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8 Ways to Work Smarter, Not Harder

I used to get burnt out by work, but now I found a joyful balance.

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Our frantic days are really just a hedge against emptiness. 
 – Tim Kreider,

At Metagramme, the problem wasn’t cruel or unreasonable clients. They were actually kind and generous, for the most part. I had no one to blame but myself. It was time to man up in a major way. One of the glaring issues I faced was a total lack of boundaries. No phone call was too late to answer, no email too early. My lack of boundaries came from fear. Fear of what would happen if I said no more often. Fear of missing deadlines or disappointing customers. I was also afraid of allowing quiet reflection and creative diversions into the work day. I was punching the clock like any hourly employee. The story I told myself was that slowness and emptiness were the same thing. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I’ve found recently that when the time is used well, slowness can actually be one of the most profound sources of abundance.

When fear rules our lives, even the most amazing calling in life can be downgraded to a career. On the trajectory of fear, careers wane through the grey purgatory of jobs, and jobs break down in quivering heaps at the fiery gates of slavery.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to settle for anything less than a life’s calling. And I’m sick and tired of seeing beloved clients, colleagues, and friends settle for less.

By accepting the status quo of long hours and trying to play the hero, I compartmentalized our studio’s creativity into the box of client work. I didn’t think of running a business as a creative endeavor. It didn’t occur to me how vital it was to carve out time for rest, play, and personal creative pursuits. I was running a sweatshop, when I should’ve been running a smartshop. I wasn’t in charge. My fear ruled the roost. It wasn’t long before our work started to suffer. Design solutions began to look and feel the same.

By early 2012 I’d had enough. I was dreading coming to work each day in the business I’d created. There’s something really screwed up about that. So with the help of business coach and mentor Peleg Top, I started to make some drastic changes.

Before his work as a business coach, Peleg ran a successful design firm in LA. He once told me that in the 18 years he owned Top Design, he never encountered a true design emergency. That simple truth resonated deeply with me. At Peleg’s firm, they weren’t saving lives or fighting wars. It was a service firm, and they lived accordingly. His team was in the office from 9–6 Monday through Thursday, and 9–2 on Fridays. They set realistic expectations for their clients and met deadlines. The business thrived. But they didn’t answer the phone at night, and were unavailable on weekends. Peleg’s team had clear boundaries, made them known, and their clients were happy. They worked when they were rested and present. The quality of their output spoke for itself.

“Sounds lovely,” you might say, “but that kind of lifestyle just wouldn’t fly with my boss/company/clients/fill-in-the-blank.” Perhaps you’re right. At times, working late is indeed necessary. Sometimes you create a problem and need to fix it on your own dime or after hours. Sometimes you commit to a task that requires learning new tools. Being a responsible grown-up occasionally requires a sacrifice of time. And on the positive side, sometimes entrepreneurs work on their businesses after hours out of love, rather than straining toward an overly-optimistic deadline out of fear. I’ve been there, I’ve put in the hours, and I’ll do it again. But not unless I’m motivated by love.

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