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Anyone who knows me would describe me as organized. I can’t pinpoint when or how I became this way, but color-coded calendars calm me, spreadsheets are my love language, and an organized closet or kitchen space with items arranged by size, function, or season? That has always made sense to me in a way that the United States’ electoral college never will. I’m not The Home Edit, but I always have a to-do list, a schedule of deadlines, and larger goals in mind, even in the middle of the pandemic we find ourselves in.

However, despite my unusual persuasions, I don’t think I am doing anything too difficult to be replicated by other people. This essay is a collection of some of the methods I have found effective over the years that you can copy and adjust to your own life and goals. Lately, I’ve been wondering: How can we make working from home work for us as creatives? How do we keep making measurable steps towards our career goals in a time when it’s hard to focus? How do we recenter our work to ensure we are reinforcing our values daily? 

How can we make working from home work for us as creatives? 

Have a Morning Routine

Many people have written about the power of a morning routine. Writer and self-help guru Julia Cameron, of The Artist’s Way fame, has written about how her routine has changed as she’s gotten older, Lizzo has spoken to New York magazine about her obsession with watering herself every morning, and Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop has an entire column dedicated to what working women do when they wake up, among the legions of blog and news outlets that have covered the topic. What other people do in the morning is fascinating to us, and if you’re looking for inspiration, it’s out there in many a listicle or vlog.

But to back up a moment, what is a morning routine, and do you already have one? Most likely, yes, you already have a set of tasks that you do in the morning. But is it the most optimal series of activities for setting up your day to do the work you care about? Is your morning routine lying in bed and looking at your phone until you feel awake enough to make coffee? Is your morning routine tackling your email inbox right away? Do you workout first thing in the morning?

Consider this: the morning is the most creative time of the day for most people, and it is the time of day when willpower is at its strongest. Numerous experts suggest organizing your day to tackle your most challenging tasks first thing in the morning. Of course, it isn’t always possible to do whatever you want first thing in the morning—many of us have children or pets who require care upon waking—so think about how to balance self-care tasks along with familial obligations.

How can you make your life easier to manage with a little advance planning? Some small examples: Are you someone who hates waking up? Buy a coffee machine with an automatic timer so the knowledge that there is coffee already waiting for you motivates you to get dressed. Are you someone who aspires to work out first thing? Lay out your workout clothing and fill your water bottle the night before. Are you doing anything immediately when you wake up that could wait until later in the day? If you feel constantly rushed, consider where you might be wasting time in the morning on tasks that could happen later when you feel more alert—a classic example of this is preparing lunches the night before. Finally, consider if you can wake up any earlier than you already do in order to approach your day more deliberately or, if you prefer, more leisurely.

If you’re at a loss as to how to organize your routine, some basic building blocks that are effective for many people include making your bed, taking a shower or bath, having a gratitude practice, moving your body, caring for children and pets, preparing food for the day, eating, reading, meditating, or engaging with a creative practice. You can include as many or as few of these that make sense for you. Your morning routine can be a few seconds or it can be a few hours, it’s totally up to you. But like any other good practice that you want to become a routine, you should design something that you can repeat. If you know you want to exercise and eat a full breakfast every morning, it’s probably not practical to also plan to take a bath and read a chapter in a book. Decide how much time you have each day, how early you can commit to waking up, and which activities are of greatest importance.

If the examples above are not enough inspiration, I‘ll share my own quarantine morning routine, which is the result of several changes, and I imagine it will continue to evolve as my lifestyle does. Right now, I wake up and put on workout clothing. I walk our dog, Theodore Roosevelt, and try to feed him (his morning routine includes ignoring his food and watching squirrels out the window of our rowhouse while our cat, Charlotte, tries to eat his dog food). Then I pour myself a cold brew, which I made the night before, and make a full breakfast. I typically eat my breakfast while watching 15 minutes of a truly trashy television show. I used to open up emails during breakfast, but now I like to wait a little longer and give myself this time to relax. Since I no longer leave the house for anything but essential errands, I often take a few minutes to clean up the living room and water the plants. Tackling small household tasks in the morning helps me feel like they are manageable and not something waiting for me after a full workday. I clean up my breakfast and, depending on what day it is, I either answer pressing emails or work out with a friend over FaceTime. I have alternating activities following my daily routine because I have several different jobs and I’ve found I value the flexibility to choose what I am doing first based on what feels like the hardest task and what else I have scheduled for the day.

