Why Having No Boundaries Is Killing Your Art Career

A neighbor knocks on the door and invites you to coffee during studio time. Mmmmm. Coffee would be good, you think. Do you take her up on her offer?

Everyone in your artist organization knows that you are the go-to guy to get stuff done, so they ask you to chair a committee for next year’s group show. You know your schedule is packed, but you feel a sense of duty. Do you give in and help them out?

Every time your father gets the chance, he insinuates that you aren’t a real artist. It’s really driving a wedge between the two of you. Do you say anything?

©Patty Hudak, Sailing to Byzantium. Acrylic and ink on voile, 25 x 3 meters. Used with permission.

©Patty Hudak, Sailing to Byzantium. Acrylic and ink on voile, 25 x 3 meters. Used with permission.

You hop on to Facebook to post to your business page and are tempted to click on an old (and previously long-forgotten) roommate to see what she’s up to. Do you do it?

In order to act confidently in these situations, you need to have a solid commitment to the boundaries around your life and career.

Bagging your studio time, agreeing to be the go-to volunteer, allowing people to poop on your dreams, and wasting time on social media are all career-killers.

Here’s how you can handle these situations. It all boils down to how you handle yourself.

Setting Boundaries With People Who Want Your Time

People will often impose their needs and desires on your time – not because they don’t care about you, but because you haven’t set boundaries with them.

So many people want our time, opinions, art, and assistance. We want to make them all happy.

We want to please them. We don’t want them to be mad at us.

And yet, dropping your priorities when something is requested of you doesn’t serve anyone.

Changing your focus because someone else wants your time and energy makes you frustrated. You’re mad at yourself for agreeing to the request and at the other person for asking you to do it in the first place.

Sure, the new task may be easier or more fun than other things you have to do, but it pushes you off the path of a successful career. You’ve put others ahead of your dreams.

©Jonah Calinawan, The River Crossing. Cyanotype print with digital drawing, 15.7 x 17 inches. Used with permission.

©Jonah Calinawan, The River Crossing. Cyanotype print with digital drawing, 15.7 x 17 inches. Used with permission.

If you keep giving and giving, you only have yourself to blame.

Setting Boundaries With Negative People

Get rid of the naysayers in your life. Banish people who are jealous, unsupportive, or oblivious to what you want and where you want to go. They have no right to poop on your dreams.

If you can’t eliminate the naysayers completely (and legally) from your life, limit your time with them and tell them that certain subjects are off limits.

You may find it difficult to do this with family members, but it’s even more important to have this conversation with those close to you. Avoiding it only deepens the wounds and weakens the relationship.

One client dreaded every meal she had to spend with her sibling. I suggested an alternative: that she go to a movie with her sibling rather than face the anxiety of conversation.

Tell the naysayers how you feel when they do/say <fill in the transgression> and what your boundaries are. Do this before you become too emotional and before it’s too late.

State your boundaries plainly, matter-of-factly, and leave no doubt in people’s minds that if they can’t be supportive, you’ll have to find other topics to talk about or restrict your time together.

I think you’ll find that those who love you don’t want to be accused of helping to kill your career.

Setting Boundaries With Yourself

Setting boundaries with other people isn’t possible until you enact the boundaries in the first place.

The bottom line is that you have to make boundaries for yourself because you can’t control what other people say and do. You can only control how you react.

You teach people how to treat you through your words and actions.

You either honor your boundaries or leave them squishy – easily changed on a whim. If you aren’t demonstrating that the boundaries exist, how will anyone know to respect them?

Here’s the thing: You will regret dishonoring your boundaries about 95% of the time.

©Susan Garrigues, Bears on the Mountain. Oil on canvas, 12 x 24 inches. Used with permission.

©Susan Garrigues, Bears on the Mountain. Oil on canvas, 12 x 24 inches. Used with permission.

If you are trying to build or expand your art career, the first boundary you need to observe is around making art. Studio time has to be your priority and not something you do only when everything else is taken care of.

You must also set boundaries around marketing time, especially your use of social media.

When others see you practicing professionalism, they will grow to respect the work you’re doing. By way of example, here are some of the boundaries I have established.

  • I refuse to work with anyone who whines, complains, or makes a lot of excuses.  Oh, boy! Did my client list ever get better when I established this boundary! The people I choose to work with are phenomenal – not just as artists, but as humans.
  • I have exactly zero notifications from social media or email interrupting me. I check both when I’m good and ready rather than allowing them to interrupt my workflow.
  • I don’t have time to answer questions from every artist who writes to me needing an immediate response. My policy: I will consider answering questions on my blog or in my newsletter so that all artists can benefit from the reply. It’s posted here.
  • I do not answer my business line after 5 p.m. or on the weekends. Period.

