THE SHORT VERSION
I’m working healthier!
THE LONG VERSION
My approach to working over the last week has been healthier than ever. It’s had such a deep effect on me that I’ve made a series of major decisions that are already affecting my life and work.
For those of you that may not know: I work as a freelance illustrator and graphic designer, which means I make projects of my own that I sell. I also take on client work, including everything from children’s book and comic illustration, to magazines, logo and clothing design, website design, album artwork, consultation, and more.
(Please forgive the indulgent nature of this post. I’ve kept a journal for the last 24 years (thanks, dad!), and am used to thinking out loud on paper. Keep in mind that this is effectively a private journal entry that I’m choosing to share.)
Last year I worked:
- 9 consecutive 80-hour workweeks
- 3 sets of 5 80-hour workweeks
- I never once worked less than 50 hours in any given week (even when sick, or when I had house/yard work to complete)
- I volunteered over 100 hours of my time for causes related to writing & drawing
- I saw the publication of three new books (Rude Dude’s book of Food, 10 Little Monsters Visit Oregon, and Spooky Sleepover)
- I pitched more than 100 new book ideas to publishers and agents
- I completed more than 50 freelance illustration/design jobs
- I visited over a dozen schools and libraries
- Participated in 12 book- and comic-related events
- I’m a hard worker.
- I’m dedicated to creating great work and to putting more of what I love into the world. What I want most out of my work is to enjoy the process as much as the end result Means that harmonize with the end.
- I’ve never been interested in adding clients and projects to my resumé–I want each project to be the best it can be.
- I work to serve the story. That means every picture and every word has less to do with marketing, and more to do with making the project exactly what it needs to be.
- I work with people on projects that I want to be involved with and I turn down projects that aren’t such a good fit. In other words: I don’t go where the money is–I go where the meaning is. I take on clients and projects for a number of different reasons, usually because the mission of the project is something I’m excited about, or because the project will allow me to stretch my legs a bit. The idea is that if I take on a project that I love, then my heart will be in it and I will put my whole self into the project, making it enjoyable for both myself and the client. I will learn from the project, as well as contribute to it, and the client will have my complete attention. Were I to take on a project I wasn’t interested in, I wouldn’t have any motivation for completing it, and I would simply be going through the motions, benefiting neither myself nor the client.
- I want to put into the world things and ideas that I love. Things that resonate with me. Things that can connect with and help others in meaningful ways.
- I’m more interested in stretching my legs than I am in flexing the muscles I have. I prefer to use the skills I have as a foundation to build from in each project, rather than a set of techniques to exploit.
- Sacrificing less important things for those that are most important. (Bad Brad on KRCL 90.9 might say that I “spend more on things that mean less.”)
- Saying “yes” (time and time again) to projects when I haven’t had the time to properly dedicate myself to them.
- Taking on several large projects at once, whether I’ve planned for them or not.
- My solution to failed projects has been to take on more projects
- My solution to short deadlines has been to stay up late and wake up early, working as much as possible
- Sacrificing my own routine for my clients’ routines
- Giving up my reading time
- Working through migraines and illnesses
- Cutting family activities short so that I can get back to work
- Most importantly, I think, is that I’ve given myself permission to allow each of these things. I’m the one that has taken on so many projects and robbed myself of sleep, and time with my family and friends. I’m the one that decided to take on all of these multiple helpings of stress. I’m the one that decided it was okay, and now I’m the one deciding it is not okay.
P.S. Many, many, many more mistakes are not listed here. I’ll keep them for my actual journal entries, thank you very much!
(Cue the violin!) Sunday night was a turning point for me.
I was so tired that I could barely keep my eyes open. The thought kept running in my head over and over again “You can’t rush art, but you can rush the artist!” What a dangerous idea!
I faced the fact that I alone am to blame for the consequences of my approach to work. I’ve been making the books and illustrations that I love, but I’ve been going about it in the wrong way for so long that I’ve just been taking on more and more.
Pulling all-nighters and working 80-hour weeks are not means that harmonize with the end. 80-hour workweeks might amount to a slew of happy pictures, but they also amount to an unhappy picture-maker. The truth is that I haven’t been practicing what I preach. I’ve been telling others about my belief in means that harmonize with the end, but I haven’t really been living it.
I typically experience one or two major breakdowns each year.
My wife is so supportive and can tell when I’m in the thick of it. She is so great at encouraging me to keep moving forward and she shows me her faith that I’ll work through it. I have worked through these breakdowns, but they’ve been absolutely brutal.
These breakdowns always end the same: with me on my knees in prayer, wondering why I put so much time and effort into cutesy illustrations and fun stories. They feel so insignificant and I wonder if I’m not just wasting my time, but my family’s and my friends’, and the time of those that I work with.
Over time I get the same, clear answer: Who am I to question the desires and abilities that have been given to me? It’s not my station in life to administer medical attention or law or whatever. I’ve been given a deep love for storytelling, for words and for pictures, and I’ve learned so much from the words and pictures that others have made.
Who am I to question any of this?
Abraham Lincoln is quoted as saying “Whatever you are, be a good one.” Shakespeare is attributed with “Whate’er thou art, act well thy part.”
WHAT I’D LIKE TO DO BETTER
In a way, it’s become easier for me to take on more projects, rather than to scale back and to focus on the the most important projects. It’s become easier for me to work longer hours, and to give up parts of my life, rather than adding to the quality of my life.
It’s going to be hard to shake 10+ years of bad habits, but I’ve already begun and am happier for it.
Here are a few specific things I’d like to do better going forward (I won’t list them all here). I’m sharing them here so that you can ask me about them when we see each other.
- Prioritize projects, starting with the most important and urgent (a la Covey’s Time Management Grid)
- Work with sustainability as a goal (how do the project and process contribute to my long-term goals?)
- Read 1 book per month (ideally a novel from my ever-growing To Read shelves, or Miranda July’s The First Bad Man)
- Routine is good for me. Stick with what works, and be flexible.
- Create a Not To Do list. This has helped me in the past (especially with emails and taking on certain projects) and it’s something I need to use more.
- Better system for maintaining email correspondence (Inbox? Really, I just need to be better at responding right away, or to pick a short window in which I can answer messages)
- Plan rewards for accomplishments like completing big projects, or surviving a convention. (I’m really good at stressing about projects, and then stressing about the next one without any kind of break or release.) I need a good book or a trip to dangle in front of me.
So I’ve decided to adjust the way I work. What’s the big deal?
It’s a big deal to me. I am my own boss and I’ve treated myself like a slave. I’ve taken advantage of my desires and abilities. I wouldn’t work this way for anyone else’s company, so why would I do it for my own?
My family and my friends (that’s you!) are most important to me, yet I’ve all but removed them from my priorities. If I put the time and effort into the people and projects that are most important I cannot lose.
I’m so grateful for the gift of agency. I might not control the situations I’m in, but I choose how to respond to them. I’ve abused that gift and am resolving to do better.
Will you help me? Shoot me a message sometime and remind me to be kind to my employee (me), or ask if I’m still struggling.
Again: it’s going to take some time to shake 10+ years of bad habits. It probably doesn’t help that I’m so darn stubborn.
That’s it! That’s my big decision. I turned down what seemed like a big opportunity for a much better lifestyle. It’s a big deal for me and it’s already affected all areas of my life.
Thank you for being in my life. Thank you for supporting me and my work.
Jess Smart Smiley