Practices to Avoid Burnout with Rahaf Harfoush
On Parisian life, practices that keep her grounded and the value of good rest. Rahaf also talks about burnout and balance between creative work and life in a fast-paced world.
Today’s guest is Rahaf Harfoush, who is a strategist, a digital anthropologist and the author of Yes We Did: An Inside Look at how Social Media Built the Obama Brand and the upcoming book entitled Hustle & Float, Balancing Execution and Inspiration in a World of Constant Connection. Rahaf is the co-author of the New York Times bestseller, The Decoded Company: Know Your Talent Better Than You Know Your Customers. She is the founder of Red Thread Inc., a think tank and special projects agency specialising in digital culture. Rahaf teaches Innovation and Emerging Business Models at Sciences Po’s MBA programme in Paris.
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Welcome to the show, Rahaf.
Thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited.
It’s great to talk to you today. The first question for you is how does the place that you live in influence the work that you do?
This is actually something that I think about a lot because Paris, as a city where I live, I’ve been here for about five years now, just calls to my soul. I know that sounds very woo, but there’s no other way to put it. It calls, it speaks to my creativity, to my inspiration in a way that no other place that I’ve been in does. Even though working in tech and writing in tech, there might be other places that would have been better suited for my career, there’s just something about the physicality of this city that just inspires me. I find myself constantly producing some of my best work here and thinking and feeling at ease in a way that I don’t really feel in many other places. I would say being in Paris physically is quite central to my own ability to create work and to do the work that I love.
How does the city itself and the streets influence you and inspire you?
Paris itself is just such a visually stunning city. I have a little dog. When I’m just walking around, I’m constantly overwhelmed with all of the beauty, the details in the tiles and the roofs and the buildings and the architecture and the public design space. All of these things that just make it such a beautiful visual place to walk around. The second thing is the neighbourhood that I live in is quite pedestrian-focused. As many creative, as many writers are fond of doing, walking as often a great way to mull over ideas or think about things that you’re working on. I find that the walkability of the city; turning cobblestone streets, little shops, hidden statues is also just a very soothing and calming experience.
Finally, I think that the French culture, the little shops that are focused on crafts. France is a country that has celebrated its craftsmanship, whether you’re making bread or cheese or honey, or whether you’re growing fruits and vegetables. I really love being surrounded by a place that has such a focus, not just on crafts but on the enjoyment of the simple things. Enjoying wine, enjoying cheese, enjoying food, enjoying la vie en rose. Then finally just from a historical perspective, I always find it so incredible to live in a place where so many other writers and thinkers and brilliant scientists have walked the same streets and sat in the same cafes. It grounds me a little bit and it makes me not focus so much on myself as much as recognise that I’m a part of something much bigger where so many people have come before me and so many people have come after me. I find that really reassuring in a way. It takes the pressure off.
Will you talk a bit more about specific practices that you have to ground you, additional to what you’ve just talked about, in those moments of feeling overwhelmed or a bit stressed out or maybe a bit lonely in Paris?
For me, it’s really been walking the city that has just been so therapeutic. When I’m feeling lonely or overwhelmed, there’s something about being a part of a community, a part of a neighbourhood. I’ve been very fortunate to have lived in the same place, in the same apartment for the last several years. I have gotten to know the farmer’s market guys and the cheese men and the wine men and our barista. You know that scene from Beauty and the Beast where she’s just walking around the little French town? That’s what I feel like sometimes where you’re walking down the street and everyone is like, “Bonjour. Bonjour.” Sometimes I’m like, “Am I in a Disney movie?” There is something about that. It’s almost like the intimacy of strangers in a way where you can go out and you can have these interactions with people.
I also find that I’m very fortunate that Paris, when you live here, has very accessible museums and buildings and places that you can go and be surrounded by art, be surrounded by books, be surrounded by creative fruits of so many different types of people. In that way, I ground myself by trying to surround myself with the creativity of others and trying to get inspiration and hope from them. It’s very nice to be able to go to museums, to be able to have so many galleries, just so many places that celebrate art that are so integrated in daily life here. For example, right next to one of my favourite coffee shops is a historical landmark where the French police started the resistance movement during the Second World War. Every time I go get a coffee, I walk by there and I stop even just for a few seconds and just think about all of the things that have happened here. In a way sometimes being reminded of my smallness, if that makes sense, I think takes me out of my own head and out of the obsession with my life and my work and what I’m working on and really puts it within this grander, bigger, historical context where I’m just a tiny drop in an ocean.
