How to Plan Your Art Projects Realistically (And Actually Finish Them!)

Part 2 of 2 in a series on Creative Seasons. Read Part 1 here.

Alright, alright, alright! I’m back with Part 2 of What Creative Season Are You In. In this essay, I’m going to take you through my process to find my creative seasons and set up a 2021 Project Plan and then help you do it too!

Here’s a quick recap of what that means in case you didn’t read the last essay:

  • We can zoom out and plan our creativity by seasons rather than days or hours.
  • This helps us be patient with the creative process, appreciating each season.
  • Helps us notice and embrace our current season, knowing that seasons come and go.
  • Helps us accept change when it’s time to transition from one season to the next.
  • Helps us create more art—but in a way that is healthy and sustainable!

My aim in setting up a 2021 Project Plan is to align my art projects and goals with my natural flow of creativity, productivity, and mindset throughout the year. To do that, I first need to figure out what that natural flow is!

The Four Hats I Wear

I began by thinking about all the projects and tasks I do related to my art. I narrowed them down and grouped them up into something I could easily visualize: the different hats I wear as an artist! After considering all that I do, I came up with four hats:

  • I wear this hat: When tackling business-related tasks.
  • Tasks include: Updating Sketchbook to Style, fine-tuning Studiomates, improving customer/student onboarding, updating other products, overhauling project systems, implementing new marketing initiatives, etc.
  • I wear this hat: When beginning a new book project and deciding the overall feel of the book.
  • Tasks include: Getting the spark of a new idea for a book, deciding which spark to follow, reading similar books as inspiration, researching the topic, sketching ideas, exploring the tone of the book, writing the manuscript, storyboarding the book, character development, deciding what medium/style the book will be in, etc.
  • I wear this hat: When creating the bulk of a book.
  • Tasks include: Finalizing tight sketches, editing the manuscript, calculating print specs, creating all the final artwork, laying out the typography, designing the cover, writing back cover copy, etc.
  • I wear this hat: When I wander around and experiment aimlessly!
  • Tasks include: Drawing in my sketchbook, learning a new creative skill, exploring strange ideas, reading inspiring books, taking a sabbatical from work, etc.

Fitting The Hats Together

After I settled on my four creative hats, it was time to see how they might fit together, as seen above. I considered which hats I wear the most (ideation and production) and what order the hats need to be worn in. For example, Ideation and Production take the most creative energy for me, so I know I need a Play break after those two stages or I’ll burnout.

As I was organizing the hats, I also considered how they fit into our 12-month calendar year. I already had the hats in the ideal order and approximate lengths, so all I had to do was assign each hat 2-3 months to fill out a year. Then I looked at how my new personal creative calendar aligned with our four calendar seasons, and added those to the diagram too, below:

Insights Learned About How I Work

Now, as I take a step back and look at this creativity calendar as a whole, it really fits with the way I work and create. This process has also made me realize some important insights about myself that I wasn’t aware of before:

  • Insight #1: I tend not to want to work much during the Summer, because I want to be outside enjoying the sun and wonderful mountain air, especially now that I have a lil’ kiddo to romp around with.
  • Insight #2: I lose my work motivation again around the Holidays in November/December and just want to snuggle up in a blanket, read, and watch the snow.

I used to see those low-productivity months as personal deficiencies or evidence of my laziness. During those months, I would fight against my natural flow and what I wanted to be doing (taking a break from working from big projects), instead of forcing myself to do what I thought I should be doing (work, work, work).

But mapping out my creativity with the seasons makes me see how important it is to consider not just how we wish we could work, but how we actually work.

If I can be aware of my natural cycle of creativity, motivation, and energy, then I can embrace that cycle and take advantage of it, rather than struggling with and feeling bad about it.

Because, as I talked about in the last essay, we have to go through Winter to get to Spring. We have to go through the whole creative process. We can’t just stay in Spring-Productivity-mode and pump out masterpiece books all year long, just like a sprout can’t bloom all year long. At some point, you gotta burrow down in the ground and rest up.

My 2021 Project Plan (For Disaster)

I definitely was not thinking that way when I made my original 2021 Project Plan. During the first week of January, I planned out my entire year, laying out the projects I wanted to (or had to in the case of publisher deadlines) complete this year by month. I wrote a few day/week deadlines, but for the most part, I stuck to labeling one project to each month, as I attempted to plan seasonally. I labeled these in red at the top of my plan:

  1. JAN: Sketchbook to Style updates
  2. FEB: Business/Marketing updates
  3. MAR: Layla and the Bots book #4 sketches
  4. APR: Layla and the Bots book #4 final art
  5. MAY: Layla and the Bots book #4 final art
  6. JUNE: I am Not a Turtle storyboard and style finalizing
  7. JULY: I am Not a Turtle final art + Kickstarter campaign
  8. AUG: I am Not a Turtle final art
  9. SEPT: I am Not a Turtle design + file preparation
  10. OCT: I am Not a Turtle marketing and promotion
  11. NOV: I am Not a Turtle marketing and promotion
  12. DEC: Collapse, apparently?

