The Ultimate Guide for Making Art While Having a Day Job or Going to School or Otherwise Having a Life


If you’re working a day job or going to school AND making art, you’re my hero. If you stay positive about it most of the time, you’re my even bigger hero.


I know how tough it is.

Every day, it hurts you. It drains your energy. It makes you drag your feet. You’re exhausted. You’re cursing the universe. You’re trying your best not to hate your life, but it’s not easy.

Why should you have to spend so much of your precious time and energy on stuff that makes zero difference to anyone (or at least, to you)? When you have so much more to give? When you have idea after idea that you’d love to pursue, that would make a difference not only to you, but to others, as well?

Why should you have to chase bullshit when you’re made for so much more? When you feel like you have the secrets of the universe, if you only had the time to get them out and share them? If only you had more of your days to dedicate to working on what you love?

I know what that feels like. I know how awful it is.

Sometimes it makes you feel like giving up.

Butterfly girl

I’ve given up a couple of times. There have been periods where I had to say: I just can’t do this anymore. For now.

I knew I would come back, because I had to, but I didn’t know when. I had to set it aside. It’s okay to do that, if you’re breaking.


In some senses, I’m in one of those periods now. I haven’t written any fiction in months. I decided it was time to start focusing on connecting with people and learning and getting out there. I needed to look somewhere else for inspiration.

And you know what?

It’s motivating me.

I never thought motivation would be something I would have to think about. I never thought about how to work smarter, how to trick my brain into focusing more easily, how to set up routines that would get me putting words down on paper. I thought passion would be enough.

It isn’t.

In the past year, I’ve been studying motivation. I lost my job in May. It was a blessing, because I had been burnt out, frustrated, and stagnant.

I had known that it was time for a change for a while, but couldn’t figure out what change I wanted to make. Losing the job gave me a kick in the butt.

I started this blog; I started writing about stuff I’ve wanted to write about for years but didn’t think I’d have any use for.

I started reading a giant pile of books related to changing your life and chasing your dreams. Some of them are motivational books.

Some of them are business books. Some of them are books about how to be happier.

And I’ve noticed something.

I’m getting better at staying motivated.

I didn’t think it was something you could learn, but it is. You enhance the power of your passion by implementing a motivation strategy. You can learn what keeps you moving and pursue more of that, and you can learn what drains you and ditch it or change it. You can find the habits that allow you to overcome your blocks.

There are four sections to address: Work Smarter, Change It Up, People, and Dealing with Yourself. You’ll find some of the most important ideas I’ve learned in each section in order of importance.

Steal them, use them, let them improve you.

They work, I promise.


Work Smarter

guy blogging

Teach yourself to focus more successfully.

Your brain does not want to focus. Your brain wants to get away with the easiest route, the path of least resistance.

It will fight you. Learn to train it.

Do whatever you have to to teach that brain to simmer down and work on making art.

It will not be easy.

But there are two essential things that can help: In order to focus on a certain project, you must a) understand how important it is and b) have a plan for moving forward on it that includes daily doable goals.

Scott Dinsmore over at has a great article about how to focus. I’ve found a lot of the advice on his list useful, but when you have a day job, you have to be more flexible about how you approach things. You have a lot to fit in, every day, and sometimes what works for someone who’s doing what he loves full-time is not the same as what will work for you, with a different kind of schedule.

I used to think that focusing meant that I had to shut everything else out. A lot of people will tell you that this is the path to success, to creative work, to getting stuff done. Get rid of distractions. Accept fewer things into your life, focus on one or two, and get really good at those one or two.

That’s decent advice that can work in the right circumstances, especially when you are doing what you love full-time. But it’s not as doable when you have to work full-time and make your art (and clean your house and take care of your kids and eat and talk to your spouse or boyfriend now and then …)

When you take that advice to mean focusing on work to the detriment of all else in your life, it’s unsustainable. It might work out and be advisable for a couple of months, but beyond that, you need a different strategy, and the truth is that things like getting enough sleep and taking unplugged vacations and talking to other people and getting out in nature can help keep you motivated and energized.

Of course you have to do the work, and there is a lot of it. But the key is learning to focus better in the chunks of time you’ve set aside for your creative work.

It’s knowing what’s important to you and keeping that in the forefront of your mind when you plan your days.

It’s knowing what your limitations are and stretching them but not putting undue pressure on yourself for not being able to go beyond them.

It’s understanding that lots and lots of things outside of making art itself also feed the making of it; it’s seeing that it’s tougher to make art in isolation than it is when you’re connecting.

And, most importantly, it’s having a plan that involves a series of manageable goals — which you can start or continue on today.

Figure out a set of routines that works for you.

Every productivity article I read says you should do your most important stuff first thing in the morning.

As a result, I tried for years to get up early in the morning to write before work. It never, ever worked.

I am not a morning person. I do not get up early unless I am getting on a plane to somewhere unbelievably cool or going hiking in the mountains. As much as I love writing and want to make it my life, it wasn’t going to get me out of bed at 5 a.m. Ever.

I would much rather stay up late than get up early, so for me writing had to happen in the evenings after work. I found, however, that I had an easier time working in the evening if I had at least started doing some thinking about whatever I was working on during my hours at my day job.