I think that’s really important and it’s helpful when we have that perspective. It can make the things that preoccupies in the present moment feel a bit less overwhelming. One of the things I’m interested in is how Paris differs to where maybe you grew up. Clearly, your accent is not one from Paris. Also, to go in a bit more to where you grew up or the significant urban areas of your earlier years, whether they were much newer places historically. Whether that’s also some of what draws you and appeals about Paris that has got this long, very established history.
That’s very astute. That’s actually exactly it. I grew up in Toronto. Canada is a very new country. We don’t have the same type of history that we did in France. We don’t have that in Canada. For example, I was walking my dog yesterday and I saw a house of wine. It said it was founded in 1703. The Confederation in Canada didn’t happen until 1867. Here were these businesses that have been around for hundreds of years before we were even a country. Also, I really love Toronto. I lived in the suburbs just a little bit outside of the city, a very classic North American suburbs. You needed a car to go everywhere. We didn’t really have walkable pedestrian areas. We didn’t really have the small culture of mom-and-pop shops. Everything was brands. You didn’t go to the local coffee shop. You had to go to a Starbucks or to a Second Cup. There were not a lot of the restaurants or these big franchises. I felt like I didn’t really have that personality of a city.
When I moved to Toronto, when I was older after university, I loved the city but it was just so new. For me, I’ve always loved history. I’ve always loved the bigger context of Europe and being closer to places. I think also living in Paris and living in Europe and being so close to so many other areas. London is a two-hour train ride. Berlin is an hour plane ride. There’s something about having access to so many other different cultural centres that have contributed to the overall life here because you don’t feel like you’re just in Paris. You really feel like you’re in Europe where so many other things are easily accessible.
In Toronto, you really had New York that was close, maybe Chicago, but you could drive in Ontario, in my province, for days and just have this beautiful, open, nature, wide open spaces. I like being in a city. I like that Paris is like a small town within a city. My neighbourhood makes me feel like I live in a small town within the larger cityscape. Also, that the city itself is placed within a much larger network of other cosmopolitan cities, other up and coming spaces. You feel very connected to people on several different levels as well.
That’s really important to feel connected to the community and in lots of different ways. I think many of us are living in cities in little silos. We don’t leave maybe a five-mile radius of our neighbourhood and maybe our workplace and we don’t explore. We’re often guilty of staying in touch with similar kinds of people. What I’m really interested in through my work is connecting with people who are different; who look different, they pray differently, they speak differently, they eat different things. I think that’s one of the glorious things about cities. They attract people from all parts of a country or parts of a continent, from all parts of the world. I’d love for you to share your reflections on that a little bit, given that Paris, like London or New York, is a cosmopolitan city.
That was one of the things I actually love most about Toronto. Toronto as an identity, as a city is just so multicultural as what it is and what it represents. Growing up in high school, I was very, very fortunate to be exposed to so many cultures. We celebrated Chinese New Year, we celebrated Rosh Hashanah, we celebrated Ramadan and Kwanzaa. At a very early age, we were exposed to the idea that diversity is beautiful and that we could coexist peacefully in spite of our diversity, because of our diversity. That is a perspective that now having lived abroad in different places, I’ve lived in Geneva for three years, I’ve lived in the States for a couple of months. Having lived in a bunch of different cities, I truly appreciate how incredible having a city identity that embraces cultural diversity is.
Growing up in Toronto, one of the great things was the exposure to all the different types of ethnicities and food. Food is the gateway to culture. Being able to go to Greek town or little Italy and being able to eat Ethiopian food, being able to talk to people that come from those places, having this authentic food experiences was such a nice way to build up a perspective of finding similarities first and bonding over similarities first. I think as a Canadian, that’s an identity I’m very proud of because I believe that multiculturalism is really the only way forward. I think it brings a lot of richness to people’s experiences.