[Image: Author’s dog, Theodore Roosevelt, ready for his walk but never for his breakfast.]

 

If you do not take care of your own needs first, you will burn out, it is just a matter of time.
Suzy Kopf

I hope my ordinary example underscores that you should not wait for life to go “back to normal” to establish or curate your morning routine. If you usually have a commute but don’t right now, take advantage of this extra time to create a routine you love. Humans often delay things we want to do, that we know would be good for us, because we think the future is uncertain. That is true, and nothing proves that sentiment like COVID times, but consider how having a routine and establishing daily practices will make you feel more grounded and better cared for in this anxious time.

Common obstacles people experience when establishing a morning routine are feeling they can’t take this time for themselves, being unable to disconnect from their phone or email for any amount of time, and feeling unable to wake up with enough time to do anything but rush out the door. Let’s address the morning exhaustion problem first. I am not a morning person myself. I like to stay up late and I have never enjoyed waking up earlier than 7:30 a.m., which some would consider “late.” This is why my morning routine takes about an hour each day (maximum) and is focused on maintenance tasks for myself, my dog, and my home. I am disciplined enough to know that by virtue of having workout clothing on already, I will exercise at some point during the day. So if you often feel rushed, consider building a routine that is shorter and helps you feel prepared for the day ahead. If waking up early to meditate is not going to make you happy, don’t do it!

Disconnecting from your phone or email can be challenging if you work for yourself or have a bunch of clients you feel responsible for at all hours. I’ll cover this a bit more when we arrive at the second question below, but consider how few true emergencies you probably encounter in the morning. Who will know if you are not on email until 9 a.m., or whenever you conclude your routine? Consider putting your phone in another room or turning on Do Not Disturb mode until you have completed your routine. Alternatively, you can also delete or turn off notifications for apps that you spend too much time scrolling on.

Feeling like you cannot take the time to have a morning routine is a common response, and the suggestion that you might actually have time after some rearrangement makes some people angry. This is why I suggest waking up earlier, eliminating tasks from your morning that can be done later, and creating a shorter routine than what some celebrities who are paid to look incredible have time for. I will conclude with the often-repeated mantra that “self-care is not selfish.” If you do not take care of your own needs first, you will burn out, it is just a matter of time. Build the life and career you want now by taking care of yourself in small ways daily, whatever that means to you. 

The more specific you can be about why you have a boundary, the more likely someone is to understand and honor it.
Suzy Kopf
Image Credit: Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images. People relaxing in Dolores Park in San Francisco.

How do we recenter our work to ensure we are reinforcing our values daily? 

Set Good Boundaries in Your Professional Life

Boundaries come up constantly in the field of modern self-care with a lot of experts weighing in that boundaries are among the single most essential things you can do to protect your time and mental energy, especially now, when many people are working from home for the first time. For this guide, I am suggesting a couple of professional boundaries and how to establish them, but much of what I’ll mention applies to long-term happiness in all your relationships.

Expressing a boundary in a professional setting establishes expectations. When clients and colleagues know what to expect from you, they are prepared for the outcomes you are going to provide and can plan their own lives accordingly. You need boundaries because it is human nature for people to take as much as you are willing to give. If you always give other people what they are asking for with no regard for your own wellbeing or protection around your time, it is not sustainable for your career as a creative person.

In my own life and career, most of my boundaries are set around protecting my time. For example, I tell my students on the first day of class and in my syllabi that I will not respond to emails outside of business hours or on weekends. I explain that I typically can answer an email during the workday within a couple of hours, but that after-hours emails violate a boundary for me as I am living where I work now and need time away from email to recharge and actually design lesson plans. I believe by letting people know what I will not do, they understand better what I will do. Calling attention to the perimeters of the relationship, I believe, outlines when people’s expectations are unreasonable without forcing me to say so directly. I always make my boundaries known early in a relationship, whether it be in a syllabus, a contract, or through a shared calendar. Your professional boundaries will look different from mine, but the main objective is using a stated boundary to protect your time, sanity, and ultimately, wellbeing. Make sure you are letting the people in your life know what you need to be successful.

