Organizational Tools for Self-Employment

In many ways, the dream of being an artist is the dream of being self-employed. Often when we think of working artists, we imagine a jet-setting life of all-the-time creativity. Sometimes that’s true, but statistically, that life isn’t the norm – not by a long shot. Being a full-time creative is about being a businessperson and entrepreneur. It’s about knowing how to manage yourself, how to diversify, and how to live within the confines you set for yourself.

Let’s break that down:

  • How to manage yourself
  • How to diversify
  • How to set boundaries

These are the pillars upon which successful artists build their businesses. 

My career, which has spanned nearly 10 years of successful “artisting”, has consisted of adapting as I go. Realizing what works and what doesn’t, fast and with smooth transitions, is the life of an artist. 

Here are my top 10 tips for becoming a successful working artist. Or, for working for yourself in general.

  1. Set boundaries. The self-employment life is alluring, largely for the freedom it will grant you. Especially if you come from a more structured job, it can feel all at once incredible and overwhelming to suddenly have no boundaries. The people I know who are self-employed have an insane work ethic. They know how to prioritize, how to set goals, and how to create structure. 
    1. Find your most productive 4 hours of the day. What time do you work best? Figure that out first. If your most productive hours are from 6am-10am (like me), prioritize those hours. Set your most difficult and, if we’re honest, least attractive goals for that time. You will feel naturally more energetic to get them finished. 
    2. Don’t let “norms” get in the way of you doing you. A lot of people I’ve mentored feel bad if they hate getting up early. My advice? OWN IT. If you’re a night person, utilize that time to get your work done. You don’t have to fit into a stereotype, and you’ll find yourself much more productive if you simply choose the times that are right for you.

2. Set goals. In this case, I don’t care if you’re not a goal-oriented person. If you’re not, it’s very likely that you will fail at being self-employed. You need to develop an amazing sense of forward momentum to be self-employed, and particularly as an artist. Your mind needs to be able to think in three ways:

  1. The past – note what tactics work and don’t work, but be willing to move on fast. Analyze every decision you’ve made and don’t make the same mistakes twice. Even when you find yourself making great choices, try not to rely on repeating them. Always move a step forward.
  2. The present – know what you want to accomplish day to day. 
  3. The future – this is where you can let your big dreams shine. Think about the dreams that you wish your business would embody. After you’ve thought them through, start to set long-term goals to achieve until you fulfill the largeness of the dream down the line. 

3. Manage yourself well. Managing yourself has a lot to do with goal setting and organization, but it has equally to do with mindset. It is your job to figure out how you work best (alone or in a group) and where you work best (from home, in public on a laptop, or in an office).  

  1. Set up the workspace you will thrive in. Don’t skimp. Many people, especially visual artists, are deeply influenced by their surroundings.
  2. Set up a ritual. Light a candle, put on background music, have tea or coffee, etc. Find a routine that brings you peace. For example, every time I light the candle in my office, my brain knows to settle into work mode. Every time I play a certain playlist of songs, my brain knows to settle into editing mode. It’s great to have comforting sensory cues to dive into work. 

4. Diversify, diversify, diversify! I don’t know a single artist – literally, not one single artist – who makes their living through one revenue stream. This is how I’ve made my money: print sales, licensing images for book covers/album art/website design/movie posters, commissioned images for individuals/bands/authors, writing books and articles, teaching workshops, motivational speaking, sponsorship and partnerships, and hosting retreats….That’s 8 categories, and a total of 14 different ways that money might come into my life.

  1. How can you diversify? Think of the ways in which your passions can be profitable. I’ll share a more in-depth version of this topic in the future. 

5. Plan, list, calendar, go. “But Brooke, I’m not a list person.” I. Don’t. Care. One thing all self-employed people have in common is they run a tight ship. Either they hire someone to take care of these things for them because they know they don’t excel at it, or they get better at it. I was not an organized person. Some would argue I’m still not. But I have learned how to be a list/calendar/planner person. 