I’d love you to tell us a bit more about your upcoming book, Hustle & Float and to talk in particular about the execution part. Having the ideas is one thing, but as a creative person, I know really well that it can be a challenge to implement the ideas or make them happen, execute them as you say.
Hustle & Float is essentially a research project that was born out of a very specific set of circumstances, which is having identified as being a creative for many years. My co-author is also my sister. Riwa and I, we both found ourselves in situations where we were professionally quite rundown. I had a severe, severe case of burnout that just knocked me flat. When I say burnout, it’s not like, “I was a little tired.” It felt as though honestly like I broke my brain. My hair was falling out. I couldn’t think properly. I felt like I was in a fog, and all of this was a result of overwork and some of the North American culture we have around work which has become an endurance sport, which has become a never-ending grind in pursuit of ambition, status, ego, recognition, validation, etc.
The interesting question to me was the fact that somewhat being a researcher, it wasn’t like I didn’t know what I needed to do for myself to take care of myself. We all know what we should be doing. You should meditate, you should eat well, you should sleep, you should take breaks, I knew all of these. The question then became, “Why aren’t we doing it? Why wasn’t I doing it?” This became a very fascinating deep dive into the history of our contemporary work culture but specifically from the point of view of creatives. How are we as creatives, which have only very recently been integrated into the economic output of companies, how are we grappling with hundreds of years worth of philosophy and beliefs and systems and symbology and all of that stuff? What I found out is that actually a lot of the things that make us creative, that allow us to create, that allow us to execute are in direct opposition to the majority of the models that are being put into place today that try to manage people’s outputs. There’s this big tension between the work we want to do and then the systems that we’ve put in place that are supposed to help us do it but in actuality are acting against our best interest in producing that type of work.
Why is that?
There are a couple of different reasons. I’ll give you a few quick. On the whole, when you look at the way that our work culture has evolved, productivity has been the foundational essential philosophy at the centre of contemporary work culture and at the centre of the history of productivity. Productivity as a practice was originally developed as a collective measure. It was developed by armies and governments to manage large groups of people. Then it was adapted during the Industrial Revolution when people are doing similar repetitive types of tasks. The goal was to measure how much output you could do. The focus is always on output, on continuous output, on measuring what you’re doing every hour of every day. What’s interesting is that productivity has gone from something that was used to manage big groups and it has shrunk and gotten smaller and smaller and smaller until now it is something that we as individuals have taken responsibility of. Personal productivity, we are now been mandated with managing our own personal productivity.
Historically, productivity moved from something that was very big and it shrunk to something that’s now very small. Creativity on the other hand is something that started out very small. It was something that was in the domain of geniuses, the domain of individuals. It has slowly been expanded as it became an important and valuable employee trait and now it is something that has become not just an organisational priority but actually a national priority in some cases as well where we’ve turned creativity into a metric of economic output. You have productivity that’s gone from big to small and creativity that’s gone from small to big. The two models are fundamentally opposed because productivity depends on continuous output. You work on an assembly line for eight hours a day and this is what you produced every day as a matter of production, as a matter of output.
Creativity, as we’ve learned now from science, is actually dependent on, relies on periods of unstructured time. We need time when we step away. We need downtime. We need breaks. We need sleep. We need to turn our brains off in order for that creative spark to take root. Unfortunately, in a lot of organisations, the systems that are culturally put into place are against any type of non-continuous output. Any type of time that’s not accounted for is considered a waste. You have creatives that are pushing themselves, using these models that were meant for completely different type of work that are burning out, that are struggling. Then when they hit a wall, instead of taking a break, we have this culture of the corporate athlete, of endurance, of hustling, of pushing through. Instead of taking a break and pausing, which would actually be the fastest way to get an idea to help problem solve, we force ourselves to work to exhaustion. Then when we’re at exhaustion, we completely are depleted in terms of the quality of the ideas that we put forward.
This is all very, very familiar to me sadly as someone who have a burnout story of her own before finding the way that makes me feel good, finding a way to both work and write and be creatively fulfilled but without compromising my health.
