Work is an interesting thing. For most of us, it takes up most of our lives. At least 60% of our time is spent at work, either at an office, or more so these days, working from home. And depending on how engaged you are with what you do, how much you love or tolerate it, you might be looking for ways to make work more effective and efficient. Ways to squeeze more out of the time you spend working, etc.
This is the essence of productivity. Finding ways to produce more.
If you work for a company or business, you might be able to skirt away by doing the least amount of work you can get away with. Since your labour is paid for on a fixed monthly basis, that might make sense. Or you might want to push harder to get noticed and promoted. If you work on commission or you work for yourself, then your income is probably tied more directly to your labour. So the more you work, the more you earn.
At this point, it gets very tempting to maximise the amount of time you spend working. After all, if you can work more, you can make more. But the human body is not a machine, and the amount of energy and attention we have is finite. We still have to do pesky things like eat and sleep.
If you push and try to work as many hours as possible, you will quickly come against your upper limits. And that is a limit you need to get very familiar with, and respect accordingly.
In the early days of my career, as a whip-smart youngling, I would work almost all the time. From the moment I woke up, to the moment I went to bed, every day of the week. Understandably I burnt out often. Sure I was much younger and able to put in insane hours without too much of a strain. Also, I love what I do, still do. But overtime, I have come to respect the productivity decimating power of a burnout, and I’ve changed the way I think about work.
It is not use burning the candle at both ends for weeks on end to be completely wiped out and unable to work for days or even a month at a time. The better way is to find your rhythm and optimise it at both ends – your work, and your play.
The case against overwork
Because human energy and attention is finite, putting in more hours at work than you need to actually starts to become detrimental. The work you do 4 days into a work stretch will not be as good as the work you do right at the start or midway through. Plus, bad work can lead to even more work down the line, where you have to backtrack and make changes or fix the bad work you did.
You probably don’t need to work as much or as long as you think.
Especially in the creative space. It might do you better to focus on writing for 2 hours every day, than to try bang out an entire book in 9hour daily sessions. But everyone is different, the point is to find the rhythm that works for you.
Personally I am able to give about 3-4 solid days to my design work in a week. On day one, I can do an easy 12 hour stretch. On day 3, I can average out at 8hrs of work. By the 5th day, I am barely functional. If I push further than that, which I certainly could, I would definitely pay for it by the next week. In this state, no matter what I do, I simply cannot work. My brain and body are far too tired to do anything creative or productive.
Find your balance
As I’ve grown and refined the way I work, I have learned to institute a couple of things like respecting the weekend, respecting how long tasks actually take, and communicating clearly to people when I’m available and when I’m not.
These days I am able to strike a balance, knowing that once Monday rolls in, I am completely focused on the grind, and by Thursday, Friday, I am easing off, and when it’s the weekend, I do not think about work at all. Whether I am at work or leisure, I am able to give my all to it, knowing that I am doing the right thing at the right time. I rest and bum out when I need to, and I get on the grind when I need to.
Make your work time more efficient
Striking a balance also helps us do one other important thing, which is focus on the efficacy of the time we actually spend working. If I can only work for a limited time, then I have to make sure that it is time well spent. I have to ensure that I am working on the right things – the things that actually move me forward, on the projects that excite and teach me, on the ideas that could give exponential return.
By respecting the time off, we can become even more deliberate and intentional about the work we do.
Which is why if you are someone who works for yourself, you have to be strict with your hours and your time. It is far too easy for something to come in to encroach on that. Clients need things last minute. People are disorganised, everything is urgent. It is okay to throw on the cape and save the day from time to time. But acquiescing constantly to such demands will just throw you off course and into chaos.
And that isn’t what we want.
We want a life by design. A life where everything is at the appropriate level at the appropriate time.
It is okay to go all out and have hectic head-down work sessions. Some seasons call for it. But it is also doubly important to make sure you get some down time, that you take care of yourself, that you have other things in your life other than work. The chance to pursue curiosity, the time to rest and relax and play, the time to have experiences, the time to nurture relationships.
The time to live.
That is paradoxically, how we become more productive in the long run.
I came into the understanding of something powerful last week. I had read Deepak Chopra’s “The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success”. It is a deeply profound and powerful book which I will blog about later this week. One theme I picked up is that in nature, things move naturally and with ease. Things just do what they are supposed to do, without strain or stress. Trees do not struggle to grow, they just do. The sun doesn’t struggle to shine, neither does the earth struggle to rotate and revolve around the sun. They just simple be and they simply do.
This is not our experience as humans though. We do SOME things with relative ease or even no effort, but it is all the subconscious stuff. We grow effortlessly. I don’t know anyone who sits down focusing on their body parts growing. Our body systems work and perform their duties without our conscious help or effort. Yes, we do maintain optimum conditions of nutrition, exercise and so on with some effort. But the growth or progression is naturally effortless.
