July 4, 2016

without personal space, balance is impossible

I started freelancing — alongside my day job — around 2007, the same year I got married. I built a clientele in the evenings until the layoffs in 2011. By then I had a better idea of who my clients were, so I re-branded my business and hit the ground running.

My obsession with startups, small business, entrepreneurship and ideas, not to mention art, design and branding (along with an intense workaholic streak inherited from my dad) meant that, initially, I got along just fine. I’m a firm believer that “if you want it done right, do it yourself,” and the idea of giving client projects to someone else was risky, so I continued marching forward on the “grow or die a slow painful death” business plateau.

Then we decided to have a kid.

Despite solopreneur status, I somehow managed to take a couple months off, and initially it was fine. Babies sleep a lot, after all. But an almost 2 year old no longer naps twice a day in the studio pack ‘n play, and 2015 quickly became an unpleasant year. My commitment to my clients was constantly at odds with a time-hungry, plan-demolishing toddler who did not understand the dangers of interrupting my work zone.

Not since college/early marriage have I had free time to write, or draw, or paint, or play through the first 3 HALO games with my husband. There are times I could have benefited from better time management, absolutely, but overall I’ve invested just enough into my personal creativity to get by. Spur of the moment paintings, a certain new song that begs me to break out the guitar, ideas religiously saved into Evernote to eventually write about. And yes, the occasional fulfilling client project. But personal projects? Dreams for another day in the distant future.

I’m still not entirely sure why, but having a kid forces you to confront all of these latent disappointments head on. Maybe it was just the sudden horrific realization that an introvert such as myself was now doomed to have a clingy child attached to me 24/7. Perhaps the consistent drain due to lack of sleep has made me mentally unstable (yes). Or maybe the 2–3 truly exciting, creatively fulfilling projects in the last 5 years haven’t been enough to keep me excited about what I do for a living.

So for the first time in, what, 10 years? I’m intentionally investing in personal time. Making art now seems as necessary as breathing. I’m participating in the wonderful Elle Luna’s 100 Day Project, even though I’m only on Day 16 and everyone else is 3/4 of the way through. I can’t imagine life without my consistent meditation practice finally established this spring, which is an accomplishment only possible thanks to Shaun the Sheep. Committing to work on my pathetically mediocre bass playing is in the works. I’m currently reading 6 different books. I’m writing this, right now. It’s the 4th of July, my kid is at the babysitter, and I’m NOT working on client projects or catching up on billing. Do you know how huge that is for me?

I guess this brings me to my main point for writing this (yes, there is a point). The first epiphany I’ll write about and the catalyst for writing any of this:

Client work can wait.

Let me write it the way it appeared in my head, when it really clicked for me: In order to invest in the things that matter to me, I will ALWAYS have to temporarily step away from work for other people. I will never not have a business card that needs designed or an issue to troubleshoot. I’ve been living my life as though I can somehow “catch up” if I just work hard enough. I can’t. There will always be another thing. And if my prerequisite for relaxing is after “just one more thing” I’ll never relax (I’m one of those people for whom down time is difficult, and this partly explains why). Seems so rudimentary though, doesn’t it?

When I finally realized this —when I really got it — that’s when I was able to pursue my own interests without feeling guilty. And here’s the thing; creativity is simply drawing connections, linking ideas (another subject I’ve long wanted to write about). The more well-rounded you are, the wider your range of interests, the more your work benefits. That was the topic of my second piece of artwork for the 100 Day Project. The longer you neglect personal projects or put off challenging yourself, the more apathetic you will become about everything. It’s inevitable. You might be OK at the moment, but someday, maybe after the earth-shattering event that is having a kid, you will realize this. I suggest you be proactive about creating personal space BEFORE it becomes necessary to preserve your sanity.

The funny thing about understanding all this, and acting on it, means that you’re forced to confront your limitations. Instead of working like a maniac, I’ve had to make decisions about how to truly work smarter, not harder. For me, that meant hiring a copywriter/digital marketing guy because I’ve been telling myself I’ll blog eventually, and start putting out awesome, consistent email newsletters. I haven’t, and I won’t.

I’ve started using freelance designers. It’s more complex, it still requires a lot of work on my part, but for the first time I’m intentionally in growth mode, and I’m excited about putting together more options for my clients and the ability to serve them even better than before. My clients actually benefit from my “selfish” personal projects (the cultural implications for why it feels that way should become yet another post).

Sometimes you have to hit the wall to learn the lesson. For me, that wall was trying to balance a marriage, a kid and a business, by myself, while ignoring myself. Nothing I’ve written hasn’t already been said elsewhere, probably better. But if you can relate to any of this, please take this as permission to go do that thing.

“If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.” — Greg McKeown

I’ve finally started to prioritize my life instead of letting my work do it for me. As a perfectionist, I’m learning to let go a little bit. It’s all a work in progress, but just beginning is enough to give me hope I can do better.

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