Don’t be a hero, be consistent (and five life-hacks to keep you sane)

Here’s the big idea: habitually working long hours is unintelligent, counter-productive, and comes at a big price to your health and wellbeing. Burn-out is not godly. Despite the mounting pressure, Jesus never did it. So stop it!

Rant over, here’s the thought process and some real life actionable stuff…

Don’t be a hero, be consistent

I heard this phrase in Kelly Starett’s interview on CreativeLive and it struck me as being very profound. The context was health and fitness, but it’s one of those one-liners that applies to so many aspects of life where you want to achieve good things.

In short, long-term consistency outperforms individual heroic acts every time.

The design industry is a little notorious for long hours. Simply because the work is time consuming and clients tend to want things quick. The same dynamic is at play in a church context; but in some ways it’s more pronounced.

The design and media thing is quite new for many churches. If you’ve just come on-staff, you may well be forging a new path in uncharted territory. There’s a learning curve for everyone. It takes time. But in the enthusiasm, pressure and excitement of all that’s now possible, remember one thing: try not to kill yourself! If you end up in a ditch on the side of a road you’re no good to anyone.

The temptation is real

I track all the hours I work. It was something I learnt being freelance and is super-useful for a number of reasons. Especially when you see patterns emerging. After about three years of repeatedly churning out long hours to hit tight deadlines (that always seemed really important), there was one clear pattern that was hard to ignore.

Every period of intense work was followed by a period of exhaustion and often sickness. Cranking out 40 hours of overtime doesn’t mean much when you’re then off sick for 6 days. Looking back it seems stupid, because hindsight is a wonderful thing. But the temptation to be a hero and produce impressive results at pace is very real. It’s also addictive, satisfying, and quite hard to snap out of. At least it is for me.

Time-based debt and the sweet spot

The hours you work late at night are the most expensive physically and mentally, but are also the ones that have the least quality, least output and least value. They compromise your productivity the next day, affecting your ability to focus. In short, the human mind and body have their limits and you just can’t cheat.

When you work late, you’re really just creating a kind of time-based debt: borrowing from the next day, next week, next month. You’re replacing tomorrow’s high value hours with tonight’s low value ones, all in the name of hitting a short term goal. Big picture: long hours are poisonous for productivity and, in the end, are bad stewardship of your very human resources.

It’s no longer really a debate. Studies have been done and there’s now proof that you should get a life. There’s a sweet spot for the number of hours you should work. It might be a bit different for each of us. But life is a marathon, not a sprint, so you have to pace yourself well. An astute phrase I’ve heard bounced around is that “most people overestimate what they can do in five years and underestimate what they can do in ten”1.

Flow

The case for a six-hour work day is an interesting one. The headline seems crazy and idealistic, but the details are quite compelling. Whatever you make of it, the article on Harvard Business Review by Steve Glaveski makes an important point about being fully immersed and undistracted as the real source of productivity:

Heuristic work requires people to get into the physiological state of flow, coined by Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1975. Flow refers to the state of full immersion in an activity, and you might know it best as “the zone.” A 10-year McKinsey study on flow found that top executives are up to 500% more productive when they’re in a state of flow. A study by scientists at Advanced Brain Monitoring also found that being in flow cut the time it took to train novice marksmen up to an expert level in half.

The Case for the 6-Hour Workday, Steve Glaveski, Havard Business Review.

The whole article is very insightful and well worth a read, particularly on the tension between responsiveness (to emails, phone calls, interruptions) and flow.

But all this being said, hitting the sweet spot in your work-life balance is hard to achieve. So many factors require a shift in workplace culture, and are outside of your immediate control.

So here’s my personal list on the ones that are. Simple, actionable, easy (kind of). I will preface this by saying I’ve been somewhat forced to address this issue as a matter of ‘figure-this-out-soon-or-completely-lose-my-mind’ type of thing. When I came on staff at Kings I was in a new job (that had never existed before) with a young family, which included these tiny little humans that just didn’t sleep. No doubt this has compounded all of the above, but has probably served to accelerate my learning on this.

 


Five life-hacks to keep you sane

 

1.
Stop people-pleasing and start running filters

People-pleasing is sin. By that I mean it’s obviously not wrong to do stuff that makes other people happy (including your boss). It’s when pleasing people becomes the main thing; even when it’s detrimental to the job, the church, you and others. Colossians 3:23 flips it on it’s head:

“Whatever you do, work at it with your whole being, for the Lord and not for men”

The best way to serve your boss and your church is to serve God first. In real terms this means running all the creative ideas the elders/leaders/team come up with through some key filters. We do this, usually quite informally, on pretty much every project:

What’s the Return on Investment?
What’s the shelf life? If it’s a video, will it get played once on Sunday and then thrown away? (Think video notices.) Or can it be used repeatedly in different contexts? Will it become a resource that will live online for years and, potentially, reach a lot of people? In essence, the more time and resources you invest in a project, the more it needs to deliver. So what are the end-results you’re looking for? Write them down.

Does it have substance?
Does it have real missional and discipleship value, or it is just fireworks: something that looks good, feels good, but doesn’t actually do very much? How much value does a sermon series intro animation really have? If you do it, can it be done in a way that it actually becomes a valuable resource?