So much of it is cultural. So much of it is the language that we use. I’ve been tracking things like the emergence of the hasthtag #hustle, the emergence of having to hustle and really looking at things. Look at how the media portrays certain entrepreneurs that we idealise and that we idolise in newspapers and in magazines. Next time you’re at the airport, just take a scan at the magazine rack and see ten most productive ideas, ten ways to get the most out of your day, Marisa Mares working 140 hours and sleeping under her desk. That’s like a badge of honour. So and so entrepreneur wakes up at four, doesn’t take breaks. It’s just so interesting when you take a step back because it’s become such a part of the air we breathe that we don’t really stop and think about it.
One of the experiences that I had right before my burnout was this idea, which was around Beyoncé actually. Beyoncé is considered an idol in terms of both creative, because she’s such a creative genius, but also as a producer, as a business woman, as an achiever, as a hustler in terms of she has these businesses. There was this image that was passed around that I came across on the internet that said, “You have the same number of hours in a day as Beyoncé.” Really stop and think about what is implied on this message that is printed on tote bags and mugs. That you should be ashamed if your level of output creatively does not match this person, Beyoncé. What was interesting was when I really looked into this because I was like, “How does Beyoncé do it? I’m going to figure it all out. I’m going to learn some personal productivity tricks.”
It turns out that in 2011, she felt so overwhelmed by all the pressures of overwork that she had a burnout episode and had to take a year hiatus. Do a Google about Beyoncé and her work ethic. There was even a Harvard Business School case written about her “legendary” work ethic. If she is being held up as the symbol of what we should be aspiring to, as the symbol of the ultimate productive creative, if she herself cannot live up to these standards and she’s struggling and she’s having burnout and she’s saying, “I cannot do this,” then that means that we, as a society of creatives, need to stop and think about whether or not these societal pressures that we’re putting are completely realistic or whether we need to start again and redefine what it means to be successful, what it means to be creative and healthy and a hustler without having our hair falling out.
That’s a really good point to ask you about, how much all of this way we have come to live is related to how hyper-connected we are?
It’s actually super connected for a couple of reasons. One, the simplest reason is that your work now follows you home. You used to have a point in history, once upon a time, if we can even imagine it where you used to leave your office at 5:00 or 6:00 and no one could reach you until the next day. We laugh at that now but can you imagine what it was like. One, you have this idea that work can follow you home. Two, a lot of the language around creative entrepreneurship right now is really blurring the lines between life and work anyway. Work is life, life is work. It’s becoming harder to distinguish when we’re working and when we’re living. Three, social media paints this picture where you’re peeking at this hyper-curated really staged way that people are living, which gives you a constant stream of things to compare yourself to in a way that reinforces the symbol of hustle and getting it and entrepreneurship. You’re constantly being fed these images so you are comparing your own stuff.
Then fourth, there’s this language around social media now, in emergence with the hustle tag, the #soblessed, where you’re supposed to be doing the work that you love so therefore it’s not really work. You have a lot of these conflicting messages, “You’re a creative. Creative people have fun jobs therefore you shouldn’t feel like working.” Then it goes on from there. The connectivity actually hits us from a lot of different levels, which is why it’s so pervasive and why it’s so powerful. The craziest thing is this has become so normal to us that we can’t even take a step back and see how this is a hidden force that’s influencing our behaviour. Once you start spotting it, then you’re like, “This has really embedded itself into my social life, my professional life, my personal life.” But if you don’t stop and think about it, you just get caught up in the constant flow of information. There’s a never-ending flow. If you can’t really wrap your head around the idea that there’s no end point anymore, you’re never going to scroll to the end. There’s always going to be more, then I think that can be really challenging.
What are some practical tips that you can share with our listeners, practices that you use yourself in the day-to-day to try and stay focused around what are positive constructive inputs and what are actually inputs that are going to have a negative influence on both your body, your mind and your creative output?