  1. Get a physical daily planner. You might balk at this, but my experience is that if I write it down physically, it feels more pertinent and important. It sticks in my head better. I am absolutely addicted to crossing items off a page. 
  2. Sync an online calendar. I use Google Calendar for my appointments. I have reminders set to email me 20 minutes before my meetings. I write copious notes about said meetings in the calendar event. I sync my calendar with my husband and a friend who helps me out when I need it. 
  3. Make a long-form to do list. I also use the Google suite to do this (tasks in the email client). I keep my everyday items that I want to accomplish in my daily physical planner, but I keep my long-running to do items in my more permanent list in Gmail. These items include things like: Emails to follow up on, people to pay or request payment from in the future, prints to ship, etc. Things that can’t be done today, but need to be done soon.

6. Get your email under control. Seriously. Are you listening? I used to be the worst at email – it would sometimes take me months to write back to people. I lost jobs, contacts, and respect by operating this way. Then I hired an assistant, and things got better, but still weren’t perfect. Then I lost my assistant, and I took over again 100% alone. Guys, I work entirely alone. I have no help. IT CAN BE DONE!

  1. I have a 48-hour email policy. To be honest, it’s more of a 24 hour policy as I almost always respond on a daily basis, but I do take weekends off, so times can vary slightly. Choose a time frame that works for you and stick to it like your career depends on it. Spoiler: it does.
  2. Choose a time to write your emails. I write my emails first thing in the morning. I feel most refreshed then, most eager, and it is the beginning of my peak productivity. I thrive off of getting emails done first thing. It makes me feel mega-accomplished and I love that I can essentially ignore my inbox for the rest of the day. 
  3. Write email templates. I get a lot of emails that are essentially the same requests. For example, every single day I get an email from a school student who wants an interview for an assignment. There is no way I could answer all of those emails in the way they want, so I made a template. I send a generic, although very helpful, response to everyone. It essentially says thank you, that I’m busy, and it lists a bunch of links to interviews I’ve done so that they can find what they need there. 
    1. Think about what emails you get that you could streamline. Is there a generic response you could copy/paste to them? I save my templates in my email drafts folder and use them as needed. Another template I use frequently is for print requests. 

7. Artists, keep charts. I don’t know how you feel, but I feel a deep, intrinsic repulsion to excel spreadsheets. 😀 In all honesty, I really don’t love keeping them, but I so appreciate that I do. Before you even get your business up and running, or if it already is and you need to check yourself, implement the following:

  1. Print Sales Spreadsheet. I keep a detailed list of all the images I’ve printed, where they are (with me or a gallery), if they have sold, when they sold if so, what edition the print is, what size the print is, what paper it is printed on, and the title of each image. Set up this spreadsheet asap and you’ll never lose track of your print info. I use Google Drive for all of this so I can access it anywhere, anytime, from any device (pending internet). 
  2. Licensed Image Spreadsheet. Similar to above, I have a sheet that tracks what images are licensed (the terms, the date, the image, etc.). 
  3. Income tracker! I’m the worst at this one. Anyone else feel a little yick when it comes to money tracking? My aversion is terrible. It’s not attractive. You know what is attractive? Getting paid what you’re due. Track the money you are owed, and ask for it, too. 

8. Create pricing handouts. When I say handout, I mean digital. For example, I have a pricing sheet for my prints that I can pass on to buyers, galleries, and design agencies. It’s a simple JPG that I email to anyone asking that states my print information, sizing/editioning stats, and prices. If you want to make money, chances are you’ll have to state a price. Making a price sheet is a great way of showing someone that you already have prices established and they will be less likely to haggle with you. 