Your Turn

What are your boundaries? Has there been an occasion when you wish you had honored a boundary that you thought you had in place? Please share in a comment below.

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56 comments to Why Having No Boundaries Is Killing Your Art Career

  • Oh, wow! I think you are so right-on with all of your ideas and advice. My problem is guilt. Because of health reasons, and other issues, I was able to quit my outside job, and stay home. I was finally able to start painting about 9 years back, but have wasted so much possible painting time because I feel guilty if everything isn’t in perfect order and taken care of before my husband gets home. He isn’t making me this way, I expect it from myself! I truly don’t know how to stop it and commit to a few hours a day to paint! And, yes, I also think because I’m not selling my art often enough, I make excuses not to paint!

  • This post came at just the right time!! I am a violator on so many of these fronts, so this reminder has served me well. I’m going to write down some boundaries right now, so I can see them and begin to enforce them. Thanks for the value you give to your fellow artists!

  • Having studio space outside my home has allowed me to set those boundaries.
    Friends, family and clients see that art is my business and they respect my time more.

  • This post is timely. I am putting together plans for the upcoming year, and I recognize the need to place boundaries on my own need to be squishy with boundaries. This may not make sense, but I have always felt comfortable keeping my time more flexible. I am finally recognizing that keeping my time flexible is also keeping me from accomplishing as much as I would like. I am determined to strike a balance. Boundaries regarding other people are important too, and I am always working on that issue, but boundaries with myself are perhaps even more important. Thanks, Alyson for the timely post!

  • Steven Sweeney

    Not having firm boundaries is like having the art career pecked to death by a duck. And that especially means boundaries with myself — I find that others pretty much accept my boundaries as soon as I unambiguously set them. I am this morning tidying up the place, putting papers in files, taking objects downstairs, reading and drafting emails, organizing, rearranging my small studio space, wondering if there’s a better way to efficiently store my extra art supplies — I’m doing everything but applying paint to canvas. I have no affection (or affliction) related to my iPhone (my first, and only a couple months old, and purchased for me, not by me, to force me into the 21st Century kicking and screaming), and I’m slowly but surely weaning myself off Facebook (because really, unless you have lost all curiosity about your life, 98% of Facebook is incredibly boring.) I am the go-to handyman for certain folks and organizations, which is a difficult pinch-point of time management, because I really do take considerable personal pleasure in building and fixing stuff, and I’m good at it. BUT: after pounding the pavement and meeting people and handing out business cards, I found a gallery that is going to take me on this month or next, and if I’m lucky enough to sell pieces from the half-dozen I’ll begin with, I HAVE TO replace them with more paintings — which I don’t have at the moment. This is, to paraphrase the outgoing vice-president, a big deal. This is the year I’ll first produce work as a “business,” paying sales taxes (I should hope) and deducting expenses under an official business name. This is what two years’ worth of planning and expenditure has led to. I retired a couple years early to make this happen. It’s 7 degrees outside and will be well below zero tonight; I have nowhere to go out there. I have everywhere to go at my easel, assuming I show up for it.

  • My boundary: Not doing custom work (I am an apparel designer; craft and industry combined). I lose money on custom work and people expect it for free.

  • This is my mantra for this year and beyond. I found myself distracted and off-track last year. Although my business is growing I have realized that I am surviving and not thriving. Eliminating these distractions is my number one priority. I have realized it is okay to abandon something. I have started doing this within my own art. If something isn’t working, I give it a reasonable amount of time and frustration to try and work through it, but if I’m spending days on it where I’m not attending to anything else in the business, I put whatever it is aside or abandon it completely and move on. For example, I had the idea to make molded candles as a bread and butter item on the side. I spent a week attempting to make them without painting or attending to other business matters. In the end I don’t make molded candles and I lost a week of business. I don’t regret it and it was a learning experience, but I have reassessed how I spend my time on side “potentials” instead of my main focus which is painting. Time is so precious. A business friend of mine was telling me the time/priority approach. Ask yourself: “Is this urgent?” “Is this important?” and then you either Do it now, Do it later, Delegate it, or Avoid it.

  • Michele J Emerson-Roberts

    WOW! this article really hit home…….and will be printed and read everyday……before and after my “creative time”! Thanks again for always reminding us to actually put our careers first.

  • I have noticed today that people ignore other’s boundaries my friend runs a business and it states quite clearly on her website the office hours yet people ring her at 9 and 10pm demanding an answer and being rude. I switch my phone off and it is too bad if they ignore it I state in all emails my trading hours

  • Thank you, Allison– this article was a great reminder to focus! I love being “my own boss”, but sometimes I’m my own worst enemy.

