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How to balance full-time work with creative projects

A guide to finding the right day job, protecting your time, and building creative habits.

How to balance full-time work with creative projects
[Illustration: Sunny Eckerle for The Creative Independent]

This guide was originally published on The Creative Independent, a growing resource of emotional and practical guidance for creative people. See more of their guides here. Illustrations by Sunny Eckerle.

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“Teacher burnout” refers to a state of chronic physical and emotional exhaustion brought on by prolonged periods of stress. Combined with low wages, inadequate funding, and disheartening educational policy, burnout has resulted in eight percent of teachers in America throwing in the towel over the past decade.

As a teacher myself, it’s been interesting to reflect on what keeps me coming back to the classroom, five years into this difficult yet ultimately rewarding job. What it comes down to, I think, is that teaching is not the only thing that keeps me going. In my opinion, relying solely on a day job or career to fulfill your ambitions and keep you mentally stimulated is risky business. Instead, I like to incorporate a smattering of fulfilling creative projects within my day-to-day life to help me keep my teaching job in perspective. And while it isn’t always easy to do it all, there are ways to balance things out.

Over the past few years, in addition to teaching full-time, I’ve managed to finish a master’s degree, start a record label, contribute to various publications, and release/perform music as Nassau. Through it all I’ve practiced, failed at, and re-tooled strategies for balancing full-time work with multiple creative side projects. In this guide you’ll find a handful of takeaways for staying sane, organized, and intentional while trying to do it all.

Be honest about your 9 to 5

Your day job matters a lot

It really does! The average person will spend over 90,000 hours, or about a third of their lives, at work. With another third of our hours spent sleeping, the time we actually have for “living” seems modest at best. If you’re holding down an unfulfilling 9-5 with the primary ambitions of supporting yourself and your creative work (versus building a career in that area), ideally this job should provide you with at least one of three things: more time, more resources, or a skill set that will help you be successful in your creative endeavors.

As you contemplate what type of day job might make sense for you, consider the feelings you’ll want to have after completing a shift, or after heading out from the office. Probably “drained, grumpy, and sick of everyone” are not feelings that are on your list. So think about it: What type of work or situations might you seek out that wouldn’t leave you in a bad mood after working? By spending some time brainstorming about the job that could be a nice complement to your personality and side projects, you’ll put yourself in a better position to find the right type of gig.

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Before returning to teaching, I held an office job in NYC that left me deeply unfulfilled. My frustration and uncertainty about what to do about it translated to me generally being a grump around others. This disgruntled attitude also affected my relationship with friends, partners, and family. When it came time to write a song, article, or even do trivial tasks, I approached them with the same aversion I had to my job.

Have patience and enjoy the ride

Finding the right gig to nicely balance with your personality and creative work isn’t going to happen overnight. As you work towards finding the right role, pause and reflect on your thoughts and emotions whenever possible. In each type of positions, ask yourself: Were there new trends in your behavior? Did you notice an uptick in your creative work and productivity outside of your 9-5?

As you think about what type of day job might make sense for you, a simple exercise to try starts with taking inventory of your skills and passions. Write them down. Go for quantity here: What are you good at? What comes naturally? Anything goes. Then look for patterns or themes. You may even group your skills into categories including “things I love doing,” “things I get paid the most for doing,” “skills I want to improve,” or “skills I haven’t used in a long time, but would like to use again.” Identifying patterns will enable you to honor and recognize the expertise you already possess, and can help you find employment that complements not only you as a person, but your creative practice as well.

As you do the above exercise, you should also be honest with your intentions, and even name them. Would you like a job that makes you lots of money? Expands your network? Gets you working with your hands? Trust your brain and your body–you’ll thank yourself when you’ve landed the right job that’s actually helping you get what you want (not just what you think you should want), and are also able to have time and energy to produce creative work you’re proud of.

[Illustration: Sunny Eckerle for The Creative Independent]

Get comfy with sacrifice and boundaries

Say “no” with confidence

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If you choose to really focus on creative work while continuing to have a full-time day job, chances are you’ll be sacrificing time for friends, family, partners, and all the other ways you could be spending your days. Growing accustomed to missing out takes time, but learning to say “no” to things–even when you truly wish you could do those things–is an indispensable tool for maintaining focus and productivity with your art. While many people have an intuitive desire to please others, re-framing how, when, and why we say “no” can create fewer distractions, protect your time, and even shift your own perception of the importance and value of your work.

Looking back on the first few years I lived in Brooklyn, it is remarkable how little work I produced as I fell victim to saying “yes” to everything–to every show, every party, every coffee, every beer. It can be a hard pill to swallow, but overcommitting will ultimately hurt you, your relationships, and/or your work.

