This was going to be a blog post. Many times, when I am working on a particular issue (with or without actors), an epiphany gurgles up and becomes a blog post at the Spynotebook. But as I talked about the issue of time management with actors who struggle with it, people who have conquered it, and my mentors in the “writing for actors” arena, it became clear that this was not just a blog post. (I’ve had those, about this particular issue, in blog posts called Embracing Inefficiency and The Ultimate Guide to Productivity.) The consensus was, this needed to be a column. So here it is.

Time management is one of the more difficult issues we all face, but actors especially — as their primary strengths usually don’t lie in the world of organization — often struggle with fitting it all in without losing their minds. And to be fair, there is a lot to fit in. Between working out your craft and working out your body, earning money and earning respect as a performer, meeting with potential buyers and meeting with collaborators for projects you’ll produce on your own, there’s also real life and fun and rest. Hopefully. Balance, as usual, is key.

But before you can tackle finding balance, you need to get really clear on what it is that’s vying for your attention. You need to prioritize among those things. You need to allocate your precious time in such a way that serves your needs while providing an opportunity to do all of the things that you must do, in order to pursue this career you’ve chosen.

Option Overload

Face it. There’s too much to do. You can’t possibly get it all done, every day, and still have time to breathe. And it may overwhelm you even to begin listing out all of the things you think you have to do, but I want you to work up a list anyway. What are the must-do items? What are your want-to-do items in your life? What are the should-do items? Make a list. Include things like submitting on breakdowns, reading scripts, working out, answering email, prepping sides, networking, taking classes, collaborating with other actors, perfecting a monologue, learning a song, refining a dance combination, meditating, relaxing, zoning out with a purpose, working at your survival job, spending time with family and friends.

Write it all down and cluster the items according to “must-do,” “want-to-do,” and “should-do.” Include things you never do but wish you had time to do. Include the things you hate to do but know you have to, in order to take advantage of all of the opportunities out there for you. Group these lists and pay attention to where you’re feeling the most resistance and which items fill you with the joy, just at the thought of getting to do more of ’em.

Categorize. Is watching TV a part of refining your craft? Are drop-offs in the same area as working out? Is networking related to scene study class? Where do you draw the lines? This is going to vary from person to person. But it’s vitally important that you determine what’s propelling you ahead and what’s an excuse to kill time. Whatever you call it!


Start with the “must-do” items in each category. Rank them. Which ones have to happen and which ones have to happen first, in order to allow room for the others to happen? For example, you have to go to your survival job until your acting gigs are paying enough to make that a memory from your foggy past. You have to work out, unless you’ve decided to change your type category from “leading” to “schlubby neighbor.” You probably have to network, unless you have the gift of nepotism advancing you in ways the rest of us covet. And even then, you have to “water those contacts” like precious plants, so I’d keep networking on the list no matter what!

Once your lists are in order of priority, you can begin to see which things you can safely leave out, if your schedule gets particularly cramped. Does that mean no more social life? No more family time? No more quality time with yourself alone? No more sleep? Well, then I’d argue that you didn’t prioritize your list correctly. Of course, only you know what’s most important in your life. But for me, if I don’t recharge with myself, with my friends, with my loved ones… I’m useless for all other items on my list. The way I stay so productive is by making sure I get me time, regularly.

Divvying Up Your Time

How many hours are in a week? How many of those do you sleep? How many of those are spent at your survival job? How many are spent commuting? How many do you spend working out? And how many are spent in places you aren’t giving up: acting class? Networking functions? Meetings? Prepping for auditions?

Where can you allocate time better? Are you spending hours online? Consider cutting that time in half so that the time you do spend online is spent connecting with contacts, researching means of promotion, learning from what others are doing, building relationships, and not so much “killing time.” Sure, if you’ve decided some of your “me time” is to be spent playing games online or catching up on reading friends’ blogs, that’s fine. But allocate that time as “me time,” and don’t get pissed when that means your time-management budget for your social activities is spent looking at webpages instead of attending a party with real humans in the flesh. Your choice.