  • Great tips Alyson. Some family members thought I painted because I was on retirement from “real” work. This resulted in interruptions for visits, requests for favors during my studio time and so on. One has to gently remind them – Artist at work! Then stick to your system.

  • Great and timely post! In the past I’ve allowed my anxiety about my sales (or lack of) to filter into insecurity in the studio. I’ve allowed myself to be distracted from my work by helping people with their projects (because I want to help others). I’ve allowed certain comments from certain people to dissuade my time in the studio. But, I decided to work to change this. My word for 2017 is “focus”. I have planned out my year and I know how many paintings I want to create. I have developed systems for keeping track of my time, I started a jounal and time keeping system for my studio time. I’m finding it helpful to record my time in the studio and to write about what I accomplished and then to decide what I want to accomplish the next day. I find the more you are in the studio the more momentum you gain. I also have limited my time on social media. Thanks for a great post.

  • Malcolm I totally get that and I ended up in a Nursing Career because anything else wasn’t a real goal. Wow this just hit home on so many points I have to admit. Everything. I have so many that want this and that without as much as a thanks sometimes. Michele good point I am going to print this and re read everyday also. I went to school for Design and actually stopped because I didn’t have enough courage to say “No” and everywhere I went people would start sentence with “I have this space at home that I would like to either do bla bla ;-)” you get the point I am sure. I have grown a lot since the 80’s but I fall into that pit sometimes of not saying “NO”

    Interruptions are code for having your creative moment just vanish into thin air. Even the slightest thing. I zone right out into another place when I paint so it can be a really rude awakening when you are jolted out of your own private creative trance.

    Thanks so much Alyson

  • Thanks for this post, Alyson, and for all these insightful comments, other artists. I have a tidbit to offer. I’ve noticed that this is working well for me:
    First thing: I promise myself I’ll paint something for one hour. I often just need this to get going, and I work for 2-3 hours.
    Then, buoyed by my productivity, when I hit the ‘point of diminishing returns’ I can move on to the marketing work with pride and confidence that I am a Serious Artist.

  • Thank you Alyson for putting things into perspective and helping me stay on track.

  • Looking for the link to share and left my e-mail in comments instead. Duh. Dang artist brain.

  • Oh boy this is so spot on for me. I love being with people and cannot resist an offer for tea or lunch. My studio time is the time while my daughter is at school, but it’s also hard to get together with friends after school. What do you do to make sure you have time with friends and studio time?

  • Deb

    I love and live by your “Gut Check” mantra from one of your coaching classes! It’s in a red frame in my studio – check my gut every morning. It’s all about ME when I’m in there! Alyson, thanks for waking me up to boundaries and turning away toxic people.

  • Thankfully I finely ended up in this block admitting to all the time wasting points. The reminder which I know deep down I needed in gaining the strenght to bring me back on track. Thank You for the wake up Pill.

  • It looks like this article was written just for me.
    I have a large extended family and we have always had a very open, welcoming home and although I have enjoyed that aspect of my life, it does take away from my studio time.
    To give more structure to my day and enjoy the camaraderie of other artists, I am Taking the following steps:
    1. Enrolling in a class
    2. Setting up an artists group whereby we paint together 1-2 days a week

    I have a studio at home which is a big 2

  • Sarah, maybe you can plan the lunch/tea break in with your studio time? Because I always take a lunch/meditation/computer break, I commit to a certain number of hours a week, so I can be flexible that way (power outage did that to me yesterday). Some things are THAT important, and should be honored, in my opinion. But you probably can set a boundary around something else – and create a flex day, maybe?

  • It really helped me to move 2 hours away from Seattle. All my time is art time, and Harstine island is a place where less than nothing happens, so an occasional distraction is fine. The whole thing really works for me. I am happier than I have ever been these last 10 yrs….( I live alone by the way… )

  • Alyson,
    I joined your Inner Circle partly to gain the strength and courage to set up boundaries and to provide focus to my work. This is a strength that I’d lost over the years. We have to stay ever vigilant.

    It’s working already & we only just started the program!

  • Thanks for a great article Alyson. I’m printing it and putting it somewhere to read often. This was very timely. I just accepted an offer for coffee with a friend tomorrow instead of going to my studio. I should have suggested another day or a glass of wine at another time. Firm studio hours and a place to go away from home has helped me a lot, but I still have a ways to go. My firm studio hours need to stay firm first of all….:)

  • Bug

    Just dropped out of a local arts organization that had a board more interested in providing a comfortable coffee klatch meeting than in creating and advocating for arts. Tried to change things, but there was zero interest and lots of excuses. I’d be hard pressed to express this as rampant negativity, but it definitely was not an effort oriented around art production or even appreciation.

  • Thank you, I’ve benefited from reading this. I’ve wasted so much time on social media and feeling guilty. I will write down those boundaries now, and keep to them! Thank you again.

