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The Craftsman’s Schedule: Tailor Made for Artists

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Jonas Altman is managing partner at the firm Social Fabric who writes about the future of work. We asked him to share insight into two types of working styles: the Craftsman’s Schedule, which values sustained periods of interruption and exploring wherever your art takes you, and the Manager’s Schedule, which focuses on smaller periods of work time with a lot of checks to make sure you’re focused on creating a final product. 

There are really two types of schedules as it concerns today’s designer. The Craftsman’s Schedule is defined by uncertainty. It demands sustained periods of uninterrupted work with intense focus. The Manager’s Schedule is characterized by reliability. It generally caters to shorter periods with emphasis on monitoring and controlling. When you try to dance between the two however, there is a struggle for priority.

In our attention-hoovering world, few makers can maintain the pure Craftsmen’s Schedule. Like many artists, they suffer from Manager’s Schedule creep — manifested as an endless cycle of meetings, administrative requirements, and other chronic distractions that prevent them from getting on with making.

In our attention-hoovering world, few makers can maintain the pure Craftsmen’s Schedule. Like many artists, they suffer from Manager’s Schedule creep — manifested as an endless cycle of meetings, administrative requirements, and other chronic distractions that prevent them from getting on with making. Rest assured there are several hacks that can help you find — and stick — to a Craftsman’s Schedule that works just for you.

Artists gravitate to a ‘workmanship of uncertainty’

David Pye, a former Professor of Furniture at the Royal College of Art, proposed a style of work known as workmanship of certainty. It alluded to the mass-production process. When a product is developed it cannot be changed (without a lot of heartache and expense). In stark contrast is workmanship of uncertainty, which caters to the ambiguous creative process where achieving a final and precise outcome is continually at risk. This mode of workmanship is generally adopted by artists, designers, scientists, writers, and makers of crafts.

As a creator, you likely subscribe to a Craftsman’s Schedule because it places unpredictability at front and centre stage. It helps exploit your full creative talents and refine your ability to move with dexterity amidst constant change. Cultivating and mastering this fluid way of working will become the key trait that distinguishes you from the herd of other designers.

Doing deep and not shallow work

Shallow work refers to tasks that don’t require a lot of mental focus. This style of work flexes your logistical skills and is important for defining scopes of work, dividing labour and coordinating among teams. In the right measures, designers (working solo or within a team) benefit from these inputs. However this mode of work is much less cognitively demanding than deep work, which requires a sustained focus and depends upon your unique artistic skills.

In many ways, how you move between the two styles is determined by your self-discipline. If you fail to design and adopt the conditions for doing your best work, it’s likely because you lacked awareness and did not deliberately choose when, where, and how to do it.

artist at work
Perhaps the key to success is reminding yourself to block out — completely block out — time for creativity.

Time-blocking your day is the hack. Simply group your work into blocks of time, say for example an hour and a half, and bear in mind when it’s optimal to execute a particular activity. You can then shovel all your shallow, manager-style activities into a 90-minute block in the late afternoon. This leaves the entire morning as well as other times of the day free to perform long stretches of deep, craftsman-style work. By experimenting with different schedules and measuring your performance, you will discover what works best for you. The end result is safeguarding your most creative times and ensuring you don’t break your flow.

Deliberate practice vs. deliberate rest

Deliberate practice is necessary to become better at something. Likewise, learning how to best manage your time is itself a skill to master. And setting an intention — what you want to have happen — is not reserved for yoga classes. It is just as relevant to your average workday as it is to your entire life.

Setting an intention — what you want to have happen — is not reserved for yoga classes. It is just as relevant to your average workday as it is to your entire life.

If you think scheduling leisure time is not a high priority, you’re wrong. Research supports that when you get busy (like real busy), your attention is hijacked. You simply can’t exercise good judgment on how best to spend your time. The net outcome of course is that you often end up even busier with increased anxiety. Planning a recess not only boosts creativity as your mind works through problems in the background, it reduces your feeling of time pressure all together. Chance does favour the prepared mind. And as it turns out, a bit of slacking can help you direct your attention to what matters and stay calm amidst the storm.

‘Taxing’ people who take up your time

I met a ghostwriter who has a great job writing articles on behalf of the CEO of a large company. Faced with a long commute each morning to the office, she’s expected to arrive at 9 a.m. She must be creative within the confines of a spirit sapping environment that only values work performed in predictable and traditional ways. Yet it is well known that our circadian rhythms are nuanced and that inspiration does not always strike at regular times or places. Studies have shown that so-called “morning people” are actually better at solving creative problems in the evening. The point is that precisely how and when you do your best work is wholly unique. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.

To help earmark creative time as sacred, I propose a form of creative tax levied against head contractors. Upon establishing a suitable level of trust and the accountability it implies, the parties agree on the circumstances for how you do your best work. The emphasis is placed on the quality of your output, irrespective of where and when you work.

If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. But as those chunks get separated and fragmented, my productivity as a novelist drops spectacularly. — Neil Stephenson

Indeed, a few companies like The Gap and the Minnesota Department of Transportation have already adopted this results only work environment (ROWE). But for the majority of companies that are still holding on to an antiquated model, should they in your opinion violate this new mutually agreed protocol (by pulling you in or interrupting you for unplanned shallow work) they must pay a fine perhaps in the form of some employee benefit or charitable contribution. Pretty nifty, but the actual tax is less important than what it signifies. Those who so often place their own time above yours — and in effect drain you of your finite resources of attention — will likely think twice before interrupting and having to account for the tax payable.

Know which schedule you use and when

The question to ask then is: How do I optimize for creativity? Staying sensitive to both your own rhythms as well as the demands that others continually place on you can help you decide which schedule to utilize and when. Quite possibly, it’s a hybrid Manager and Craftsman Schedule that may take place on alternate months or weeks or perhaps even within the same day.

Finding the most conducive space (both literally and figuratively) for doing your best creative work will involve experimentation. But it is bound to work wonders in helping you become a better designer. The real challenge is revising your type of schedule and your time blocks as you, your colleagues, your work and the world around you continues to change.

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Reading List

While you may simply want to shut out the world and draw, successful professional artists and designers find ways to block out their time for creative work while still getting essential, sometimes boring details of work completed. Here are a few excellent essays and excerpts from artists and thinkers that can help you find the right balance:

Why I am a Bad Correspondent by Neil Stephenson

“If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. But as those chunks get separated and fragmented, my productivity as a novelist drops spectacularly. What replaces it? Instead of a novel that will be around for a long time, and that will, with luck, be read by many people, there is a bunch of e-mail messages that I have sent out to individual persons, and a few speeches given at various conferences.”

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out by Richard Feynman

“I have invented a myth for myself—that I’m irresponsible. I tell everybody, I don’t do anything. If anybody asks me to be on a committee to take care of admissions, no, I’m irresponsible, I don’t give a damn about the students—of course I give a damn about the students but I know that somebody else’ll do it—and I take the view, “Let George do it,” a view which you’re not supposed to take, okay, because that’s not right to do, but I do that because I like to do physics and I want to see if I can still do it, and so I’m selfish, okay? I want to do my physics.”

Creative Time and Space: Making Room for Making Art by Rice Freeman-Zachery

“Important—think of yourself as an artist! Whatever you have to do to convince yourself that this is who you really are, do it. Think of yourself that way, all day, every day. . . You are not an accountant. You are an artist who does accounting. You are not a doctor. You are an artist who also practices medicine and does a really good job of it. But inside, you are an artist. Let that out. The artist wants to be recognized.”