Starting every day at zero

At my very first job, every employee had to take the Strengthsfinder quiz. The quiz is a series of statements that you agree or disagree with, and at the end of the quiz you get a list of your top 5 strengths. The idea is that by identifying your strengths, it sets you up to maximize them at work. At the top of my list was Achiever.

I remember reading the description of Achiever and having an ah-ha moment; it perfectly described the way I operated. Achievers are known for how much they get done. They’re motivated by crossing things off their to-do lists. The thing that makes us Achievers who we are is also our biggest source of pain: every day starts at zero, and then we judge ourselves based on the number of things we accomplish that day. No matter how productive we were the day before, in the morning the leaderboard resets to zero. Every single day. Over and over and over.

On days when I get a lot done, my Achiever is satisfied. I feel invincible. But a lot of the time, how much I achieve in a day is out of my control. And when I don’t achieve however much I tell myself I need to achieve, I feel horrible. The doubt and self-loathing kick in. All of the energy that I would have spent on achieving gets redirected toward being hard on myself. Zero days are really tough. And when zero days stretch into weeks, it’s incredibly difficult.

There was a period of time when I was in a series of zero weeks. I wasn’t feeling motivated by what I was doing at work and struggled with making progress on my projects. At the end of the day when I’d do my mental assessment of how much I had achieved, I didn’t feel like I had much to show. My job wasn’t creatively fulfilling, and it was putting me in a real funk.

A really common outlet for designers looking to supplement their day jobs is turning to freelance or side projects. Not getting enough app experience at work? Design an app on the side. Not getting to own the product vision enough? Do some freelance product work for a friend. At the time, the design community was talking nonstop about the importance of side projects. When I looked around at my peers, they seemed to be filling all of their waking hours with design. So I tried that, too, thinking that if I could just work on these design projects on the side, then my Achiever would be happy and I wouldn’t feel so worthless.

For awhile, my new schedule went something like this: I sat at a computer at work for 9 hours, clicking away. I’d come home, eat delivery for dinner, and spend the rest of the night in Photoshop or building a website because I told myself that’s what I was supposed to be doing. I went to sleep late, and when I woke up I’d do the same thing all over again. At first, I felt like what I thought a “real” designer should feel like. I was sleeping, dreaming, breathing design. My Achiever was thrilled. But after months of freelance and side projects and websites filling my to-do lists, I was exhausted. I felt completely one-dimensional. I needed to redefine for myself what it meant to keep my Achiever happy.

What’s the opposite of being on a computer all day long? For me, it was making something with my hands. When I was a kid I had dozens of hobbies, most of which involved crafting. I needed a new outlet that had nothing to do with my job or being on a computer. I decided to try embroidery for the first time since I was a kid, since it seemed to be making a bit of a comeback thanks to places like Etsy. I bought a book, went to a craft store to gather supplies, and spent my nights teaching myself how to embroider instead of sitting in front of a screen. Hitting small milestones, like learning a new stitch, was such a thrill. I felt like a beginner again; everything was new and exciting.

Picking up embroidery was an enormous turning point for me. Developing an interest outside of my profession proved to be more than just an outlet for whatever I was going through at work. It also “counted” as achieving something. Instead of only considering things achievements if they resulted in professional development, I realized that I was getting the same sense of satisfaction from making something just for fun, trying out something new, and even failing. I didn’t need to fill my time with design work to make my inner Achiever happy; I needed a hobby.

Once I picked up embroidery, it didn’t stop there. I learned how to weave, knit, and sew. I got into yoga. I signed up for a 10k (a distance which I had never run before) and scared myself into training every day. Then, I signed up for a half marathon. I took classes on pom pom making, Thai cooking, paper marbling, financial planning, candle making, and knife skills. I learned to cook non-dairy versions of foods I love. And I dabbled a bit in writing.

In some ways, being productive outside of work made me more productive at work. My mind got a break from solving the same kinds of problems over and over and was challenged by new problems (how do you develop a training schedule for a race? what’s the best way to cook salmon? how do you make a woven bracelet?). When you’re learning a new skill, you’re not holding yourself to the same standards. You get to be bad at something and make mistakes. And you remember what it’s like to be a beginner.

I also learned to stop judging myself solely based on how much I achieved at work. What I make at work is only one measure of the things that I’ve accomplished in a day, and only one measure of myself as a person. Some days it’s an uphill battle just to go for a run or spend an hour embroidering at night, and when I’m able to make space for those things I feel a real sense of accomplishment.

These days, my life feels much more balanced. When I go through low points at work, I’m able to stay happy and motivated by the other interests I have outside of my job. I like being a professional designer for 8 hours a day, and then being a runner or a textile artist or an amateur chef for the other hours. I can’t change the fact that I’m an Achiever, but I can have a healthier idea of what zero means.

Originally published in The Human in the Machine

Posted Sep 03, 2017

Jessica Harllee is a staff product designer at Etsy in Brooklyn, an avid crafter, and an amateur writer.

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