  • This is a great post, thank you.

  • What a timely post for me. My boss just asked me work many extra hours and thought I need the money, it’s time and energy away from my art. Setting boundaries at my paying job has always been difficult.

  • thank you.

    On the last day of our holiday my boyfriend and I did some kayaking training that I’d organised. He neglected to thank me for organising it, nor did he ask why I’d only stayed on the water for half the time. Driving home I realised that I had in fact been putting his needs before mine for a very long time. As a full time artist working from home, this has had an impact on my business. The new work year started on Monday and I felt strong and purposeful about dedicating my work time to work – and maybe even going back to slightly longer days to do some exhibition prep and catchup. It’s Friday now. I don’t feel so sure. This is harder than I thought. …

  • Becki Hesedahl

    Thank you for bringing this up. As usual I am in the same boat. Coming off being prez of local art group which took up so much time and I have a show (25 pieces) March 1. I have 10 completed. Then I caught a cold, trying to quit smoking, lose weight and get ready for my show. Cold is better and progress on the others but MUST get back to painting. Reorganizing studio today and tomorrow – can’t focus with the visual clutter. I really need to work on my own boundaries and hold myself accountable for my working time. Keep it up everyone. Progress is progress no matter how small it may seem!

  • Great article and comments! I echo others in saying it absolutely hit home. Having just finished a holiday time period with my very needy daughter in which I did a terrible job of setting boundaries, I am highly motivated to change some things. I have begun by designating certain tasks to certain day and time periods in order to place them on the calendar and hold them sacred. I have also spent much time thinking about my priorities in this art business – what are the forms of my art that have the best combination of ‘I like to produce’ and saleability? Thank you, Alyson, for creating the space for this conversation.

  • Thank you, Alyson, for sharing and for creating this space for connection with other artists. The encouragement to set boundaries is grounding me in the personal reality of being an artist (actually a jeweler). I’ve gotten off track from because of all the time I have spent with post-election citizen-self making. That’s been necessary, so fine, but this will be my first year of doing my jewelry making full-time and I have a lot of organizational as well as creative work ahead. I’m very glad to have your guidance and to be part of this conversation and to envision myself being successful and happy doing what I love which is being creative and successful. Thanks again!

  • Love your posts… thank you for sharing your recommended tools and strategies! One HUGE shift I am enjoying this new year relates to protecting my creative morning time. I rise early each day for the hours of me-time in which I walk my pup, jog and write, sketch, and work on my photography series. The shift that is the most surprisingly beneficial (and surprisingly challenging to practice) is I don’t check my email before 10AM. Period. I get easily distracted by replying to emails or spinning off in directions prompted by email. And giving myself a focused morning spent on creative energy, inspiration, action and pondering, I find I am much happier, at ease and energized about the rest of the day feeling I have done my important work to begin the day. And outside of my creative world, nothing yet has suffered by not getting my attention before 10. Thanks again for all you share!

  • Great post! One of my boundaries is that I need to be left alone to work. Its to easy to get distracted. People think because you work for yourself, you can take off when ever or they can come by whenever. But it takes a lot of time a discipline to be a a professional creative or artist.

  • E.LeMaster

    Hey, is there any other artists who are juggling toddlers too? Any helpful tips on how to keep an art career going AND be a good mother/wife/house keeper?

  • Alyson, terrific post. Yeah… setting boundaries and saying no have been a challenge for me. One distraction seems to lead into another and before I know it the morning has gone without any work done, sometimes it turns into an entire week, I call it the creep factor. Consistency is another big challenge so this year I’m trying something different — scheduling specific days for specific tasks. Three days a week for studio, two days a week for marketing, adminstrative, and workshop prep. So when someone needs to meet with me (work related, lunch, a visit to a gallery), I schedule it into a marketing day so that I don’t break the studio momentum. I also added a flex day on Saturdays because the reality is that my life can be unpredictable and stuff happens. The past week has been one of those unpredicatable times with two sick family members in the house along with having the main floor of our home painted… and it’s Sunday and I’m playing catch up with adminstrative work and yes I’m feeling some stress because I’m falling behind some of my commitments. But at the same time I know it’ll be alright because I believe that the schedule I made along with some of the systems that are already in place, are giving me something to fall back on so that things are not falling between the cracks. I know this may sound odd, but the schedule & systems are not only helping me to stay focused, but they seem to be giving me permission to say “no” to the non essentials and distractions and help to keep the boundaries intact. It’s a work in progress. 😉

  • Alyson,

    Just got around to reading this.

    LOVE THE LINE: “They have no right to poop on your dreams.”

    I promise to defend my dreams against these poopers!

    Mark