You're staring at your previously sharp pencil, now worn to a nub.
It's 2 AM, and after 34 hours of non-stop work, the comps are finally coming together... just as you're starting to fall to pieces. Just another few hours and you'll be able to send off the PDF. If only I could put down my head and just rest my eyes—no! The home page interface design needs just a little more refinement…
How did you get in this mess? You were only given two days to complete a week of work. The demands seemed unreasonable from the start, but you know your boundaries.
Plus, no one knows this client better than you — it makes perfect sense that you'd be the one to lead the charge. After all, no one else could pull off this kind of design work in the same time frame. The other designers at work wouldn't be willing to make this kind of sacrifice, and they're damn busy anyways. My boss will thank me for the effort, the client will be thrilled, and after pulling an all-nighter and a half I'll just spend the next few days in a daze, catching up on my sleep…
In your mind, it seems like you've overcome great adversity to deliver some compelling design work.
But on the outside, this is what your significant others and colleagues see: You're sluggish. Plugging away at a plodding pace. Undernourished. Burnt out. Half-dead.
Yes, you look like shit. The client's going to be happy, but you're the one that's going to pay for it in the end.
Self-sacrifice seems to be the calling card that many designers haul out of design school into the working world. Sometimes it's the only way we can acquire the knowledge we need to excel at our profession.
I can recall many occasions spent toiling away at a late-late-night layout or struggling to birth a concept, the fate of a client's overall account hanging in the balance. These situations often seem inevitable — a byproduct of servicing a bevy of fast-paced, high octane industries.
But now that I'm starting to get a few gray hairs at the temples, I have to disagree with my assessment from years past.
We choose to afford clients our mental real estate beyond the professional workday. Even if you're passionate about design and making things, and you can't keep from throwing your attention full-bore at a project, there need to be real physical boundaries around the work.
Boundaries create and reinforce behaviors. Without continued, clear borders delineated from week to week around what you can be asked to take on, you will continue to end up in situations that test your wits, your spirit, and your health outside the scope of a full workweek.
Your body is the first boundary. When I work too hard, my body tells me so. I get eyestrain headaches. My arms hurt from using the mouse too long. The speed and quality of my thinking decreases dramatically. Sarcasm starts to creep into my voice and tone like a weed. If you don't know your warning signs for overwork, learn then and be mindful of when you need to step away from the work at hand to ensure your health. Otherwise, there is no design.
Your personal responsibilities to your family form a second boundary. If you have a family, there are critical things you need to take care of as part of your daily life that, again, trump your client's demands. Forgetting to feed your baby on a regular schedule because you're in the flow of a project, accidentally leaving your husband at work because you're late returning a proof — these "little slips" are indicative of a much larger pattern. I'm no saint here, but I'm trying.
Beyond those two areas of all-too-important consideration, I tick down the following list of questions before I work on any client project beyond the boundaries of an eight-hour day:
Is the deadline real or arbitrary? If you're working within a much larger project schedule, is there room to slip the deadline so that late hours or weekends are not required? Can you shift the schedule around without losing face with your client? (If the answer is, "Yes, you will lose face no matter what," then this brings up a whole other range of important questions you should consider about what kinds of clients you're servicing and what kind of work you're bringing on...)
How can the scope of the deliverables be reduced? We often show range in our design work (a.k.a. overdeliver). Do you need to for this project? Are there ways that you can intelligently pare down what you're on the hook to create for this round?
Are there other people that can help out? Don't assume that if you know the client and the project better than anyone else on your team, you can take it all on. Before you assume the burden of an unreasonable deadline, consider ways that the work can be subdivided further onto a team. However, if you don't have a team...
Can you structure your time to maintain some self-care? Consider the value of keeping an even keel as opposed to putting in excessive hours. Working all night long can be much harder than working consistent hours during a weekend and then planning some future time off. Which would be more taxing for you to manage?
Will you demand the support of your boss and/or client? Emotional support, in the form of your boss or peers being available for both morale-boosting and critique can often buoy a lack of time.
What can you plan out before you hit the computer? At some point, you'll probably need to get digital. But using a pencil to sketch out as many of your ideas as possible is a tactic that can save you time.
And the most painful question of all:
Are you in this position because you left the work until the last minute? If you've invited the scenario upon yourself due to poor work habits, then your lack of boundaries could be intertwined with a procrastinating habit. Every designer that I know, when they get busy, ends up letting things slip on their docket. However, if you're consistently pulling the overnight shift due to letting your ideas ruminate, you should consider ways to add some discipline to your schedule and working methods to put some boxes around how you plan to execute your work. That is, unless you love the rush and are one of those lucky people who never run out of go juice.
Sadly, life is against you on last one. At some point, you aren't going to be able to withstand the 24-hour days, so you might as well start finding some balance now.