almost as satisfying to cross off that last task than it is to have the actual job done. I’m sure Freud had something to say about that.

Make Important Time for Yourself

You would be surprised how much time is wasted throughout a day with little stuff like web-surfing for 1o minutes here and there, doing some meaningless task that could have easily waited until later, finishing that magazine article you started when you just meant to take a quick snack break, watching the rest of a show that was on TV when you went upstairs for a quick lunch . . . in other words doing stuff that isn’t really important but just taking up time. People always ask me when I find the time to work out, or walk the dog, etc. These are important things I make time for, and can do them guilt free because I just work on eliminating wasting my time doing less important stuff. Taking time for yourself and relaxing is very important. No one can work around the clock. However I just think to myself, would I rather play this stupid solitaire game a few times during the day, or save up my time and spend it with my family that evening, or go on a real long walk with my dog, or get to go out to eat with The Lovely Anna for the evening? Easy choices, and I can have plenty of time to do those things if I just manufacture that time by banking all the minutes I don’t waste messing around doing meaningless crap. I don’t add them up, I just stop myself when I am being sucked in by them by thinking of all the stuff I’d rather be doing with that time. I find that an easy thing to do.

The ultimate motivator is the deadline, of course. There is never any shortage of those, but I’d rather have a deadline be an issue because I have too much work on the board or that I spend a lot of my time getting the job right, than because I procrastinated or made poor choices with my time until the deadline became arduous. Meeting deadlines and doing good work are the two things that have the most direct impact on your career as a freelancer. Bad time management can lead to doing a bad job with both of those things, and that can hurt your very livelihood.

Finally, no trick or method will help you with time-management if you don’t stick to your efforts. No one is there to scold you if you blow off your goals and take the Scooby-Snack anyway. Eventually you have to decide you really want to better manage your time. That said, no one is perfect. I sometimes eat the Scooby-Snack even though my inks aren’t done yet. I just make sure those moments are the exception and not the rule.

By the way, what are you doing wasting all this time reading this long-winded blog post?? Get back to work, already!


  1. Dave says:

    Thanks for the good advise Tom.. I tend to suffer from the same reluctance of getting down to work, I know it’s a fear that I will enviably screw up anything I get started on, but then again sometimes I mess up and it comes out ok.. I try to remind myself of a quote my art teacher used to say “Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work.” Now if I can only roll out of bed before 11 AM..

  2. Richard says:

    Good post. As a self employed person, this whole post rings true for me.

  3. Tom Breitling says:


    Thank you for the very helpful advice. I’m going to start using several of the concepts you suggested. I particularly like the short term goal and physical listing ideas.

    Thank you for all of your post to my question. It gave me a lot to work with.

    Tom Breitling

  4. Joe Groshek says:

    Hi Tom, great post! I know the feeling about the procrastination of starting a new project, but once you start, it would take a fire burning the house down to interupt the flow of the piece coming together and then their is nothing more rewarding than being able to look at a finished illustration and knowing you did your best work on it! Also snack rewards, and walking the dogs are truly a nice break inbetween, I do the same thing, and find that when I get back on the drawing board, even a small break helps get those juices flowing again. Keep up the great work as always………Go Packers!

  5. Frank Pryor says:

    This was very informative and helpful in so many ways. Thanks as always for sharing your time and insights. Now where did I put those Scooby-Snacks…
    – Frank in Denver

  6. Tom Siler says:

    Great photo, Tom. . .It would make a great Norman Rockwell style illustration!


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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