Two years ago, I switched jobs from a smaller user experience design firm to one of the biggest full-service ad agencies in Arizona. I’d recently returned from the Digital Project Management Summit and really wanted to work with a large PM team. I was eager to bounce ideas off my peers, try new ways of managing projects, and have the same awesome kumbaya moments we experienced at the conference.
Boy, was I naive. On the one hand, I got to work with bigger clients, bigger budgets, and a bigger team in this position. On the other hand, I realized that not everyone wants to be as involved in the DPM community as I do. Not everyone is interested in the latest articles from A List Apart and UX Magazine. In a bigger agency, changing the way projects run is complicated and takes a lot of time.
So I adapted. I learned how to fit into a new environment with a ton of rules and red tape that I’d never experienced before. I worked 60 hour weeks, leaving my poor dog stuck at home in her kennel or at my mom’s because I was never there.
Some people thrive in an environment like that. I did not. I was unhappy. I’d get to the end of the week, feeling excited for a couple of days of freedom, and be immediately depressed because I knew Monday was just around the corner. I’ve heard of ‘Sunday Night Blues,’ but ‘Friday Night Blues Because After Tomorrow, Monday is Just a Day Away Blues’?
Countless times, I’d end up spending my weekends online, sorting through development bugs, assigning tasks, and writing user stories. I stressed all weekend over how much was due by Monday. I never felt rested. I never felt comfortable. My anxiety compounded to the point where I actually broke down at work, crying.
Sound familiar? I know way too many people in this situation. I’ve seen people in the same clothes they were wearing the day before because they never went home. I’ve walked into the restroom only to find colleagues reapplying their makeup and wiping away the black smudges from their faces. I’ve seen people stand up and run out in the middle of conversations so they didn’t break down in front of a group of colleagues.
I got into this field because I wanted to help companies and brands connect better with their audiences. I wanted to help them be genuine and build beautiful products that solved problems. I didn’t care about ad clicks or keywords or “just good enough because you don’t have time to do it right.” Sometimes, you think a job is moving you forward, but it actually drags you in the opposite direction.
It was depressing. I would chat with friends from other agencies about my trouble, and get funny responses like “#agencylife!” All the while, their eyes told me they were just as miserable and anxious as I was.
Spend a little more time trying to make something of yourself, and a little less time trying to impress people.
This box didn’t fit
I was trapped. I didn’t want to give in and go through the mental anguish of finding another job without really trying out my role. I’d only been a project manager for a few years. I couldn’t just go out and freelance quite yet. So I spent the next year brainstorming ways to make it better.
I cheered for the company softball team. I spent more time with co-workers I didn’t know well—ones who had been there longer than me—hoping to soak up the ‘go team’ vibe. I assumed it would eventually rub off on me like some kind of Stockholm Syndrome. I assumed that I was being a Debbie Downer. The truth was, I was trying to fit into a box that wasn’t my size. This whole time I assumed I was the problem, that I just wasn’t good at my job. But it turns out that Imposter Syndrome can be a real bitch. It makes you forget who you really are.
Finally, after six months of giving it everything I had, I realized that if things were going to change, it had to start with my mentality. I needed to look at the situation with new eyes. I had to stop suffering in silence. I had to decide what was important in my life and what deserved my attention. I could no longer spend mine bogged down by bullshit I couldn’t control. Time is much too short.
Getting reacquainted with me
I started this shift by redefining who I was and what my values were much in the same way a design agency defines a new product. I thought: If I can describe a brand in 3-4 keywords, why can’t I do the same for myself? I’ve known myself for 33 years, so I’m pretty well-acquainted.
I used a card sorting exercise with 200 cards that included words like compassion, creativity, leadership, knowledge, autonomy, etc.
Here’s what I did. Follow along—it might work for you, too…
Make three card category piles: Most important, Somewhat important, and Not important.
Think about who you are and what makes you tick. Sort the cards into these piles.
Discard the Not important items.
Review the Somewhat important pile and decide which are definitely important and which you can throw away.
Now, take the cards from the Most important pile and sort them into themes. You’ll notice that words start to categorize themselves (for example, the words balance, calm, and peace were all in my Most important column, so I grouped them together).
Force prioritize the cards into the three to four most important categories and decide which word from each should be the main word.
During this exercise, I defined my personal values:
Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.