Allocate your time. Divvy it up. Pledge a certain number of hours for a certain type of activity. Only you know what will provide the best returns for your needs, the most balance for your life. Everyone has a different level of tolerance for work vs. play. Everyone has a different interpretation of what work is. I have so much fun doing my “work” that it’s a good part of my “play” budget, some weeks. How’s about you? You may find that you’ve been surrounding yourself with poison playmates and could really use a shift in the number of hours you allocate to those relationships, in order to help you spring toward the healthier people in your life.

Committing to It

One of the things that happens in my life is, people say, “Ooh, how about dinner Wednesday?” and I’ll look at my calendar and see I already have X number of social meals that could also be seen as networking and I’ll say, “We’ll have to reach out past next week. I’m already booked this week.” Sure I have free time on Wednesday, but I’ve already booked my allotted number of social meals and that means Wednesday is off-limits to something that would make me “go over.” (See this Facebook vid for what happens when I don’t stick to my “rules” on this stuff.) So, I create a schedule way in advance of when folks may prefer to get on the books, but then those events are on the schedule and that’s that. Because I don’t overbook often, these people are almost assured they’re going to have my whole focus, when we do get to it.

Setting limits is a beautiful thing. If you see your experiences like the swinging pendulum, you know that when you overreach in one direction, you’re going to have to swing the other way — hard — to recover. Choosing instead to commit to “just enough” and then — when the occasion warrants it — deciding to “go over” is far better.

Tips for Surviving and Thriving

Let yourself off the hook when you get it wrong. You will get it wrong. The goal is not succeeding 100% of the time. The goal is succeeding more often than failing, and recovering quickly when you do fail. Edit your self-talk to include that you’re a work in progress, and that “progress, not perfection” is the goal.

Stop looking at your to-do list with a sense of overwhelm. Find one little thing you can do and do it. Make a dent. Any forward motion is progress. Don’t let the overwhelming feeling keep you from doing anything. Don’t let your history with “being bad at this” keep you thinking you’ll forever be bad at it.

Stay healthy. Many folks rely on energy drinks and caffeinated beverages. Not me. I’m not saying they’re across-the-board bad for you, but I am suggesting that you don’t have to use artificial substances to help you keep your energy sustained while you do way more things in a day than The Average Joe does. Eat right, exercise, get enough sleep, recover when you push your body too far.

Maximize your time by multitasking when appropriate. You’re stuck in traffic for an hour. Great. Instead of trying to figure out how to break the law without getting caught so you can answer email on your phone or talk without using a headset, instead just turn off your phone and listen to books on tape or CD. Play back your recorded rehearsal lines so you can get off-book. Use the drive time to get in the zone with some really inspiring music or messages that help you stay focused and balanced.

Set limits. I’m huge into this. So much so that I don’t have a cell phone. What!?! Yup. I mean, I have an iPhone, sure. But I use it for email and emergency calls out (which so far have numbered zero calls). It is not set up to receive calls or texts and I do not know the number, so I couldn’t give it out if I wanted to (and I would never want to). I think, as a generation, we’ve gotten way too spoiled about instant gratification in being able to reach people, anytime, no matter what. People seem pissed when they get a busy signal anymore, and I say, “Y’know what? A busy signal means I’m busy,” and I think more people should consider having a busy signal. Look, I’m not a surgeon. There is no call coming in that is so important I can’t deal with it when I check in, every hour or so. I do this because when I’m in a meeting, I want to be 100% in that meeting. When I’m at a lunch, I want to be 100% at that lunch. The way I prioritize is by not working to figure out “what else is going on” while I’m with anyone. Sure, I’ll check email when I can, in case there are fires to put out, but people in this industry are always sure something is life-or-death when it’s just not. Ever.

Of course, you’re an actor. You have to get your calls. You actually could miss a job by not being reachable, so I understand that you can’t do the teetotaller method that I employ, with my telecommunication. Okay. Fine. But you could pledge to only check your phone every 15 minutes or every 30 minutes, rather than every few seconds. You could pledge to check what has come in, but not answer anything until the top of the hour. This allows you to focus on what’s going on, rather than constantly stopping the flow of what’s going on in order to take care of “everything else” (and that stuff will never stop coming, so creating a way to manage that now will benefit you in the long term).

