DESIGNING YOUR LIFE

by Maria Rapetskaya

Stop apologizing for wanting work/life balance.


On March 1, 2013, I got on a one-way flight to Kathmandu. Over the next few weeks, I crossed the Himalayas at 18,000 feet, got bathed by an elephant, checked Bhutan off my bucket list and learned to ride a scooter in Laos. I’ve traveled to more than 30 countries in the past 10 years alone, often escaping to some really remote places. I’ve also seen my share of 18-hour workdays.

Of course, it’s my travel pics that people see on Facebook…not pics of me collapsing into bed at 2 a.m. and waking up at 6 to resume work.


I'm often asked how I manage this, especially being a business owner, and my answer is really simple: I designed my life.


As creatives, we tend to get wrapped up in our work and personal projects. This industry demands workaholics. We can spend countless days perfecting every pixel, yet not find a single hour to hit the gym. Throughout our careers, we’ll design hundreds of projects, but few of us will opt to take on the most rewarding and complicated creative project of all: our own lives. 

In 2004, my life was a jumble of circumstances, consequences of past decisions, and misconceptions about my present and indecision about my future. I was living on autopilot, desperately hoping that somewhere behind the scenes, everything would get sorted and one day I’d wake up to precisely the life I was meant to live.

Admittedly, I had no idea of what life that would be. I had achieved my goals—my BFA, a steady job in the motion graphics industry, the ability to pay my bills on time—but I didn’t feel proud or even content. In fact, my “dream job” was a daily source of misery. Nothing was explicitly wrong. I simply felt like I was living a life meant for someone else.

What made matters worse: I was only 25! It was horrifying to think I could continue like this until I retire. So, I quit my job and decided to try and construct a life that was meant for me.

Though I was plagued with questions and had no plan, but I did have a single, but important, idea. Design was what I knew best—so what if I approached my entire life just like any other creative project? 

What if I approached my entire life just like any other creative project?

As a motion graphic designer, I resolved to start with the pre-production process before “writing my script” and diving into “production.” 


Pre-Production

I had the wide-angle establishing shot of my life and where it could go, but no budget. I had to take stock of my actual assets—a relationship, profession, potential clients—while addressing major design limitations such as my checking account balance and NYC rent. 

In designing my life, I had to be both flexible and realistic. In a sense, I was a human start-up: big ideas, no funding. I knew this process would improve incrementally, probably for the rest of my life.

You know what they say about any project: you can have fast, good, or cheap… pick two. I also had to admit that I’d most likely get a just-short-of-perfect result and, like most projects, wish I had more time, money, talent, and no deadlines.

In a sense, I was a human start-up: big ideas, no funding. I knew this process would improve incrementally, probably for the rest of my life.

I started by freelancing to gain more experience and contacts. A typical motion graphics gig ran anywhere between a few days and a few weeks, and required being on-site – working from the company’s offices. Freelancing meant being locked into another studio’s location, schedules, budgets and creative process. While I was definitely growing with each freelance gig, I was still really a cog in someone else’s machine. Over time, however, I began building up my own client list with the goal of ultimately evolving into a real design business.

A complete account of my progression from employee to freelancer to successful company hiring my own freelance artists might require its own 2,000 words – but by 2007, I was already well on my way. Building a solid reputation that turned leads into clients, I had reached the turning point between being seen as an individual artist-for-hire and being regarded as my own studio.

Once I was completely in control of my schedule, I broke it down to the most sensible starting point: my ideal day and how I worked best. In this phase, I learned I’m actually a morning person—best before noon, and distracted by 3 p.m. If I started my days early and ate at my desk, I could bank the lunch hour for late afternoon and work out when I’d usually be crashing.  By adjusting my routine to my personality (working when I was super-productive and giving myself ample time to recharge) I nearly doubled my daily output. I was working smarter, faster, and increasing not just billable hours, but my personal time as well.

Building out, I then took on the traditional workweek by going one step further and saying goodbye to the calendar. I could work when I needed to work. If I wanted to stay out late on Wednesday night, I could take off Thursday and make it up Sunday. After all, the days of the week are just labels, right?

I won’t kid you. This stuff was scary. I had to train myself to get away, to actively practice this work-life balance thing. And I had to believe it would all work out.

My next major inspiration came from a 2009 TED talk by Stefan Sagmeister. He discussed the imbalance that drives the narrative of our lives: We learn. Then we work. Then we retire. He argued that these stages should be more intertwined and then mentioned a yearlong sabbatical he takes with the entire studio, once every seven years. I was totally on board! Yet, Sagmeister forgot to address how a yearlong sabbatical could even be possible if you were not a superstar designer with endless clients and financial resources. In other words, I had to clearly understand what the “greater” work-life balance meant for ME. If designing my life meant including time to learn, read, take up a sport or travel, what type of schedule would allow for these things? 


Scripting

I determined that there were two possible paths to completing my life design: all or nothing, and slow and steady. I’m more of an all-or-nothing type of person. I prefer working crazy hours for weeks on end, even if it sacrifices some of my personal time in the process. Conversely, when I stop, I want—make that NEED—to be far away, for longer periods of time. Marathon to long break is who I am, while others prefer a consistent, short-term balance between work and play… decent daily doses of time off, or even short stay-cations.

It’s especially important to get this part of the script right, because here’s the deal: the longer we go without a break, the longer we need to fully recharge. You may think you can’t afford a six-month break, but after years without a real vacation or regular time off, you may need six months just to truly refresh.