9. Find a healthy reward that motivates you. It’s easy to get your emails finished with the promise of cookies afterward, but we can’t very well eat a bunch of cookies on a daily basis. Find a way to motivate yourself that is healthy for you. I have three main ways of motivating myself. One is to go to the grocery store. It sounds weird, but I LOVE grocery shopping. It’s one of my favorite things to do out of the house. If I have a task I’m particularly dreading, I take myself out after to do some meal planning. Either that, or I go for a hike. The second thing I do to motivate myself is a little thing I call “nice cream”. I am sweet obsessed, but too much sugar makes me feel sick. So, I make nice cream (spoiler: it’s just frozen banana, cocoa powder, and oat milk). The third way I motivate myself is to watch TV. I’m a total sci fi lass and I love getting to vegetate for a little while after doing something I don’t like. Find your own motivators! 

10. Do you know what every successful entrepreneur that I know has in common? They know their value and how they provide value to others. If ever you lack motivation to create or run your business (and yes, it will happen), make sure you know the answers to those questions. Write down what value you bring to the world. Refer back to that answer often. Make your answer a natural part of you. You’ll have to take breaks – that’s normal – but it’s good to go back to your why. 

Your Immediate To Do List:

  1. Choose the time of day you work best. 
  2. Write down your biggest goals of the future and save them in a place you can access regularly.
  3. Write out all of the ways – no matter how far fetched – you could make money from your craft.
  4. Get yourself a physical daily planner.
  5. Set an email response goal for yourself.
  6. Type out any email templates that would be helpful.
  7. Establish your firm pricing and create a handout for it.

Would you like me to host an online seminar about this? Comment and let me know if it would be helpful!

  • December 6, 2019 - 8:35 am

    Sean - Yes please on the online seminar. And could you share what physical planner you use? Oh one last thing, can you recommend a good photography insurance company? I’ve been so worried about my equipment getting stollen or upsetting clients that I like freeze up and makes it hard to move forward. Thanks!ReplyCancel

    • December 6, 2019 - 9:10 am

      brookeshaden - Hi Sean!

      Yes absolutely! I use this planner and I really like it! It’s not totally perfect, but it’s the best I’ve found yet:
      https://amzn.to/34XpTH4

      As for insurance, I use Mercer for equipment and liability insurance.
      https://www.afminsurance.com/

      🙂ReplyCancel

    • December 7, 2019 - 8:48 am

      Marcy - Yes, Brooke, an online session would be a great kick-off 2020. I’m easily distracted and jump from thing to thing. Your tips here are a big help.ReplyCancel

  • December 6, 2019 - 9:50 am

    Sydney Paige Richardson - I really need to work on the handout homework that states my print information, sizing/editioning stats, and prices. Do you have any seminars about this? Or suggestions on how to approach that?ReplyCancel

  • December 6, 2019 - 11:00 am

    Ruth Drews - Love your article and appreciate the time to educate your fan base. My struggle is with pricing and I’m share there may be a few others on here who feel the same way. Do you have a an article for just that subject?

    Love your work!
    RuthReplyCancel

    • December 6, 2019 - 11:13 am

      brookeshaden - Thanks for sharing, Ruth! I’ll whip one right up for you 🙂ReplyCancel

  • December 6, 2019 - 4:41 pm

    Tracy - Hi Brooke,
    I’m grateful to have found this site of yours 🙂 I’ve been a big fan since I saw your photos on Flickr years ago.

    I really like this post as I’m just starting out growing my wellness business. It’s coincidental (or not) that you mentioned/recommend diversifying. Many entrepreneurs seem to have a focus or area of expertise and I’ve been struggling with this idea – do I focus or not. On one hand I really like being able to offer many things to different people, but I hear so much about finding a niche.

    That’s a long way of saying that I look forward to reading what you say about it! 🙂 Thanks for reading. Take care.ReplyCancel

  • December 13, 2019 - 11:21 am

    Gallagher Green - I have fallen behind in your reading your blog!
    So glad I read through this one though, I need to get things under control and this is the most incredible post to help do that, thank you so much!!!ReplyCancel

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