How To Complete Your Creative Masterpiece Without Quitting Your Day Job

It may not seem like you have much time, but take it from these success stories: It does exist. Here's the lowdown on how to stop fantasizing about that passion project and start actually doing it.

Plenty of people fantasize about painting landscapes, writing novels, or composing songs—if only they had the time! But with 168 hours in a week, it’s quite possible to devote 50 to work, sleep for 56, and fit creative pursuits into the remaining 62 hours.

And while it seems that combining a job with creative work might be tiring, some people find the two complement each other. Writing in Fortune recently on "Why I Paint," Sequoia Capital chairman Michael Moritz reports that painting (which he’s done for years) "shuts out the world. If you are painting outdoors, the passage of time is marked by the changing length of shadows"—as opposed to a schedule shoving you along from one 15-minute meeting to the next.

So where can you make the time?

One strategy is to get up early. Moritz writes that "There is little better than rising long before breakfast and disappearing with an easel," and it’s a sentiment Amy Hatvany knows well. The author of five novels, including Outside the Lines (a Target book club pick for 2012), and Heart Like Mine, Hatvany until recently worked 50 hours weekly as the HR manager for a Seattle-area real estate company. She’d get up at 5 a.m. most mornings to write for an hour or two before making it to the office by 7:00 or 7:30. "I’m really very productive in the morning," she reports. "The editor part of my brain is still sleepy." Most mornings, she'd write 4-5 pages. "That adds up pretty quickly," she notes, and on weekends—when she could work for four-hour stretches in the morning before her children got up—"I would go back and see what was working and what wasn’t."

If you’re not a morning person, don’t fret. Jael McHenry, author of the novel The Kitchen Daughter, works full-time writing marketing materials for a Fortune 500 company. She also has a 15-month-old son. "I know a lot of people like to do morning writing time, but I’m just not wired that way," she says. Fortunately, these days, the baby goes to bed a little before 8, "and the rest of the evening is 100% mine." Sometimes if her husband’s gone, she’ll get a babysitter and "I’ll go somewhere else—somewhere with no Internet, no TV, it’s just me and the computer and all I can do is write. Some of the best writing happens then."

You can also seize time most people waste. Diarmuid Early wrote his PhD thesis in theoretical computer science while working in the London office of BCG, the consulting firm. "The vast majority of my study and of my writing was done on my commute to and from work," he says. "I would print papers off to read, sketch out theorems and proofs, and later chapter outlines, etc., and then do the actual writing." Meanwhile, "most of the people I shared the subway with did nothing at all for 20 minutes each way each day, or just did things to pass the time like reading Metro or playing iPhone games."

It might be worth rethinking your commute to turn this into work time. "When I moved to Deutsche Bank, and was in full write-up mode, there were two subway lines that would get me to/from work. The Central line went direct, and took about 25-30 mins total, including a bit more walking at one end, but was completely packed," says Early. Another line was more indirect and took 35-40 minutes, "but I could always get a seat." That gave him 30-plus minutes of uninterrupted writing time—and eventually his degree.

While it can be tricky to make the pieces fit, there are financial upsides to combining a regular job with a creative project. "The nice thing about having the day job is because of the money and security that come from that, if I need to take more time with the creative writing I can," McHenry says. "I’m not under pressure to produce"—her family doesn’t have to move to a smaller apartment if she doesn’t sell a book by January 1—"and I’m able to spend more time on a book, over a longer period of time, to make sure I’m 100% happy with it before it needs to go out." When a book sells, that turns them into a three-income family, and "we can do okay with that."

Of course, if you figure out how to create your masterpiece while working full-time, you may become so productive that—if you do decide to quit the day job—you may not know what to do with yourself. Hatvany took a "leap of faith," she says, and quit her job last year. She cranked out her next novel draft in a mere six weeks. "I still get up early and write even though I don’t have to," she explains.

[Image: agsandrew on Shutterstock]

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2 Comments

  • WG

    I know it's off topic but please could you let me know who the artist is of the piece in the banner of this article. Thanks.

  • tim a.

    Now thats setting yourself up for disappointment.  These folks are the exception, take a page from facebook, done is better then perfect and fail fast