A life lived off-balance
By Shannon Crowe
I was born off-balance, and here I’ll stay.
I’ve never had a good sense of balance. At the age of 10, I came off my skateboard and took a big bite out of the footpath—I was riding on my stomach at the time. The chip in my front tooth I’ve been sporting ever since is a good reminder that, even with a solid foundation and a low centre of gravity, my equilibrioception is a little off. A professional surfer, I was never going to be. A career in advertising, on the other hand? Why, I was born to do it.
The balance between work life and life life in our industry is notoriously off kilter. We do overtime, all the time, with little to no distinction between weekends and weekbeginnings. We sign contracts that state our office hours as though autographing a work of fiction. We know late night menus like the backs of our hands, and delivery drivers by name. Relationships become rocky. Parents become protective. (Yes mum, I am looking after myself.) Our physical and mental health gurgles down the drain.
I’ve cancelled dinner plans, completely missed birthdays, been broken up with and let many people down. I’ve worked 12 days straight, and 19 hours solid—leaving the agency at 4am under a cloud of guilt because my art director was required to stay until 11. (That’s 26 hours on the job, for those counting along at home.) Then there’s the horror story I heard about a freelance creative who suffered a heart attack after returning home, only for someone to query the next day about whether he’d first finished the work.
Creativity should know bounds.
With these anecdotes comes a natural urge to go one better thanks to a perverse tendency to wear our unpaid labour like a badge of honour, especially at the start of our careers. Stockholm Syndrome, perhaps? The thing is, longer hours don’t lead to increased output. Quite the opposite, in fact. Around the world, the trial of shorter workdays and workweeks designed to capitalise on our natural propensity for productivity have been successful, time and time again. What’s more, employees who are able to cultivate a higher quality of life also produce a higher quality of work.
When you ponder this from an advertising perspective—where the best ideas are steeped in human insight, and the best insights are unicorns not often found within an agency’s walls—it’s easy to see that me-time isn’t just good for the individual. Balance is vital to business.
So why is it, in this industry of ideas, that work-life balance seems the most far-fetched idea of them all? I think it’s because balance isn’t really what we’re after, but rather an element of control. The ability to put boundaries in place—professionally, and personally—that allow us to regain some mastery over how we divvy up each day’s 24 hours.
Eight hours’ work, eight hours’ recreation and eight hours’ rest was the formula decreed ideal around the time of the Industrial Revolution. The introduction of the eight-hour day is why 9-5 is the norm, and the reason we celebrate Labour Day every year…by not going to work at all.
Went Into Labour Day was the catalyst for change within my own career, though. It was Monday 4th January 2016, and it was my last day of full-time agency work. My son was born the next morning, and I’ve been freelancing ever since.
From full-time worker to full-life liver.
Operating as a freelancer has allowed me to take charge of my hours, my output and my worth. And my goodness, it’s been liberating. I can afford the time it takes little legs to walk around the block because the only clock I’m on is my own. I can make it to swimming lessons every week and to Santa photos every year. I can take us on holidays whenever I choose, and I can work from wherever we land. I don’t hide from unsolved briefs in the toilet cubicle anymore; these days that’s where I go to escape my son.
My work-life balance remains off kilter, but it’s now skewed in the opposite direction. That’s not to say that the workload doesn’t get overwhelming—it’s still advertising we’re talking, the deadlines just as tight—but having multiple briefs land on my desk is a decision I get to make. I’m happy to work long and hard one week knowing I can grant myself some well-deserved downtime the next. Both sides to the coin are only possible through setting boundaries, though. Recognising my power to say no—as a complete sentence, and without guilt—has proven far more beneficial at a professional and personal level than the impossible quest for work-life balance ever could.
I learnt to flex this power as a freelancer, sure, but any cog in the creativity machine can, and should, give it a go. The life you live is the life you breathe into your work. For all our sakes, make it something outside of ads.