The greatest obstacle in maintaining professional boundaries is other people. The other obstacle is you. Most people tend to avoid confrontation, so when someone imposes on their boundaries, they fold immediately and do whatever is being asked of them—answering emails on the weekend and overscheduling themselves to accommodate other people’s timelines.

Here are my three main tips for holding onto your boundaries once you’ve already stated them:

1. Consider if someone has just forgotten you had a boundary and gently remind them. For this reason, I do answer all student emails regardless of the timestamp in the first couple weeks of a semester as students are reading numerous syllabi and getting used to new structures. I state in my email response they need to consult the syllabus to review appropriate times to email me. I also make sure that I am not violating my own boundaries when I email them, so all responses are typically sent out at 8 a.m. when my office is “open,” even if I drafted them the night before. Another common example of reminding colleagues about boundaries they may have forgotten is if a meeting is scheduled to end at 10 a.m. and it’s already 10:15 a.m., it is not rude to mention to everyone that the meeting is running over and ask for action steps to wrap it up.

2. When you introduce a boundary, be sure to explain why you’ve established it for the specific audience it applies to. The more specific you can be about why you have a boundary, the more likely someone is to understand and honor it. For example, I tell fine art clients that I cannot complete commissions in less than a month because I want to be able to do my best work for them. I often explain the steps I go through in painting and give them a ballpark estimate for each component so they understand I’ve thought about and know my boundary is based in realism and designed with the intention of always being able to deliver what I promise. It’s hard to argue when a boundary has been set with the goals of all parties in mind.

3. When scheduling, offer limited choices. As I noted earlier, people will take as much as you give them, so consider where you can give less. When scheduling interviews and meetings, I typically offer two weekdays at two different times. This lets the other person know generally what my schedule looks like and that I am committed to scheduling our work together. It is not necessary to offer anyone unlimited choices, and by preemptively suggesting meeting times, I am curating my schedule with intention. This prevents me from having to schedule a studio visit with another artist on the weekend when I want to be in my own studio, or having back-to-back administrative meetings after teaching all day.

Two examples of a Monthly (left) and a Daily (right) to-do list.
The daily to-do list has really helped me focus on what I can control in these uncertain times and make measurable progress despite being distracted and sometimes depressed.
Suzy Kopf

How do we keep making measurable steps towards our career goals in a time when it’s hard to focus? 

Write Better To-Do Lists That Make Your Goals Achievable

I have always been a list maker. It’s a natural way of organizing my thoughts and priorities into actionable steps. I write and rewrite to-do lists almost daily because I enjoy the rush of finishing a task and physically crossing it off. Sometimes, the act of writing something down makes me realize I either do not have to or do not want to do it at all, and that is valuable as well because any task crossed off is no longer taking up mental energy as a “maybe” to-do. I write down all tasks large and small—with the exception of routine items that occur daily.

At any given time, I have several different lists going in several different places. This works for me but if having multiple lists sounds overwhelming, just start with one.

My List Types:

1. Yearly/Monthly: I have a spreadsheet of my goals for the entire calendar year where I track, month by month, my progress towards these goals. I keep the spreadsheet on my desktop so I can review it monthly. This spreadsheet allows me to see that I have made progress on certain personal goals even if I forgot what I specifically did a month later. For example, in 2020, I reintroduced leisure reading into my life by reading a book a month. Halfway through the year, I felt sure I wasn’t meeting that goal. Reviewing my spreadsheet reminded me that I actually averaged two books a month. You can download my Excel template here and fill it in with your own goals for 2021.