What’s the cost in other projects?
There’s always more work than time available. Every idea you action will forced others back on the timeline. I’ve heard it said that “busyness isn’t really busyness, it’s just lack of priority”2. There’s a lot of truth in that. Working with a timeline helps you create a hierarchy in your projects; it helps you evaluate new ideas by ranking them against existing ones. Inevitably it means those jobs lower down the list may never get done. New jobs continually come in and push them back. But that’s the point: it helps weed out the fluff.

Inevitably this means at some point you’re going to have to rain on your boss’s parade. It’s easy to feel the pressure when he’s super-excited about a new idea and wants it actioned fast. But if it’s going to cause things to crash, it’s much better to speak up and chat it through. So run the filters and lets not all get carried away. In the end, your boss will have more confidence in you when he knows the ship isn’t going to burn down because of your people-pleasing tendencies.

2.
Switch email to ‘manual’

Having email continually coming in and notifying you is crazy distracting. And most of the time it’s junk. It interrupts your flow and slams the breaks on your productivity. Emails aren’t urgent. When people need to chat right now, they’ll call. Switch your ‘collect mail’ preference to ‘manual’ and just check it when you’re locked out of other tasks (e.g. when your video sequence is rendering or you’re presented with a long progress bar). Better still, switch it off and just check it 2-3 times a day.

3.
Timelines and timetables

Creative types can a tendency to dislike forward planning, timetables and structure. It can be seen as all the boring stuff that’s going to lock you down and sap your energy. Quite the reverse is true.

Creating timelines and timetables can be a powerful way of freeing you up. It’s an essential tool for upwards management (more here). They create space and time for the things that are most important. Rather than everything shouting and competing for your time all at once, schedules remove the stress. You’ve decided in advance what you’re going to do. And that process forces you to zoom out, look at the big picture and decide what it is you’re actually trying to achieve. It’s much more strategic than trying to feel your way through an organic mess of projects, thoughts and ideas.

Below is an example of my timeline and timetable. Drawn up in Illustrator, it tends to cover six months at a time. None of it is written in stone. I’m in control of the timeline, not the other way around. But it creates a much more peaceful life.

timeline

↑   Click to view large. My current timeline (and one for my colleague Pete who works with me two days a week)

I know when I’m going to do my expenses and hit the small jobs. I also know that the small jobs aren’t going to dominate. Whatever doesn’t get done this week is going to wait for its slot next time round. In practice it’s not all neat and perfect, but it’s a big help.

I have the timeline printed out large and stuck on my office wall. Anytime someone starts pitching ideas, we look at the timeline and see what needs to shift right to make it happen. A visual representation is much better than a list, as people can really see the implications and timescales involved.

If you do this, estimate how long you think a project will take and add 50%. It’s nearly always right, as we’re way too optimistic and jobs are always more complex than you first think.

4.
Understand screen time, persuasive design, and the human machine

Sitting is the new smoking — it’s now considered one of the worst things you can do for your health. Spending the day in front of a bright glowing screen is also pretty bad for your brain, and it’s easy to get over-stimulated and lose precious sleep. So being desk-bound at a computer all day is a bit of a one-two knockout combo.

Serving the church in design and media is likely something we want to do over many years. For me, I’m hoping it’s decades. Romans 12:11 instructs us to keep our zeal and spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Our enthusiasm and energy can dissipate if we’re not careful, so there’s real practical measures we have to put in place to ensure we don’t burn out, degenerate, and get fed up.

Screen time is a bit of a killer. I’ve found that the smaller the screen, the more your eyes have to strain, and the more your brain starts to grind. And that’s where smartphones are the worst. Persuasive design makes them really addictive. If you spend a lot of time in front of a screen, really try and limit the time on your phone. Keep them out of your room at night, think hard about the notifications you allow on your home screen and try to minimise their use in the evenings.

What you do with your body affects your mind, sometimes quite dramatically. The human body is a machine that’s designed to move. You need exercise, and a lot of it. And it can really affect creativity. Our kids are young and money is tight, but one of the things my wife and I decided is that a gym membership is non-negotiable. The gym isn’t for everyone. But whatever you do, figure something out and do a lot of it. Your mind depends on it.

Don’t just take my word for it, watch Kelly Slatter on CreativeLive’s 30 days of Genius. It’s brilliant.

5.
Relax: you’re not the savour, Jesus is.

You are a holistic being, and God is interested in the whole of you, not just the work bit. Grinding out twelve hour days in the office may imply you’re working hard at your job. But it probably means you’re not working that hard at your marriage, your health, being a good parent, or your devotional life.

Proverbs 3:5-6 instructs us to acknowledge God in all our ways:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
       and do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
       and he will make straight your paths.

We want to give God our best, for so many good reasons. But in the end, we have to relax, make room and acknowledge the real work is his. We’re like the little boy who brought his packed lunch to Jesus and saw him feed the five thousand. It is God who saves, not us, and he can multiply our works thousands of times over if he chooses.

A little further reading… (aka listening)

If you need more convincing, on a Biblical level, listen to Phil Moore’s talk on Grace 3.0. Jesus himself says “my yoke is easy my burden is light”. We take on so many things in life and end up crazy busy. But not all that stuff is coming from Jesus.

 


Footnotes

 

1 Quote from Jase Jarvis on CreativeLive’s 30 Days of Genius

2 This appears to be adapted from an original quote by Bill Gates

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