How To Stay Creative, Even If You Work A 9-To-5

by Amy Sachs

There's been a flurry of articles written recently about how working a full-time, nine-to-five, “grown up" job is terrible for creative people. According to these pieces, creative people need to devote all the time they can get to doing just that — creating. There’s supposedly not enough free time, flexibility, or inspiration in typical desk jobs where you sit in a cubicle, even if the work is somewhat creative.

Many of us are raised to view being creative as an all-or-nothing objective proposition — either you're making a living from your creative work, or you're not a creative person. Starving artists get romanticized, but it isn't as simple as that. We can't forget that these starving artists didn't have the pressure most recent graduates have to pay bills and loans.

Today, it is far more common for people to sit at a desk from nine to five, waiting until that part of their day is done so they can back to doing what they love doing — working on their creative projects. As someone who considers herself a creative person, but also has bills to pay, I know that I can't realistically abandon my nine-to-five job in order to write full-time right now, even though writing is something I love. Instead, I work full-time at an insurance company. (It worked for Wallace Stevens, after all.)

While it is a challenge, there are ways to make you creative passions work while still having a full-time day job, even in the minimal free time you have after working a full day. Here are nine tips that I think can help anyone looking to have the best of both worlds.

1. Focus On One Thing At A Time

In the wise words of Ron Swanson, “Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.” Since you don’t have unlimited time to spend in your own head, it's important to make the most of the free time that is available to you by focusing. Pick one project at a time to focus on and work on it, whenever you can. Your “real job” might end at 5, but be prepared to have a different sort of work start when you get home.

I like to keep mini to-do lists to help me focus. One for the morning, one for during work, and one for later at night. It sounds tedious, but really helps with keeping things on track. This way, I know exactly what I want to work on each day, and each thing I cross off brings me closer to completing a goal. You can get as specific as you feel you need to on these lists. I know some people who put something as simple as "shower" on their lists, but I like to keep it a little more detailed. I'll write down what has to be done at work that day, what I can work on during lunch (small edits, etc.), and what I have time to accomplish at night (more writing, editing, drafting).

2. Use Your Nights And Weekends

You have the time to work on a creative project, even if you think that you don't. You can take the time you might otherwise spend watching Netflix or scrolling through your phone and re-purpose it. Trust me, once you make it a habit of it, it'll become second nature.

One of the best places to find extra time is in your nights and weekends (just like in those old cell phone commercials). Nights are tricky because you have to find time in between getting ready for the next day, and still getting to sleep at a "decent" hour. But if you're efficient, and use your time wisely, you can make it work. The goal is to focus on relatively small tasks that can be completed in a few hours.

The rest can be done on weekends, and that time is especially key. You have two entire days (and Friday night!) free, so you can tackle the more complex parts of your project, rather than cramming them in during the week. This way, your project gets the attention it deserves, and you're far less crunched for time. Not to mention, you'll be more refreshed over the weekend than you are after a long day at the office. Sunday afternoons are perfect for planning out what you want to accomplish in the coming week, so use that time to make new lists and new goals for yourself. This way, when Sunday night rolls around, you'll feel accomplished and ready for the new week ahead.

3. Take A Working Lunch

No matter what field your office job might be in, everyone gets at least a little lunch break. Pack a brown bag and use lunch to work on your latest project. Find a coffee shop and fuel up. Since you're only working with an hour or less, you might not have the time necessary to produce new content. Devote your time instead to editing what you already have, or brainstorming what needs to be done, so you can plan your next steps. Or just sit in the park and get some fresh air and some fresh perspective on your creative pursuits.

4. Keep Notebooks Everywhere

Since you're trying to make the most of every free, creative moment you have, you want to always have a devoted notebook handy. This will keep your from losing ideas written on random Post-Its or in forgotten email drafts. With a dedicated notebook, everything is in the same spot, ready to be accessed whenever you need it, even if it's not until you get home later that night.

The same can be done with the notes app on your phone. The app is extra convenient for when you're thinking on your feet, or during your commute — since it's almost impossible to write clearly in a notebook on a moving train. I use the Google Keep Android app for this, but the iPhone Notes app works just as well.

5. There's An App For That

You can use apps for more than just keeping track of ideas, of course. There are tons of apps to help you stay organized and make and keep deadlines. I like the Google Calendar for organization. You can color code and organize to your heart's content, which is perfect for people working full-time and trying to schedule and track their creative project deadlines! There’s also 30/30, which helps you define and keep up with your routines, and Self Control, which will block certain distracting websites for you, forcing you to stay on track and use your limited time in the most effective way possible.

6. Find A Buddy

Reaching goals — from getting in shape to maintaining New Year's resolutions — tends to be easier when we're doing it with someone else. And the same goes for creative projects. See if you can find a friend or a co-worker with similar goals, and then set up a regular time to discuss your projects, work together, and keep each other motivated. I tend to use my sister as my creative springboard. She's always willing to play devil's advocate when discussing my projects, and because she is more athletically inclined than creatively inclined, she always has a great outside perspective to offer.

7. Stay Inspired During Your Work Day

Staying inspired throughout a long work day can be a challenge, but luckily, there's a lot on the internet that can get your creative juices flowing. The Internet is a lot of things, good and bad depending on the day, but it can offer a ton of inspiration and motivation if you look in the right places. Blogs are the perfect way to get some quick inspiration while at work — and they can also help you see how other people balancing a job and a creative passion are making it work. If you're sitting at the computer, pop open a new tab during lunch to get your ideas flowing! Find a few favorites and reach out and make connections.

8. Be Flexible

Don’t limit yourself to just what you know, whether it’s at work or outside of it. Instead, take what you're interested in and passionate about, and expand it. Learn new things whenever you can — stretching outside your comfort zone will only make your creative projects better. Try taking a community class in something on weekends. Just because you're out of school doesn't mean you have to stop learning! And there are hundreds of classes available online, for free. All you need is the initiative to sign up.

9. Reach Out To Others

You don't have to resign yourself to not being part of a creative community, just because your passion isn't your full-time job. Creative communities are crucial because they encourage us and help us push each other in new ways. Starting a blog or website of your own is a great way to track your progress and connect with people (especially since after college, most of us don't have group workshops to gain feedback on our work anymore). Blogs can be a great springboard for ideas, and comments are a way of getting outside perspective on your projects. This helps you and since it's online, it can be done at any time of day, regardless of a work schedule.

If your goal is to break into an industry, try reaching out to someone you admire. See if they would be willing to meet up for coffee to talk about your field. Seeking someone out goes a long way. Most importantly, it shows your willingness to go out of your way. Never stop asking questions. And who knows — with enough effort and luck, maybe someday, your day job and your creative job will be the same thing!

Images: Sergei Zolkin/Unsplash; Giphy (9)