Interview by Madeleine Dore
Photography supplied with credits
Artist and author
For the last ten years, Portland based artist Lisa Congdon has been “working like a maniac.” At any given time, she would have five to 20 different projects on the go, from books to one-off illustration commissions to dozens of self-initiated projects.
“If you had asked me two years ago to give you an analogy for my schedule, I would have said I felt like I was in a sardine can.”
While her career has certainly reaped the rewards of a busy and productive schedule – she's published over a dozen books, worked with clients from the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) to The United Nations, developed classes and a line of products, and maintained a prolific blog – Lisa is candid about the flipside of being busy.
Dedicating entire days to her work eventually led to feeling overrun, and ultimately the decision to cut back earlier this year: “I was really overwhelmed and burnt out after working on so many projects and working with so many clients over the years.”
Having secured passive royalty income from a decade of creating books and art, Lisa admits she is comfortable enough financially to cut back, “Passive income as a creative is great, it allows you to step back, slow down and reassess because you are still getting paid for stuff you did three, four, five, or six years ago.”
So with this new approach to be more conscious of her time, what’s sitting in the pipeline? To start with, there’s her forthcoming book, A Glorious Freedom, a collection of profiles, interviews, and essays from women, both famous and everyday, who’ve found creative fulfilment and achieved great things in the second half of their lives.
Amidst the press run for this this release, Lisa is at work on yet more titles. There’s one on finding your voice as an artist and a science book project on the periodic table designed for pre-teens. Then, there’s bits of editorial work and blog writing.
“Beside from personal work and those two books, I don’t really have a tonne of other stuff going on,” she admits.
Dialling down on her commitments has actually made her even more productive, allowing her to continue to maintain a consistent approach to her schedule.
“Part of the reason I survived ten years of working a lot is that I am really routine-driven. What I have found helpful is really breaking down my day and planning my goals and what I am going to work on every day and week.”
For Lisa, compartmentalising her day into 45-minute segments has been key to fitting it all in, but now she approaches the blocks more flexibly. “I get a lot of peace and calm from knowing that I have structure in my day, but now I can move the compartments around if I need to,” she says.
Lisa Congdon not only shares insights into how to fit a lot of creative work into a day – and on the flipside how to cut back – but her career trajectory also reveals some stepping stones for us to try.
Previously working in education, it was in her late 30s that she pursued an art career. While for many such a shift would seem daunting and ignite worry that they are “too behind,” Lisa demonstrates that no skill is ever wasted.
“The good news is if you are going to change careers later in life or do something new, anything you've done before is going to contribute to you doing a better job at the new thing,” she says.
In fact, there is no such thing as “behind,” anyway. “Wanting success to happen right away is so much part of our instant gratification culture – but we live many lives and do many things and there is no reason to panic when you are in your 20s or 30s or 40s, or at any age.”
The constant juggle, the endless to-do list and not knowing when success will come – or even the next paycheck – can be a consistent cause of anxiety for creatives. But when asked how she keeps it up amidst the stress, Lisa’s answer is a humbling reminder.
“I remind myself that I chose this. I chose this path. I chose to say yes to all these opportunities. I chose to embark on a personal project when I already had a million other things going on – I remind myself of this so that when I get stressed out, I remember I’m not the victim."
While she has no regrets, Lisa is now focusing on changing her relationship to what it means to be successful. “I want to get to place where I see success as taking care of myself, enjoying my life, appreciating a moment of quiet and not feeling like I have to fill it with something or I am lazy if I’m not working.”
A day in the life of Lisa Congdon
I get up at 5.45am, which is really early, but it’s when my partner gets up and I enjoy not feeling rushed in the morning. I've learned over the past ten years that part of what contributes to my stress is feeling like I have to rush through things in order to get them done – I want to have a schedule where I feel like I can take my time and be really present with whatever I’m doing.
Depending on how much time I have or what mood I’m in, I’ll meditate for anywhere between ten and 30 minutes. I try to avoid looking at my phone or emails before I go to my meditation cushion – which can be very hard sometimes!
I’ve been meditating on and off for five years, but recently have taken it up daily and have meditated for ___ days without stopping. It helps with feeling more present, but also sets the tone for the rest of the day.
For breakfast I alternate between yogurt with fruit and nuts, and eggs and cheese. Occasionally I'll make a smoothie in the warmer weather. Then I’ll have a coffee while I check the Washington Post and The New York Times on my phone. There are so many crazy things happening in the world every single day and I’m trying to keep myself informed.
I think that is something new for a lot of people in the US who didn’t necessarily get up and read the news every day, but it is now a part of our routine. It can be really disconcerting seeing the news unfold in real time, so it does require a conscious switching of gears – telling yourself, Now I’m going to go exercise at the gym, or now going to start my work day.’ Some days are still harder than others, but I think it is a matter of forcing myself to put my phone down and walk away and then unplug for a little bit.
I have always made the time for physical activity because it helps me to keep up my energy, especially when I’m sitting a lot with my work drawing, painting and writing.
Previously, I’d get up and go to the gym or pool first thing in the morning and then from around eight in the morning until six or seven at night I would work non-stop without breaks.
Now that my schedule is no longer packed like a sardine can, I exercise when I feel like it, as opposed to thinking I have to do it first thing.
