How To Stay Productive as a Creative When Your Phone Stops Ringing
WORKING NOT WORKING
“Email everyone I've ever emailed, get panic attacks, check dozens of job boards, cold email people who won't respond to me, doubt my talents are worth anything, think about what life will be like when I can only afford to eat beans, assume the worst will happen, and go to the gym in the middle of the day.”
For many creatives between gigs, this checklist from a WNW Member probably looks very familiar. The phone has stopped ringing. That new email in your inbox is just a promotion from an airline. Your equilibrium has taken a dizzying hit. You’ve realized (yet again) that you’re not always fully in control of your creative career. Your world feels like it’s falling and you start to spiral.
It’s not surprising that the creative industry is consumed with feelings of imposter syndrome and listicles for “hacking into your potential to achieve optimum efficiency.” While a creative profession looks easy through an Instagram filter, it is often a demanding and relentless juggling act. And when the lights go off between acts, creatives are often left with their hands thrown up in despair. But after it happens enough times, you start to develop as much of a routine for the dry spells as you do when it’s raining money.
Given the Working Not Working community’s level of experience and talent, we asked our members how they stay productive when the proverbial phone stops ringing. The stats and quotes we collected will hopefully be insightful for your own process. We organized the responses into four main categories. These are just several ways creatives make their own luck during such stretches. No one approach is better than the other, but all will serve you well when the next call inevitably comes in.
Based on our survey results, the most popular way for creatives to stay productive during uninvited hiatuses is working on personal projects. It makes sense. Whether freelance or full-time, every WNW Member has made creativity a professional commitment. But all of the client work you take on can serve to inspire projects that don’t necessarily need to adhere to an audience, a marketing strategy, or external parameters for success.
“As a commercial artist I find it very important to always find time to develop my craft,” Los Angeles-based Designer Ana Gomez Bernaus tell us. “Client work is exciting because it poses a challenge to conquer, but it always comes with a direction to follow. Personal work is a playground. It’s a space where I can spend time experimenting with new styles, tools, or simply developing ideas I have on the back burner. Besides being a way of learning and evolving, it usually ends up paying off by bringing in new projects down the line. So when I have a dry spell, I look at it as time for my creative self.”
If the red tape has your creativity tied down, personal projects are a chance to let loose and experiment on your terms. Emily Parsons, a New York-based creative, uses downtime to work in an entirely different medium to flex new creative muscles. “I'm an art director by trade, and on my off days when I am not on a freelance contract (today being one of them) I keep myself busy by continuing to treat it as a creative work day. I like to exercise the opposite skill that I normally use professionally by writing as opposed to creating visual work. I wake up around 7:30/8 to take a morning jog and then work on a short story or a personal project until around 5/6 to keep myself sane and inspired.”
Creative Director Dan Jordan approaches personal projects with a potential client in mind and as an opportunity to make a statement. “As a writer, I feel it's important to stay sharp by crafting a McSweeney’s article, or something for the Shouts & Murmurs section of The New Yorker. It provides you with a new portfolio piece you can flaunt, plus makes you feel better when you binge 10 hours of Ice Road Truckers the following day.”
At the very least, personal projects can get you back in touch with the reason you started creating in the first place. And if you’re lucky, the personal project may catch the eye of a future client. It happens all the time with WNW members. They make a living off of a personal project they started one day when the phone wasn’t ringing.
Learn Skills, Get Inspired
Our members also like to add new skills to their creative arsenal, by diving into a creative course at General Assembly and on Lynda.com or by getting comfortable with new software. “I try to stay productive during dry spells by: 1) Developing creative work I want to be recognized for (my own work), 2) taking a class to elevate my skill set, and 3) looking at big picture concepts like researching the direction of where my industry is going to evaluate the needs of existing and potential clients,” says Kelsey Tyler, an Illustrator and Art Director in Brooklyn.
Creatives also like to use these times to stay inspired. It can be helpful to listen to podcasts that specialize in creativity for some quick inspiration. Or to leave your studio or office to go to a museum or exhibition. While you can learn a lot from each client project you take on, some of our members note that clients often want you to keep doing the thing you’ve already perfected. Downtime is the perfect time to take risks and hone new skills. It’ll also make you applicable to more clients...and more calls.
Admin, Network, Organize
When the phone isn’t ringing, you can play catch up on all of the less creative tasks that actually enable you to be a professional creative. That’s how almost a quarter of creatives weather these cold fronts. To turn a negative into a productive positive, your downtime can be put to good use by adding your latest projects to your portfolio site and Working Not Working profile, or by updating your Etsy shop.
