Striking a work-life balance

No one can deny there are obvious benefits to loving what you do. When you have a passion for your work, it comes through in what you create. Achieving that extra 10 percent of polish on your animations is much easier when you don’t mind putting in a few extra hours to get there. The topic of a work-life balance is a touchy one in a lot of creative spaces, but it's still important to always be on the look-out for ways to improve this balance. If we don't, it'll slip into chaos. Perhaps no one understands the delicate nature of a work-life balance more than VFX artists. That’s because many are asked to work long hours with little to no benefits outside of a paycheck. VFX studios also have their own share of problems surviving in a film industry with so few studios and so many vendors, tight deadlines, and slim profit margins. You can get concrete examples of the industry’s woes in the short documentary “Life After Pi” an expose on the collapse of Academy Award winning studio, Rhythm & Hues.
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9lcB9u-9mVE?rel=0&vq=hd720&showinfo=0&autohide=1&theme=light&color=white&w=800&h=450]
Anyone who’s worked in the VFX industry can long work hours can begin to take a toll on your physical and emotional health. Those extra hours aren’t actually a big deal the first time. It’s not even the second, third, fourth or fifth time you’re asked to work overtime. It’s years of such non-stop working-all-the-time mentality that can start to wear on a person. This issue becomes especially acute when you’re raising a family. It’s easy to get completely worn down in the VFX industry and there are plenty who have fallen prey to burnout.

More hours = less work

As deadlines loom, it’s a common assumption to solve the deadline ‘issue’ by throwing more artists at the work. It’s true that working more hours is effective in the short-term, but it’s not a long-term solution. It’s certainly not a long-term solution across an entire industry. When you hire less but have more to do (from tighter deadlines), the artists you currently have a need to work longer. Since you have shrinking budgets, you can’t offer your artists more money for their extra effort. So the result is virtually forcing artists to work longer hours without adequate compensation. Incredibly small margins and tight deadlines have caused a lot of backlash from VFX artists. I realize there're a lot more issues that go into the VFX industry’s current state; Mike Seymour’s excellent article over at FXGuide outlines some more detailed potential solutions. I bring this up mostly to point out that artists don’t mind working long hours. In fact, we love working long hours – because we love what we do. However, the individual artist should be aware of the need to balance their personal and professional lives to avoid burnout. Also, supervisors need to avoid taking advantage of an artist’s love for his or her work when scheduling overtime.

Work is life

44659_Inline_01 Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh once said, “Work is life, life is work. When work is something you are passionate about, it’s not about work or life; it’s just life.” It’s easy for many VFX artists can relate to Tony’s statement. Unfortunately, it’s also easy for their passion to cloud their judgment about their time. Every artist knows what it’s like to be “in the zone”--when you’re making significant exceptional progress. But many don’t know when that moment’s passed. They continue trudging onward not being as efficient as they once were, but still thinking they are. In his article about a 40-hour work week, Microsoft’s J.D. Meier argued, “Give me four Power Hours over 40 hours of suck-the-life-force-slowly-out-of-me any day.” J.D.’s comment suggests that there are moments (i.e., Power Hours) where we can be the most creative and efficient. After working a 40-hour week, every successive hour starts to mean so much more to us. It’s an idea that we see everywhere: When you have less food, each bite means that much more. When you have less money, you’ll stretch each dollar further. And yet, the one thing that no one can renew is something we so often overlook: Time. But what if it isn’t so much about working more hours, but rather finding ways to work better quality hours? When you couple that idea with the mere fact that a tiny part of what we’re working goes towards the psychological or safety needs on Maslow’s hierarchy, there needs to be something more. In a 2014 interview, Google’s CEO Larry Page explained it well when he said, “If you really think about the things that you need to make yourself happy—housing, security, opportunities for your kids—anthropologists have been identifying these things. It's not that hard for us to provide those things. "The amount of resources we need to do that, the amount of work that actually needs to go into that is pretty small. I'm guessing less than 1% at the moment. So the idea that everyone needs to work frantically to meet people's needs is just not true.” Quality over quantity is what’s required in the VFX industry. Sixteen-hour work days may initially help ensure you get a contract, but your artists and, by extension, your studio are ultimately going to pay for it. CEO and found of shade VFX, Brian Godwin explained in a DT interview the importance of not over-stretching your resources to a studio’s financial success. For example, he’s a supervisor who’s not afraid to turn work down for the benefit of the company. “We don’t like to,” Brian said, “but if it’s not a responsible choice or we think we’re going to get in over our heads because of what’s in the pipeline, we do say no sometimes. I think that’s important. Most of our clients understand. They would rather we be honest than take on too much and bail out of the project half way through. So I think we’ve built a good reputation with that strategy.”

