Balance the Grind had a great conversation with Ross about his role as Creative & Strategy Director, typical day in his life, minimising meetings, volunteering and mentoring as a way to find balance and more.
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Photo credit: James Braund
1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your background and career?
I came to design in a roundabout way. I studied journalism and by my final year in 1994 I discovered that I much preferred the overarching aspect of designing newspapers and magazines than I did the writing that I was being taught to do.
I’d discovered the nascent internet at university and wrote what was called my undergraduate thesis (whatever the hell that is) on the challenges the web was going to throw at journalism in general.
I hightailed it pretty quickly out of writing and into a career of designing things, including magazines, newspapers, and early websites.
In more recent years I’ve worked on a number of large-scale digital transformation projects at a strategic and execution level.
I tell my parents I design websites and apps but it’s more accurate to say I advise other people how to build websites and apps that suck less and less with each passing iteration. I probably sound jaded, but it continues to be a compelling thing to have the privilege to do every day.
2) What is your current role and what does it entail on a day to day basis?
As the Creative and Strategy Director for the digital agency We are you in Australia, I’m across a pleasingly broad range of clients and projects that run across enterprise, entertainment, and the for-purpose business sectors.
I work with the team in Australia and with our colleagues in Europe to bring some increased alignment between what our client’s organisational goals are, and what their customers and stakeholders need from them.
In practice, that means a lot of research, stakeholder engagement meetings, workshops, and presentations. In a sense, it’s a series of structured conversations.
3) What does a typical day in the life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?
People who have known me a long time would be surprised to hear that it starts at around 6 am these days.
I’m guilty of checking email and Slack when I wake up to see what’s happened overnight with any projects I’m working with the team in the Netherlands.
I used to check the news or Twitter first up as well, but that’s a certain way to just start hating life at sunrise so instead I’ll check out dogs on Instagram. True story. Dog Instagram is the best part of the internet.
On a super early day, I’ll grab my gear, jump on my bike and ride down to play squash for an hour at a court near work. After that I’ll change into my work clothes, ride into our offices in East Melbourne, inhale a coffee, and away we go.
The start of the day is typically where the most productive work is done. This is when I’ll have sessions with people on our team about projects or pitches that we’re working on, review progress, and work to ensure that the work we do doesn’t stray from the goals we’ve set for it. I’m no longer “on the tools” as a designer, so again this is a lot of conversations.
If I’ve structured my day well, the afternoon is more about working through things that keep projects rolling. Client meetings, phone calls, emails — all the things that seem to fill everyone’s day these days. This might seem glib, but when I talk to people in corporate roles it seems we all share the main same job task — respond to emails — it’s just the subject lines that seem to set apart our days.
The work day might end with a call to colleagues just getting to work in Amsterdam, a final few emails, and then a leisurely 40-minute bike ride home again.
4) Do you have any tips, tricks or shortcuts to help you manage your workload and schedule?
Separating the day into discrete blocks is something that I’ve always found useful. The first part of the day for me ideally should be as free of meetings as possible.
Blocking out 8-11am for no meetings when you can manage this is a winner. Once your colleagues figure out what you’re doing though, you’re toast. I’ll give you a list of IP addresses to block so nobody at our offices finds out I’m doing this.
I also recommend minimising the number of meetings that you attend. When people ask for your attendance at a meeting, ask them for an agenda, and ask them how you being in the meeting will help the project. Be prepared to firmly decline some things. Always remember: no agenda, no attenda.
When it’s your turn to set meetings and you need other people to attend, make them mercifully short. Write a brief agenda so people know why they’re there. Default your meeting lengths to something bonkers like 22 minutes.
People prefer seeing slivers of time in their schedules rather than huge hour-long blocks ripped from their days. If your meeting is going to take longer than 22 minutes it should probably be two meetings anyway.
5) In between your job, life and all your other responsibilities, how do you ensure you find some sort of balance in your life?
Crikey. How does anyone do this?
I think the key is to find things outside of work that provide some peace and some meaning to what you do.
For a lot of people this is family. For me it’s been volunteering and doing some mentoring for others. But more and more for me this has been about carving out time that is uncluttered and disconnected from the world time.
I’ve been training for the Massive Murray Paddle, a 404km 5 day kayak race, and so I have at least one half day session every week on the water trying to get this dadbod into the condition it needs to be in five months.
I’ve never done anything like this before, and I know if I don’t train for it that I’ll hate myself, and that helps me lock away that time every week and guard it very jealously.