So I tried to sneak in an hour here and there when things were slow, and if it was too busy otherwise, I would use my lunch hour to do some writing. That way, when it came time to write on the train home after work, I was already thinking about it and ready to jump in.

Tinker. Try different things to find out how you work best.

James Clear has a great post about rituals and routines that can help you get started.

Turn off your Inner Critic.

As a creator, self-doubt is your worst enemy. Get rid of it. Be like GOD in your art.

Do not listen to that voice that says you can’t do it. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

You can do it, if you go forth and do it and don’t let that devil get the best of you.

(I’ve had some requests from you all for more on this topic, so it’s coming soon!)

Learn to adjust your working methods based on the circumstances as much as possible rather than waiting for the perfect time/place/etc.

A lot of new writers wait for inspiration. If you want to have a career as a writer, you cannot wait for inspiration. You must make writing a habit. If you have a crazy schedule full of many things that all need to get done, you must learn to write whenever you can. Your Inner Critic only gets in the way.

When I was commuting back and forth from my day job, I wrote on the train every evening. Getting a jump-start, even in that busy environment, helped me stay motivated to keep working once I got home.

Use tools you love that make you look forward to getting to work.

Surely tools don’t matter that much! That’s what I thought when I was younger. Especially as a writer!

Notebook,  pen, I’m good. Here I go.

True, but not quite the whole story.

At some point when writing a book, you’ll need to organize. Notebook and pen don’t work so well for organization. Notebook and pen don’t work so well for creating a plot outline. Notebook and pen don’t work so well for storing research notes where you can access them easily.

So of course you work on a computer. Most likely in Microsoft Word. And you find out that Microsoft Word don’t work so well for those things, either.

What happened when I switched from using Microsoft Word to Scrivener is unbelievable. Read about it here: 1 Surprising Trick to Staying Motivated to Write.

Change It Up

reading on a Kindle

Keep learning.

You MUST keep learning. It is ridiculously important. Not only will the knowledge serve you well outside of making art, but worldliness is a great asset when making art, too. Plus, it’s fun!

“The problem is, most people view college as their learning experience, then they graduate into the ‘real world’; as soon as they’re done with college and out into the ‘real world,’ they’re done learning. I view life as learning. It’s all learning for me, all the time. I’m literally nonstop learning. Most people are like, ‘As soon as college is done, I’m done with books.’ I read books every day. I talk to people every day. I’m always out looking for new people I can learn from,” says Elliott Bisnow, founder of the Summit series, as quoted by Michael Ellsberg in his book The Education of Millionaires.

Read inspiring books.

Read books in related areas — self-help books about staying motivated or about being happier.

Read books about running a business (cause, you know, as a creative, if you want to make a living from it, you’re going to have to do that).

The Education of Millionaires by Michael Ellsberg really set me on fire; I took pages of notes of books to read that he recommended and have quoted him on Twitter. His thesis is that you don’t really need to go to college and that in fact it’s a waste of your time when you could be learning so much more from just starting a business instead — and he has the stories of countless successful people to back it up. I wish I’d had this book when I was in high school thinking college seemed like a waste of time.

Change your schedule when you need to.

So you have this (long, damn it’s so long) list of things to do, and some of it is your creative work and some of it is stuff you have to get done for other people to pay the bills or keep your relationships with them running smoothly.

You want to stick to the routines you’ve figured out for yourself, but today they’re dragging you down and you just can’t seem to settle into them.

Now that I’m full-time freelancing, I try to write 1500 words first thing every day, before I even connect to the Internet. Then I take a little break, consciously not letting it get too long, and then I do another 1500.

But some days I wake up and the struggle to write right away is too much. I need to move around first. So I do the laundry. I do the dishes. I listen to some music. It gets me going.

Then I sit down and write, later.

Now and then, it’s worth a try.

Routines can dampen your creativity over time, and changing them up now and then can help get those sparks flying again.

But — and this is important — never forget about the creative work.

Keep it in your head as you go about whatever other thing you’re doing.

I know that I have to get a certain number of words in for the day, even if right now I’m doing the laundry. I keep it in the back of my mind. I think about what I’m going to work on once I do sit down to do it. Then, once I’m ready, I’m really ready.

Fast Company has a few ideas for how changing things up can help here.

Change up what you’re working on.

This is another way to break up the routine to get those creative sparks flying again.

I often get stymied by trying to force myself to work on a particular thing.

(I have trouble finishing things. I love to start them. Finishing them is less fun. It’s more of a grind. It’s often good for me to have multiple projects that I’m working on at the same time — one specific one that I’m trying to finish, and others that are still inspiring me that I can switch to when I lose steam.)

Just like the “to do” list, there is a “to write” list. Certain things are higher priority than others. If you have a lot of deadlines, this gets tricky, but as much as possible, work on what you feel like working on. For me, sometimes it’s useful to just get words on the page.

I’ve been working on one blog post for weeks, and I’m resisting finishing it. It’s been a hard slog on an important topic, and I want it to be perfect, but organizing it has been an eyeball-bleeding experience, and I keep putting off looking at it again and digging in to the editing of it.