2. Weekly: My weekly list is divided into four categories: Life, My Full Time Job, My Teaching Commitments, and My Art Career. An example of a life item would be getting my car registration refiled or oil changed. A teaching task is grading an assignment or responding to an email, and a task for BmoreArt would be editing a profile or updating our newsletter. Tasks for my art career involve writing grants, getting works photographed, or completing a commission. Everything on the to-do list is important, but some tasks are reoccurring, like the BmoreArt newsletter, and some are rarer, like renewing my car registration. In a given week I try to accomplish tasks from each section so I stay in balance but I acknowledge that in some months, certain categories will take precedence over others—when we’re working extra on putting out a print issue of the magazine, I don’t have any studio time for a while.

3. Daily: These are the tasks that I have identified as needing to get done sooner rather than later. I try to be as specific as possible, so for emailing, I might write “email:” and then list the names of everyone I need to email in a given day. A daily list mixes together the most pressing tasks from each of my categories and I have a tendency to write them on a smaller piece of paper or post-it. I’ve noticed that if I give myself less physical space to write the list, it is more likely I will accomplish most if not all of the items on it in a day. Writing a list that is longer than you can practically accomplish is discouraging day after day, so try to learn what a normal load is for you and aim to write lists of that size. Acknowledge that some days might be devoted to only one or two to-do list items but those just happen to be more long-term, larger items that require more time and focus. The daily to-do list has really helped me focus on what I can control in these uncertain times and make measurable progress despite being distracted and sometimes depressed.

4. An Any Time List: Items on the Any Time List are the pond scum on the surface of life—they are things you could do anytime but because you could do them any time you never do them at all. They generally are tasks that don’t take particularly long to complete, but you put them off because you’re too busy with other things that feel more pressing. The items on this list may feel silly to write down, but once they are out of your head and on paper (or in a list app), you will feel calmer and more able to focus on the bigger-picture items. Examples of some items currently on my Any Time List are creating a new login for my library so I can start checking out audiobooks again, creating a Linktree for my Instagram, and ordering flowers for a friend’s upcoming wedding. I know I need to do all of these things but as long as they happen in the next month, I’m fine. To tackle the items on this list, I schedule an hour one day a week to do the whole list or, if that feels impossible in a busy week, I aim to accomplish one task from this list a day.

It’s important to acknowledge that this is an extremely difficult time when a lot of us are feeling stressed and exhausted. It’s best to try to accept that you may accomplish fewer personal goals than in a typical year. If you’re sad or anxious or experiencing job insecurity, don’t expect as much from yourself as you do in better times. Focus instead on tasks that you can do even when you’re not feeling creative. Can you organize your space? Can you edit documentation photos? Can you work on an application? There’s always some administrative task you can do if you aren’t feeling like making new work. I wrote an article with my colleague Mary Negro on this topic early in quarantine. Finally, set yourself up for success as best you can, employing the strategies I’ve shared: Establish a morning routine, practice setting boundaries, and write effective to-do lists. Make sure you have space to work and take breaks. Engage in activities you enjoy even if you’re stuck at home, and break up your day with different kinds of tasks. Cook for yourself, go on walks, talk to friends on the phone—make sure you’re engaging with your life as well as your work to be happy and successful in the long term.

Action Steps for You

If you’ve made it this far and want to apply any of this advice to your own life, I recommend you do these two exercises to get started and essentially audit your current status quo to understand what you have to focus on:

1. Write an exhaustive to-do list. This can take a while and be done over several days. Start adding items to a Word document, in a Notes application on your phone, or in a notebook and keep it with you. Add every single task that comes to mind, no matter how large or small it seems. You will know you are “done” (at least for the time being) when your head feels empty and your anxiety ebbs (at least slightly).

2. Even if you are not a freelancer, begin tracking your hours for all activities and tasks you consider work. Again, this can be done electronically or analog as you prefer. Log every task, when you did it, and how long you actually spent on it. You can download a free time tracker app such as Clockify, Toggl, or HoursTracker and log in and out of tasks throughout your day. You do not need to log hours for leisure activities unless you’d like to. Work is not limited to paid labor—if you consider tasks like childcare, cooking, cleaning, and exercising to be work you’d like to track, add them.

Once you’ve completed these exercises, review your time data, and assess where you are and what you would like to change about how you’re spending your time. Organize your to-do list into separate, manageable lists by priority, and get to work. Good luck!

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