Designers are very fortunate. Unlike a whole lot of careers out there, we quite often genuinely enjoy what we do. We get to unleash our creative spirit and can make a decent living out of it, too. From my experience, it’s an industry full of talented and passionate people.
It can be a bit of a mixed blessing, though. If you’re good at your job, more people will want you to do work for them. The trouble is that you may run into times when there’s too much to do and not enough time to do it. Because you’re determined to get it all done, you start early and leave late. You work weekends and take time away from family. You might even be a bit grumpy.
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Yes, your passion, talent and success can all lead to becoming a workaholic. How do I know? Because I’ve found that I have become one myself.
But it’s a brand new year and I’m ready to change for the better. Thus, let’s explore the ups and downs associated with this lifestyle. Who knows, maybe we’ll even find a path to recovery.
It Wasn’t Always This Way
Back when I began my career, the term that least described me would be “workaholic”. While I did have a passion for design and the technology behind it, I was still very much the high school version of myself. I was just trying to squeak by while doing as little actual work as possible. And since web design was a relatively new thing (thus, not very well understood by outsiders), I often got away with it.
But as I’ve grown up, I just can’t seem to shake the feeling that I have to always be “on”. Having continuous access to email certainly doesn’t help. Still, there’s more to it than that.
When I started my business, I became obsessed with getting things done as quickly as possible – while still doing a good job. That last part took some practice, but I pushed hard to work at a breakneck pace. My goal was to let my clients know that their requests were taken care of almost as quickly as they hit my inbox.
To go along with that speed, I also developed a need to say that I’m “done”. Not just with one specific task, mind you. I wanted to say that I was indeed finished with every bit of work on my to-do list. Most likely so that I could run off and play video games.
That worked (somewhat) for a little while. Unfortunately, I’d stress myself out trying to finish everything off. This led to my not really enjoying the downtime, anyway.
Do or Do Not: There Is No “Done”
In more recent times, I’ve found that I can never really be “done”. Every minute of the day seems to bring some task that needs taken care of. In some ways it’s a good problem to have, as it means that I must be doing something right.
But it’s led me to an approach that is darn-near opposite of the younger me. There’s very little goofing off and a whole lot of grinding. I feel like every second has to be an efficient one. In fact, during a recent holiday I noticed it was quite difficult to decompress and stop thinking about work. It took a few days to just feel like free time really was, well, free.
What makes things even more frustrating is that I can see it taking away from life away from my desk. It affects my ability to enjoy some of the things I used to do – so I generally stopped doing them.
My reason for telling you this is because I suspect that I’m not alone when it comes to being obsessed with work. This is, after all, a job meant for those with creative minds. And when you combine project demands with the never-ending flow of new skills and technologies we need to learn to keep pace – it’s not hard to imagine that a few of us suffer from burnout.
Hopefully, opening up about my own tendencies can help others realize and adjust their own.
As I look at what’s led me to this place, it has struck two separate chords:
1. I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunities I’ve had. Seriously, I have seen the other side of things and know how good I have it.
2. In the long-term, I know that I need to change my approach a bit. Being a workaholic isn’t the best thing for your mental and physical well-being, after all. Evolution is the key to sustaining a career.
Finding some sort of balance between work and life is in everyone’s best interest. To paraphrase that old saying, nobody on their death bed ever laid there wishing they had worked more. When you think about it, work should be there to help us live the life we want to live.
The challenge becomes understanding when it’s time to work and when it’s time go out there and live.
Searching for a Cure
Thankfully, being a workaholic doesn’t mean that you have to stay one forever. But sometimes it takes becoming one to fully appreciate that you need a change. It might even require a few trips around the block, but eventually (hopefully) you figure things out.
Finding a way out of this vicious cycle is going to require a little bit of exploration. Since we’re all individuals, it’s doubtful that there is a single silver bullet that will work for everyone. But here is my best shot at some possible actions we can take to give ourselves a break:
Schedule Time Off
If work is super busy, then randomly taking the day off will probably stress you out more than staying in the office. Instead, pick a date in the near future to take off and let everyone know in advance. Be sure to make plans to do something fun with friends, family or just yourself.
This way, you’ll have something to look forward to. Plus, you’ve already let clients and colleagues know that you won’t be around. Of course, you’ll still receive some work-related email on the day itself. Set up an auto-response message and get to things when you get back.
Learn to Say “No” (or “Later”)
As a workaholic, I realize that it’s difficult to say no when it comes to projects. You never want to turn down the opportunity to satisfy a client while making some money to boot. There are times, however, when it really is the best thing for your own sanity.
For example, it might be that a project’s timeline clashes with all the other work on your plate. Or perhaps you feel that it’s way over your head. Whatever the reason, it’s important to take back some measure of control over your workload.
The other option here is to try and delay a project until a time when your schedule clears up. This isn’t always possible, but again it does provide you with a bit more control. Having that feeling of control can be a great way to tame feelings of chaos.
Change Your Routine
Humans are creatures of habit. And, we know that doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result just doesn’t work. If we want a different result, then we need to change what we’re doing.
When it comes to our daily work routine, change can be difficult. So start with something small, like setting a reminder to help you remember to get up from your desk every so often. That will help you work your way up to larger changes like (gasp!) silencing your phone during lunch.
Eventually, the idea is to build in enough healthy components of your routine to both reduce stress and your desire to pull all-nighters.
A designer’s life can become pressure-packed. And, before you know it, you seem to be in a constant race to get things done. You sacrifice your time and well-being for the chance to keep moving ahead. The funny thing is that being a “successful” designer can lead to a situation that works against your best interest. In that way, learning how to handle your own success is vital to maintaining it.
As for me, just sharing my experience with you has been therapeutic. But I also know that words are meaningless if you don’t act on them. So I’m pledging to do better.
Fellow workaholics, take solace in the fact that you are not alone and that change is possible. Now, it’s up to us to make it happen.