How to Keep Your Day Job and Your Artistic Life Totally, Completely Separate

by Leigh Anderson
Originally Published: 

And Trollope, who stuck to rigorous daily writing goals, would certainly not be distracted by Facebook and ads for “Wide-calf boots for 29.99!”; he would not waste a moment wondering how the Ad Overlords knew he had wide calves; he would not tweet a dumb joke about wide calves and find, when he looked up, that he’d frittered half the day away. No, Trollope managed to knock out dozens of novels during his 25-year tenure with the post office, and he didn’t even have an iPhone helpfully finishing his sentences. Every day was Nanowrimo for Trollope.

Be like Trollope. Be ruthless: Your writing or your painting or your music comes first. The day job, not so much. How many times have you gotten caught in workplace dramas that then seeped into the rest of your life—but looking back you were like, “WTF did I care about that stupid job and whether the coke-head manager had scheduled enough servers or not?” No, it’s time to draw a bright line. Below, eight strategies for keeping your day job from intruding on your artistic life.

1. Embrace the ritual of starting your workday—and don’t be half-assed about it. Don’t be all, “this is my time to paint, but I’m also going to make a grocery list and chat on the phone to my sister.” You have to carve out time and space for your artwork, and as my friend Misha says, it has to have a ritualistic aspect to it: This is my three hours to paint; I adjust the lighting, I turn on my music, I turn off my phone, I start.

2. But do take half-assed notes all the rest of the day. Here’s where devices come in handy: While you’re working the bread-and-butter job or running errands, jot down literally anything creative that comes to you, even if it’s gibberish like: “What about a fish vending machine.” Don’t expect you’ll just remember these sparks of genius, because you know you won’t. Hum a melody into the voice memos. Even if you sound like a crooning lunatic, you’ll have it later when you finally do sit down at your piano.

3. Be nocturnal. Or an early bird. Identify when you’re most productive. Those are your art hours. Find a day job that works with that.

4. Have a day job you don’t loathe. The misery of a restaurant job in which you cry every day because the kitchen throws potatoes at your head? That’s going to intrude on the rest of your life. Try to find a day job in which you’re productive and useful and don’t want to hurl your apron at the bartender and flee.

5. Finish the day with your wheels pointing downhill. My friend Melissa used the book Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day for inspiration while she was completing a major writing project. One of the tips: Finish the day with your wheels pointing downhill. Stop in the middle of a sentence or somehow otherwise know exactly how you’re going to start the next day. This will keep you from being like, “Hmm, don’t know exactly how to start today, I think I’ll get a coffee and Google ‘wide-calf boots'” and then before you know it you’re in an uncomfortable conversation with Jack Black on Twitter and the morning’s gone.

6. Get a separate email account (and phone number, if necessary) for the day job. Don’t check it unless you’re on the clock. Don’t be Facebook friends with people from your day job. Just don’t think about it when you leave.

7. Be ruthless about scheduling. Especially if you have kids, mark time in your calendar that is for your art-making. Nothing else intrudes on this—no pediatrician’s appointments, no runs to the grocery store. I’m often tempted to knock off writing 15 minutes early to dash out and buy some weird ingredient for dinner. This is because I feel guilty about writing, and if I whip up some fiddlehead fern and marzipan gnocchi that will make up for neglecting my children. But they are perfectly fine with fish sticks, and I’m going to be miserable if I don’t get some good work done. So there. Keep your ass in the chair for the last fifteen minutes. Do not Google any weird recipes.

8. Do not Google, period. Do not do anything at all on the Internet. Turn off everything, ringers, notifications, alerts. If you need to look something up, write it down on a piece of paper and look it later. Chances are it’s not that important.

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