After breakfast I might go from reading the news to putting my gym clothes on and then I work for an hour and a half, go to a spin class, then come home and take a shower. It’s then around 11.00am and so I go back to work.
Some people find it really hard to break up their day like that, but I actually really like how it forces me to get up and move around instead of crouching over a desk for eight hours straight.
Other days the whole morning can be writing and my research assistant might come over to help me with the children’s book I’m writing about the periodic table.
I have always taken a lunch break because I love eating and food is something that always makes me feel good. I used to always be half working while I was eating,but now I am working really hard on unplugging and not have my phone or my computer with me while I eat. If I do, it’s something un-work related, like listening to a podcast.
I have two studios and three days a week I will work from the studio on my property at home. On those days, I will saunter back to the kitchen and make myself lunch from scratch. The other two days, I go to my painting studio and will bring a packed lunch. A lot of the time I have a salad or snack lunches – an apple, cheese, a hard-boiled egg.
I’m really working now on eating healthier and less processed foods – I turn 50 next year, and while I know I feel and look young for my age, there is something about getting older that makes you think about your health more than ever because things start to break down and it is harder to recover from things.
Often I will get the stuff that I am dreading the most out of the way in the morning so that my afternoon is free for creating art work, but I also tend to have the most energy between three and five in the afternoon, so I can always go back to the other tedious stuff and do a final surge of work before dinner.
Now that I have committed to doing less, I not only take my time with projects, but I also have more free time to go on hikes or visit a bookstore and look around and get inspired.
I had to learn how to take downtime and take care of myself and understand that the world is not going to fall apart if I’m not working at the same pace as I was before. My new schedule has really been about protecting time for relaxation and relearning how to enjoy myself outside of work. I still work six to eight hours a day, but there is flexibility. It is a very different approach to your work than, ‘I have to get this done so I can get the next thing done’ and a much more enjoyable way to work.
If I start to feel like I have too much in my schedule or I’ve planned too much, I really try to rein it in a little bit.
I look at emails probably twice a day and check if there is anything urgent. One of the things I have struggled with for many years has been responding to things immediately as they came in, especially emails. That has been something I have managed to break in the last couple of years. I had to really change my mindset and now I’ve become comfortable with emails sitting in my inbox for 24-48 hours before I respond.
As a culture, we are in a cycle of constant communication, but when we communicated by phone, days would pass before you got a response from someone. So I try to be really thorough and authentic and kind hearted in all my responses, but I don’t necessarily respond to people right away.It has taken some discipline and practice to slow down and deal with email only twice a day.
I also don't post as much as I used to on social media, which means there is less of a need to check constantly. When I first started out, there were things I was doing all the time because I was in that building mode and to build something you really have to tend to do it like a garden – you have to make sure it gets enough water and sunshine and you have to work on it constantly. But when the roots take hold, you just sort of watch it grow and I think for me it was about realising where I can pull back to create an easier schedule.
I generally don’t work in the evenings – I used to, a lot, but I find that the final surge at the end of the day helps me to wrap things up. I like to start the next day fresh.
In the evening, I’ll take the dog for a walk. I’ll usually wait for my wife to get home and we walk him together. If I am walking him by myself, I often find it to be the most creative time of day – he will be stopping to sniff things and it forces me to also slow down. Our dog trainer said not to pull your dog away from sniffing things when you are on a walk because it is the equivalent in brain activity to reading a book, so not rushing him also allows me to decompress from my day.
After walking, if we don't have any plans or speaking engagements, my wife and I will make dinner together. I love cooking and previously preparing dinner was the one time in the day when I really would unwind. We might have a glass of wine, listen to the news or some music and share a meal together – we are really domestic in that way. We cook and eat together every single day and it is the time we connect and talk about what we did that day, decompress and complain!
About once a week, we have what we call ‘office hours’ after dinner which means we will take an hour to catch up on admin stuff around the house.
A lot of the time we just hang out in the living room and listen to records and read books. We try not to watch too much television and that's another thing that's really hard because we get really into a series and just want to go watch episodes every night. We find we don't talk to each other as much when we are watching TV as we do when we are just hanging out, listening to music, or going for a walk together.
Every now and again we will instil the rule of ‘no phone in the bed’ and we always have a really hard time following it because we both like to go on Twitter to find out what new and interesting thing is happening.
The problem with that, though, is you are filling your brain with too much stuff right before bed and it does affect your sleep.
I'm usually asleep by 10.30pm but sometimes as early as 9.30pm. I wish I could say that every night I read a book before I fall asleep. I go through periods where that is the case, but right now I am probably reading too much social media!
On occasion, if I have to travel for work during the week or I have a lot going on, I will work during the weekend.
For the most part, evenings after five o’clock and weekends are really for relaxing, seeing friends and getting chores done around the house – tending to the garden, grocery shopping, doing laundry and ironing clothes, it all needs to get done. They are part of my life and making time for that feels really important.
I’m an avid swimmer and cyclist so on the weekend I might go for longer ride.
I don’t have kids and I admire people who do because they work hard and they are attending to other human beings during the evening and on the weekends and after school. I have basically myself and another adult to think about, so it's really not that hard!
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