Remote work gives us a greater degree of control over our time and our environment. We’re responsible for each hour and we can better control the distractions in our day. Having spent the past four and a half years working remotely, I want to share three good practices we can develop during this time and not disintegrate into a state of Purrell-fueled state of anxious semi-distraction. We can come out of this pandemic with better habits to carry forth into our work, or we can come out with worse ones.
Take a break from all the stress and let’s shine a spotlight at what’s well within our control. The rest of this piece is best paired with a green tea or hot chocolate, your pick.
Stick to a Maker’s Schedule.
Schedules keep anxieties at bay.
Days at home can often devolve into just doing whatever crosses your mind in the moment. We feel busy in the moment but we feel a loss of agency over the long term, being steered by the rhythm of the day rather than any long term goals.
Most of us operate on two types of schedules—a maker’s schedule and a manager’s schedule. Time on a maker’s schedule is typically divided by half to full day units. Time on a manager’s schedule is carved into hourly blocks. By default, most companies operate on manager’s schedules, where (in-person or virtual) meetings and check-ins punctuate the day.
The situation right now (if we’re lucky) gives us an opportunity to experiment with setting a maker’s schedule. Instead of being plugged into Slack or email all day, we can batch these check-ins at times we designate and notify our team in advance. Instead of working around meetings and in-person distractions, we can dedicate quality time to our craft first and slot in everything else around it.
Block in a half day or a full day to a single project, client or personal, it doesn’t matter. You’ll quickly find that a project you would have done in a semi-distracted eight hours can be knocked off in four. Maybe less. It’s easier to get better (and more) creative work done on a maker’s schedule, because you don’t prod your brain with distractions and you allow yourself to follow all the possibilities that unfurl in front of you when you stick with a problem for long enough. As artists, we need to favor the maker’s schedule, because we’re measured by the quality of our craft, not the quality of our management.
Aside from quality time spent on our projects, a maker’s schedule also helps us—
None of us are strangers to ping-ponging between live coronavirus updates to chatting with friends to worrying about when the toilet paper’s going to run out (I have four rolls left as of writing this). It’s no surprise that our usual lack of focus when times were sane is made worse in times of stress. There is no better time for us to claw back some ground.
Working remotely gives us a chance to control for distractions. No coworkers can stop by and ask you a quick question. No art director can come by your desk and ask how things are going. We have the power to pick one thing to work on—without distractions—at a time.
If we’re animating a scene, we can just animate that scene.
No music, no podcast, no videos playing in the background. You can feel what’s it like just to put all your attention on this one scene. When you feel a tingle of restlessness, resist checking Twitter. It’ll be hard, and your brain will not like being deprived and it’ll send you into a bit of a temper tantrum. Resist the urgency of the Insta-feed. After about twenty minutes, something in your mind will relent, and you’ll drop into concentration and you’ll even start to find the work enjoyable. But not before then, because we’ve trained ourselves to be entertained as the norm, not the exception.
When we can focus, we can blaze through a client project when others are still booting up their Macs. When we can focus, we can confidently make plans for our projects knowing we will actually carry them out. When we can focus, we are unafraid of the difficulty that comes with pursuing original work.
Original work… that brings us to:
Don’t Run Away from Solitude.
Exercising our own judgment without the immediate feedback of others is the crucial benefit of solitude. Building trust in our own judgment develops our understanding of our tastes, which develop into a personal creative vision. It’s this personal vision that allows us to create original creative work that is different from everyone else’s—it’s a compass by which we can reliably navigate when everything else is in flux.
I saw the exhibition of Freud’s self portraits in Boston before the pandemic shut museums down. His was a genius of prodigious output, painting most days of the year until he dropped dead. Freud dedicated his life to painting figures (and some plants), persisting in the face of unpopularity for decades as galleries and dealers fawned over the abstract expressionists. Freud mused, “I think being alone is very important. I am on my own most of the time, and that’s when things in my head can go forward.”¹
What went forward for Freud were paintings that took months to finish, layers upon crusty layers of paint over dozens of sessions with sitters. It was his central personal vision developed in solitude that allowed him to fully concentrate on his work for decades on end; things allowed to grow and mature undisturbed in their own time “gives you a depth of possibility which is more potential than seeing new sights, however marvellous and exciting they are.”²
Solitude affords us an intimacy with ourselves that far surpasses that which is gained from only exposing ourselves to what’s new, what’s external. Solitude allows us to trust in our own judgment of whether something is good or bad; it allows us to cultivate our own standard for excellence. This training allows us then to pursue our own original work and push ourselves not because we’re striving after others’ validation, but because we are exploring that ‘depth of possibility’ within.
So there we have it. Three ways to help us call forth what opportunities lay in these strange times. I hope you’ve enjoyed your tea or your hot chocolate and I hope these words find you in good health.
- Feaver, W. (2007). Lucian Freud. Rizzoli. pp. 457.
- Ibid., pp. 33.