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Balancing the Grind with Steph Smith, Growth Marketer, Writer & Indie Maker

Steph Smith is a growth marketer, writer, and indie maker, as well as the founder of Integral Labs, where she works with top tech and media brands, supporting them with content strategy, analytics, and growth marketing.

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1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your career background and current role?

Sure! I’ll take it all the way back. I graduated university with a degree in chemical engineering. I loved (and still love) the pure sciences, but didn’t love how they manifested in most jobs outside of academia. 

So, I opted out of the oil rig into consulting. That was fun too, but I felt trapped. I was on a path that was well understood, but also one that restricted my creativity and freedom.

I left that role to try my luck in a fully remote role on the growth team of a tech company. Despite next to no experience in that field, I spent three years there and ended up leading one of their largest business units and a team of 20. 

More recently, I founded Integral Labs, a company that works with top tech and media brands, while also building my own projects and writing for my blog. Since launching my blog in 2019, I’ve had over 400k people read my thoughts. All the while, I’ve been able to design my life, while living across over 50 countries. 

2) What does a day in the life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?

Every day is different. I’ve never been a person to adhere very well to routine. Instead, I try to operate with a few flexible principles:

  1. The most important thing that I do daily is active prioritization. Prioritizing is not just a process of saying yes, but is just as much a function of saying no. This is something I’ve improved on over time through truly internalizing that everything in life is a trade-off. Each day, I’ll go through my todo list and eliminate things that have been around for more than a few days. 
  2. Particularly with writing or skills that I often struggle with, I try to execute when I’m “on” and capitalize over that interval. For example, I can write a full article in a matter of hours if I’m in the right headspace, but if I’m distracted or unmotivated, I could easily write for an entire day and end up with nothing tangible. If this means that I end up working late into the night and sleep in the following day, I’ll happily opt into that. No one is always in their optimal space of productivity, so I think it’s really important to capitalize during the periods that you are. 
  3. I focus on making progress consistently. I recently learned of the concept “zero acceleration, constant non-zero velocity”. It’s the concept that you don’t constantly need to be looking for ways to outpace yourself, but instead making consistent progress over time. As long as your velocity is not zero or moving in the wrong direction, you are making progress. I try to ensure this is true across core areas that I’m working on by tracking my daily efforts across each. 

So in reality, my days are diverse. Sometimes I work in large blocks. Others are scattered with calls. Regardless of the day, most of my work is spent at the computer, so I try to take breaks and make sure that I’m getting exercise and dedicating enough time to things that make me happy.

3) Does your current role allow for flexible or remote working? If so, how does that fit into your life and routine? 

I’ve been lucky enough to work remotely for the past 4+ years. That alone has been a massive enabler for me, allowing me to design my life and build routines around things that I truly enjoy.

The beautiful part of working remotely is not just the ability to skip the commute or work in your sweatpants, but to design a day that is most productive and satisfying to you. 

I love the quote “If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will”, from the book Essentialism. I feel like remote work has given me the freedom to prioritize the parts of my life that I care about, without trading something else away. 

Even though I have the same number of hours, I’ve been able to fit much more in a day, as I’m not constricted to fencing off the first ~8 hours.

Instead, I can work when, where, and how I need to. Because of that, I’m able to also focus on what truly moves the needle, versus what may “look” good to others, but isn’t actually driving impact. 

4) What does work-life balance mean to you and how do you work to achieve that goal?

Imagine a world where you can work on whatever you want, every single day. In that world, your north star is what makes you happy, not what pays the bills. 

Now, we can return to reality and recognize that for many people, that is fiction and unfortunately, your decisions are not driven by creativity or joy, but instead what gives you the ability to put food on the table or have confidence that you won’t be on the streets. 

While I think that work-life balance can be about setting boundaries, investing in off-time, etc… it’s just as much about bridging the gap between the things you love and the things you get paid for.

As Peter Thiel says in Zero to One, “Every individual is unavoidably an investor, too. When you choose a career, you act on your belief that the kind of work you do will be valuable decades from now.” 

Every single person spends so much time “working”, that it seems counterintuitive to me that you’d spend your life “investing” in work that you hate, while also trying to find work-life balance. 

In order to achieve work-life balance, I’ve tried many things that people recommend. Signing off at the right times. Turning off notifications. Having hobbies. These are all important, no doubt. But I’ve invested more time in finding work that I truly love, as cheesy as that may sound. 

