Prioritizing My Health - Lessons from a Workaholic Designer
Seven years ago I became a workaholic. I was taking design classes at my university during the day, and filled every other waking moment working long hours at the on-campus design studio. I was growing in design, soaking up all the knowledge I could like a brand new sponge. I discovered the work that got me excited. I discovered the thrill of creating through the night. I discovered an amazing design community. And I felt exhilarated!
But then, I started to feel overwhelmingly sick and exhausted. Ten pounds fell off, then twenty pounds, and soon an emaciated shadow stared back in the mirror almost thirty pounds lighter. I was too weak to get out of bed and a pale complexion swallowed up my Southern California tan. I didn’t know what was wrong so I went to see doctors, lots of doctors. A traditional doctor. An Eastern medicine doctor. A spiritual guide. I was hospitalized for weeks, hooked up to an IV so I could get nutrition and morphine. After months of tests, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, an autoimmune disease that attacks your intestines and makes it hard to properly digest food and nutrients.
All the while, I kept working, or at least wanting to work. I was addicted to creating; it was practically part of my genetic makeup. I grew up in a house with two talented, creative small business owners. I watched my parents create things they loved while working long hours, coming home all wound up from a project, and working through a flu or a death in the family. They showed me that success was working hard and loving it.
After graduation, I landed a job at a studio in Los Angeles. The initial shock of the diagnosis wore off and the medicines started kicking in. And I started working again, a lot. I woke up early for the long commute, worked long hours, and came home thinking, stressing, and excited about work. I dropped everything else in my life to prove my family mantra of work is fun and I love work.
Eventually I got sick again, and this time, the medicines weren’t cutting it. I had serious conversations with serious doctors about my health and stress. I knew I needed to change my relationship with work but I didn’t know how and didn’t really want to. I thought putting my health first meant that I would have to sacrifice my career and creativity, what I considered my whole identity.
Around the same time, I moved to San Francisco. I was surrounded by some of the smartest people I had ever met who were great at their jobs and sometimes left at 4pm, or took a personal day, or unplugged on the weekend. I saw for the first time that you can love your work and prioritize yourself.
It finally clicked that I was creating a vicious cycle that only I could end. I’ve since realized that setting boundaries for yourself doesn’t mean you’re not passionate or unsuccessful. It means that you respect yourself enough to give yourself the time you need to be the best version of you. It’s still an everyday challenge, but now, I unwind on Tuesday evenings with a ceramics class and come home at a decent hour to cook dinner with my fiancé.
As a woman in a creative field, there’s extra pressure to succeed professionally. Here are some lessons that have helped me become a better creative and overall person:
1. Find a job that respects your personal time.
I’m lucky to work at a company that prioritizes work-life balance. Search for a company with a culture that's set up to accommodate aspects of your life that make you happy. When job searching, look out for red flags: Do people seem stressed? What are the typical working hours? How many projects are people juggling simultaneously?
2. Go outside.
Nature is the number one thing that makes me realize there is so much more to life than staring at a screen pushing pixels.
3. Get a hobby.
Putting all of your energy into one area of life never works out for anyone.
4. Don’t feel guilty for taking time off.
For the longest time I hated requesting time off. I stopped taking vacations and felt bad for having to go to the doctor a lot. I have since realized that taking time off helps me (and ultimately the company I work for) so much more than not taking time off.
5. Take care of yourself.
Check in with yourself regularly. Go to the doctor. Eat healthy meals. Workout. Do yoga. Sit still. Breath deeply. Give yourself the time you need to heal.
Jessica Strelioff is a creative director at Upperquad living and working in San Francisco, CA. She can be found on Twitter @jstrelioff, on Instagram @jessicastrelioff, or on her website.
Art used in this issue: "Colette nue" by Émilie Charmy