Set your company up for success

44659_Inline_02 I’m not suggesting a few “Power Hours” will magically fix the issues in the VFX industry today. However, I think the VFX industry has proven that throwing more hours at something isn’t a long-term solution. Instead, it’s up to each of us, artists and supervisors alike, to find a way to bring better quality to the hours we have – not so we can spend more hours working, but so we can spend more time renewing our creative tanks. It’s likely we all would come out ahead in the end. The amount of balance you schedule will depend on your role. If you’re in the position of being able to influence your studio’s projects, it’s essential to set realistic timelines up front like Brian Godwin does at shade VFX. Instead of agreeing to do work that you know will be bad for your company’s culture, your team and yourself, build some balance into the schedule. Motionographer’s founder Justin Cone, who also references J.D. Meier’s article, suggests one way you can start doing this is by refusing to set your company up for failure from the onset of a project. “During initial client meetings or at the end of a pitch,” Justin said, “I knew damn well when I was getting our studio into hot water. I knew when the budget was too low, the timeline too short and the expectations too high.” “Of course, we’d always agree to do the work anyway. We’d tell ourselves, ‘We need this. Without this, we won’t be able to pay everyone’s salaries. Without this, our portfolio will stagnate. Without this, our competition will slaughter us.’” Justin admittedly was steering his studio into disastrous waters. Are these thoughts and anxieties you find yourself having? If so, you may want to take Justin’s advice and find a way to balance the bottom line with the quality of your work and your employees’ job satisfaction.

Set yourself up for success

Perhaps you’re not in a position to control your projects, deadlines or budgets. No matter your role, you still have control over your own time. Instead of allowing yourself to become part of the 11.3% of people in the US (12.7% in the UK) who work more than 50 hours a week, find innovative ways to schedule some downtime into your busy schedule. One approach is to take advantage of technology as a way of avoiding burn out. Forbes has quoted business mogul Richard Branson with a potential solution, “Many people associate an ‘always on’ culture and an increasingly connected world with burn out, but I take the opposite view. “Mobile phones enable people to get out from behind their desk and go out into the world. Meeting people face-to-face and sharing new experiences are crucial for innovation. It might be advisable for us all to spend a little less time checking emails from day to day, but the benefits far outweigh the costs.” One way you can do this is instead of fighting against technology, embrace it to let it give you the mind like water that David Allen recommends. For example, how many times do you think of something you need to do at the office when you’re at home? How do you handle that? Do you try to remember? Do you send yourself an email so you’ll remember when you get into the office the next day? If you’re like me, trying to remember something almost never works. You’ll keep thinking about it all evening, it’ll make it hard to sleep at night and when you get into the office in the morning you’ll forget what it was you spent all night worrying about. Sending yourself is a potential solution, except everyone knows there will never be just one email in your inbox in the morning. Unfortunately, that can mean when you go check for the email you sent yourself you can get sidetracked by other emails and lose hours before you even realize they’re gone. To wrangle technology, as Richard Branson suggests, you’ll need a trusted system that you can use to get them out of your head. Only then can you stop being constantly reminded of things you need to do at work, because you’ll be able to drop them into the system and stop thinking about it right away. But that’s just a hypothetical scenario. I’m sure you don’t really think about work outside of the office, right?   So what are your thoughts about working longer hours? Are you able to find the balance you need to stay excited about the work you’re doing without getting burnt out? What are some ways you can set yourself up for success?