It’s shocking how accurate this exercise is. For me, Connection means bridging gaps and helping people to understand and connect. As a project manager, my job is to bring people together and keep them connected throughout the entire project. I’m obsessed with travel and visiting new places, so Exploration makes perfect sense. At an even deeper level, I’ve always enjoyed research and diving deep into a topic. I have degrees in Art History so research and exploration have always been part of my life–whether it’s a new client, a new product, or a vacation I’m planning.
Peace is one of the most important values in my life. I often juggle 30 balls at once between work, volunteering, education, and my private life, so having a place that provides me peace and tranquility is important. Finally, I believe that people are never done learning. I strive to know more and learn more about my craft. I enjoy research but I also want to Master what I’m learning.
I am amazed not only by how accurate the categories are but how validating the exercise is.
Calculate your baseline
In a past life, I was a recruiter. It was a commission based job. The commission percentage went up with the amount of money I brought in for the company. I had big paycheques, but I lived at the office. And the biggest problem was that I spent those big paycheques on lunchtime trips to my shoe guy at Nordstrom and Chinese takeout because they were the only things I had time for. I’d be exhausted when I finally left work. Looking back, it wasn’t worth it.
Yes. We all need money to live in the world, to pay our bills and buy food, and do the things we enjoy. My husband and I love to travel, we love to spoil our dogs, and we love to cook yummy food together. All of those things cost money, but what’s the point of a big paycheque if you can’t enjoy it?
So I made a formula. I worked out how much I needed to cover my bills, my lifestyle, to put away some savings, and some dough for a little buffer. This added up to my baseline. You need to decide what your baseline number looks like, too. Knowing makes it much easier to make decisions when change comes knocking on the door.
My calculations involved how much it would cost us to live comfortably in Seattle (our dream city). This included:
- A grocery budget
- A fun budget
- Our car payment
- Money for emergencies and savings
Then I added 20%. Based on that figure, I knew exactly how much I needed to make each month, after taxes, to maintain the lifestyle that we’d built together. Knowing that baseline and understanding that “lots of money” played no part in my four personal values, I was ready to take the next step.
There are people I know that will spend 40–50 years of their lives sitting in the same cubicle with the same people doing the same thing day in and day out. That scares me to death. Sure, it provides a level of safety and stability, but I know now that those things aren’t what I want. I want to explore new ideas, new projects, and new places.
Working in a digital field with products and websites as our service, things change every day. New methodologies surface, new software emerges, new languages and platforms are coded. To be effective project managers, we have to stay on top of these changes. To support my life in Seattle, I need the flexibility and space to be able to learn and collaborate. Long work weeks aren’t conducive to reading, reflection, and learning new things. They are conducive to burnout.
I don’t want that.
I want to soak up every ounce of knowledge I can until the day I stop breathing.
I found my freedom
After much deliberation (and advice from some of the best colleagues and DPM friends around) I faced my fear. I quit my job. I started working for a small, remote agency. I took a pay cut. I started freelancing. I began managing my own taxes and looking into private health insurance (not nearly as scary as it sounds). I realized that I am good at my job. I stopped giving a fuck about things that were out of my control. I took the time to breathe.
Now, I work as a digital project manager for an entirely remote agency called Phuse. The team I work with is crazy talented and we get to work on designing and building fun websites and products for clients all over the world. Plus, we all get to do this job from anywhere that has wifi. Oh, and we only work 30-hour weeks.
It’s still a challenging role, but I choose it every day. I found my freedom by taking the time to make an informed decision, and by taking the time to understand me—all the things that really drive my life and happiness. I work on different kinds of projects and can expand my knowledge base in more ways than I ever did working double the hours.
I can pay my bills and do work that I love with the freedom to spend time on projects like our rescue dogs, or volunteering, or blogging. I have the flexibility to work anywhere. I moved to Seattle without skipping a beat. I have the time to focus, and to be a better DPM for my clients and my teammates. And most importantly, finding my own joy and freedom lets me pay it forward by meeting with students that want to know more about digital project management, by sharing experiences, and by meeting with other freelancers and contractors to talk about their projects, contracts, and process.
Sounds like a dream situation, right? Well, for me it is. And that’s the point I’m trying to make: everyone’s dream is different. But to find yours, you have to know what it’s made of.
Looking deeper at my life and defining the things I get excited about every day helps me see that freedom in my career is not just an external possibility. It’s a change I make within myself.