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This is the hardest part of being self-employed

The hardest day-to-day problem as a magician is battling against myself. In other words, I determine my schedule and tasks 100% of the time.

It’s easy to be told what to do because it takes all the personal agency out of decisions. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s nice to have a boss who takes responsibility and makes choices.

But I work for myself–no one is stopping me from sleeping in each day. Aside from showing up for gigs and meetings, I have zero accountability–no one is forcing me to work, and I could conceivably stop at any point.

It is additionally difficult to juggle not just magic related tasks, but exercise and housekeeping and every other menial chore that is part of being an adult.

Below are some hacks I use to keep myself on task:

1. Short deadlines

This is a big one. As Tim Ferriss explains here, you fill the time you have. For example, if you have a project due in a week, even if it only takes three days to do, most people will wait until the deadline approaches to begin working. If I have a show in August, I’ll finish preparing the day before.

On one level, this is practical–why do little tasks for something that’s a month out? And with a magic show, some tasks have to be performed within days of the performance.

But many seemingly benign tasks, like printing and cutting paper, making a prop, or sending an email, end up sucking up a ton of time when you wait until the last minute to do them.

So, I set short deadlines for myself, making sure the due date is well before the task actually needs to be completed. This does two things: It forces me to do the task, and frees me up to deal with problems as they arise. Wifi goes out and I can’t schedule promo emails? Didn’t order enough envelopes for a show? No problem. I have several weeks to fix each problem.

This is a long way of saying: Don’t procrastinate.

2. To-do lists

How do you stop yourself from staring down an hour and deciding what to do with it? Eliminate the choice in the first place. I typically have the day’s to-do list done the night before, and it’s always done before I start work.

I go back and forth between editing to-do lists on a piece of paper or on my notes app. To-do lists are split into Deep Work and Shallow Work (based on this book by Cal Newport). Deep Work needs to be done early in the morning and requires distraction-free concentration (phone on airplane mode, no checking email, etc). This is when I accomplish most of my brainstorming, practicing, and writing. Deep Work is always the hardest task of the day.

Shallow Work is important, but does not require extreme concentration. Ordering supplies, making phone calls, booking travel, etc. This comes second, because I get more tired as the day goes on.

Dividing my work like this ensures I do what’s important first and best. There’s nothing more freeing than completing the day’s hardest task before noon. I recommend it.

3. End Times

It’s huge for my mental health to have something planned at night, even if it’s as simple as “I’m making dinner for myself at 6:00 PM.” It means that my work has to end at a particular time. It is not a badge of honor to work until 3:00 AM–it’s unhealthy. It’s important to pick an End Time every day and stick to it.

An added bonus of my End Time is that it forces me to stay on task–I won’t go on my phone because I know I have to complete my to-do list by my End Time.

Additionally, I can always finish early. Working meaninglessly until the clock hits five or six is pointless. The End Time is really there as a backup in case you don’t finish early.

4. Start Times

This might be even more important than End Times. Getting my day off to a good start (not rushing, eating breakfast, reading, journaling) is crucial to me. I can only accomplish enough because I start on time every day–by 9:00 AM at the latest. Honoring my Start Time means that I get all my Deep Work done (Shallow Work often gets relegated to the next day if it bumps up on my End Time).

On the day I’m writing this, my Start Time is 9:00 AM, and my End Time is 4:00 PM.

. . .

Anyone who is self-employed still needs to treat their work like a job. As I’ve mentioned in the past, making art is not a random, I’ll-work-when-inspiration-strikes process. It is deliberate and requires sticking to a schedule.

You go to work every day at war with yourself. That part is hard. The flip side is that I never have a day of work with nothing to do, and I almost always get to look back and say “I did good, meaningful work today.” What more could I ask for?

Thanks for reading! Want to stop by a show this summer? See dates below:


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