The Dance of Work-Art Balance: The New Paradigm for Creative Professionals and Business Owners

What We Talk About When We Talk About Work-Life:

Work-life balance. It’s a phrase we’ve heard a million times. Its meaning toggles back and forth between cliche and exceedingly relevant, especially now that pocket-sized technology blends both worlds.

“Life” only refers to times when you’re not actively trying to make money. Relaxation, rest, vacation, family time, household building, leisure reading, entertainment, friendships, exercise, cooking, and so forth. You know what life is. You’re living it now.

Life happens outside of work, and work happens outside of life. But work has always been the thing the rest of life adjusts itself around.

But let’s pause for a moment and state the obvious: people can’t be crammed into these two little spheres or work and life. There’s got to be more to existence, right? A third so-called sphere? (If not a fourth, fifth, and beyond!)

Indeed, there is a third sphere that many forget about. You’re already familiar with it, though perhaps you didn’t realize you had access to it. In this third sphere, depending on who you’re asking, you’ll hear tell of an intriguing mixture of work and life — plus a bit of magic.

The Third Sphere

The third sphere is art — a space wholly unto itself because it is productive, but it isn’t necessarily “work.” (Or financially sustaining.)

For the small percentage of full-time artists, perhaps that doesn’t apply. Perhaps it is just “work” to them, and so “work-life” is a fair enough description.

But what about the group of us who are part-time working artists with other career passions (in my case, building a business)? Or the ones who are full-time professionals and full-time artists (albeit on nights and weekends). How do we find a Work-Art-Life balance?

Work-life balance is difficult enough to get right, but adding art into the mix poses an entirely different problem. We lucky folks who have a life, work (even if it is creative agency-type work), and an artistic practice have an added piece of the pie to manage. Or more accurately, we have divided what was halves of a pie into thirds.

But this is no static graphic on a powerpoint presentation. The work-art-life pie is constantly changing proportions; it’s an ecosystem rather than a recipe. Though I bet if you are the kind of person who has work that is also a career (rather than work that pays the bills strictly so you can focus on your art), the art sphere is the one that gets short-changed.

You can outsource a lot, but you can’t outsource sleep, commuting, your mom’s birthday, or the holidays. You can’t outsource earning money (if you find out how, let me know). You personally must show up for each of these life and work events — there’s no other option. And between work and life obligations, the slice of pie left over for art narrows until it’s mere crumbs.

What Usually Happens

For most of us, time for art-making doesn’t just magically appear on our calendars.

And even if it does make it into our calendars, it often doesn’t get honored.

When things come up, like a client wanting to talk to me, I reschedule the art to tomorrow, and tomorrow… and tomorrow. Because client takes priority… right?

Meeting the immediate demands of a client speaks far more loudly to our sense of survival than the quiet whisperings of our soul to get back to the writing desk.

So we keep ignoring that little whisper.

(Go on. Keep ignoring it. See what happens.)

Wait until you get depressed, spiritually constipated, quietly unhappy, or vaguely unfulfilled enough so that it becomes more painful to spend another day not letting your artist out than it does to actually show up.

Sometimes, this is necessary.

But I don’t recommend it.

So what’s a creative person with a work-art balance problem to do?

What Works for Me

I like to think of my Work-Shannon and my Artist-Shannon as two different forces. When they’re out of balance, they need to hash it out. You’ve got to let them talk to each other.

So here’s what I do to give them both a voice:

This is a technique I learned from Rachael Adler, who teaches at Waterfront Production House in Berkeley: Go to a table with two seats. One seat gets to be the Worker side of you, the other seat is the Artist side of you. Then have a conversation with both sides.

My conversation went like this:

“Hey Artist, what do you want to say?”

Artist: Goddammit I just want some time, some of your attention. Why can’t you give me 10 freaking minutes?!

Then I got up and put on my Worker hat.

Worker: You say you only want 10 minutes, but then you want more. And it actually hurts to tap into that quiet vulnerable side of me when I can’t give you the attention you need. I have client stuff that I have to take care of and I’m really stressed. I’m the breadwinner here and I really appreciate your contribution AND I have to make a living. So let’s make a deal. If you give me this week to focus, then next Monday at 6pm, I’ll sit down and have a playdate.

Then, and this is key, you have to keep your promise.

That’s what I’ve found has worked for me. Sure, sometimes it’s a lot less clean cut, and I have to go through lengthy, sometimes painful, sometimes hilarious conversation with myself so that all parts of me are heard. Our tendency, (or at least mine) is to shut out the artist voice in order to “be responsible.” Thing is, if that artist voice is inside of you, it’s just going to keep getting louder and more impatient.

You have to acknowledge that voice. But you also have to set boundaries. Though most of us who hear the “call of the artist” feel like we need to create tons of space for our artist selves, in reality, it’s all about balance.

So can you have your pie and eat it, too?

It’s Never Going To Be Easy

You don’t want to hear that, do you? That this work-art thing isn’t easy. The good news is, it does get easier. After awhile, you become more and more comfortable with the dance itself, rather than wasting your energy trying to figure out which one you should prioritize. Over time, it does become easier to listen to yourself and your truth to determine what’s working for you and not — knowing that you are in this for the long haul. The work and the art. It’s about mastery, not celebrity (though, you know, a little recognition wouldn’t hurt, right?).

My work-art balance may never be perfect, but like a dancer can only balance on one foot so long before releasing into a different shape, I know that the shifts and falls are not only part of the process, but beautiful in their own right. A choreography of imperfection. A dance of truth.