A New Survival Strategy – the Artist’s Edition

Hello, Friends! It’s been a while. Today I’m thinking about strategy. (Really, I’ve been thinking about that for a long time—but now it’s taking priority.) The reason? A couple of weeks ago, I had a bone-crushing headache that wouldn’t stop. I have migraines occasionally, but this one was different. No matter what relief tactics I tried, nothing worked. The headache lasted all day. All night. For four days. 

It was terrifying because it was relentless. I thought the worst, of course: all the words I don’t even want to think about, let alone type. I’m superstitious and don’t want to attract these things, but I most certainly thought them. Each time the headache would subside for a half hour or so, I’d try to do something like check my email, and a kernel of pain would bloom behind my eye.

Screens, I thought. My problem is screens.

As I lay on the couch for these days, unable to do anything except try not to think about the awful pain that pounded in my head, I thought hard about how I spend my time. Nearly all of my work depends on looking at screens. I write books; I edit manuscripts for clients; I draw on an iPad for illustration work; I do graphic design for clients; I handle Etsy orders and do all kinds of administrative tasks that require an internet connection. 

The result? I easily spend 10 hours a day looking at a screen—from the time I’m awake to the time I go to bed. I have glasses that help, but apparently they don’t help enough. 

When the headache finally stopped, my partner and I left on a trip we’d been planning for months (there was a moment of course, where I thought this trip would not happen because the pounding headache wouldn’t go away). We’d go to see his parents, and stay for 3 weeks. I promised to take two of those weeks as “vacation” time. It would not be a glamorous vacation, but it would be this: NO SCREEN TIME. 

Okay, not “none.” Who am I kidding? But these were the rules: 

  1. No work for two weeks. None. Period. 
  2. Screen time shall be limited to 2-3 hours per day. This includes email, social media, etc. 
  3. You will get outside at least once a day and take a walk. 
  4. You can read for an unlimited amount of time.
  5. If you even get a whiff of a headache, you will step away from the screen and do something else. “Nap” is an acceptable activity.

Meanwhile, a friend suggested this: Make a list of things that you’d do in your ideal workday. List start and end times, and be specific. This made me think hard about how much time I wanted to spend doing certain activities each day, and how much time I ACTUALLY spend doing such things. (For example: how many times a day does one need to check her email? Not every 30 minutes, as I have the habit of doing while I’m rotating between other onscreen tasks.)

The result? I actually succeeded in taking that time off. I even took a mini road trip with my fella, in which we explored a bit of Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, and stumbled on the mural in Dubuque, featured above. We didn’t do very much, and you know what? It was just fine. I accomplished very little, enjoyed the time we had together, and the world didn’t implode.

I’m now in Week 3, in which I’m trying out my ideal workday. (Spoiler alert: it does NOT include 10 hours of screen time.) This week feels like a kind of limbo period. There are plenty of things I need to get done, and plenty of tasks on my to-do list. But here’s the thing. I’ve decided that I have to be okay with getting fewer tasks done each day, or each week. Every day cannot be a sprint. Working for myself has been freeing in a lot of ways, but paralyzing in others. One side effect of that has been the compulsion to work longer hours, well into the night. But my body has been telling me lately that that is a terrible roadmap: finding balance is critical, and learning when to say “enough” is critical, too. 

So my new rule is this: limited screen time each day. Whenever I start to feel pain behind my eyes, I stop what I’m doing at the laptop and go do something entirely different or—gasp—rest. Because we should allow ourselves to rest and recover. It’s a hard habit to break, but I’m making myself do this so I have a sustainable life working for myself. It turns out my inner boss is kind of a workaholic, but I’m forcing her to chill out a little and slow down. Not every single task has to get accomplished each day. I’m only human, I tell her. Not a machine.

There’s this highly quotable phrase that freelancers use sometimes—it’s almost folklore at this point, and usually stems from “The print shop where I used to work had this saying…” The best stories claim it was printed on a sign on the printer’s desk, and said printer would frequently point at it as she spoke with certain clients. On this mythical sign (in beautiful typography, I imagine), was printed “Fast. Cheap. High-quality. Pick two.”

I have to remind myself of this sometimes, even as I work for myself. From myself, I demand high quality, all the time. I also want things done quickly. The expense, it turns out, is the toll that takes on my body. Sometimes it’s just fatigue and a little pain, but at what point does that expense become too much?

I know a lot of us out there must feel this way: the pressure to work harder, longer, and spread ourselves too thin. I know that’s not sustainable, and now I’m giving myself a new challenge: be gentler, work smarter, and treat myself like I would my best friend: with kindness and care. 

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