I’m on another train, bound for another UK university. It’s crunch time in the world of education, the home straight.
One benefit of being established as a freelance illustrator is that I’m invited to talk at universities, colleges and industry events. In the past eight days, it’s been Plymouth, Coventry and Derby. The shortest ride of which is 1.5 hours on the East Midlands service to Sheffield, calling at Derby. I get off these trains with a feeling of accomplishment, ahead of where I need to be on my schedule. It doesn't matter whether I’m editing illustrations, writing columns or planning for a talk, I’m blasting through my to-do list at warp speed. I can’t help but ask myself what am I actually doing with my time in the studio then?
On each ride, there is no kettle, no option of walking up the corridor to see if the furniture maker has brought in his dog today. The kettle, for example, represents a number of threats; you never know who’ll be there to ensnare you in a conversation about how busy you are, or the weather. It provides hot beverages on demand and in winter, this becomes a way to survive, not just quench one’s thirst.
Without even leaving the studio, there’s my mobile phone, loaded with the triple threats Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, whilst my desktop computer contains my entire music library.
In front of my desktop, propped up against it is my Google Nexus tablet, on which I watch the WWE Network, essentially wrestling Netflix. It’s not uncommon for me to rip through 20 hours of content on that in a week, whilst I draw, but sometimes I find my pen is not hitting the paper during the more riveting moments.
The point I’m trying to make is that I need to work on my self-discipline. I work hard, for the majority of the week, but these train rides remind me that if I can fine-tune my singular focus, I am a machine, the same workhorse I was when I first had the carrot of a full-time creative career dangled.
On one hand, we cannot always be at the peak of our powers, but without an external authority figure to keep us in check, the danger of wasting time and not maximizing our hours spent creating is very real.
The theory is that is we work hard in short bursts, taking regular intervals, we will be more effective and these train rides suggest there is a great truth in the idea. My mistake is to confuse hours spent in the work place with productivity and after three hours of staring at a page, pen or screen, my attention span wanes, leaving me susceptible to the aforementioned threats.
With a looming arrival time on platform 6 ahead of me, I am in the zone, working effectively, aware of constraints. I know that with a day spent lecturing the students, my luxury of ten hours in my studio is gone. So I must maximize these windows of opportunity.
I feel it’s about time I changed the way I structure my day. 1.5 hour bursts where no viewing or kettle breaks are permitted, then a 10-minute opportunity to do what the hell I want.
There’ll always be room for responsive activity. There is only so much planning we can do in such a multi-faceted and unpredictable creative industry, but whatever the task is, I think a degree of separation from outside interference is healthy. I always said that I was far harder on myself than any manager I ever had in employment, but it’s time to be smart and order my working style to get the most out of any day. There are fewer more soul-destroying feelings than a ten-hour day spent in the studio, only to lock the door, leave and spend the bus ride home wondering what the hell it was I actually did with such a chunk of valuable time.
Ben Tallon is a freelance illustrator, author of Champagne and Wax Crayons: Riding the Madness of the Creative Industries and host of Arrest All Mimics, the Original Thinking and Creative Innovation podcast.
He works with WWE, EMI, Channel 4, The Guardian and The Premier League among others.
Want to hear from Ben? His recent podcasts will resonate with freelancers and creatives looking to hear from likeminded leaders in the industry. Visit: https://soundcloud.com/arrestallmimics