So for a little while today, instead of doing that, I’m writing this post. It’s more relaxed; I’m putting down thoughts. But it’s progress — and the progress will help motivate me to work on the other post later.


Oh, wait, those are penguins

Oh, wait, those are penguins

Connect with people.

I covered this in detail in my free e-book Spunky Misfit Girl’s Guide to Motivation and Inspiration (get it free by signing up for my email list here), but I wanted to bring it up again because I’m finding out how important it is and because it can be so tough for some of us.

For a video project she’s doing for her Kickstarter campaign, Brooke Shaden asked, “What is your biggest fear that’s stopping you from creating?”

My answer was that I’m afraid I’ll have to talk to people.

It’s not that I’m afraid of what they’ll think of me; I deal with that relatively well.

It’s the fear that talking to people will distract me from my work.

That it will derail my focus and make it impossible for me to retreat to my own creative space, as I’ve been doing for so many years.

But so far, since launching this blog in July, I’ve found it to be just the opposite. I’ve been surprised and delighted by the outpouring of support and how it’s been reaching me.

Connecting with people who feel the same way I do about making art and even about enjoying it has inspired me far more thoroughly than I ever could have imagined. I couldn’t do this on my own. It’s amazing, and the response is driving me to sit down at my desk every day with joy instead of burn out.

Listen to and pay attention to what your supporters say about you.

Do you know that there are people who think you are amazing? Who want to follow your every move? Who want to learn from you? Who hang on your every word?

If you find yourself saying, “No, there aren’t,” or “Yeah, I have a couple of those, but they don’t know what they’re talking about; they have a silly crush or fetish,” stop it right now.

I used to do that all the time without noticing what I was doing.

I blew off praise.

Especially high praise.

Anytime someone would tell me that I was elegant or super smart or certain to be successful, I would think (no way! I’m a klutz, or so? results are what matter, or pfft, shows what you know).

I had a terrible attitude about myself, much worse than what the people around me thought of me.

This year, I started listening. You know what I found out?

I have a couple of handfuls of die-hard fans already. I’ve had them for years, even before I shared much writing. They’ve stuck by me. They consistently tell me how great they think I am, even though prior to now I had been paying them hardly any mind.

I didn’t believe them.

I know you have those people, too. Look for them. Listen to them.

It’ll do you good.

Talk about your mistakes and fears.

Your heart tightens when you see this one, doesn’t it? Mine does.

It’s a tough one.

Let your vulnerability show.

I have three main bloggers I follow on a consistent basis, Brooke Shaden, who I’ve mentioned above; This American Girl, who writes about traveling the world and finally settling in Costa Rica; and James M. Sama, who writes about romantic relationships. I also follow Matthew Hussey via e-mail, Facebook, and YouTube; he’s more of an all-around motivational coach, although his focus is also relationships. (I’m a big fan of his book Get the Guy, not only for relationship advice but all-around “make your life better” advice.)

All four of them are real people to me. They share stories of their own failures.

Brooke, especially, talks a lot about overcoming fear. She asks her readers to open up about theirs. It’s refreshing. It’s honest, and it’s not canned.

It helps people understand what you’re going through, connect with you, and even help you.

More importantly, it helps you to express those emotions in a healthy way.

If you’re bottled up because you’re frustrated at having to work full-time or go to school full-time and try to make art, expressing those feelings is an essential part of dealing.

Let them out. Cry if you need to. Cry every night.

Don’t try to pretend you’re not feeling that, or you’ll lose touch with the spirit that drives you to make the art in the first place.

Dealing with Yourself

me driving the Mystic Whaler

Listen to that little voice inside of you that tells you what you need to do.

Don’t listen to the “practical” people who will try to talk you out of it.

You only have one life. You only have, at best, 70 or so good years to do what you love to do.

Do it now; don’t put it off.

Consider the alternatives. (They do exist.)

It’s easy to fall into a rut and think you “have” to keep working that day job to pay the rent.

But what would happen if you didn’t?

What other things might you pursue that would be closer to your heart?

Is there a way to start making money from your art now? Is there a way to at least start building an audience for your art now?

Be creative with your solutions. What do you know already that other people don’t that they want to know?

I recently read The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau. It’s full of stories of people who successfully started their own small business, sometimes from a very simple beginning. It’s a great, inspiring read.

Don’t sell yourself short.

Even your learning process can be of value to other people. You are figuring stuff out that other people aren’t, and some of them want to know about it.

Think about what you can give away or even sell now. Think about what you have to offer that solves a problem or meets a need for other people.

Seeing your own successes in action will help you keep moving forward.

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One thought on “The Ultimate Guide for Making Art While Having a Day Job or Going to School or Otherwise Having a Life

  1. I LOVE THIS. Thank you for sharing! I work full time, have a 12 year old (teenage mode most of the time) and I try to dedicate time to writing and doing photography so I relate to this 100%. I am barely hanging in there, but I try. I have done the same as you, focused on self development. I have ordered a book about speed reading and I will go an online course to improve my memory. All to be able to study some time to change my day job. I was writing a blog post about this very topic yesterday actually, not yet posted :).

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