I’m a web designer, design system consultant, speaker, and writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. I wrote a book called Atomic Design, and have done a whole bunch of projects largely around design systems and front-end web development.
You can read a more detailed story of my professional career on my website, but the basic gist is that I worked at digital agencies in New York City before moving back to Pittsburgh to start my own business, which continues to be a jambalaya of client design system production, consulting, workshops, and speaking engagements.
I work alongside my brother in my home office. In 2019, I built a standalone office in my back yard, but unfortunately in 2020 my family had to flee our home because an unstable neighbor began threatening my family. That meant saying goodbye to my wonderful new office, but I’m thankful to be in a new home (without unstable neighbors!) that has enough space to have a home office.
I have an almost four-year-old daughter who bursts into our bedroom first thing in the morning, followed closely behind by our sauntering English bulldog Ziggy (who’s taken to sleeping in her room as of late). On most mornings, we’ll have a family snuggle session for a few minutes, which is easily my favorite part of the day.
After those brief few moments of bliss, it’s off to the races with coffee, breakfast, helping my daughter get ready for school, taking her to school, and then coming home to plug in for the day. I don’t exactly feel like I’m doing anything intentional to start the day off right; it’s definitely a scramble!
I can’t! My day-to-day varies pretty wildly: some days it’s running a bunch of client meetings, other days I’m running a full-day workshop, other days it’s giving talks or writing. On rare days, I even get to get some code work done! There’s not a lot of routine, and that was certainly exacerbated by a lot of work-related travel in pre-COVID.
Even though my work day is all over the place, I’ve established a better schedule of keeping work hours to 8:30AM to 5:30PM in order to create a better work-life separation.
There’s the usual stuff like standing desks, drinking water, daily todo lists, and blah blah blah, but the fact of the matter is that I don’t feel like I take care of my wellbeing while at work. There are a lot of spinning plates, and I often feel like a hummingbird flitting around to keep them all spinning. It’s a mad dash of obligations and trying to squeeze it all in.
If all of this sounds alarming and untenable, it’s because it is! Thankfully, me and my long-time collaborators have been doing a lot of work to keep things under control and operate more from a proactive rather than a reactive position. But I’ve also been actively working on fundamentally changing the way I work and live, and I’m excited to downshift (read: dramatically cut down on the amount of work I take on) starting next year. So in the short-term I’m doing my best to manage a packed schedule while also establishing a long-term plan to reduce my workload and establish a healthier lifestyle. It’s taken a lot of work to prepare for this shift, and I’m excited about the months and years ahead.
I honestly don’t know if I’ve ever felt stuck, uninspired, or lacking motivation. At a fundamental level I love what I do and while that’s no doubt a great thing, it creates circumstances where a lot of people want my help with the thing that I love doing. That’s translated into biting off more than I can chew and then figuring out how to chew it all so that when I swallow I don’t choke.
Of course we all have days where things feel off, and for me listening to and playing music are massively cathartic. I regularly shake off a lot of stress (work related or existential dread) by bashing away at a drum kit for a bit.
After our family dinner, we’ll often hang out with our neighbors outside while the kiddos run around, and then of course the bedtime routine occupies a lot of time. COVID has certainly limited the available options for novel activities, so I’m looking forward to eventually getting back to visiting friends, eating at restaurants, going to concerts, and doing other normal-life stuff.
As you can probably guess by now, establishing a healthy work-life balance for me has been a real struggle. If it weren’t for my daughter, my wife and I would likely spend nearly all our waking hours working and being productive. I mentioned we lived in New York City, and our stint there really established a really unhealthy relationship with work. We’ve spent the last decade trying to deprogram ourselves and achieve a healthier work-life balance.
I’m discovering I’m not great at balance. Many non-American cultures have more of a “work to live” mentality, which I imagine makes attaining a healthier work-life balance easier. But many Americans — myself included — operate on more of a “live to work” mentality, which makes balance difficult to achieve. It’s hard to even recognize the brutally fast-paced waters we swim in until you’re made aware of them — sometimes in jarring ways like burnout or panic attacks.
Because I’m not great at balance, I’ve been recognizing I need more permanent changes rather than some minor tweaks. I’ve been fascinated with FI (Financial Independence) and I’ve been trying to financially position myself so that I don’t have to dedicate as much of my life energy to earning money. I’m hopeful that more radical and deliberate shift helps me reclaim some of the “life” part of work-life.
COVID and dealing with my family’s personal traumas have really thrown us for a loop, and we’re only just now finding our way on the other side to re-establish a sense of normalcy. We were knocked sideways, so this last year of just laying low and settling into our new home were very restorative. We’re only just now starting to look outward and crave social interaction and travel again. Fingers crossed we can do that soon.
It’s hard to be productive when your attention is split 1000 ways.
It’s tough to pinpoint one thing that’s impacted my wellbeing above all else. But maybe more than anything there’s an increasing awareness of my wellbeing and the things that positively and negatively affect it. It’s that awareness coupled with a lot of education and intentional work that’s getting me on the path to a more balanced lifestyle.
Achieving a healthy balance isn’t as simple as “get up and stretch your legs every hour” or “go sit on a beach and recharge for a week”. It’s a long game that requires fundamental shifts in attitude and behavior. Even though I’m still in the thick of it, I’m on a journey and the future is looking bright.
Ever feel like you wish you had more time in the day? Guess what. There’s only ever going to be 24 hours in the day, and even if you utilize every productivity hack out there you’re never going to get everything done. It’s physically impossible, so stop trying. Reduce. Take on less. Say no. Protect your whole self. Stop limping over the Friday finish line with no energy left to do anything but collapse onto a couch. Protect your non-work self. Have hobbies. Nurture relationships. Find happiness. Stop saying “I’m busy”; It’s not the badge of honor you think it is. Find ways to make yourself less busy. Make room for people and activities that give you fulfillment and make you a better human being. Don’t spend your finite time on this planet doing nothing but working.
Spending time with my family and watching my daughter grow. Music — especially playing music — is such an integral part of my being. I’ve been getting into mushrooms, birds, and ecology over the last few years and know there’s a lot to explore. I love reading and having deep and not-so-deep conversations with friends and family. I’m actively trying to get away from any work-related side projects in favor of a more balanced life.
Boy do I! I capture and review all the books I read on my website. But related to the topics of this interview, I’d highly recommend:
In addition to those books, I recommend the Re:considering podcast, which discusses how COVID has caused people to change their priorities and relationship with work.
A big thank you to Brad for this interview!