The rhythms of a flourishing artist: Or "how I get things done"

The Good Samaritan

My friend Jim Janknegt is one of the most prolific visual artists I know. This is not because he's got a stash of pirate gold sustaining the lifestyle of a landed gentry, nor because he lives in New York City or London in the thick of the high art world, nor because he works full time as an artist. He's prolific because he retains a careful rhythm of life and work, and has done so for many years.

Flight into Egypt
The fact that of late he's able to work extra hours a day owes to the fact that he's semi-retired. Even when he worked full time at the University of Texas's PAC, however, he produced an uncommonly large amount of work. Why? Because he (implicitly) takes Tony Schwartz's advice seriously, as we all should. According to Schwartz, courtesy of the Harvard Business Review:

“The best way to insure you’ll take on difficult tasks is to ritualize them—build specific, inviolable times at which you do them, so that over time you do them without having to squander energy thinking about them.”

This is a way of saying that our will and capacity for discipline require the aid of daily rituals in order to serve the ends to which we apply them.

Recently Jim wrote an essay called "How I Get Things Done." It includes ten things he does, simply because that's what an artist does. He kindly allowed me to reprint it here. While his circumstances include plenty of contingent factors, many of us as artists have good reason to read and heed.


1. Blew up my TV. Not literally, but I did disconnect it from everything (cable, satellite, antenna) except a DVD player. Now we only watch TV intentionally via Netflix.

2. Get enough sleep. I go to bed between 10:00 and 11:00 (usually closer to 10:00) and get up at the same time everyday except for Sunday at 6:00 am. I set my alarm. That is close to eight hours of sleep.

3. I start my day with quiet. Everyone else in my house is a night owl. So when I get up at 6:00 I am the only one up. I start the day with a good breakfast, coffee and some spiritual reading. After breakfast I pray the Divine Office. As an example, the last year I have read The Imitation of Christ, The Divine Comedy and am currently reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Judas Kiss
4. Have a schedule. During the week I keep the same basic schedule. After my quiet time, I feed the chickens and dogs and do a few other chores. I then proceed to my studio and paint from 8:30 to 10:30. I eat lunch, get ready to go to work and drive from Elgin to Austin. I work at the HRC from 12:30 to 5:15, then drive home. My lovely wife usually cooks (she is an awesome cook) and we eat supper around 6:30. After supper we visit, walk around the farm, swim, watch Netflix or read until bedtime.

On Saturdays I usually work on projects around the house from 9:00 to 5:00 with lunch and a nap thrown in. Sundays: no work. I fix breakfast for the family, teach religious education and go to Mass; then rest.

5. Show up. I generally stick to my schedule even when I don’t feel like it. 90% of getting things done is just showing up. If I show up and just sit in a chair and stare at my painting or fall asleep I have not lost my momentum. Inertia is hard to overcome. Once I get started, I don’t stop.

6. Plan ahead. I always plan what I am going to do at least a day in advance and sometimes more. Especially if it is a project and I need supplies or tools. I never wait till the day I am going to do a project to get the materials and supplies I need. I try to do these errands on the way to or from work. That way when Saturday rolls around I can immediately start to work. If I have to go to the hardware store or, worse yet, drive to Home Depot, I can write off half the days work. I try and be a good boy scout and be prepared.

7. Make a list. I keep a running list of things I need to do. Right now I have 72 items on my list. All but 18 of them are done. I add items to be done in black (blue if they are urgent) and I change the color to red when I have finished. One thing I wish I had done is put the date by the item when I add it to my list and the date when I finish the project. I am going to start doing that.

8. Have a designated place to work. This is a luxury not everyone can afford. I am fortunate to have a studio set aside for my painting and a barn with a space for working on projects. I can leave everything set up. To start painting all I have to do is sit down, take the lid off my turpentine and paint.

Temptation #2
9. Enjoy working and finishing projects. I happen to be an extreme “J” according to the Myers-Briggs test. I think this part of my personality goes a long way to making me as productive as I am. I like to make decisions and I like to see things finished. I am not a perfectionist, but I believe this saying to be true: “If you demand perfection or nothing, you will always get nothing.” I am also pretty far to the “I” side of things in the Myers Briggs test which means I am an introvert and enjoy being alone. Most of the work I do, I do by myself and enjoy being by myself. If I was an “E” or extrovert, I can see that it would be much harder to spend so much time working alone. But it really suits my personality.

10. Work for the Kingdom of God. I am motivated to work because I believe I am an instrument whose purpose is to further the Kingdom of God. Whether I become successful, famous, wealthy or appreciated has no bearing on the work that I do. I hope that my work furthers the Kingdom and I order myself to that end. Especially with my painting, I realize, that much of the effect of my work may not be fully realized until I am dead. And that is OK. It basically means that I paint for an audience of one, the King of Heaven, and if he is pleased then all is well.

"St John Reconsiders Modern Epistemology"


Unknown said…
Yes and Amen to every point, especially number 5. As my friend Martin,a classical clarinetist, tells me, "The difference between an amateur and a professional is that a professional pays attention to the details."
Thank you.
Jim, your schedule sounds pretty similar to what I had going just before we had to move from Arkansas. It's been semi-chaos ever since, although no I'm back into a rhythm finally — just without any extra time during the week. Hopefully that will change by early next year.

I'm wondering when you fit painting in before you were semi-retired though. Was it on the weekends, did you get less sleep . . . ?
Jim Janknegt said…

When I was younger I painted in the evenings after supper and on Sat. mornings. As I got older I just didn't have the energy to work at night so Sat. mornings was my only painting time. I am very grateful for my semi-retirement.
Michael: indeed.

Jim: in my book you're an emblem of "something begets something."
Mark Chambers said…
Oh, I so need to embody this, David.

I hope to be there soon, evenings and some on the weekend. Still working some for the mobilization ministry and freelance in the mornings and evenings before my new full-time job though.
I think you can violate every one of these rules/suggestions and be fine. Ritualization is most necessary for the personality type you describe -- one who needs things to be rule-bound. Then the ritual matters more than the work you do. You can create great art with a much more chaotic and godless approach -- if you are set up to do that. Food for thought: the world does not need you to operate an art machine. It simply meets your needs -- Puritan work ethic seems to play a role here -- as you do your art. Jesus said it -- "Look how the birds do art -- they just do it and they're fine." They don't even compose sets of bullet points -- unless -- I think I have a poem.

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