Here are a few ways to make saying “no” part of your creative practice:

  • Teach people to understand that you may very well say “no” to their invitations. Instead of assuming that everyone expects you to say yes, flip the narrative. Experiment with making “no” a real option for you. Start small–say “no” to an invitation for drinks, or to a “quick phone call” that may actually completely interrupt your work flow. Once saying “no” becomes a real option, you’ll find yourself being able to do it with relative ease, and without feeling guilty.
  • Change “I can’t” to “I don’t.” Having some personal ground rules and boundaries for yourself can go a long way. Where “I can’t” comes off as uncertain, “I don’t” implies confidence in your routine. For example, try saying “I don’t go out on Sunday nights, because I always use that time to write,” instead of “I can’t make it tonight, maybe next time!” Using “I don’t” will make it easier to stick to resolutions and increase the consistency of your creative routines.
  • Get rid of the guilt. This might be the hardest thing to get used to (it certainly has been for me). Remember that saying “no” to friends and opportunities does not mean you’re doing something wrong; rather, it’s completely your right to decide how you spend your time. Examine your guilt, but don’t let it consume you. Most of the time you’ll find it’s not rooted in reality.
  • Important reminder: Saying “yes” is also always an option! If you find that you’re denying yourself experiences that you deeply enjoy just for the sake of working, you may need to re-assess your strategy. Use “no” with purpose, and make saying “yes” something that you can really get excited about.
[Illustration: Sunny Eckerle for The Creative Independent]

Time management and organization

Build good habits

Daily routines play a huge role in our creative successes (and failures). Chances are they’ll change repeatedly until you establish habits that are meaningful and attainable given the individual obstacles that tend to arise in your life each day. Personally, I’ve found creative routines to work most effectively when viewed as a place to start, rather than as a set of rules that can never be broken.

In general, the creative people I know come from two schools of thought: those who don’t work until inspiration strikes, and those who write, record, paint, or create even when inspiration is nowhere to be found. As someone who identifies with the latter, the following are habits that should support anyone looking to consistently flex their creative muscles. Honestly, the hardest part is just getting started–but once you start putting in the time, inspiration inevitably comes.

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  • Identify peak creative hours. Pick a window where distractions are minimal and your energy tends to be highest. Finding your ideal time block and sticking to it (without beating yourself up if you miss a day) is a great way to establish a creative routine. As an educator, I operate full-steam ahead from around 7am-2pm. After that, I find my energy waning. I’ve learned that other than occasional short bursts of energy after dinner, I tend to reserve my creative work for weekend mornings after I’ve exercised, meditated, and eaten a large meal.
  • “Done” is better than “perfect.” Watching highly creative friends fail to finish a promising project always makes me sad. Regardless of whether or not you ever plan to publish the work, it’s important to make every effort to see your work through. Even if your only goal is to create the seeds for creative work, that counts–having a “stash” of ideas to pull from (as Big Boi advises) can be super helpful when you think you’ve hit a wall. And, on days where it feels like nothing is coming to you, it’s refreshing to scroll through your journal, notes, or sketchpad and know your creative well hasn’t run dry.
  • Change your environment. The environment you make your work in impacts the quality and quantity of your work. If your creative space doesn’t support your goals and habits, it becomes increasingly difficult to make progress. A simple environment change you can make is to have whatever tools you need to create visible at all times. When you walk into your space, they should be staring you down. When I go downstairs in our apartment and all of my recording gear is set up, it’s rare that I don’t at least come up with one idea. If I come back from a show and leave my guitar and pedals packed away, it takes longer for me to get back in a groove of practicing and making demos. Pay attention to the barriers you create to getting started. Visiting other artists’ spaces to get ideas for how to re-arrange your desk, furniture, or equipment can also work wonders.
  • Start small and build slowly. Whenever I would hear about guitarists I admire who practice for multiple hours a day uninterrupted, I’d get frustrated–I couldn’t imagine having that much extra time in a day. Then I realized I was going about it all wrong. I chose instead to start with a version of the habit that was easy: practicing for 10 minutes a day. The next day, I went up to 15 minutes, and kept going until I was at the hour mark. Building on a habit on a small scale helped me comprehend that I actually could find the time in my day to put in the work. By only increasing the habit by small increments, the progress felt meaningful and manageable. I was also completely focused on playing and not on any one particular outcome. Remember the long game. You can chip away at creative work and over time, it will add up.
[Illustration: Sunny Eckerle for The Creative Independent]

Be realistic

*Read this section while listening to Cat Power’s “Nothin’ But Time (feat. Iggy Pop).”

You have more time than you think. Seriously. For someone who has never had a singular vision of what I should be doing with my life, accepting this was a big step towards putting goals in perspective and accepting that my curiosity for music, writing, and education could all be explored. Renowned rock climber, musician, poet, and writer Pat Ament describes just this in his 2017 Aquarium Drunkard interview:

“It’s like love. There is no end to the amount of love one can have. You can love multiple people at the same time, your mother and father, your friends, your girlfriend–but it’s the same with our pursuits. There is more than enough time in life to do more than one thing,” he says.

Ament also describes society’s need to categorize one another. “People are curious and like to define and understand a person. If one is good at a certain endeavor, people around him will reject any effort he makes to be good at another separate endeavor.” For those currently exploring a multitude of creative paths, keep on pressin’ on. You ain’t got nothin’ but time, and it ain’t got nothin’ on you.

