Time Management for Actors (and Other Busy People!)
Ten Top Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Day
by Victoria Larimore
1) The Swiss Cheese Method: Often a large goal, say, creating a one-man or one-woman show, seems so overwhelming that it you may give up before you even begin! The “Swiss Cheese” method, recommended by many time management experts, suggests breaking the big goal into many smaller “bites,” like the punched holes in Swiss cheese. If you keep “nibbling away” at your big goal, you'll cut it down to a manageable size and be amazed at how much easier it gets. In addition, every small step checked off your list not only brings you closer to achievement, but gives you a sense of pride and accomplishment, making it easier to keep moving forward.
2) Work Backwards: This technique is especially helpful when a deadline looms ahead and it seems like you'll never be ready in time! For example, you just booked a big audition on Friday at noon, and it's already Wednesday night. What to do? Make a flowchart in reverse. Ask what steps are required to adequately prepare: get the sides, research the character, run lines with a partner, get off book, do a dry run in front of a pal, etc. Then schedule it backwards. You won't create any extra time, of course, but you will have the advantage of seeing quite clearly what needs to be done and in what order. There's nothing worse than scheduling rehearsal time, then realizing that you forgot to pick up the sides across town. Having a time-line perspective allows you to combine or even drop steps in order to make your deadline, or perhaps see if you can push it back.
3) Keep a Task Basket on Hand: Ever notice no matter how much you try, life throws you a million curve balls? Lines at the supermarket, waiting at the dentist's office, your scene partner runs late… Make every moment count by having a stack of short to-do tasks on hand so you can turn that “waste” time into great time. Don't think you can do much in 5 to 10 minutes? How about address postcards to casting directors, agents, and managers; read a chunk of a new play; memorize lines; skim the trades; make a quick business call on your cell; even listen to a play on tape? One friend clips articles she wants to read and pulls a few out of the file and into her purse before she leaves in the morning. It's also a good idea to carry a small notebook with you. You can jot down your daily “to do” list, draft a note to your agent, brainstorm a role you're working on…. You get the picture. A minute to get organized before you run out the door can save you wasted hours, especially if you commute. And keep an in-box filled with pesky tasks at home so you can knock off a few items while waiting for laundry to dry or a phone call to be returned.
4) Schedule It In: What if you just can't seem to find the time to work on a big project, such as finding a legit agent or developing a one-woman show? Let's get real, day-to-day life (the day job or temping, errands, the gym, rehearsals, auditions, class, etc.) has a way of taking over your time, and before you know it, another month has gone by and you still haven't taken a single step toward your goal. One of the best solutions I've found was shared by bestselling writer Sue Grafton. Treat your goal like a class and just schedule it in. If you signed up for an acting class, for example, you'd go every Tuesday and Thursday from 7pm to 9pm, or Saturday morning from 10am to noon; work on your goal the same way, treating that time as a serious commitment. No cheating! Go to a library, an Internet café, or anyplace where you won't be interrupted and can focus. Stick to your schedule for at least a month and you'll be amazed at the results. Consistent effort over time is the key to ultimate success.
5) Drop or Delegate: There's a famous saying: “You can't be all things to all people.” In other words, no one can do it and be it all. We all must choose where to put our efforts, and because acting is a very demanding career, it's extremely important to cut out extraneous activities that eat up your time. Although every time management expert will advise you to “just say no,” that might prove challenging at times. It's hard to say no to a friend or family member, but remember, it's your life, and time is what life is made of. So drop an event or task if it does not fit into your priorities. Can't drop cleaning your apartment, organizing tax receipts, or baking a cake for your boyfriend's birthday? How about delegating? Pay someone to do the things you don't have time for or don't enjoy, and if money is tight (sound familiar?) consider swapping with a friend. If you're a great cook but can't sew, offer to cater dinner if she sews your costume; tune up your pal's car in exchange for having him help landscape your yard.
6) Don't Fight Nature: Being productive means realizing that your energy will have peaks and valleys, and to maximize efficiency, go with your own unique energy flow. If you're a morning person, use your best hours to work on your most important goals; if you're a night person like me, you'll find you focus better after dark. Schedule important meetings and auditions during your primetime whenever possible. Equally important is knowing when to take a break – there's no point in fighting exhaustion. Getting the flu because you've skimped on sleep is counterproductive. Three days in bed, miserable, is too high a price to pay for squeezing in a few extra hours of work!
7) 21st Century Multi-tasking: Here are some new twists on the old concept of multi-tasking. Do double-duty. You gotta eat, so network over lunch or dinner, inviting a new contact to join you at least once a week. Your jog in the park can be done with a friend, combining exercise time with social time. Listen to a play on tape during your morning commute; run lines with your roommate while doing the dishes; address postcards while watching TV….
8) Go on a “Timewaster Diet”: If you need to lose weight, you need to reduce your calories, and one way is to identify what to cut out (beer? chips? candy?) If you're trying to be more energy-efficient, you need to cut out – or least back on – your worst time-wasters. First step is to identify where most of your free times goes. Blabbing on the phone with friends, shooting pool, hanging out at the corner bar at happy hour, surfing the Internet, parked in front of the boob tube at home? Whatever your guilty pleasure, add up the hours you spend per week, then cut them in half. You'll get more done and maybe even increase your enjoyment of “slack time” because now it's a special treat.
9) Be Energy-Efficient: Most people know enough to group errands or make shopping lists in order to be efficient, but sometimes thinking outside of the box is necessary to really boost your productivity a notch. Here's one way: Switch the task to fit your “energy profile.” Did you ever feel mentally tired but full of physical verve? For example, after a long day of office work or memorizing lines, it feels great to take a dance class or shoot some hoops? Or the reverse – you've been waiting tables or cleaning the apartment all day and you're dying to curl up and read that new script your agent sent you. That's because there are two types of energy, physical and mental, and switching to an opposite type of activity can actually rejuvenate you. So don't throw in the towel for the day before you try a switch. Another energy trick: discriminate between outer and inner tasks, and decide which fits your energetic state at the time. Examples of “outer-directed” activities include making phone calls, taking an acting class, rehearsing, auditioning – every time you need to project yourself outward. “Inner-directed” tasks can be done alone and often without interacting with anyone – learning lines, reading a play, researching a character, working out at the gym. Learn to match the job to your mood and you'll double your productivity and have more fun in the process!
10) Procrastination Is the Enemy: And like all crafty enemies, procrastination often disguises itself as feeling tired, being “too busy” to do the dreaded task, or being bored and unable to focus on it. At the root of procrastination is fear – fear of not being “good enough,” fear of the unknown, even fear of finishing a project. Entire books have been written about ways to battle procrastination, but one of the best techniques I've found is the “kitchen timer” method. No matter how unpleasant a chore, you can stand anything for 15 minutes! So set your timer (or alarm clock) for just that, and dive in. If, after 15 minutes, you simply can't go on, quit. At least you're 15 minutes closer to finishing next time. But chances are, you'll keep on working because starting is often the hardest part.
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Victoria Larimore is a writer/director whose work has appeared in theatres and festivals around the world, and has been broadcast on ABC-TV, Discovery Channel, A&E, Comedy Central, PBS, WTBS and in more than 20 foreign countries.