5 things I learned in 2016:
It was an incredible year for me both professionally and personally. I learned so much, and was able to implement a lot of the things I learned this year before the year was out. I want to share some of these major lessons with you. These are things I’ve understood before, but they crystallized this year allowing me to harvest the benefits now. Here’s the list:
1) You can't (and shouldn't) do everything.
I went into the year with enormous expectations for my career and projects. When the realities of life made accomplishing some of these things impossible I realized that I couldn't do everything.
Example: I had a strict schedule planned out to work on SkyHeart and two picture books in the winter and spring months. It was a delicate balance that would require me to focus entire days to one project. Then my wife needed surgery and the time I needed to work on these books went to helping her recover.
Thankfully, she regained her full health, but the year ended and two of these projects I committed to didn't get finished. The ripple effect was I dropped the ball in other areas too. For a while I beat myself up for not being more productive, then I came to the realization that I couldn't do everything. I also realized I shouldn't do everything.
You see, I wasn't just taking on 3 big book projects, I was also answering every email, I was posting updates and content on social media multiple times a week, I was packing and shipping orders for my shop, I was editing all my own videos, I was updating my website, and scanning my own artwork.
Solution: I had committed to too much. And so this was the year I learned to either delegate, collaborate, or let go.
I took on an intern, I found collaborators, and if the task couldn't be delegated to one of them or done by myself, I let it go.
The result was by the end of the year I was way more productive on fewer things, and much happier because I wasn't so stressed about the things I couldn't do.
2) The Power of the Time Block system
By figuring out when I was most creative and least productive, I was able to plan my days according to my working habits for maximum efficiency.
Solution: The time block system requires auditing your working habits and discovering when you are the most creative, productive, and focused. It takes some time experimenting, but the knowledge gained about your habits is more valuable than the time investment.
I broke my days down into time blocks of 2-4 hours and monitored how much work, and what kind of work was getting done in these time blocks. I experimented by trying to do administrative duties in one time block then trying out creative tasks in other time blocks. Then I would switch them around and record my results. Here’s what I found worked for me:
Early mornings 4am - 6am: Best time for tasks that need creative thought and productivity
Mid mornings 6am - 9am: Best time for helping around the house, getting kids ready, and exercise.
Late mornings 9am - 12pm: Best time for productive tasks that need creativity
12pm - 1pm: Lunch break
Early afternoon 1pm - 3pm: Best time for productive tasks that don’t need creativity
Late afternoon 3pm - 6pm: Best time for administrative tasks, email, meetings, phone calls, and interviews
Early evening 6pm - 8:30: best time to spend with family
Mid evenings 8:30 - 10:00: Best time to fill my creative bank account (read, watch films)
Once I had this schedule laid out it was just a matter of looking at my tasks for the week and inserting them into the appropriate time block for the most effective use of my time and energy.
Example: Inking my comic is a task that requires a high level of productivity but isn’t low on the creative demands of my brain. On the other hand, writing and figuring out comic layouts require lots of creativity. Since I’m more creative in the mornings I filled those time blocks with writing, and my afternoon time blocks with tasks like inking.
3) The Power of Work/Life Harmony
An unanticipated outcome of the Time Block system was finding harmony between my work and life. The two shouldn’t just be balanced, they should harmonize with each other, in that your life should make you a better worker and your work should make you enjoy life more.
The first half of the year was so stressed and work heavy that I found myself bringing my life into my work and my work into my life. Which means that when I needed to be present at home, my mind was still thinking about work and vice versa. I came to this realization when my wife said to me one day, “I’d like to have a conversation with you that wasn’t about your work, Star Wars, or comics.” It startled me, and made me realize I was becoming very one dimensional.
This started me on a path to audit my life and see where I was breaking down. I discovered that I was being ineffective with my time, that I wasn’t spending enough time reading and consuming a broader range of things, and that I was burrowing deeper and deeper into my little hole of work and my favorite geek niche. I couldn’t relate to your average person. My health was slipping. And I came to the realization that as a storyteller to humans I needed to be able to relate to all kinds of humans. Otherwise my stories would be very flat and inaccessible.
Solution: By using the time block system, and letting go of doing everything I was able to spend less time working and more time reading books, watching films, exercising, and going out with my wife and other couples. It started me on a path to a more well rounded, approachable Jake.
4) Opportunity Costs are Real
This year I took on a lot of obligations that required traveling: Conventions, speaking engagements, and books signings (18 engagements in total). There’s nothing wrong with doing any of these things, but they put into perspective the things that I wasn’t doing: making new content. The price to do all of these events meant that I wasn’t in my studio making a new book, comic, SVS class or youtube video.
Example: In March I went to a convention in Kentucky. It was an ok show but the best part was hanging out with friends who I don’t get to see in person very often. When I was talking to one friend he and I both lamented about how we wish were back in our studios working on our books.
When I looked at what I was selling at my table it dawned on me that I had been creating content for the conventions I was attending with the idea of immediate payoff: prints and DRAWINGS books. I was neglecting my products that were going to take a long time to finish but would have a longer shelf life: SkyHeart.
Solution: This mentality shift influenced me to make the decision to take the year off from traveling this year and focus my efforts on creation. After I made that decision I started to look for other areas that I was spending time and what opportunities it was costing me. I found that email and instant messages from people needing advice, portfolio reviews, or interview questions were a huge time suck and causing me anxiety for not answering them in a timely fashion. I have a soft heart when it comes to these kinds of interactions because I remember being a directionless young adult and just wanting someone to point me in the right direction. Ultimately, I had to make the hard decision that at the end of the year I would rather have another chapter of SkyHeart finished than a pile of answered emails.
5) The True Power of an Online Brand
I made about the same amount of money in my online shop as I did in publishing with two advances and royalties checks coming in. I put about 8 hours into publishing for every one hour I put into my shop. This imbalance of time vs payoff made me realized that while publishing requires a long game mentality, I shouldn’t neglect the short game of keeping up my online shop.
Example: I’ve spent years growing a following on social media. 270K on Instagram, 190K on Facebook, and 50K on YouTube. But these social media numbers didn’t translate to amazing book sales for my children’s books Little Bot and Sparrow and Who’s the Grossest of Them All. My editor and my agent both were let down by this development. On the flip side my online followers really liked the prints and self-published books I have listed on my shop and I made over 1800 sales last year.
Solution: I will continue to use publishing as a platform to build a following and hopefully bring a more diverse group of people to my following demographic. I’ll also continue using publishing as a way to build relationships in the industry, an outlet for creativity (I love making kids books) and as professional development.
But I will also put more time, creativity and labor into my shop and personal products. I love making comics, art books, and prints. And it will be a platform to explore more creative outlets such as t-shirts and stickers.
All right, that’s the five things. I hope these are helpful and applicable to your own situation. At the very least I hope they give you some perspective on how to make this year more productive and enjoyable.