As Web designers and developers, we invest a lot of time and effort in nurturing professional relationships, including those with clients, prospective clients, coworkers, peers and others in the industry.
Unfortunately, while many Web professionals work hard to make these work-related relationships as strong as possible, they often neglect their non-professional relationships, including those with family and friends and even with themselves and their own health and well-being.
I began thinking about this article after reading about a fellow Web designer who was going through a divorce. Divorce rates are depressingly high anyway, so this sad scenario is not unique to the Web industry, but I do think that Web professionals, and IT workers in general, often struggle to maintain a healthy work-life balance, and their relationships often suffer because of that struggle.
In this article, I will offer some of the ways that I have found helpful in my own life and career to foster healthy non-professional relationships and personal well-being.
Am I Qualified To Write This Article?
When I first began thinking about this article, I was actually very hesitant to write it. I did not want to come across as sanctimonious, nor did I want to present myself as something I am not. The reality is that I am not an expert on relationships, human psychology, or mental or physical health. I questioned whether I was, indeed, qualified to write this article.
What I do have is experience with working hard to maintain a balance between my work life and my life away from the office. I have personally struggled with this balance for years. Along the way, I’ve made my share of mistakes and I’ve learned many of the lessons contained in this article the hard way — through my own experiences and failures. If any of the tips that I can share will help even one of my colleagues to better manage their work-life balance, then, qualified or not, I will have been happy to share my experience.
Avoid The Workaholic Mentality
Yiannis Knostantakopoulos recently wrote an excellent article here on Smashing Magazine about “Dealing With Workaholism on Web Teams.” His article explores the misguided way that many companies and individuals in the Web industry “not only disregard” the dangers of workaholism, but “actively promote it.” Yiannis’ article does a great job of illustrating workaholism in the workplace, but it does not cover another equally problematic scenario: Web professionals whose workaholism manifests itself in numerous small jobs and projects, as opposed to one 14-hour-a-day job.
Web professionals have a number of ways to “keep busy” — all I have to do is look to my own life for an example. In addition to my full-time job as head of website design and development for Envision Technology Advisors, I also teach night classes at the University of Rhode Island, maintain my own blog and portfolio website, and write articles like this one for other publications. This is in addition to occasional personal projects and design work for friends (how many of you have been asked to design a friend’s wedding invitation?). Yes, workaholism often manifests itself in the way that Yiannis describes in his article, but all of these little “side projects” can also easily consume and overwhelm someone.
Learning To Say “No”
These side projects are often tougher to deal with than what Yiannis describes because Web professionals enjoy these side projects and view them as an outlet for their creativity, as opposed to an extension of their workday. I can relate to this. I love being able to meet and instruct new students in the classes that I teach. I also very much enjoy sharing my ideas and experiences through the articles that I write. I find both of these activities enjoyable and rewarding, but they do take time away from other non-work things that I could be doing.
Maintaining a healthy work-life balance means learning to say “no.” This might mean saying “no” to staying late at the office, or turning down a freelance project, or politely telling a friend that you do not have the time to design their invitation. You might enjoy doing all of these things, but they are all work. If you fill all of your time with work activities, then you will have no balance in that aforementioned work-life balance.
Saying “no” can be very hard, and everyone has a different threshold for how much they can take on while still maintaining balance. But one thing is certain — no one can do it all. One of the first things you need to do is recognize your threshold and prioritize your time. If you know you can spend only so much time on “work,” then you will be better able to decide which projects to proceed with and which to decline.
Find A Hobby That Does Not Involve Computers
I remember interviewing a young designer a while back. In the interview, I asked him what his hobbies are. He responded that he spends all of his time “online, working on HTML and CSS and building websites for fun.” I suspect that he thought I would be impressed by this statement, and I know that some companies would find this appealing, but I just found it sad. I also remembered being like that at one point in my career.
There was a time when I would spend every night and weekend learning the latest Flash tricks (yes, it was quite some time ago) and redesigning my own website over and over again so that I could apply the skills that I was learning. The problem was that, while I was learning a lot, I was not healthy. I had put on a substantial amount of weight, I was consistently lethargic, and I had grown somewhat distant from the people I cared about. I finally realized that the problem was that my “hobbies” and my “work” were one and the same. I was always in front of a computer monitor, which left very little room for other activities or people in my life. The situation had to change. I decided that I needed to find hobbies that did not involve a computer.
I had always wanted to play the violin, so I decided to give the instrument a try. Later, I also began playing the ukulele. Both of these instruments gave me an outlet for my creativity that did not involve a computer.
In addition to playing music, I also began to enjoy hiking — an activity that not only takes me away from the computer, but also gets me outdoors exercising (more on that later), where I can spend quality time with my wife and kids. Hiking became a family activity.
While playing the ukulele or heading out on a hike might not appeal to you, the point is that you need to find a hobby that takes you away from the activities you do in the workday. This does not mean that you should not spend any of your free time on the computer learning and experimenting — our industry actually requires this level of dedication to continual learning. But it does mean that you should not spend all of your time improving your professional skills at the expense of everything else (and everyone) in your life.
