10 tips for artists to increase their productivity

Sometimes the best thing to do to optimise our performance levels is pause, slow down, and take back control.

Hands up if you’re still feeling enervated and listless, unable to fully transition from holiday to work mode, even as the days have ticked over into February? ArtsHub reached out to leading productivity expert, speaker, coach, and best-selling author Donna McGeorge for some ideas on tackling this lethargy and moving purposely on to producing and making.

‘I wrote The 1 Day Refund as a guidebook to help people stuck in the “busy spiral” regain an extra 15% capacity in their lives, equivalent to one whole extra day per week,’ McGeorge said.

‘Being a writer myself, I know how important it is for artists and creatives to feel in control of their time and set aside breathing space to do their best work.’

Below are McGeorge’s top 10 tips to encourage artists to increase their productivity:

  1. Slow down

Studies of brainwaves show us that creativity, innovation, inspiration, and intuition are only available to us when our brain is in certain states of consciousness. The Dutch principle of ‘niksen’ means to slow down and opt out of productivity expectations. The idea is you take a big breath, pause, and give your mind and body a chance to rest and reset. Writers and philosophers have been talking and writing about this for centuries. It’s no secret that our aha! moments often happen when we’re resting.

  1. Work at 85% capacity

A lot of the world’s top performers work at 85% capacity. Hugh Jackman, in his preparation for and performance in the role of Wolverine, aimed to expend less than full capacity in order to pace himself, so he can function optimally over extended production periods. Olympians and professional sportspeople too know they will perform better at 85% because they are more relaxed and can optimise muscle strength. 

  1. Practice the ‘3 Ds of thinking space’

The ‘3 D’s’ of thinking space are ‘Decelerating’, ‘Decompressing’ and ‘Deciding’. Decelerating is about slowing down and stopping, taking time out to pause and just be. Decompressing is about letting off pressure and easing the mental load that we all carry. A good way to do this is by grabbing pen and paper and writing down a ‘brain dump’ of everything that’s holding space in your mind. Deciding only happens once we’ve stopped and taken stock of everything, then we can be purposeful about where we direct our energy and our time. As there’s always a bit of chaos before the feeling of control, it’s important first to Decelerate and Decompress. 

  1. Pay attention to your body clock (not the clock on the wall)

We’re at our most productive and creative when we structure our day around our natural internal rhythms and cycles. Our body clocks are designed for greater mental agility in the morning and more physical dexterity in the afternoon. This means thinking about when you do something is as important as thinking about what you do.

  1. Make space for deep work

To optimise productivity, it’s important to intentionally set aside time to do deep work. I like to call this blocking out ‘purple patches’ in your diary. Take two hours a day (usually in the morning, as 80% of people have higher energy levels in the AM) and block it out in purple for tackling your most important creative work. To get the full impact, make sure you protect this time from all distractions, including social media and emails. 

  1. Sleep for 7-8 hours per night

In Australia we work 3.2 billion hours a year in unpaid overtime, we have 134 million days of accrued annual leave, and 3.8 million of us don’t take lunch breaks. And 7.4 million Australians don’t get enough sleep. We seem to have become ‘rest resistant’. We are addicted to being busy and it’s preventing us from getting the rest we need to perform at our best.

  1. Limit time spent on emails

As many creative freelancers would know, emails can easily take up most of your day, leaving you very little time to do your actual work. The internet has made us all more connected than ever, and it’s tempting to feel the need to be ‘always on’ and contactable wherever we go. If you are able to only check your inbox once or twice a day, this small and simple step can increase your productivity tenfold. 

  1. Declutter your creative space

Think like a designer and design your spaces to be more functional and productive. We can declutter our spaces, so we are not overwhelmed by our surroundings and remove friction. We need to free up our resources.

  1. Start Small

Instead of setting big goals, for example ‘write 2000 words of my next book per week,’ I’ll set smaller goals like only writing one chapter per week. This way goals feel achievable instead of overwhelming. Often when we try to increase productivity, we try to overhaul our entire lives at once, or set very high output quotas for ourselves, but often all that does is make us feel burnout or disheartened if we can’t find capacity for all our big goals and ideas. The key is to start small, and slowly build up momentum. 

  1. Enjoy the process!

Finally, and most importantly, you must enjoy the process! There’s this term I love called ‘Being in flow’. Originally coined by Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi in the 1970s for what happens when we become ‘so immersed in a feeling of energised focus, full involvement and enjoyment in the process of the activity that we lose sense of space and time.’ And we get more done! Up to 500% more, according to a 10-year McKinsey study. 

Donna McGeorge is a leading productivity expert, speaker, coach, and best-selling author. Her book, The 1 Day Refund, is available for purchase through her website.

Thuy On is the Reviews and Literary Editor of ArtsHub and an arts journalist, critic and poet who’s written for a range of publications including The Guardian, The Saturday Paper, Sydney Review of Books, The Australian, The Age/SMH and Australian Book Review. She was the books editor of The Big issue for 8 years. Her debut, a collection of poetry called Turbulence, came out in 2020 and was released by University of Western Australia Publishing (UWAP). Her second collection, Decadence, was published in July 2022, also by UWAP. Her third book, Essence, will be published in 2025. Twitter: @thuy_on Instagram: poemsbythuy