Spinning Dreams into Goals

Making the time to make the time

Summary: Foresight might not be 20/20, but things can become a lot clearer with the use of a calendar. A time management system for freelance illustrators.

Having recently taken the plunge into freelance illustration as a full time career, one of the first challenges to come up for me was identifying specific goals as well figuring out how to accomplish them. The solution to which is a strange thing that some people refer to as “scheduling.”

The Problem

Now, if you are anything like me, you will know what it is like to be constantly flitting from one idea to another. Of course one of the big down sides to this way of being is that often times, many good things can get started, but not too many of those are seen through to any sort of finish. As all those different ideas are popping up here and there, it becomes difficult for me to stay focused on the task at hand. It’s almost a state of mind where there are just a ton of things to do and everything kinda has the same priority. When this is happening, I sometimes find myself doing a little of this and a little of that, but at the end of the day it seems like nothing has been accomplished. Which is sort of a problem.

I once had a teacher who likened this way of doing things (or not doing things as the case may be) to a story about digging for water. The story goes like this, you have two people who need to dig a well for water. Person one finds a spot and starts digging relentlessly. Person two also finds a spot and starts to dig, but after an hour finds no water, and so moves along to another spot to start again. Person one continues to dig in the same spot. This goes on and on, and you can guess who strikes water first. I think you’ll agree that in order for us to succeed in achieving our dreams that at some point we need do our utmost to make each of our efforts one that is contributing in some way to our overall goals.


While sifting through the interwebs, I came across a blog post “How to Steal like an Artist (and 9 Other Things Nobody Told Me) by Austin Kleon which sent me onto a chain of events that eventually lead me to my current calendar system. I read this entire post, was thoroughly entertained, and agreed with most of it. One aspect that stood out most clearly was #9: Be Boring. Many of the suggestions he lists are aimed at productivity, or as it says in the subhead getting work done. I became fascinated with his log book and calendar and followed a few links until I came to another posting by Jessica Abel “MENTORS CORNER/from JESSICA ABEL.” Both of these blog posts inspired me to put together a calendar system that so far has worked for me. It goes a little something like this…

The Overview

The system is basically made up of two pieces; there are itemized lists which I call “Task Cards,” and the calendar, which is cleverly titled “the Calendar.” On each of the task cards, there is a project name, or some recurring tasks like “blog” or “marketing,” on it followed by an itemized list of tasks. The project name is then written on the appropriate days of the calendar, indicating that some area of work that needs to be done. This way, the calendar is the general list of what to do, and the the task cards are specific tasks that need to be done. Just like creating a painting, it’s “general to specific.”

I usually tend to put up to 3 or 4 tasks on any give day, sometimes more sometimes less. This is an amount of work that I can accomplish in a day, in other words these are reasonable expectations for me. Being a bit starry eyed, I have had to make an effort to manage my expectations and to create reasonable steps towards my goals. At the end of the day I like to be able to see that I set goals and achieved them, I think that feels good, you know, high five,  job done.

To keep things moving along, at the end of each week I like to take some time to sit with the calendar, analyze what got done, what didn’t, and then what I need to do for next week.

Types of Task Cards

There are 3 categories of task cards that I’ve used so far; Projects, On-going tasks, and the Catch-all.

Each "card" is actually the backside of a print-out that's been torn into quarters.

The Project cards are for work assignments that have a deadline. These are helpful in a few ways. For instance in the beginning of each project there is naturally a period of time spent thinking about the different aspects of the the project; what needs to happen, how is it going to happen, what resources are going to be necessary, and when does it need to be done by.  The answers to these sorts of questions form the basic outline of the project’s process. Some of these items will be clear steps to take, and others end up being broken down further into steps. For example: looking up reference, creating thumbnails and sketches, or if any special materials are required. As the itemized list begins to take form it becomes easier to prioritize tasks. Usually I try to foresee as much as possible, but usually I can’t mentally visualize the whole project process to it’s end, but this gives me some steps to start with. As the project evolves and those steps are taken the next steps begin to become apparent and are jotted down on the list. All in order to get the project done on time.