Now how do we apply this principle of least effort to our lives. It seems like attaining our desires normally requires a lot of stress, worry, friction, resistance and effort. In work, in studies, in life, we run around helter skelter most of the time. Many of us get to the point where we are now addicted to the stress and cannot function without having it. We feel like we are really hitting our stride when we are juggling 15 different activities and can brag about how tired and stressed and busy we are. We even have quotes and entire philosophies built up around the travelling the hard road to success. These are perfectly fine, but there is an extra dimension to it.
It doesn’t need to be so though. Success demands effort and hard work, but it does not demand stress. I understand now that it is possible to be completely productive, completely engaged and be stress free. To do so, is to understand universal principles and how they apply to the microcosm of our daily lives. There are a number of supporting insights that help one live this sort of life. At its core though, is the paradox of standing still and moving furiously. This is the core paradox of the universe, of God, that which is always changing, always moving and yet is eternally still and unchanged. This is how the earth’s surface perpetually transforms, hills become valleys, valleys become hills, soil becomes metal, organic materials become oils and plastics. Alchemy happens on so many levels, but still the fundamental chemical elements remain the same. The only thing that changes is orientation and arrangement.
To stand still means to be anchored in eternal truth. It means growing in knowledge of who you are, and staying in continual communion with the Source. It means knowing you are eternal, that you have never ‘not being’ and you always will be. It is having in mind, the big picture of the universe and our journey through it. In stillness you remember that this life is but a dream. Standing still means that you don’t take anything personally. It means that you do not relive the past or worry about the future, but u remain firmly in the moment. It means you know who you are, what you want, what is ultimately important and what you choose to create. You cultivate stillness via the rituals and practices of prayer, meditation, and concentration. Any practice that helps you quiet the noise, slow down the chaos and connect with the eternal. As you do this more and more, your life takes on fresh purpose and you possess clarity of thought and intent.
Moving dynamically means that you take required action to create that which you have chosen. You are absorbed in the moment and give yourself completely to what activity you are engaged in. You enjoy being and doing without attachment to results and outcomes. You complete a task and move on to the next. You stay focused. You may have to work ‘hard’, but you bless the moment, and lose yourself in the work. In that way, even things that are tedious and difficult become easy and engaging as you stay in the state of ‘flow’. In your stillness you remain settled, aware and open to change. In your movement, you are dynamic, responding to the moment, meeting challenges and pursuing your goal flexibly.
As you practice this daily, you will approach a state of daily bliss and joy, steadily achieving your goals while remaining fulfilled and at peace. This is daily practice, this is the path of the enlightened.
Over the past few weeks, I have been experiencing a gradual decline in both my enthusiasm for design, and the quality of my design work. The last camel back breaking straw was working with a particularly demanding and manical client. I’m overworked, overwhelmed with requests for designs and then this one client wants to possess all my time and energy?! aaaah…the joys of being a freelance designer. Anyway, long story short, the entire working relationship kinda fell apart and we parted ways. I went on to spend the next few days in a daze trying to recover from the past two weeks of non stop 16hr work days. Slowing down caused me to confront certain truths.
1. I am not Superman. I love the man, I really do, he is my favorite super hero, which explains why I have followed the convoluted and sometimes utterly ridiculous plot of Smallville right from Season 1 to its present final season 10. But….I am not him. There is a limit to how much work I can take. As much as I would love to work 24/7/365.25, I can’t :-(, and the cycles of downtime and uptime exist for a reason. The one is just as important as the other.
2. Give adults a box of crayons and they will go BUCK!!!! lol, no one can resist the allure of being creative, and so clients will come up with solutions for their projects and insist you execute them no matter how weak or absurd the idea may seem to your ‘expert’ opinion. So gently remind them why they hired you and steer them to proper design solutions, or if the money is that good to assuade your conscience, STFU, smile and do as they say….dance puppet! dance!
3. All clients are not equal, try and work with the best ones and slowly fade the others out. The best clients being those who pay well, communicate clearly, understand the process, and give you the space and trust to do what you do best. The worst…well just the opposite of that.
4. I ain’t touching my keyboard or mouse to work on your project without a 50% deposit in my bank account. No more mr nice designer, got too many clients owing me because I trusted them to deliver their ‘much needed’ poster and expect prompt payment. Some of them actually would gush and ooh and aah over the design, telling me about how good I am and how I am the best thing since Micheal-freakin-angelo. Nah dawg, don’t praise me….PAY me!!
5. And this is probably the most important thing. I am not a designer.
I mean, ‘I am not ‘just’ a designer’. I am so much more, and there is a bunch of other skills, ideas, dreams, visions and goals laying dormant that I have shelved to to take on this identity of designer. As much as I love it, it shouldn’t consume me totally.
6. Design has become so…bleh…especially around these circles. I don’t know but doesn’t it seem like we all using the same style, designing the same things. I can’t remember the last time i saw a WOW design. A lot of work I see around look good, but say nothing. What happened to the communication? My lecturer once told me that, ‘There are a lot of photoshop technicians and not a lot of designers’. My first impulse was to argue, but now, I agree 100% with her. We are not saying a lot lately, and that’s not good.
So….in lieu of all that, I’ve decided to chill a bit, slow down the design work, and experiment more. I’m also dusting off old ideas, dreams and interests and working on them. It’s time to expand
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