The very first thing that you can do, which you can start doing literally immediately after you finished listening to this podcast, is to start to pay attention to the language that you use when you’re talking to your family and friends about your life and how things are going. If you’re anything like me, we’ve developed this very sad in retrospect greeting where you say, “Hey, Clare. How are you?” You answer, “Ugh! I’m so busy. I’ve got so much on the go. I’m so exhausted.” These have become signals that we use to try to establish the fact that we’re important, that we’re participating in this culture of hustle, that we’re moving, that we have this momentum.
The first thing is to really start looking at how you talk about your work with your friends. That can often be a bit of an uncomfortable conversation when you start to realise how much you’re doing it. In my friend group, we actually did have a bunch of uncomfortable conversations around why do we keep telling each other that we’re so busy. What does that mean? Already just from a first step, spotting the language that you use on how to talk to yourself and how you talk to yourself about your work.
The second thing is to start tracking some of your own energy levels, especially after you take breaks, because sometimes even though you know that taking breaks are good for you, we have built up a cultural resistance to taking breaks because we just need to go, go, go all the time. It wasn’t until I started tracking my energy level and my output level that I realised that here’s the craziest secret, which is if you actually work less, you’ll get more done. I didn’t believe this until I started doing it. Maybe you can frame it in a way like you’re going to do an experiment and if after a month nothing has changed then you can go back to your ways, but really to try to do that.
The third thing is to reframe rest like you’re not necessarily taking a break, but that rest is actually an essential part of the work process. You need to recover, you need to rest, you need to give your brain the time to reflect and think and process. A lot of people are like, “I’m too busy. I can’t take a break.” I’ve had to say to them, “You just need to reframe because taking a break is actually a part of your performance as a productive creative. It’s just as important a part as the actual work.” To liken it to athletes, they train really hard but then they have rest days that are just as important to recover and rest as the days when they’re going out there and they’re training hardcore.
Those couple of things, I know they sound really basic but again, you would be surprised at how much resistance you are going to feel mentally when you start trying to implement these things. Take a break and you’re going to feel the resistance. That’s going to be my last tip of advice, to make a note, mentally or write it down; every time you feel resistance at taking a break, every time you feel resistance at turning off your phone, really ask yourself why. What is it about being connected that I’m struggling against? Is it FOMO? Is it that I’m scared I’m going to miss something important? What is it?
For myself, I find that I had developed an addiction to information; an addiction that wasn’t actually improving my productivity. It wasn’t inspiring my creativity. It was just like a drug where I would all the sudden lose these pockets of time on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook just scanning news that didn’t actually helped me or positively influenced my life in any way. That was an interesting exercise to say, “I’m going to stop. I’m going to take a minute and I’m going to cut off some of this information flow. I’m going to restrict access to my energy, to my creative life and see what happens.” I deleted Facebook off of my phone. I stopped reading the news every single day. I still am informed but I’m not the news junkie I was. I took a break.
One of the things, to go back to living in France, that I love is that in France they are very vigilant about taking vacation. In August, the entire city shuts down. If you came to Paris in August, three-quarters of the things are going to be closed. For the first three years that I lived in Paris, I found this really annoying. As a North American, I was like, “What do you mean things are closed? What do you mean my coffee shop is closed for two weeks?” It was so, so annoying. In frustration last year, I said to my husband, “We have to get out of the city. I can’t do anything here, everything is closed.” We decided to take a vacation. It was the first time that I had taken an extended vacation, I was off for a month, where I wasn’t moving around. It wasn’t like a road trip vacation. We were just in a place; we rented a house in Brittany and we just were there.
Something magical happened to my brain after about day twelve where suddenly it felt like my brain just had a big recharge that it hadn’t had. Everything was clear and the ideas just started pouring in. I had brought a notebook with me and I said to myself, “I’m not going to move on any of these ideas. I’m just going to write them down.” Over the course of the month, I had ideas: how to structure my business, how to increase revenues, new projects, new books. It was like my brain was just waiting for the space to recover, to rest, to organise itself and then it gave me this. It felt like a never-ending stream of creative output of which I had never really felt like.
I wrote four chapters of a short story out of the blue. It was the craziest thing. Then when I went back, I felt so refreshed that I was able to execute a lot of these ideas in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to if I didn’t give myself that break. That was a really eye-opening thing for me about execution and about measurable outputs and about proving, showing what you’re doing, showing your work. Now, I’ve realised that that one month of the year is so essential to my mental well-being that it would be a loss for my business if I didn’t take it.