Did you notice a problem with that plan? Because I do. It’s probably why I had the forethought, even back then in those hopeful first few days of January, to not plan a single thing in December—there are way too many high-creative-energy tasks in a row here.

Perhaps it would help us both to see that original plan visually with our new hat concept:

Noooow do you see the problem? There are THREE big heads in a row! And actually, there are two issues here:

  1. I planned Production → Ideation → Production hats all in a row, with no breaks in between. I can’t sustain that level of creativity and mental energy for that long. I know that.
  2. I planned the Ideation hat during one of my natural low-motivation periods. (Followed by a Production hat—ha!)

Watch Christine Burn!

I was intending to go through with that original 2021 Project Plan up until about 2 hours ago. If I had, I can tell you exactly how 2021 would have gone for me:

…I sailed through the Admin work on a New Year high and jumped straight into the first Production hat period, full-steam ahead, work-work-work. I began to smell the whiffs of burnout in May as I wrapped up the final art for Layla and the Bots #4. As I cross the Layla deadline running on fumes, I forced myself to “stick to the plan, Ann” and wearily pulled on my Ideation hat. I picked back up my in-progress book, I am Not a Turtle, trying to figure out and finalize a book that has been eluding me since 2014. With no creative juice left in my tank, I dragged my feet and stumbled around, not figuring out what I needed figuring out. Here, the theoretical timeline splits into possibilities. I could’ve either: A) crashed and burned in my Ideation hat and give up on the book (again) and wallowed around the rest of the year, feeling mad at myself that I didn’t stick to my plan or finish my book. Or B) barreled through Ideation and stubbornly yanked on my Production hat, sending a half-finished, incoherent book to print, and then collapsing in December, not into a state of play, but into a state of comatose…

So, uh… let’s avoid all that, shall we?

Achieving My Art Goals WITHOUT Breaking Down

I’m kind of amazed at how I’m able to see all that so clearly right now, but I didn’t see it at all when I made that original plan in January. I mean, sure, it’s good to set high expectations and shoot for the moon, but the thing is, I KNOW that plan wouldn’t have worked.

Perhaps you think I’m being cynical or holding myself back, but I believe seeing and accepting how I actually work will allow me to achieve my goals, and do it without collapsing in mental and physical exhaustion at the end of the year. (Which I am now realizing is a pattern with me that I would like to stop).

So how am I going to achieve all my goals, but do it without breaking down? Well, let’s draw it out visually with our new handy, dandy, hat map:

This is my new 2021 Project Plan. It may seem almost the same as the original plan, but in practice, it will play out completely differently. I believe I can still achieve my two major 2021 goals (finish Layla and the Bots #4 and I am Not a Turtle) this year if I make one simple change to my plan: add in a period of Play.

The cultural-powers-that-be always say we should just go-go-go, work-work-work, but dang it if I keep learning that that just does not work. We need breaks. Making a book is hard. REALLY hard. It takes so much energy and concentration and creativity, and we have to allow all that to build back up before we can tap into it again.

For me, and I suspect for most artists, play is the best way to rest and refuel my creativity. If we want to achieve our goals and complete our big projects, we need to plan time to play in our creative calendars too. Time to explore weird ideas, draw pointless stuff, and make things no one understands. We need time to ourselves and time to let off steam.

And after we’ve had that period of play, we can jump right back into our project, with new strength, confidence, and creativity that wasn’t there before.

And that’s how I’m going to finish my books.

Thanks for reading!​​

Christine ​

Find Your Own Creative Seasons + Make Your Project Plan!

This process of planning my art projects with the seasons has led me to recognize what my natural flow of creativity is, and how to best organize it in a way that helps me achieve my goals. It’s helped me avoid an all but inevitable burnout and hopefully might help you to the same.

Try answering the questions below to start exploring your own creative seasons:

  1. What hats do you wear in your career, life, or both? Can you narrow all your projects and tasks into just 3-5 hats?
  2. What are your top 2 BIG goals for this year? Only choose 2!
  3. Consider how you live and work naturally during the four calendar seasons. How do you work in the Fall? What do you tend to do most in the Summer?
  4. Reflect back on previous years—do you tend to hit a low-point (creatively, emotionally, motivationally) at some point each year? When does it typically happen?
  5. How can you align your goals with what you’ve learned about how you naturally live through the seasons of each year? How could you map out your ideal year (taking your natural tendencies into account) for 2022?

This was Part 2 of 2 in a series on Creative Seasons. Read Part 1 here.

Join 10,000+ subscribers!

Sign up for my Substack email newsletter to get all my newest essays straight in your inbox!

  • 📖 Might Could Essays
  • ✏️ Might Could Draw Today
  • 📚 Might Could Make a Book