I knew that in order for me to make any of this work, I had to surround myself with awesome people whom I trust unconditionally, and who respect my commitment to working to live. It was in this spirit that Undefined Creative was born. In 2010, I convinced a close friend of 20 years to join the studio as an Executive Producer—the move that truly cemented my transition from lone-wolf freelancer to entrepreneur running a business with employees. Hiring her also greatly impacted my “life design.” Not only did I become responsible for my dear friend’s financial well-being (scary!), but we now had to balance TWO ideal schedules to make this work… for both of us. The advantage, however, was that there were now two of us in charge. Translation: more freedom for me and hopefully for her too.


Storyboards

Visualizing my script was a great test. How realistic was it? Were there plot holes? Shots that I secretly hoped I could fix in “post”? Sort of… 

My fear was that I’d inadvertently trick myself into working these crazy stretches, forgetting about the payoff. I realized the one thing that could undermine this entire effort was ME burning out. This designer life was based on my passion for what I do, and if I wanted to maintain that passion for many years to come, I had to take good care of it!

My fear was that I’d inadvertently trick myself into working these crazy stretches, forgetting about the payoff. 

My solution? I decided not to wait! I booked my next escape well in advance, so I couldn’t back out and fall victim to the fear of missing an opportunity or leaving at a bad time. Being able to plan this way was grounded in years of diligently keeping records. Using a simple Excel spreadsheet, I tracked my overall hours, week by week, as well as hours put in by any freelance artists I had hired. That gave me the “big picture” with a decent degree of accuracy and allowed me to gauge my off time on the ebbs and flows of production. I realized I could escape from late December through mid-January, but should never plan more than a long weekend between April and July. 

The key is relying less on your imagination and more on the data available to you… records, timesheets, invoices. Scary decisions—like a long, meaty vacation—are a lot easier when grounded in facts.

As far as how others visualize their own scripts, my executive producer and co-worker found it more rejuvenating to work half-days, or take three-day weekends. She gets the vacation time she needs and it doesn’t conflict with mine. If that sounds like the scales are tipped to my advantage, remember, I only leave during the SLOW times. She, on the other hand, has a knack for needing two weeks off right when we are slammed. I suck it up and miss her dearly because what’s fair is fair.  


Production

Putting all planning into practice, I began to implement a more complete design. The results? The more I embraced this, the more effortlessly it was reflected in my life, and a lot of unexpected things happened along the way. I suddenly found myself saying strange things to clients:

“We want this to be a stress-free experience for you!” or “Generally, we try not to work weekends – it’s a quality of life thing.” even worse… “I’ll be away for the last THREE weeks of August…”

And it wasn’t just strange things I said to clients. “It’s TV, not a cure for cancer. It’s late, wrap it up,” I told a freelancer stressed out over a really minor imperfection. After a long silence, he started laughing and replied, “Yeah, right!”

But here’s the thing: once I stopped apologizing for wanting to live and not just work, people’s responses were all… positive. Clients turned into people—people whose lives were often as poorly balanced as my previous life. And my clients started changing as well. They started talking about their vacation plans. “No worries, I’ll handle this with your colleagues, but you HAVE to tell me where you were,” said one executive producer after our third-world WIFI conference call failed miserably. Another EP asked my advice about volunteering abroad.

Once I stopped apologizing for wanting to live and not just work, people’s responses were all… positive. 

Was I ever willing to sacrifice the quality of the project? Of course not, but I realized it’s my responsibility to draw the line for those who work with me, and for myself, because nothing will ever be perfect.


Post-Production

Obviously, living a life in balance will always be an evolving work in progress. Ideas you were once attached to will end up on the cutting room floor while new ideas strike. In 2011, for example, I test drove the idea of working from “anywhere.” I picked Barcelona for three full weeks. The verdict: it worked, but only because I chose a good time for my experiment. Had we been seriously busy, attempting to do all the work on a laptop would be a nightmare. However, fast forward to today, and there’s the trashcan sized Mac sitting under my desk. 

Since designing my life, several things have also changed, one of which is both big AND unexpected. Instead of finding someone with an equally flexible schedule, I fell in love with a guy who works Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., counting commute time. I’m no longer as inspired to swap my Wednesday with my Sunday, so I have ironically been adapting to a more standard work week, although still very much in the spirit of “what works best for me.”

The point is we are all editors in our life designs—editing, experimenting, adapting. In striving to achieve that ever sought-after work-life balance, we have to remember to be fluid… flexible enough that we don’t give up after every unexpected turn.

Was I pixel perfect at my first big attempt? Not by a long shot. I was no expert then and I still mess up today. But my greatest turning point was the realization that wanting a balanced life is okay. I’ll always think the greener grass is somewhere else. I’ll continue to kick myself for a wrong turn, even if I can’t prove it was wrong, but then I remind myself of what really matters. I continue taking trips and having adventures because if I stop, I risk losing this balance. 


My greatest turning point was the realization that wanting a balanced life is okay.


I may feel that familiar anxiety before a trip, but I now know—try after try—that when I leave, my career doesn’t fall apart, and even if it moves a little slower, the studio keeps going.

I once heard someone say: “You work for others for the illusion of security. You work for yourself for the illusion of freedom.” 

While it’s true that each on its own may be an illusion, I believe that consciously designing my life is MY way to strike that balance between security and freedom. And at the end of this life, I hope to recall all the time spent with those I love, whether it’s down the street or in the remote Sahara.

I doubt I’ll reminisce about that project I did last week… no matter how much I love what I do. 


This article originally appeared on Adobe's 99U.