Enjoy Nights And Weekends
There is a reason that the workday, and the work week, ends — it is so we can recharge and not become consumed by our jobs. In this day and age, however, the line between our time at work and our time at home has increasingly blurred.
Our society is more connected than ever. The mobile devices we carry allow us to stay in constant contact with the people in our life, including those we work with. Because of this level of connectivity, many people feel that they need to be “on” at all times, checking messages even after they have left the office for the night or the weekend. You need to break this habit.
For years, I would check my email right before bed. I’m not sure why I did that. It was more of a compulsion that anything else, but I can tell you that I endured many sleepless nights because of this habit. I would often read an email from a client that upset me, either because they were asking for changes that I didn’t agree with or because they made some comment or request that I knew I would need to address in the morning. The email would hang over me all night, keeping me awake and restless — all because I insisted on checking my email before bed, a time when I really couldn’t do much about it anyway!
About a year ago, I decided to stop checking my messages at night. It was one of the best decisions I’ve made. Immediately, the sleepless nights due to unresolved work issues all but went away. I still receive those distressing emails from clients, of course, but now that I check them during the workday, when I can handle them, they do not cause me sleepless nights.
Once I stopped checking emails at night, doing so on the weekend as well was a logical progression. This enabled me also to reclaim my weekend for activities outside of my work life and to recharge for the week ahead.
Speaking of recharging…
Take A Vacation — For Real
I have spoken to many Web designers and developers who have “taken a vacation from their job to catch up on their work.” While that sentence would make no sense to non-Web professionals, I’d bet that anyone in this industry knows exactly what I mean!
Taking a vacation from work so that we can get to other work that we have not been able to do is a recipe for burnout. A quality vacation does not need to be a big expensive trip to some exotic location or to a ride-filled theme park; it just needs to be a time when work is put aside.
Do not try to get in some extra work or check email just so that you can “keep up and not get swamped when I return to the office.” Those messages and projects will be waiting for you when you get back, refreshed from your time away and ready to tackle the challenges ahead.
Make Your Health A Priority
IT professionals, as a whole, are not considered the healthiest people around. An overabundance of caffeine, sugar and heavily processed foods seem to be par for the course for many in our field. Couple that with the long hours spent sitting in front of a computer, and you do not exactly have the makings of a healthy lifestyle. This is why your health must be a priority.
When I decided to change my own lifestyle some years ago, one thing that I did was pay more attention to the food I eat and my physical activity. Even small changes to your diet and exercising a few days a week will have a considerable impact on your life. I found that I had more energy (especially in the hours after lunchtime, when my energy level would normally crash), and I was able to think more clearly. I also lost some weight, which made me feel better about myself and had a positive effect on my interaction with clients and others.
Now, I am not one of those people who will talk about how much they love to exercise. On the contrary, I pretty much hate it. Every workout is a struggle, and it is very easy to say “You know, I’m just not feeling it today” or to make excuses by believing other things are a priority, like your current project, but the reality is that that project will still be there after your 30-minute workout! Squash those excuses, and make your health a priority. After all, you are the only one who can maintain and improve your relationship with your own body!
Make Friends And Family A Priority
The people in your life — whether it’s your spouse, significant other or other family or friends — are important to you and need to be prioritized. Many of the failed relationships I see amongst my peers happen because people stop communicating or paying attention to each other’s needs. As I said earlier, when you are stuck behind a computer monitor all day and night, you leave no room for anyone else.
Long hours at the office and late nights in front of the computer take you away from the people in your life. If you consistently neglect a personal relationship because you need to work on projects, then that relationship will eventually fail.
As I said at the beginning, I am not an expert in human psychology or relationships, but I do not need a degree to know that if you ignore the people in your life, they will not be in your life much longer.
However, if you follow the tips in this article, then you will be doing a lot to make the important people in your life a priority. Take hiking. My family began to join me on those hikes I told you about, so not only did I get away from the computer and get some exercise, but I also found something that we could all enjoy together.
Many of the activities mentioned in this article are like this. If you start making nights, weekends and vacations a time not to catch up on work, but to experience new things, then you will find that many of those new activities have room for your loved ones and will bring you closer to them.
Strong, healthy relationships require work. Just as you must pay attention to the needs of your clients and colleagues to keep those relationships strong, so too must you be mindful of the non-professional relationships in your life.
- Do avoid the workaholic mentality by learning when to say “no.”
- Do not try to “do it all,” at the expense of other aspects of your life.
- Do find a hobby or outlet for your creativity that gets you away from the computer.
- Do not check email at night or on the weekend.
- Do give yourself time to recharge at night and on the weekend.
- Do take a real vacation that allows you to relax or experience new things — as long as those “new things” are not more work.
- Do make your health a priority by improving your diet and exercising a few times a week.
- Do involve family and friends in your life, and make them a priority.
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