Life / Work Balance

life vs. work

The issue of work/life balance is a popular and recurring anxiety — not only among aspiring graduates, but for seasoned professionals as well. Professionally we are expected to do more and more in less and less time. As computers have become designers’ principal tools of production, a kind of tacit expectation has set in that we can (and should) keep pace with their exponentially increasing processing power. Smartphones mean access to email, text, instant message, Facebook messages, tweets, etc. from just about anywhere at just about any time. I’ve had clients email me at 9pm on a Sunday and then “follow up” at 7:45am Monday morning, asking if I received their message and noting their annoyance that I hadn’t yet responded. Recently, a client assured me that I could call her any time of the day or night. “Don’t worry,” she said, “I’m always working.”

“I spend evening and weekends with my family,” I explained to her, “I won’t be calling you after hours.”

I forget her exact response, but I remember the disappointment in her voice. Somewhere along the line, the idea that a person has the right (I’d say obligation) to place boundaries between their work and personal lives has become unfashionable. The idea that if you are truly committed, truly passionate, truly invested you arrive early, stay late and basically do whatever it takes to get the job done is the new normal. Anything less than 120% is slacking. There are so many problems with this mentality, it’s hard to know where to begin.

For one thing, operating at 120% of capacity is impossible. One hundred precent is 100%. It’s everything. Your “all.” Capacity is what you’re capable of. It’s the threshold. The max. Your limit. The idea that we should habitually exceed capacity is unfair, unsustainable and unwise. It’s also unhealthy. There’s a great deal of research that shows that human beings are designed to oscillate between periods of intense, focused expenditure of energy, and periods of rest/recovery. In other words, we’re better as sprinters than marathoners. We’re designed to go all-out for short periods of time, recover, then do it again. The clearest evidence of this is the fact that we spend 1/3 of our day asleep. Anyone who has pulled an all-nighter knows how unproductive they are after being up for 22 hours; it’s harder to think, coordination decreases, irritability sets in, etc. In contrast, JFK, Edison, Churchill, Clinton, Napoleon, Da Vinci, are all well-known for taking afternoon naps. Hardly a group of slackers.

If you’re launching your own new business or enterprise, of course there will be times when you let your life/work balance get a bit out of whack. If you’re working on a personal project and suddenly realize it’s 3 in the morning, there’s no shame in that either. I’m not advocating doing the minimum, I’m advocating doing what’s reasonable. If you’re working for a salary, that salary was negotiated based on a typical number of hours per week (hopefully 40). If you stay 2 hours late everyday (perhaps to demonstrate your commitment or that you’re a team player), you’re giving yourself a 20% pay cut. Come in on a Saturday and you’re making more than 30% less than you agreed to. Some studios do this routinely, others only on an exceptional basis. But here’s a hint: if a project requires evenings and weekends to complete, the studio is either understaffed or the project is being poorly managed.

Besides the financial inequity, there’s also the personal cost. Spending all your time at work means less time for reading, hobbies, relationships, your kids, travel, etc. In short, it robs you of a balanced life. It may be thrilling and invigorating at first, but eventually it takes a toll. In the early days, yes, you’ll put in a little more effort. You’ll be slower than everyone else, less informed, less confident. Many of the things you’ll be doing as an intern or a young designer you’ll be doing for the first time. Because you’ll be learning on the job, repaying some of that learning curve back in extra time or effort isn’t unreasonable. Extra effort also creates extra opportunity — just try to remain conscious of what you’re really giving and receiving from the transaction.

Okay. I think that sounded a little sour and rant-y. On to the more productive portion of this post. Here are a few tips for keeping life and work in perspective:

1. Make a to-do list
Make a to-do list every night and prioritize it. When you start work, do the most important thing first. When that’s done, go on to the next thing, and so on for the first 45-60 minutes of the day. Then take a break.

2. Keep your email in check
Don’t check your email first thing. If you do, you’ll start your day on someone else’s agenda, not yours. I check my email around 10:30am and then periodically throughout the day. Don’t set it to check automatically every 5 minutes. A lot of people treat emails like instant messages these days, so be sure to set approprite expectations with your clients/vendors etc.

3. Eat snacks
You can tell it’s 11am in our office because like clockwork, everyone breaks out a snack. Eating healthy snacks and staying hydrated throughout the day helps keep your energy up, keeps you mentally alert, and helps you stay in a better mood.

4. Don’t answer emails after hours
If you do read an email at night or over the weekend, craft your response, but don’t send it until regular working hours. Setting boundaries is important to maintain professionalism, and to respect your right to a life outside of work.

5. Sleep
Try to get 8 hours a night if you can. If you can’t, it’s usually better to wake up a little early and finish up your work than it is to try to push through to the wee hours.

6. Have hobbies
Interests and skills outside of design make you a more interesting person. They expose you to different kinds of people and give you an opportunity to see the world through a different lens. Committing to a hobby or interest—especially if it includes other people—creates a routine in your life away from the routine of work and will help ensure you keep the two in balance.

These are just some of the tips that I’ve picked up over the years. I don’t always succeed at practicing them, but I try. Many were learned from a former client of ours, Tony Schwartz. You can see his seven tips (some of which I’ve paraphrased here) on his blog for the Harvard Business Review.

But first, go take a nap.