Confession: I used to really suck at the whole work/life balance and it kind of broke me.

Back in 2001, my wife and I were living in New York City and were both laid-off from our full-time jobs. We’d been married just over six months and things were tight financially. Still, we sat down, did some math and figured that we had enough of a financial buffer for me to try my hand at illustrating full-time, the only caveat being that I had only six months to make it work before we ran out of money. Fortunately, I had already been illustrating on nights and weekends, so the only adjustment I needed to make was to take on more work from the clients I already had, and try and woo some new clients to boot.

And so I did, and somehow it worked out.

Before I knew it, I was working twelve to fourteen-hour days, five to six days a week. The illustration jobs I was getting paid pretty poorly, and so I made up for the low fees the only way I could: with volume. I churned out a lot of stuff in those first couple years, most of which was bad, and it was all a bit of a blur.

Eventually, my wife got a new job in advertising. While the added income meant a degree of financial stability, we weren’t exactly raking it in—certainly not by New York City standards. Our expenses outside of food, rent, utilities, and student loans were almost non-existent and what little money we had left over each week was put into building a buffer against what we assumed would be an inevitable future layoff, since companies at the time were shedding jobs constantly and my wife had been through it a couple times already.

Unfortunately, my wife’s job came with the downside that I’d be spending many nights and weekends alone while she was working on new business pitches, traveling for work, or just helping maintain the clients her agency already had. I chose to fill this added time alone with additional illustration work to further bolster our financial coffers. Before long, I was working sixteen to eighteen hours a day, seven days a week, and all-nighters became a semi-regular occurrence.

Now, it would be inaccurate to say that both of our schedules were constantly so crazy. Sometimes there’d be a lull in our respective schedules and something more akin to “normal” demands on our time would return. But never once did those lulls actually sync up. One of us was always under the gun and therefore hard at work instead of spending the time we needed together.

The biggest problem, however, was not the amount of hours either of us put in, it was the disparity in our respective daily schedules. See, I am a night owl and am naturally most productive between four PM and six AM. With all the assignments I was taking on, I essentially became nocturnal. I would go to bed shortly before my wife’s alarm clock went off and I would sleep until 10 or 11 AM. Then I’d get up and paint.

If there was any downtime, it was for a meal or maybe an attempt to watch something on TV. But that never lasted long because we lived in a one-bedroom apartment at the time and I worked and watched TV in the same room. Even when not painting, I couldn’t get away from my work and while watching TV, it was never long before my eyes drifted over to the easel and my brain started obsessing about what I still needed to accomplish.

My life, for a time, was pretty much sleep and work. I began to resent anything that wasn’t one of those two things, and my relationships and health suffered for it. It would not be a stretch to say that during this time was the closest my wife and I ever came to splitting up, and it also represents the least mentally stable I’ve ever been.

Eventually, after almost a couple years into this behavior, I reached the breaking point. My wife and I had planned to visit her family over Easter weekend. The only problem was that I had five pieces due the following Tuesday. I worked feverishly on that job trying to get it done before we left, and even pulled several all-nighters in the attempt. But it just wouldn’t come together. So, in order to meet the deadline, I was forced to stay home and finish the job while my wife went ahead to see her family.

I was haggard, exhausted, and angry. As it was, my wife and I barely saw each other awake, we barely talked, and we were both miserable. I asked myself a lot of questions while I was alone that weekend. The most important of these was “why am I working all these hours?”

The answer to that question is complicated. In the beginning we had a real financial need. But as time went on, the immediacy of that need diminished and it became an exercise in squirreling money away.

But really, I felt insecure as my wife began to make more money than I did. I don’t know why I felt that insecurity, but it was definitely there. Maybe it was a simple ego thing, or maybe I was just wrapped up in a very specific view of what I thought a man’s role in a family should be. Whatever the case, it wasn’t serving me well and I needed to get over it.

Also, I was sort of doubling down on bad behavior. I worked too much and it caused problems with my marriage, and so I escaped dealing with that by doing more work. That’s some genius-level thinking right there, and as you can see it wasn’t solving anything.

Lastly, I put a lot of pressure on myself to be successful as an illustrator. And while that’s not inherently problematic, too much pressure can be. I wasn’t winning awards or making the pages of Spectrum and I was frustrated by how little growth I saw in my work. But I failed to see the obvious: I was making a living illustrating. That was no small accomplishment and I didn’t give myself any credit for it.

So I had issues, but there was plenty of blame to go around. We were both working insane hours. While it would take a while for my wife to find a new job with a better work/life balance, I could do something about my own lack of balance almost immediately.

After I completed and turned in that assignment, I cleared my schedule and normalized my sleep pattern. Then when my head was clear, I created some rules for myself. Here are those rules:

  1. Keep a normal schedule. The first thing I had to do was ditch the late-night work binges. So, I committed to mimicking what eventually became my wife’s schedule. Now I work between 9 am and 6 pm. There are days that run a little later, and others that end a little earlier, but I try and keep that range relatively constant. Sometimes deadlines demand a bit more time invested, but thankfully, they’re not an everyday occurrence.
  2. Take at least one day off each week. This is generally the weekend. I consistently try for two days off, but don’t always succeed. Deadlines are deadlines after all, but I still try to keep that time sacred.
  3. Work in a location that is separate from the living area that (best case scenario) has a door. Since moving out of the one-bedroom flat, we have lived in places with at least two bedrooms. In every case, the room my studio has occupied has had a door and I’ve used it. It sounds stupid to say that closing a door is helpful, but for me it is. It’s a metaphorical and physical barrier to the work and a signal that my day is starting or ending. Also, since I don’t constantly see the work in my living space or while I’m casually walking by, I tend not to obsess over it and start each day with fresh eyes. Well, fresher eyes, anyway.
  4. Stop wearing a watch. Except on very special occasions when I might wear a dress watch, I am without a timepiece. For whatever reason, I find that wearing a wristwatch causes me to obsess about time. I end up making unnecessary and arbitrary deadlines for things and begin to parse out my day into ever-shrinking chunks of time, which just becomes a machine for building frustration and self-loathing. I’m not sure why ridding myself of the watch has changed my behavior, but it has. It has helped me get to the point where I now trust that things are going to get done in due time. And they somehow do.
  5. It is okay to break theses rules but only for something worthwhile. Sometimes an irresistible opportunity comes along and it will require work on nights and weekends, or it will require more space than my studio can provide. That means temporarily setting aside some rules. But it has to be a great project that excites me well beyond normal levels and I need to get back to the status quo once that project has ended.

These rules are not universal. They can’t be. I don’t have children, or a parent to take care of, and (as indicated above) I’m not the sole or even main bread winner in the family. So I might have to amend the rules and adjust my lifestyle accordingly were my needs different. But as things are now, abiding by these rules has resulted in a far healthier life—both mentally and emotionally. My relationships have been the better for it, as well. The only down side, it seems, is that it’s taken me years to adjust and train myself to become as productive during normal business hours as I once was in the middle of the night. In fact, I’m still working on that more than a decade later.

Anyway, maybe something above is helpful to someone reading this, and maybe one or two of the rules hit home. Or, maybe just the idea of creating rules like this at all will be of aid. Either way, remember to be kind to yourself and learn to know when you’re taking on too much. Understand that you are not immune to the law of diminishing returns, and while work pays, it also has a price. Considering these factors is important to balance, and finding your own balance might be the most important thing you ever do.