On Modern Slavery and The Necessity of Free Time
Governments and society have dictated that at least 8 out of every 24 hours must be spent engaged in some form of employment. Naturally, most people try to find employment in an activity that is well-matched to their unique skill set or at the very least isn't an overwhelming burden.
But what if your calling is also the one that causes you the most mental anguish while doing it? What happens when we are forced to work on what we love to the point that we begin resenting it and feeling empty inside?
Morality and work are interlinked in the world of design in a way that is unhealthy, extreme and detrimental to our ability to do what we are supposed to be experts at: think creatively & innovatively.
Efficiency in design studios is clearly seen as a boon, but not in the ways one might imagine. In our theoretical working world efficiency means that someone can complete their tasks (whether given or self-allocated) in a satisfactory—even excellent—manner within a scheduled period of time.
In our minds the higher purpose of efficiency is not just to increase our leisure time; the faster and better we can complete our daily to-do lists, the more time we have to work on our own creative pursuits; the more time we have to work on things that please ourselves. The more time we have to practice skills that we want to improve. The more time we have to build relationships and connections.
Unfortunately, in most design studios an efficient employee is not allowed periods of mental rest between high-energy, high efficiency outputs but rather is expected & depended upon to cram even more tasks into their days (and nights... and weekends). This consistent state of high-stress, high-stakes productivity leads to burnout and the erosion of one's ability to do what they were hired to do in the first place: design, production and creative ideation.
Work that pushes people past the time when they should be eating, spending time with friends & family or sleeping is work that is damaging to the long-term success of a studio. The rests we take between our tasks are just as important as the tasks themselves. However, in all too many circumstances we are pushed (or push ourselves out of fear & pressure) to continue at a heightened pace of production to meet deadlines set by people we can't directly communicate or reason with, for goals that seem far away from what we intended to work towards when we first started.
Thus, the reward for skill, efficiency and focus in the design community is often even greater and more exhausting demands on one's time and energy that lead to the eventual loss of the skills they had to start with. An employee who is overwhelmed with tasks that all have impending deadlines has no mental space to make theoretical, conceptual and aesthetic connections that will eventually lead to design ideas. They have no time to travel, to wander, to get lost in a train of thought or to follow a question down the rabbit hole of research. An employee who knows that as soon as they complete their work even more work will be heaped upon them has no motivation to be idle.
Yet idleness is where good ideas are born.
As an employee I felt what can only be described as resentment after I had consistently given all my best effort to a project, only to be asked for even more effort for a longer period of time. This had several unspoken implications.
Your best is not enough.
When I worked even harder and with longer hours I did not benefit from any personal satisfaction, lucrative earnings, promotion or relevant experience for the extra stress, hours and frenzied production. The reward—or stick, as I prefer—was the knowledge that if I opted out of engagement in these additional tasks I risked being seen as a selfish force in the office.
Not a team member.
Nothing was ever directly communicated in this way, of course, but the unstated expectations were clear based on observation of my fellow colleagues. Working at a youthful, fast-paced, non-hierarchical and unconventional studio meant that I had implicitly signed on for unpaid overtime in heaps and droves for the good of the firm as it found its footing in the design community.
I tried to take satisfaction in knowing that our studio stood for the very best values in landscape and urban design; that we were perhaps a little less efficient in our non-existent processes but that we took the time to experiment fully and propose non-standard solutions to urban problems. I was getting experience in my first few months that people wait years for in larger firms. We celebrated our triumphs and victories as friends and developed into a close-knit family of colleagues that I still treasure today.
The difficulty in bringing my growing disengagement and dissatisfaction to the attention of the partners was the implied comparison of my hours and efforts to my colleagues' (who undoubtedly at times worked longer hours and pushed themselves much harder then I did) as well as the partners' own work schedules. They unquestionably spent many more thankless, unpaid hours in pursuit of goals ranging from simply paying the rent on the studio space & keeping the business afloat to how to convince their clients to accept non-standard streetscape conditions for the betterment of the city. All this with mortgages, partners and children.
No employee in their right mind would dare to complain about working hours to their superiors who clearly put in double or triple the time and are surely not billing overtime either. No, you keep your mouth shut and focus on the positives for as long as you can. But even the most passionate and dedicated of designers can only do this for so long.
The role of Boredom
Interestingly, I began observing that the time I was the most creative and idea-full was when I was at long, painfully dull project meetings armed with nothing but a pen and notepad. After my short, 1-2 minute contribution was over I let my mind wander freely through the mind-numbing boredom of half-listening to conversations about ceiling heights, ductwork and fire alarms for the next 2-3 hours. While my entire sense of being buckled against the absolute waste of time and loss of productivity, it was in that space that I conceived of my future design studio - Future Landscapes - drew logos, web pages, planned out new sources of income, developed concepts for side projects, and figured out solutions to other design problems (work related or not).
