We all have the same 24 hours each day. And you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who didn’t wish they could get more done in that time. But as we know, working more doesn’t work.
For best-selling comic book artist and writer, Colleen Doran, her career was built on long hours. Getting her first break when she was just a teenager, Colleen’s gone on to work with pretty much every major publisher you can imagine, with credits on Amazing Spiderman, The Walking Dead, Guardians of the Galaxy, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, and Wonder Woman (to name just a few!)
But after years of battling a lack of energy, she discovered she was facing more than just professional burnout. An autoimmune disorder was sapping away her energy.
In this interview, Colleen talks us through her approach to “productivity,” how she created a new daily routine that doubled her monthly productive time, the struggles of being a full-time artist, and how she uses tools like RescueTime to stay healthy both mentally and physically.
You have one of the most exciting careers I can think of. How did you first break into the comic book industry?
I began doing comics and samples when I was around 12 and even sent writing samples to Random House, where I got my first rejection letter!
It didn’t discourage me at all. I was thrilled an editor answered!
When I was around 14, I started going to science fiction conventions and got an agent to take my work to shows for me as well.
The convention scene was very different then. There was no artist alleys or anything like that. The comic book convention scene wasn’t much of a thing at all, and I didn’t even go to one until after I was a pro. Of course, I was a kid and didn’t travel. So having an agent helped out.
A small press saw my work and I moved up to the big leagues from there.
What does a “normal” day look like for you? Do you have a regular schedule or routine you follow?
Normal days for me are dicey. I can’t always rely on a schedule.
RescueTime has made a huge difference for me because now I focus on how many hours to devote to a task instead of just saying “Get up at 8 AM and work until 6”.
“By concentrating on productive time instead of specific times of day devoted to work and production quotas, I’m able to reach my goals.”
I work seven days a week. I prefer it as it’s easy to lose momentum on creative jobs otherwise. In the past, I would say, “I have to work ten hours,” or “I have to draw an entire page today.” Now, I set a certain number of hours for drawing, a certain number of hours for administration tasks, a certain number of minutes allowed on social media.
“It doesn’t matter when I do these things, it just matters that I put in the time.”
I was very bad about tracking how much of my time was going into my art before using RescueTime. I’d sink way too much time into admin tasks and have no energy left for writing and drawing! I was puttering, doing busy work, but the real work is art, that has to come first.
A clean file cabinet is great, but not if putting it in order put me behind schedule on a painting!
Do you find it’s important for your creative process to have constraints and order?
Absolutely, without structure I flail.
What led you to look for a tool like RescueTime? Were there specific issues you were facing? Habits you wanted to change?
Well, I’ve always been a work reveler. But over the years going back to when I was a kid, I’ve had weird issues with ups and downs, bursts of energy followed by lethargy.
“I’d go from working 100 hour weeks to being unable to get out of bed for weeks.”
Finally, it got so that I wasn’t feeling the energy anymore. All I got was the fatigue.
It turned out I had an autoimmune disease. Not getting properly diagnosed for so long wrecked me and I was almost completely unable to function. I’d have short productive periods and then crash. I assumed I was losing my mojo or getting lazy. In reality, I was sick.
When I finally got diagnosed, I was so relieved. I thought “Yay! I’m going to be cured!” But that’s not how it works. You take medication and you learn to manage and you get better. But that process takes time. And ‘better’ doesn’t mean ‘normal’.
I’d forgotten what ‘normal’ was. After the big crash from which I didn’t get back up, I had no idea how to function on a daily basis. For years I never knew what my day would be like. I didn’t know if I would be able to make art that day or even get out of bed.
I’ve had to relearn everything from scratch. I tried digging up all my old diaries and calendars and picking up my old methods and habits, but they don’t work for me anymore. My old schedule was pretty tough.
How have you adapted your daily schedule to help you stay healthy and productive?
One of the things I do now is to block my time to allow for energy dips and recovery. In the past, I’d work out two hours a day, and then go draw for ten hours! I tried doing that this spring and it caused a flare up.
RescueTime has really helped me with this process of learning to live with chronic illness. When my endocrine levels are out of whack, I get anxious and spend way too much time web surfing or on social media, and not enough time on art.
“I had no idea how bad things had gotten. All I knew is I was not getting the art done and I could not figure out why I was in the office for ten hours a day, and pictures weren’t getting made.”
I started using RescueTime and I was absolutely shocked by what I saw. I started making changes immediately and experienced big improvements within weeks.
However, I saw another drop in productivity weeks after that. At first, I thought, “Wow, I’m a loser, this app works for other people, not for me. I’ve lost my mojo. I’m lazy.”
Then I realized every time I saw that dip, it wasn’t about me being Lazygirl. It meant I needed to tweak my medication. In the past, I’d slip for months with a vague realization that I was getting foggy and things weren’t getting done. I’d blame myself. Now, I can spot the symptoms fairly quickly.