Another type task cards are the On-going tasks. These kinds of  tasks can be the equivalent of doing the dishes, not always fun but necessary to keep things in order. This is the area where events like the private lessons that I give, or my marketing efforts can be found.Usually these types of tasks occur (or should occur) on a regular basis, and as such they can be plotted on the calendar well in advance. With regards to marketing in particular, part of what I’ve gleaned from the readings I’ve done is that an essential part of creating successful marketing and promotional efforts lies in the ability to create a consistent pulse of information. This is where planning and executing in accordance with a calendar comes into play.

There are also cards for future blog posts, and website updates. This way when I have a spark for an idea about a blog post I can quickly make a note of it, and more importantly I am able to find it again when I want to create another blog post! And, when surfing around the web I occasionally will see something on another site that seems like a good idea and will quickly make note of it for possible appropriation into this site.

Last but not least, is the Catch-all List. This is the list for things that are one off tasks, like framing a picture, or random ideas for projects, anything ideas that cross my mind that aren’t directly related to any other project currently in the works. Sometimes these ideas will develop into personal projects, and sometimes they end up in the recycling bin, but that’s just the way things go sometimes.


I’m sure that there is some clever way to get my iCal to do all this, or that “there’s an app for that,” but for me the act of actually writing things down and looking at it is actually tied to my thinking process. When I am working in this way, I’ve found that often times many more ideas will spring up, and through using this system I am able to capture those thoughts for later considerations. Most importantly, this way of working also provides me with a way to stay on track with my career goals, and, when I find that I am feeling off course it gives me a place to reorient and restart from. This comes in especially handy in the morning, before I’ve had my coffee and when my brain is still glazed over from sleep. I simply go to the calendar and see what I have to do for that day. Then pick one and get to it.

I hope that this overly complex explanation of a relatively simple system will help you in the pursuit of turning your own dreams into reality. Remember that old saying, that the difference between dreams and goals is a plan.

As ever, thank you for reading to the end, and your comments are welcome here.

9 Responses to Spinning Dreams into Goals

  1. Hello Brian,
    I have never seen your weblog before, but found this trough Hire An Illustrator. Thanks for this article, I think this might be very helpful. 🙂
    Dorien (illustration student)

  2. Thank you so much for stopping by Dorien. I hope that the system helps you through your schooling and into your professional career.
    Best of luck,

  3. hey brian! i found your blog very useful and informative! i myself have a similar if not as organized system that i have been using for years. every week i have a small notebook that i carry around and jot down what needs to get done for that week and the days that they will probably get done. i think it was good that you mentioned you put three to four items down for that day to get done because i think it is important to know what you are realistically able to accomplish in a day without getting overwhelmed. i think this system also gives an overall sense of accomplishment so that when you look back you can see if your day has been put to good use…kudos my friend!

  4. Thank you so much Alexis,
    It’s really nice to get such positive feedback on this post. It seems like we all need these systems to help us achieve our goals. The real balancing act comes from dreaming big, and keeping it real!

    I’d love to compare notes with you at some point as well.

    Thanks again!

  5. You mean you don’t list 10 things per day. LOL – you’re right 3 -4 is realistic doable daily goal. I have a similar system that is always evolving so I found your post very interesting. I too prefer to handwrite my lists – definitely seems to connect with my thought process better.

  6. Howdy Dana,

    I am glad that you found the post to be of some interest! It does seem to be a bit like mixing the perfect drink, a little of this, a dash of that, and a pinch of such and such, kind of an alchemical way of working with ourselves!

    Thanks for check out the blog,

  7. Hey Brian.

    Something that my action coach has tought me is to have a list that outlines all the steps I take to create specific types of art. Its very important to make the list based on how you work. Then put it in word and print one for every piece you start. If you cannot visualize all the steps needed just take notes of everthing you do on your next project.There truly in no reason to reinvent your wheel every time you start a project.

  8. What a great idea Arthur. By using lists and “chunking” it seems that we can avoid that awkward stage of “What Next,” and I believe we can keep the flow happening from moment to moment.

    Awesome suggestion, I’m going to give it a try! Thanks,

The Un-taping of Bo Diddley