In fact, I remember waking up many months ago, ready for a day of work. Instead of thinking, “Oh god, here we go again”, my thought was, “This is exactly where I want to be.” So in order to continue aspiring toward work-life balance, I seek to continue closing the gap between doing the things I love and the things that generate income. 

5) In the past 12 months, have you started or stopped any routines or habits to change your life? 

In 2019, I decided to track and share my goals openly. The former has helped me have a realistic sense of my progress, while the latter has helped me stay accountable. 

I believe that tracking your goals in a frequent, quantitative way, is more effective than vaguely aiming for large milestones, as that’s a better reflection of how we truly make progress: baby steps that compound

Also, we are quick to set KPIs in our “work lives”, yet rarely set them and measure them in our personal lives. Without this tracking, many people have little idea how they’re doing, and more specifically how their daily habits impact their progress.

When I mention this to people, many people think this sounds like the antithesis of work-life balance. Why would you measure your “life”, when you’re already measured at “work”?

That point of view highlights my very point. If you want balance between your life and the things that you, in theory, care about, why are you only measuring yourself at work?

KPIs help you direct your attention and in setting personal goals, KPIs, or whatever you might call them, you’re placing more of your attention there; you’re creating balance between one part of your life that you’re almost certainly measuring (work) and making the other part (life) equally measurable…AKA important. 

6) Do you have any favourite books, podcasts or newsletters that you’d like to recommend?

Of course! I have a list of books that I recommend here. Some of my favourites include:

All four of these books have changed the way I view, operate, and engage in the world, hopefully in positive ways.

  • Man’s Search for Meaning helped me gain perspective and recognize my ability to respond and act, regardless of the circumstances that I find myself in. 
  • The Power of Habit helped me recognize that my brain, along with every other brain in this world, is pre-programmed. You can be much more effective if you accept this and learn how to utilize the system more effectively, through building effective habits. The most accomplished people do not have more willpower, but have invested in building good habits. 
  • Algorithms to Live By similarly helped me recognize the limitations of the human brain and how sometimes, we can benefit from simplifying. In life, there are many intractable problems and this book helps shine light on how computer science can help us cut through the noise.
  • Finally, Give and Take has reminded me of the important lesson that for you to be successful, you don’t need to take an opportunity away from someone else. There’s room at “the top” and the world is not zero sum.

As for newsletters, I’m biased, but if you’re into tech and business news, my favourite paid newsletter is Trends. My favourite free newsletter is the one I write weekly.

In all seriousness, some of my other favourite newsletters include Chartr, Marketing Examples, Exponential View, Petition, and Cofounder Weekly.

7) Are there any products, gadgets or apps that you can’t live without?

There are very few products that have stuck with me throughout the years. I think that’s natural, as we all evolve and our needs follow suit. Some of my favourite products right now include:

  • When I’m in a reading phase, I can’t live without my Kindle. It’s such a simple device that truly makes reading more enjoyable. Pairing that with the Readwise app makes retention more enjoyable as well.
  • I love spreadsheets. I use them for everything, including tracking my habits. I even wrote an “Ode to Excel”. I find it fascinating how well designed they were decades ago, such that they still have yet to be significantly disrupted. 

You can see other products I use at my stack.

8) If you could read an interview about work-life balance by anyone, who would that be?   

There are few people that continuously amaze me in how they’re able to find success in multiple aspects of life.

One of those people is Adam Grant. Grant has written a few of my favourite books, was the youngest tenured professor at Wharton, has a newsletter with 100k+ subscribers, and has many other impressive accomplishments under his belt.

But perhaps more impressively, he’s done so while building up a family, being consistently rated as Wharton’s top professor, and is consistently referenced (ex: in Cal Newport’s book Deep Work) as someone that has built up effective habits to get the most out of life. 

9) Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?

I think “work-life” balance can only really start when you’ve found work that doesn’t conflict with your life, and by life, I mean your happiness.

That’s because work-life balance is not just about the time dedicated to one or the other, but the energy that goes towards aspects of your life. And if your work drains you emotionally, even if it takes up 10% of your waking day, that is not “balance”. 

The best way to truly find balance is to remove the divider between work and life, and instead to fill your life with things that you enjoy. Circumstances can make that more difficult for some compared to others, but that doesn’t take away from the reality that balance is not only a function of time, but mindspace.

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About Author

Balance The Grind gives me a platform to talk to these people about how they're achieving their ideal lifestyle. I'm inspired by the passion, the work ethic, the hustle; and these conversations motivate me to live life the way I want to live it.