Emma Block Illustration


The creative life of an illustrator living in London

Confessions of a Workaholic

emma block office .jpg

I asked on Instagram if anyone would be interested in blog post about how I, a former workaholic, learned to embrace work life balance. The answer was a resounding ‘Yes’. So many creative freelancers have relentless working practices that end up harming them mentally or physically. I was one of them. In the last four years I’ve been suffering with wrist problems, which I have learnt to manage but not cure. I’ve tried physiotherapy, medication, steroid injections, wrist supports etc, but the thing that’s made the biggest difference is taking breaks and sorting out my life work balance.

When I left uni I was a total workaholic. Going straight from university to full-time freelancing I had no structure in my life, I worked seven days a week, often working until 11 o’clock at night. After about four years of doing this it all caught up with me. After one particularly big project with a rush deadline I started getting shooting pains in my wrist and arm, and it all went downhill from there. At my worst just holding a knife and fork or brushing my teeth was a struggle. I could only draw about 10 minutes a day.

I really had no choice but to find a way of working that was sustainable for me physically, emotionally and financially. This is how I changed my habits and moulded my career into something that was no longer actively harming me.

Take breaks

I think everyone who is creative knows that feeling when everything is going right and you just want to keep working, but it’s so important to take regular breaks. I take little breaks throughout the day, and then stop work at about 6 and have a lazy relaxed evening. Some people find the Pomodoro technique helpful, which gets you to take a five minute break every 25 minutes, but personally I prefer to listen to my body and take a break once I feel my mind wandering all my wrist getting achey.

Be more productive

For me working very productively in a short period of time is how I manage to do most the things I want to do despite my wrist condition. It’s much better for me, my work and my wrist if I have a really productive few hours of work, rather than working all day and not getting much done. My usual work day is two or three hours of drawing and painting, and about two hours of admin (emails, invoicing, social media etc.) It’s so much better to work in a really focused way without distractions for a few hours, then enjoy total relaxation without worrying about work, rather than being distracted by other stuff when you’re working, then being distracted by work when you’re supposed to be relaxing.

Rest properly

As I mentioned above it’s important to stop every day life stuff seeping into your working time and distracting you. It’s equally important to stop work stuff seeping into your relaxing time and stopping you from properly resting. I don’t reply to emails in the evenings or on weekends, and I’ve set my iPhone so the access to social media is restricted late in the evening. You don’t need to be on 24/7. Just because someone has emailed you at 10 pm doesn’t mean you need to reply to them straight away. Proper rest is so important. When I’ve been really busy and everything gets on top of me I have days where I cannot get out of bed and end up sleeping most of the day. That’s fine, I let my body have the rest needs and start afresh the next day. If you don’t listen to your body and let it have the rest it needs it will eventually make the decision for you and force you to stop, which is never fun.

Change your mind set

For most of my life I felt incredibly guilty about wasting time or being unproductive. The only way to silence that nagging voice of guilt was to work incessantly. Then I injured my wrist which meant I feel guilty about working and hurting my wrist, but still guilty about not working and being unproductive. It was a no-win situation and I had to change my mindset, recognising rest as something that is productive and good for me. I needed to realise that going for a walk in the park was good because exercise and sunshine are both good for me, going for a coffee with my husband is good because quality time is an investment in our relationship, having an evening watching TV is good because sometimes your mind and body just need a rest. Everything and everybody needs to recharge at some point, and reframing downtime as something positive that was ultimately going to aid my productivity helps me feel less guilty about it.

Sometimes good enough is good enough

There are times when you do need to do your very best and give something 100% of your time and effort, but there are other times when okay is okay. You don’t have to be the best at everything all the time. I’ve never gotten around to setting up my own online shop, I just use etsy because it’s convenient, and that’s fine. I’m really bad at sending out newsletters, they take me so long to write that I’ve kind of given up. Not the end of the world. Until two years ago I was still using a Hotmail email address for all my business, I still got plenty of work. There will always be a long list of things that I could do to improve my work, my business etc but it’s all fine and I’m doing fine. Don’t need to beat myself up about not being perfect in every single way.

Charge more

There can be many reasons why we overwork. Sometimes it’s fear of failure or guilt around being unproductive, and sometimes we just need the money. Raising your prices and charging more for what you do gives you the freedom to say no to work when your schedule is already full. Charge more, work less might not sound very realistic but it’s exactly what I’ve done. When I started my career I was working all hours and earning very little. Through gradually raising my prices, getting better at negotiating, and learning to say no I’ve managed to earn a really good income and achieve a really good work life balance.

Redefine success

If your idea of success is being constantly in demand and working all the time then I think it might be worth tweaking that definition. My idea of success is to do what I love every day, make a good living, have lots of time to spend with my friends and family, get to travel to new countries, to enjoy the city that I’m living in, and do work that fulfils me and inspires others to be creative.

What does success look like to you?