Others take advantage of the range of meet-ups, conferences, and award shows that the creative industry puts on to network and get inspired. “I go to every professional event imaginable. Graphic design Meetups, AIGA meetings, ADDY awards, Creative Mornings,” Bryce Isaacson, a Salt Lake City Copywriter, tells us. “Going to design events makes a lot of sense as a copywriter: it keeps you involved in the creative community, exposes you to good work, and lets you meet potential partners. Plus, they’re usually hosted in good agencies. Having them on your calendar gives you something to look forward to if it’s otherwise blank.”
Or you can use this time to emphasize existing relationships you’ve already cultivated. “I've been on my own for more than two decades,” Orland-based Copywriter Jane Harrison shares. “And a single Mom for most of that time. One of the best tips is to go through old emails and write a note to as many past clients as possible - write about something related to them: their business, children, or interests. Try and keep new business in the warm call arena rather than the cold call arena.”
Finally, dry spells are a great time to get organized. You don’t have to Marie Kondo your office. “I'm a personal productivity fan and that's why I opened an Etsy shop all about printable planners,” Gemma Busquets tells us. “I noticed there are lots of printable planners on Etsy, but I wanted to design a shop for planners with a clean layout that would aid focus instead of distracting with decorations.”
Simply make lists, fill up a planner, and chart where you want to be going next. These activities can seem trivial at first, but they’re actually a great way to collect your thoughts, rank your priorities, and see a path to hitting your personal and professional targets. Using pen and paper to get your goals out of your head and give them some shape is a technique that Creative Coach Tina Essmaker encourages in her recurring Asking Not Asking column.
Self-Care, Get Outside
When we asked creatives how they stay productive during dry spells, we weren’t implying that you should always be clocking in even when you’re not. After all, we’re called Working Not Working. It’s okay to use some of your time “Not Working” to actually enjoy the feeling of not working. We were glad to see that so many creatives are willing to embrace the lulls, avoid further burnout, and check in with themselves.
Most of us are plugged into technology during every waking hour. Plenty of our members advise you to give yourself a reprieve. "Stay away from the phone all together. Put it down, step away,” Los Angeles-based Art Director Daniel Edelman advises. “I can't generate a new gig by staring a hole through my computer. Always have something totally non-advertising going on to fill up time. Volunteer, take an art class in a medium you're bad at. Go for a long bike ride. Just take the time to fully be away from your normal line of work if the work isn't happening. Don't sit around and pine for it.”
For others, like Los Angeles-based Director Austin Will, these quiet stretches feel almost fated. “Times I am not working are coveted. I see it as the universe giving me a little break. I spend time with my son, go to the beach, write, reflect, and focus on my personal work. Then I usually convince myself I'll never work again, start a dog walking business & eat only rice and beans for a week ... then the phone rings. Rinse and repeat.”
When you’re simultaneously living the dream and slaving away, nutrition and exercise habits can become an afterthought. But you’ll burn out not just mentally but physically if you don’t keep tabs on yourself. Plenty of WNW Members use these interludes as a chance to renew the good habits that they abandoned. Like Julie Vergez, a Producer in London, whose goal is to "work out to get back all the muscles I lost while spending hours doing recon on my computer."
Not Just Freelance
This isn’t something that only affects freelancers. Full-Timers are often in positions where they experience these periods of uncertainty of when the next project will come in. The only difference is that they’re still getting paid. Which is mostly awesome. But sometimes that creates even more pressure to be productive.
As San Francisco-based Designer Gabriela d’Amato describes, “Freshly out of college, I was hired to design at a large company that didn't assign me my first project until I had been there for two weeks. I grappled with SO MANY FEELINGS...‘Do my bosses & co-workers trust me? Am I just a seat-warmer for my future replacement?’ It took me a few years to understand that the work you do outside of the responsibilities of your role can define your value within a workplace. Since then I've learned to bring all my passions to work. I'll edit the company podcast or write a magazine op-ed. I became a designer to make things fearlessly at all costs; that's exactly what I intend to do.”
Even if a dry spell is one week for you and one month for someone else, the feeling of self-doubt and uncertainty will be much the same. But to reframe things a bit: a current dry spell for paying gigs can end a drought for other elements of your creative career and personal life, elements that once tended to will yield even more opportunities. And better ones.
When gig after gig is coming in, you’re inevitably neglecting essentials such as the administrative aspects of your work that position you for the right jobs, that one personal project that has the promise of a greater payoff, and the inspiration from exhibitions, books, and collaborations that can unlock an entire vocabulary of new ideas. And above all, maybe you’re delaying a self-care appointment that has the power to entirely realign you. Like New York Copywriter Ross Cauvel. “This week I went to a posture specialist! Believe it or not, after one lesson I'm already noticing a difference. I'd recommend it to anyone because gravity is relentless. I definitely believe moments of growth happen during the in-between times.”
Artwork by WNW Member Sam Rowe