Before you work around the clock, know why you’re doing it

by / Thursday, 18 July 2013 / Published in Philosophy

I’d done my share of working around the clock. I don’t mean, until 10:15pm, either. I mean, from 8:30am Tuesday, through to 7:45pm Wednesday. In one particular agency, where this was far too normal, we had a term for it (because it happened so often, we actually had to call it something) – it was, “The 5 O’Clock Punch in the Face.” We all knew the term and used it too often to describe the week we’d just had. You would be finished your day’s work at around 5:30/6pm, had shut down your Mac, coat and shoulder-bag on and walking towards the door. A voice from down a hallway would call out. “Oh, are you leaving?” This was the moment when you had to make a decision – answer, “Yup” and keep walking, or turn around and speak to the person who asked you the question. Sounds like this wouldn’t be a hard decision, until you’ve been there. Answer, “Yup” and walk – come in the next morning, and the board room is full of angry people, already arguing at 8:54am. They see you, and you hear, “Oh, good …you’re finally here. Can you come in here please? We have to talk about something.” Use your imagination about that meeting, and you won’t be far off the reality. So, you could also turn and speak to the person who asked you if you’re leaving.

You: “Yes, I am, what’s up?”

Co-worker: “Oh, okay. Well, we have a problem – can you look at something? I need help.”

You: “Okay, what’s the problem?”

Co-worker: “This project I have didn’t get completed. The guy who was working on it kept saying it was going to be done, but he never started it.”

You: “Uh, okay …I’ve never heard of this project, until right now.”

Co-worker: “I know – I was working directly with the other creative person. Anyway, he didn’t even start, and I don’t know what to do. We need 3 different design pieces and we need some creative options as well.”

You: “Well, uh, okay …when is it due?”

Co-worker: “We present tomorrow morning at nine.”

That sample conversation above is not fiction. It’s all too real, and I and my teammates lived that reality. There were shocking things about the agency: one, that this happened so often, I had to start keeping an overnight kit in my office (shave stuff, shower stuff, change of clothes, all serious) because it was the only way to deal. Two, was that it happened so often, I had to replace those supplies, more often than I did at home. That was many years ago, and I’ve learned a lot since then. What I didn’t fully understand at the time was, I had a third option. Take myself out of that game, completely.

Every interview I’ve done since working in that shop went like this: Here are my conditions. I don’t work past five o’clock, unless I choose to stay. I don’t work weekends, unless I decide to come in. I won’t take work home, unless I make the decision it’s worth doing. During the day, from 9:00am, until 5pm, you’ll get everything I’m capable of doing. 145%. I’ll lay on a sword to help someone on a project, meetings, whatever. But, at the end of the day, I leave. That’s not negotiable.

I got each of the jobs I interviewed for, and I kept my promise to the best of my ability.

You’ll be tempted, and feel obligated and even pressured to work un-ending hours. If you’re freelance, you put in the time you have to – that’s a bit of a different beast. If all things are fair and equal, you’re charging those hours, so you deal with it. But, working for an agency presents a different challenge. You feel the burden of being part of a larger group – if they need something, you want to deliver. Just keep some things in mind, whether you’re experienced, or new to the business…

> if you work long hours, you’ll be known for working long hours.
> if you’re paid hourly, that’s fine – you can bank it. If not, you have to consider all the hours you’re doing for free – on time that is yours, not the agency’s.
> your bosses will be perfectly happy with you for working long hours, yes. But that’s what they’ll come to depend on you for.
> your value as a creative person, is what you tell people it is. Your actions and your work will support that, as long as you do what you say.

If your goal is to develop your portfolio, and fill it with things, and gain experience, working long hours will get you some of that. I did it for years, and it certainly helped me develop speed, good response to stress and confidence that I could deliver a project on time. I also had many, many good times with fellow creatives when we were all in it together. Sometimes those weekends in the studio are priceless. Pizza lunches, everyone blaring their music and no interruptions from the outside world. There are benefits to digging in now and again. Just be clear about what you’re getting from it.

The point to be taken away is, set your boundaries with your agency, your boss, your client, everyone. Decide what you’re willing to do, and be clear what you want from it. Then, be VERY clear with others. It’s scary at times to “lay down the rules” because you think, “they’ll just get someone else who will do what they say” <- this, is a common fear and belief. And, more importantly, it is outright, complete, and absolutely utter …bullshit. I have yet to meet anyone in my career (even life, generally) who lost respect for someone who stood up for themselves and kept their word. When you stand up for yourself, don’t be a hard-case, but just be very direct and straight-forward, whatever your conditions, beliefs and feeling are. It’s the only way you’ll be respected. It’s as important as developing good work. It’s also the hardest thing you’ll ever do (likely) in your career.

Work late if that’s your style. Do weekends, take on extra stuff and help on pitches – these things are beneficial at times. Just know why you’re doing it, and make the decision that best protects you. The agency is perfectly happy to bill the extra 67 hours you spent on overtime – but you’re paycheck, strangely, will look the same on Friday. Work hard, because you love it – not because you feel pressured to.

You ever find yourself feeling stressed out, talk to someone and let it out. Not sure who to talk to, email me through the site form. I’ll bend an ear.

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