I also have what seems to be a weird way of approaching breaks during my work day. Most days I don’t take a lunch break as such.
Sure, I’ll make sure I get some food into me when I’m hungry, but I’d much prefer to take five 10-minute walks throughout the day to clear my head than I am to sit anywhere for an hour staring at a bowl of admittedly delicious pasta.
6) What does work life balance mean to you?
This is a challenging one for me because for most of my adult life I was self-employed in some way — I ran an agency of my own for quite some time and I can say that while it was a professionally-gratifying period, it also extracted an incredible toll on my mental health and this flowed on to every other aspect of my life.
I had no balance in life at all, and the results of that are a rather cautionary tale that I’ll tell people over a quiet coffee rather than right out here in front of Cthulu and everyone. Suffice it to say, it was not pleasant.
The way I approach things now is more measured and more aware of the pitfalls that come from identifying too strongly with any single part of my life. It’s not work/life balance that I’m looking for — I’ll still happily do an 11pm conference call and be at work the next day at 8 if that’s what needs to be done — but achieving some balance in life generally.
Like a lot of designers, I have a deep respect for the great Dieter Rams, whose approach to design was famously expressed as “Less, but better”. That’s a wonderful maxim for life in general, and I’m trying to adopt it.
7) What do you think are some of the best habits you’ve developed over the years to help you strive for success and balance?
Success and balance are often competing and parallel priorities. It can be hard to be successful in your field without overwork, especially at formative parts of your career.
Balance is often the victim. For reasons best known to a highly-paid psychologist, I have had a terrible habit in my life of saying yes to things that I knew would burn me out at some stage in the future. Bringing more calm to my life has been a somewhat slow and drawn out process of learning how to say no to things, and not feeling like every person or issue has a claim to my time.
My psychologist would probably say this process is nowhere near its end yet, but at his rates, he would say that.
On a more tactical level, I use an app called Exist, developed by some great people in Melbourne. You give it access to a range of the data exhaust that you generate during the day (emails, meetings, time spent in various apps, time exercising) and then rate how you feel at a certain time each day.
Eventually it gives you some interesting correlations about when your good and less great days are, and the kinds of things that contribute to them.
It can get pretty brutal — it told me that I tend to have less-good days when I had meetings with a certain person, which encourage me to avoid interactions with that person when I could — but it’s staggeringly good. I’ve written about it before here.
8) Are there any books that have helped you improve over the years? (They don’t need to about work-life balance)
The part of me that wants everyone to think I’m a super-smart and erudite bloke is going to say John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice.
I read it at university, and the concept of the “veil of ignorance” stuck with me to the point where some years ago I started using it as a framework for designing systems (such as those created by government) that have effects on large numbers of people whether they want it or not.
Doing design work for the Department of Justice is a good way to realise that whether we accept it or not, we’re always building systems of control, and we ought to be aware of the power we wield.
More recently the book that’s really stuck with me has been Invisible Women, by Caroline Criado Perez.
It’s a staggering look at how hidden data bias in the world — we simply don’t disaggregate data for women when we collect it — has resulted in a word that is largely designed for men but in reality probably doesn’t really fit anyone all that well. I read that the author has been “cancelled” now, but hey that’s 2019 for you. The book is worth your time.
In a similar vein, I recommend Claire Evans Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet. The brief vignette of the late great Grace Hopper as a functioning alcoholic is as good a tale of briefly getting life’s balance wrong as you’ll read.
9) What is the number one thing you do to make sure you get the most out of your day?
I try to remember to tell my spouse that I love her and I aim to be the person my dog thinks I am.
The other tips and tricks are all really ways to try to keep you at your purpose, and one of the things about being in a constant state of busy-ness is that it makes you forget who you actually are.
Do the things that remind you who you are, rather than focus on the things that are outward markers of productivity.
The truth about most work these days is that we spend our days in productivity applications that track when we got the flaming dog turd from our in-tray into the next person’s.
You’ve got to keep a focus on why you do what you do in the first place. For me, this is about building good things, and striving to do it in an ethical way.
10) Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?
It would be good if we did away with the idea of work-life balance because in a way it’s a huge lie.
We spend the vast majority of our waking lives either travelling to or from work, at work, or tethered to work by our electronic devices.
The discussions would be more useful if they grappled with the idea of purpose, equilibrium, and the way we marshal the finite amounts of time and attention that we each have the ability to commit.
This isn’t to disparage the work that you’re doing with these interviews in any way — more to suggest that there’s a different approach to the same challenge. That’s how I’m thinking about it from here on out.