To counter that, be realistic about your productivity. If your aim to increase your proficiency starts to make you feel crazy, you may slowly be entering the cult of busy. Are you actually having fun making your work, or has it become a box to check off a list? Try not to let your goals take ownership of your own well-being. A creative goal that served you a year ago may simply be out of sync with where you’re at now. Don’t forget to ask yourself “why” you’re doing what you’re doing.

[Illustration: Sunny Eckerle for The Creative Independent]

Go easy on yourself

Do nothing, be mindful, and get moving

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Sitting still is difficult for many people, and it always has been for me. I tend to punish myself for wasting any part of a day, and it’s rare that I’ll allow myself to just be. Even when physically sick, I retreat to the comfort of my to-do list. Vacations create a sense of urgency for me: I must see and do as much as possible when traveling to a new place. Sound familiar to anyone?

Only recently have I become more comfortable with letting my mind be still. Reading Roman Muradov’s illustrated book On Doing Nothing was a game changer for me. Through the lens of various artists, writers, and philosophers, Muradov argues that doing nothing is both easily achievable and essential to leading an enjoyable and creative life. While boredom can be debilitating at work, it certainly has its place in creativity. Our hyperactivity can often be a mirage, convincing us we’re being productive as we ascribe false status to our actions.

Downtime restores both drive and creativity, and provides a blank slate. It also gives your unconscious a chance to stimulate thought. Without time for reflection, we run the risk of psychological burnout. The following activities can yield surprisingly major results before, during, or after doing creative work:

  • Take a walk, drive, bus, train, or subway ride without a destination in mind.
  • Eat without doing anything else simultaneously–notice what sensations your body gets from the food you’re putting in your body. Chew slowly.
  • Find a quiet place to sit alone and listen to natural sounds.
  • Take three of the deepest breaths you’ve taken all day.

For years I filled every quiet moment with noise. Now, it’s the opposite. I look forward to moments of silence and tend to think/work best with ambient or instrumental music, especially when writing. If you’re looking to increase focus, an app I highly recommend looking into is called Environments. Released by archival record label The Numero Group, Environments is an ambient sound app based on extended field recordings made in the 1960s and ’70s by musicologist Irv Teibel. Sounds include country streams, gentle rain, and a wordless choir. Bandcamp also does a fantastic ambient music roundup each month. Their Music for Relaxation feature is a great place to start. In addition, Sydney’s Longform Editions curate an ongoing series of pieces of substantial length designed for immersive listening experiences.

If zoning out and slowing down aren’t quite doing the trick, never discount the power of getting your heart rate up. The benefits of regular exercise are endless, and often you just need to find the right type of sport or activity that fits your needs and personality. As a teacher, I interact with adults and children non-stop, and it gets to be exhausting. Because of that, I couldn’t imagine leaving my job and then participating in any sort of group sport where I had to interact with more people. Instead, running fits the bill perfectly. I enjoy it for its low cost, the minor barriers required to get started, and its solitude. Haruki Murakami’s book devoted to the sport outlines the clear connection between his work as a novelist and long-distance running.

If you’re a freelancer who works predominantly alone, you may be looking for some human interaction. TheWall Street Journal recently reported that team sports, followed by cycling (either stationary or on the road), are the best exercises to support mental health. Studies have shown that even walking for significant portions of time can improve cognitive efforts associated with creativity. Regardless of which exercise best suits you, try to build up a habit. Again, start small and build slowly.

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Get support, let go, and move on

After relocating to Portland, Oregon from New York City, I was reminded how valuable having a trusted support system can be. Leaving New York meant leaving family, established friend groups, and creative communities behind. However, I was also reminded of the excitement and fear associated with being a new person in town, and the work you must do to nurture new relationships and build a community around yourself. It’s still a work in progress, but after a year living in Portland, I am relieved to have found people I can rely on for encouragement, feedback, and motivation. Wherever you are, even if you prefer to work alone, don’t underestimate the importance of being vulnerable, open, and honest with others. In the words of the Staple Singers, “reach out, touch a hand, make a friend if you can.”

In terms of letting go and moving on when something isn’t working out, I can’t say I do either of these well, but would be remiss not to address their value. When I launched Singles Club–a subscription-based record club and music journal–with my best friend in 2013, I believed in the project so much that I refused to accept that it wasn’t a sustainable model. It tied together many of my interests and skill sets, so when it came time to put the project on indefinite hiatus, I took it as a failure on my part. I told myself if I just promoted our releases harder, or secured investment/sponsorship opportunities, that it could have continued. Now, I know that’s probably not true. Moving on was challenging, but I am proud of the cultural artifact we left in the universe. It taught me to stop putting so much weight on specific projects, and that sometimes letting go is the best thing you can do to move forward and prevent burnout–both spiritually and creatively.

In summary…

Finding balance between full-time and creative work is a process. Most of the time, you’ll probably feel slightly off center. That’s more than okay. Be kind to yourself throughout your highest and lowest points. Admit when you’re having a hard time, and then shout it from the rooftops when you’ve had a breakthrough. Share, lift, and shine light on the work of others you admire. Protect your time and your vision, and keep your name clean. Be grateful. You are who you’re supposed to be.

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