If you have a task on your to-do list and you can’t seem to get a chunk accomplished, set a timer so that you do that one thing for 20 minutes and then, when the alarm goes off, you can do something else. Or, if you want another 20 minutes of focused efforts on that one thing, set the timer for another cycle. I set my timer to remind me to take breaks. You can set one to remind you to shift to another item on your list.

You can also do this with rewards for work accomplished. When I’m on-task with writing, I’m writing. When I’m on-task with casting, I’m casting. I don’t answer the phone when I’m writing. I don’t work up story ideas while I’m casting. I reward myself with “fun” stuff when I accomplish certain things. Like when I was working on the 3rd edition of Self-Management for Actors, I would take a Wii Fit break at the end of every chapter I edited and sent off to my amazing proofers. And every week, I would get a playdate with a best friend, as a reward for having gotten so much work on the book done. That’s how a 520-page book went to print in under five weeks.

I want to talk a little more about the “noise” that is technology and communication. I’ve heard there’s actually software out there that can analyze your computer time if you really want to know how many hours you’re spending on email vs. editing a screenplay, how much time you’re spending on Facebook vs. downloading sides to prep for auditions. You may be shocked at how much time you’re “wasting” while you feel like you’re “working.” And that’s before you even factor in that handheld device you’re using to *ahem* become more efficient.

When you’re at your desk, working on adding ten pages to the feature film script you’re developing as a vehicle starring you, choose “work offline” in your email program, so you’re not interrupted by what’s coming in. My email program brings mail to my computer every half-hour instead of every five minutes. Simply not being interrupted is a great way to stay productive.

As you start your day, pick one item on your to-do list that you’d like to conquer, and see if you can make it happen before you turn on your phone, launch your email program, pick up your messages from voicemail. Even if it’s “change the cat litter,” that’s one thing you’ll get done right away, rather than putting it off for another few hours, letting that nagging energy of “why haven’t I done that yet” be one less thing in your psyche. The noise of the mind is sometimes the most distracting element, when it comes to productivity.

To that end, I’m a big fan of compartmentalizing. Some would say that I compartmentalize too well. I can so separate the various threads of my life that even if all of the same players are in two of the areas, when we’re on one of those areas, that’s all it’s about, every time we connect. If you can exercise a muscle to get good at that, your productivity will increase.

Listen to your body. If you need rest, rest. If you have the energy for an all-nighter, pull one. If you’ve overcommitted and need to sleep rather than pushing yourself, bow out gracefully, pledging to take that person whose party you’re missing out for a dinner the following week, as a thank you for understanding that you had to take the night off for yourself. You’ll both enjoy the quality time more.

There is value to being focused and off-limits when you are with someone, at a meeting, at work, on your breaks. Truly committing to what you’ve agreed to spend time on is of great value. And much of what makes us feel overwhelmed is the scatteredness of our minds, while we think of all the other things we have going on, oh and here comes a text, oh and that call is important, and, and, and.

Bullshit. What’s important is being truly present for whatever you’re experiencing.

This is my mantra with my volunteerism, speaking engagements, meetings about projects I’m working on, etc. Once I’m booked for the number of hours I pledged per week, I say no and ask that we consider the following week or whatever will work, out in the future. This allows me to honor my downtime and keeps me from having to cancel, keeps me from getting run down and sick, keeps me sane.

But it starts by knowing what the allocation is for each type of activity, being able to identify what type of activity each kind of thing is (as so many are hybrids), and quickly — and without apology — answering yes or no, confidently, because you’re taking care of your ability to do more, by saying no when you have to. Setting limits. Sticking to them. Unapologetically.

I know I started this section with tips about letting yourself off the hook, but I’m going to end this piece with more of the same. It’s that important. The nicest thing you can do for yourself now is to be gentler with yourself. You’ll do that, anyway, eventually. But don’t wait ’til you have some crisis or epiphany that forces you to breathe more fully. Life is just so much more awesome when you enjoy the flow, the quirks, the “beingness” of being.

So start now. Schedule it, if you have to.

Bonnie Gillespie is living her dreams by helping others figure out how to live theirs. Wanna work with Bon? Start here. Thanks!

Originally published by Actors Access at Please support the many wonderful resources provided by the Breakdown Services family. This posting is the author’s personal archive.

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