I haven’t been able to keep a regular work schedule since 2007, and I have completely turned that around. It’s such a relief! I’m going into my fourth month straight of regular work hours.
Are there specific features that have helped you the most?
I use RescueTime mostly to track my social media use, which has been the bane of my existence for years.
Social media is something I overuse when I’m not feeling well, and the more I use it, the worse I feel, and the worse my work output is. I don’t blame social media, I blame the anxiety issues and brain fog which are symptoms of illness. It makes you vulnerable to compulsive behavior.
“Until I began using RescueTime, I had no idea just how bad my social media overuse was. The reality of my habits was right there in my face and I was horrified.”
I’d read that it takes only 21 days to break a habit, and I kept beating myself up every time I didn’t hit the magical 21 days of complete life change. But all the research I’ve read since says it can take months, and that is the way it has been for me.
“In the time since I started using RescueTime I’ve gone from hours of social media use per day to about a half hour.”
I can talk to my readers and promote projects without going overboard and using up all my creative mental energy before I even get to the drawing board!
I also love the RescueTime pop-ups that remind me of my goals and the daily and monthly goals charts. It makes me feel great to see my productivity going straight up—to see I’m getting better about managing things.
I’m slowly tweaking my goals to add a little more challenge as well as I schedule and focus better and realize I can add a bit more time to my art production day.
At first, I set my goals too high and got upset when I didn’t meet them. Then I set moderate goals and trained myself to work up to them, which took about 60 days. Now I’m setting higher goals again.
The trends chart has been especially important for tracking my progress and seeing where I’m dipping and need to keep a lookout.
I suppose some of this may seem strange to people who don’t have cognitive issues, but if you have brain fog due to lupus or MS, or a host of other illnesses, it’s a big deal. Your mind can just wander off, and you lose track of things.
I need an objective way of tracking what I am doing so I can make changes and/or get a checkup quickly because, on my own, it can be months before I’m aware that I’ve gone off the rails.
What have been the main benefits you’ve seen from tracking your time?
While I know a lot of my improvement is due to medical treatment, I believe I would not have been as proactive about keeping up on health issues without RescueTime to track it.
This summer, my Design and Composition hours dropped to only 67.33! I couldn’t focus and I felt terrible. I got to the doctor because I could see what was happening on a chart.
“A month later my Design and Composition hours jumped to 128.9. In November, that jumped again to 159.51. More than double!”
However, even with the improvement, I could see I was having health issues again. My distracting time started to creep up and my work hours started to trend down. I went to the doc and sure enough, my levels were slipping out of whack.
My social media use has also plummeted. I showed over 55 hours one month but am now down to about an hour a day, which is still too high. I’d like to get it down to twenty minutes or less.
So many people market apps for go-getters and high-end producers forgetting that there are people out there with particular life challenges like chronic illness that can benefit greatly from the structure RescueTime provides.
Another cartoonist friend of mine whom I introduced to RescueTime said he wished he’d learned of it decades ago. We both went through a long period of confusion over why our work output was dropping before we were able to get medical help.
Artists love to art. If the art dies, it may be because something is dying in you.
Outside of time management, one of the biggest issues creative people face is “imposter syndrome”—the idea that you’re not good enough. Have you ever dealt with these feelings and how did you get past them?
Daily. It still feels weird to me that people like my work.
I didn’t have these issues when I was younger, but this is a really tough business. You put up with a lot of rejection and criticism, and if you internalize that, it can mess you up. I try to surround myself with positive people and limit online activities.
“The internet will mess you up more than anything else. You have to limit negativity and exposure.”
As someone who’s quite successful in an artistic field, do you have any advice for people who split their time between a day job and creative projects?
You really must love it enough to do it even if you don’t get paid for it because reward does not always follow passion. However, you should never sell your passion cheaply just because people tell you to make art out of love.
“Others will be happy to exploit what you create while telling you to be grateful when they take what’s yours. You have every right to enjoy the benefits of what you create. No one expects a baker or a carpenter to work for free, and you shouldn’t either.”
Passion will carry you through the times you need to keep producing to learn your craft. It’s your apprenticeship energy. But you can’t be a professional unless you are able to learn how to manage money and develop good work habits.
Even long-time professionals have to learn new skills to keep up with the market. Never feel like having to practice makes you less of an artist. A genius can get left behind if they aren’t productive and don’t stay relevant.
Having a day job does not make you less of an artist either and it does not mean you’re not a professional. It just means you have a second job, like lots of other people.
Be ruthless about marking time for your art and never forget why you became an artist in the first place. Carry that joy with you no matter what life throws at your art and you will always be an artist.
We all go through changes that require new habits, new goals, and to relearn what it means to be productive. And simply trying to push through when there’s something blocking you isn’t the answer.