How can we apply some useful practices so that they can strike the right balance between being online and spreading the word but not doing it to such an extent that then takes its toll on them?
From a very practical perspective, I think things like batching your tasks and using certain services. I use Hootsuite, for example, to just organise my social media, my marketing in advance. I’m a micro-business, myself and a couple of other people. I don’t necessarily have the time to spend creating content every day, posting content every day. I just don’t have the time or the bandwidth to do this at this point. Really, what I do personally is every week or so or sometimes every two weeks, I’ll sit for a couple of hours and I’ll knock out a couple of blog posts, a couple of tweets, a couple of things that I’ll program in advance so at least I don’t have to worry about it. At least I know that that’s one thing that can be automated a little bit.
Try to figure out how you can automate a lot of your tasks. It has been really good for me especially for marketing. That way, if you know your big things have been scheduled, then when you do engage, you can engage in these shorter bursts. You can spend ten minutes scanning, replying to your mentions, replying to your comments. You’re not spending all of this time. If you’re like me and if you have to come up with original content, it takes you time to get into the groove to draft a blog post, to figure out what you’re going to say. Instead of having to get into that mindset every day, it’s better to get into that mindset on a Saturday afternoon or a Monday or a Friday afternoon, whatever, and to knock out a couple of those.
One trick that I have found, and this is more for writers but really for anyone who has output that they need to do for marketing, is that I break it down into a lot of outlining phases. Instead of putting pressure on myself of creating five blog posts in one sitting, what I’ll do on a Monday is I’ll take ten minutes and I’ll say, “What are some potential blog post ideas that I want to do?” I’ll write them down. The next day I’ll take ten minutes and I’ll say, “What are some main ideas of this one blog post?” I’ll jot those down. I do that during the week, so I do it in these micro little bursts so that when I sit down on the Friday to write, I have a couple of ideas but also a couple of outlines, so I’m not starting from scratch. I find that when you break it down that way, it makes writing it a breeze. Then you can easily knock out four or five 700-word post or something because you’ve already been thinking about it in the background of your mind.
This is actually very helpful for projects. It’s how I write my books where it will just be like over the course of the weeks or months, I’ll just be populating an outline here and there with ideas because nothing is scarier to me as a writer than a blank page sometimes. By doing these micro-steps, it takes the pressure off. When I do a draft it might just be like a really crappy draft. I’m saying to myself, “This isn’t the final product.” I’m just going to spend three hours. I’m going to do a sprint. I’m going to set the clock for 90 minutes, take a ten-minute break in between 90 minutes. I’m just going to do a really crappy draft. It doesn’t matter about language or whatever.
The next time, I’ll go and I’ll add it. I do it in these baby steps where I have these intense burst of focus that are targeted on one easily achievable task. If I do that, that actually gets me further than the stress it would be for me to be like, “I’ve blocked out six hours. I have to write these things or create these marketing materials or write this report or write this chapter. Oh god, what’s the first step? Oh goodness, when do I know when to stop?” It’s like taking care of yourself and removing the pressure off of you. You don’t have to do everything in one go.
My technique has always been short burst. I do sprints, I do 90 minutes. This is based on Cal Newport’s Deep Work. I do 90 minutes sprints and then I take a break. Then if after a 90-minute sprint and I’ve written a chapter I’m exhausted, I know this is going to sound groundbreaking, but I cut myself a break and I go and I can take 45 minutes and I can just rest, or even longer if I need to. This is going to be very against a lot of the language around entrepreneurship which is about, “Don’t sleep, don’t eat, don’t live a life. Build your business.” I don’t think that’s sustainable. If it’s going to take me an extra year to get to where I wanted to go, but getting there I’m going to maintain my health, my personal relationship, my sanity, then in the time horizon of my life, in the 80 years we’re going to be working, I don’t think that year is really going to make or break my business.
