While you might not know it by simply looking at my post count, I actually enjoy my day job (as a Senior UX Designer at Microsoft) just as much as I enjoy my evening-and-weekends life as an actress. It’s not just a day job, it’s my career. No running away to join the proverbial circus here… I love my team, find my work challenging, and enjoy an amazing amount of freedom. It’s just that non-disclosure agreements and corporate decorum make it more difficult to find subjects for public work posts.

At my busiest, I work 40-hour weeks at Microsoft, 15-hour weeks for scripted plays and 2-4 hours a week of improv, plus 5-10 hours a month of work for IGNITE and usually 1-2 hours a week of classes and doctor’s appointments. A phrase I hear rather frequently is “how the hell do you do all of this at once?”

There’s no silver bullet, but here are the “tricks” I’ve learned along the way.

Point 1: I don’t think about how ‘busy’ I am.

For me, it’s like typing. I am a very fast typist, but the second someone calls my attention to my typing, I might as well be back in 6th grade doing Microtype drills on a 4-color behemoth of an ancient PC. My time management skills have migrated to the same mysterious, dark place as driving, walking, or breathing.
I just ask myself: “am I unhappy?” “am I chronically exhausted?” and “are the people around me neglected or suffering?” If any of these answers is ‘yes’, then I need to cut back. Until then, this is my ‘normal’.

Point 2: I set expectations early.

I will readily admit that it is much easier to set a rhythm of work at the start of employment than try to alter it drastically mid-way through. I was pretty clear during interviews at Microsoft that I was looking for a company and team that would allow me the freedom to define my own work/life balance. Why keep that a secret, only to find a few months in that the team has different expectations and you’re at an impasse?

Notice the phrase “define my own”. No company is ever going to tell you to stop working if it looks like you’re willing to stay. It’s up to you to look out for yourself. Hell, there were times when I worked in video game production that I had to FORCE people out of the office because I feared for their long-term sanity and health. Dedication’s great and all, but I prefer well-rested co-workers.

Admittedly, one does not always have this luxury when choosing a job, especially in a sluggish economy – so being conservative with one’s money could be considered key to finding your happy work/life balance. Having the flexibility to make choices for your sanity can make all the difference.

[And by being open about my commitments outside of work, sometimes I find unexpected synergies. My volunteer work with IGNITE is fully supported by my management and has been included on my official work commitments for several years now. I don’t feel guilty about taking time to speak on panels, and Microsoft gets more community exposure. Everyone wins!]

Point 3: I don’t make myself feel guilty for having a “life” outside of work.

I’ve had plenty of experience working long game-industry hours, but didn’t feel I got any proportional career benefit in doing so. In fact, I am MORE successful in a situation where I work 40-hour weeks with very focused effort.

What we choose to do with our evenings is our own business. I’m pretty sure your offer letter from Big Company Z didn’t say “80 hours a week” or “you must get permission to leave work before 7”. Some people leave at a fixed time in the evening to pick up a child or make dinner for their families. I’m not married and don’t have kids, so my evening time is acting. It’s not any more or less valid. Just different.

There will always be people who work more hours than you. There will always be people who never seem to be in the office. It’s not a competition, at least not for hours worked. Quality is so much more important than quantity. (And quite frankly, as has been reported in many ways, long hours often ruin things, like sloppy checkins that lead to a broken build and 8 people unable to work.)

In my opinion, we all need to exist outside of our companies. I knew a girl once who got laid off from one of her first corporate jobs, and I don’t think her ego ever really recovered. She had tied up her sense of self-worth in her employment status, and when it went away unexpectedly there was no support network or alternative purpose to get her through the dark times.

There are always exceptions to the 40-hour rule; special circumstances come up. But make sure they’re not self-imposed exceptions. And when they stop being exceptions, then it’s time to take a hard look at the company you work for. Is this what you signed up for?

Point 4: I realize that my “second life” actually increases my value to my employer.

My experience in acting has put me way ahead of others in terms of communication skills, and makes me more memorable in a sea of already-incredibly-smart people. But other ‘second lives’ provide value too. Whether it’s just refreshing your mind and exposing you to new ideas, or increasing your company’s visibility in the community, being a multifaceted person can really help you – with obvious exceptions (preferably stay fully clothed and avoid actually setting anything on fire.)

The hardest thing about this schedule is maintaining friendships – as an actor it’s easy to “disappear” for months at a time. I’m still finding my balance and finding better ways to make the most of my ‘time off’. Still, much of your social life is going to revolve around these other commitments – there’s no way around it.

And I recognize, too, that not all careers “play nicely” with others. But at the same time, I know doctors who are actors and CEOs that are ballerinas. You have more power in you than you think. Tech careers are particularly good for those of us who want options, though – with telecommuting, flexible hours and the like. I try to make this point when I speak to girls for IGNITE – a tech career can make it easier to carve out a life on your own terms.

In short, though, I just call this following my happiness. I want to collect experiences and push myself to new heights. Plateaus are boring. There’s a lyric in a Red Hot Chili Peppers song that says “This life is more than just a read-through”, and it really resonated with me. I don’t want to wake up one day and realize I was my own worst enemy all along – I want to live life and leave my mark, even if it seems overwhelming at times.