It was through boredom that I began to really find my creativity again. Not through the whirl-wind pressures of producing work into the early hours. I began to sense that giving the active mind a break was key to allowing the subconscious mind to take over.
After I started my own business, it took me a few months to de-stress & evaluate my goals. Once I was ready, I drew up a list of requirements for myself as an entrepreneur. I thought about the work experiences I had had over the past 5 years and positioned myself in opposition to what I perceived as creativity-defeating practices.
I did not want to spend 80 hours a week hustling for anyone, not even myself. I wanted time to paint, to walk, to meet up with friends, to watch TV without feeling guilty. I wanted to go on vacation more than once a year. I wanted to be healthy and sleep well and feel relaxed. And I wanted to be bored, sometimes.
I decided I would never purposely take on more work that I could handle on my own while staying within those parameters.
I decided to formalize my working practices into a series of statements. A manifesto, if you will. These are thus far:
Get a good night’s rest, every single night.
Do good work and be nice to people.
Focus exclusively on work and then focus for an equivalent period of time on exclusively not working.
Be bored and unproductive without guilt for at least 1 hour per day.
Do not say yes when you feel like saying no.
Do not say no just because you don’t know how.
Do not work with people who do not treat you with the utmost respect and professionalism.
Know what your bottom line is for every client.
When I have questions about billing or invoicing, I just ask myself: WWAMD? (What Would A Man Do?)
And, most importantly, be picky about who you work for because the working habits of your client become the working habits of yourself.
Boredom is a work in progress
I can’t say that I perfectly meet my own goals when it comes to working conditions all the time. There have been times where, for all the planning in the world, 2 or 3 project deadlines coincide under the same week and putting in a bunch of late nights is unavoidable. But this is almost always followed by a period of rest and a slowing of activity. In the past I’ve been frightened of such downtime; worried that I won’t make enough during the slow times I have tended to seek out new clients & projects. It may sound logical but the more clients I get, the more opportunities there are for project conflicts in the future. I am slowly learning what my ‘enough’ is - a concept that Paul Jarvis discusses in his excellent book “Company of One.”
I’ve come to realize that these comparatively slower weeks give me ample opportunity to become bored - which is, as I noted above - a key ingredient in keeping creatively active.
I’m also learning that the trick to appreciating the cycles of busy and slow in having my own business is to not try to pack too much into the slow times. I often see free time as something that can be filled with other types of productive activity such as project-related reading, research, processing & uploading photos, or attempting some new passion-projects. But the whole point of boredom is that you can’t escape it or push it away - you need to let yourself be actively bored. That’s why being stuck in meetings was such a perfect idea-making space for me; I had no way to escape but into my head.
One way I’m finding to allow myself to be bored is to do things that bring me into a meditative state. My not-so guilty pleasure is two-fold: getting my nails done and going for monthly spa facials. At both types of appointments - bar the basic small talk - I’m forced to sit still and focus on my inner world.
Practicing boredom might sound counter-intuitive to success, but resting the working mind is just as imperative to creativity as is active ideation. I first encountered this concept formalized in the magnificent book “A Technique for Producing Ideas” by James Webb Young. Young describes a formula for producing creative ideas in a masterful and straightforward way. To my mind, this short and excellently simplified book should be the first thing any design student reads.
To summarize the first two phases, one must first gather information (call this what you will - precedents, existing context, background information, related materials) - Young calls this “Combining Old Elements.”
In the second phase, one must then try to fit all the information together in new ways. Testing bits and pieces from here and there against each other and alongside each other, we use our minds to actively seek out new combinations from old elements.
The 3rd phase is (for me) the most fascinating - the Mental Digestive Process. If you’ve worked on the first 2 phases to the best of your ability, then it’s time to just let the mind rest. Do not think about the problem anymore - put it out of your mind completely. Says Young:
This brings me full-circle back to Bertrand Russel. In what position within any employer-employee relationship is there room for a creative worker to stop working mid-day to see a movie or even take a long walk if the weather is fine? On the production lines such behavior would be seen as antithetical to the process of Capitalism, the basis on which all modern design is positioned. An employee with ample leisure time would be considered an utter waste of billable hours. However, Bertrand Russel reminds us that art, music, and all other creative & technological categories known as ‘civilization’ arose from just such a leisure class.
It’s clear that the answer to a continuously satisfying career in the creative fields is not to work until you feel dead inside and then switch jobs in the hopes that the new position will somehow be less punishing. In any position it’s only a matter of time before your employer detects your capacity for production and finds ways to push you to the limit once more. Rather, it’s the autonomy to make your own decisions and set your own hours - allowing yourself to work within this boredom-infused creative process, inefficient as it may seem - that leads to real advances and insights in creative employment.