Be Your Own Project Manager

Art & GTD Part 2 of 5

If you read my post summarizing Getting Things Done, you may be thinking, “Okay, so GTD sounds great for somebody in an office, but what about an artist in the studio?

You’re right: office work is very different from studio work. Chances are, in an office, your work is handed to you. You’re given assignments. You’re expected to do certain things. In the studio, however, you choose what to do. This brings up an important topic that actually comes up in Getting Things Done — the three different models of work:

  1. predefined work
  2. doing work as it shows up
  3. defining your work yourself

Artists don’t normally “crank widgets” like people on an assembly line (if they do, it’s because they are mass-producing something like a handmade print or bronze castings). Many people at many jobs do things as they show up, but artists don’t usually do that, either. I’d say most artists define their own work themselves, deciding to work on this piece or that piece, unless commissions happen to turn up, and that’s becoming more rare these days given the current market. No, fine art is not pure “knowledge work,” nor is it pure production. It’s somewhere in between since the artist pours a good amount of mental energy as well as physical effort resulting in a tangible object. (Sure, poetry and music are the most abstract and intangible of the arts, but for the sake of argument, they can result in definite deliverables, such as books and downloadable audio files, respectively.) The artist defines his/her own work. The problem of using GTD comes up for creative types is that it’s too “left-brained” and geared toward people who deliver some abstract, nebulous “product.” That’s why we need to tweak GTD a bit and take a few cues from the business world.

Become your own Project Manager

If you come from an agency/advertising/marketing background, this is easy to do: assign projects to yourself as if you were your own Project Manager or Creative Director. These assignments can be small. In fact, that’s recommended. All too often we become overwhelmed by doing some big piece of art that we stall. I like Anne Lamott’s idea in Bird by Bird where she gives herself the task of filling up a square inch of the page with words. That’s it. It’s a lot easier to handle than the gargantuan task of “Write novel.” It helps to break things down into steps, as we’ll see in a moment. You can also “gang together” some small projects that help you achieve the bigger projects you have in mind:

  • Stretch ten canvases between now and March 1
  • Brainstorm (thumbnail sketches) 5 or 6 ideas for a series on “nightlife”
  • Brainstorm (mind-map) a dozen themes to explore