The other thing too is when you really think about culturally the tools that we use, as most people use their calendar to get organise. They have their calendar or they have this open week. I didn’t start doing this until a couple of years ago. Many people only schedule their meetings. You have this open week and then it gets filled up with stuff, especially if you work in a company. It’s crazy when you think about it that people have the ability to just insert themselves into your calendar, as though they have the right to hijack your time or whatever you’re working on. I’ve always find that really interesting when people just add meetings to your calendar.
What I started doing is you have to do what I call reverse scheduling, which is at the beginning of the week, I put in big chunks of time for me to do what’s important to me. I start off with going to the gym. I put those workouts in first. I put in writing time, this unstructured time. I put in going out with my friends. I put in all of the self-care stuff first. Then that way I’m a bit more cognisant. Because how many people, I used to do this, you have an empty week and you just fill it: coffees, dinners, networking dates, conference events, meetings, and by the end of the week, you get there and you’re exhausted. You’re exhausted, A. Then B, you’re like, “I didn’t actually spend time working on the deep work, the big hard stuff that I really needed to do to push my business forward.”
I was too distracted. I was running around for meeting to meeting. I was doing all these coffee dates. I didn’t actually give myself the time to do the important work. By carving that time first, it’s like you’re protecting that time as sacred. I, for example, only do calls on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I cluster them. Obviously, if you have to have a really important one, I will, but I try my best to do my calls clustered on one or two days during the week. The rest of the time I have these big chunks of time that are just blocked off for me to sit down and do the big thing. So many of my friends that are writers say they just get so caught up and then they’re like, “I did everything. I was on Twitter, I did this, I did that and I didn’t actually sit down and finished that chapter.” Busy work.
Not to get overly philosophical but at the end of the day, you have to ask yourself, what are we doing all of this for? We have created a culture that has celebrated endless work and the point, once upon a time, was for us to work so that we could earn the money to give us the leisure time to be able to enjoy life. Now, it seems like we’re just filling that leisure time with more work. It’s like, “What are we doing all of this for? What is the point of working ourselves to the bone so that when we retire we haven’t taken care of our health, we haven’t taken care of our relationships, we haven’t taken care of our bodies?” I always have to stop and ask myself, “What are we really doing this for?” I love what I do. This is the hardest part. It would be easy if it was a job you didn’t like. I love what I do.
The tendencies for me to go hard, to keep working, to go full throttle, because when you love what you do, you get excited about it. I have to sometimes stop myself and say yes, but if I want to do what I love longer, I need to pace myself and I need to take care of my resources, which as a creative is your mind, your body, your spirit, your relationships. What’s the point of being so busy and having this amazing business and having all these money and you didn’t make the time for your family and friends? You don’t have anybody that you can actually share it with.
I couldn’t agree more. What a great point to ask you the final question which is, what are you curious about right now, Rahaf?
For me, I’m very curious right now just about our own beliefs around work. I’m curious about how we have assigned our self-worth and our identity. I’m asking myself these tough questions, “Who am I if not what I do?” The first question we ask people at parties is, “What do you do?” It’s been very interesting for me especially in creative professions where, “I’m a writer, I’m an artist, I’m a musician, I’m a marketer.” It’s so much linked to who we are as a person. I’ve been really curious in discovering and expanding my own sense of self in a way that’s completely unrelated to what I do, and I’m going to be very honest with you, acknowledging of being transparent about the ego about how sometimes you have an ego of being able to tell people, “I’m a writer. I’m this.”
If you don’t have that, if that is off the table suddenly then how do you feel about who you are and what you’re worth and what you’re bringing? That has been a really interesting thing to observe in myself but also to observe other people. Next time you meet someone at a party, try to see how long you can go without asking them what they do. If somebody asks you that question, try to see if you can answer it with everything else except your job. I think that you’ll start to have some really, really interesting conversations and hopefully see both the world and the people you meet in a new light.
Rahaf Harfoush, it’s been fantastic having you on the Urban Curiosity Podcast today.
Thank you so much.
Where can people find out more about you and your work?
RahafHarfoush.com, I’m on Twitter as @RahafHarfoush. Basically, I’m on all social networks and some variations of my not-very-common-name. If you just put that in the Google, we can connect on just about every social media platform.
Thank you so much.