Episode 4: Creating Boundaries When You’re Overworked - Sarah Magidoff
Have stress and exhaustion become your default state? We talk with guest Sarah Magidoff about slowing down and creating boundaries when you're overworked. Sarah is the founder of CANOPY, a boutique creative studio, and the Instagram hashtag movement #slowentrepreneur
Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.
Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.
Additional Resources Referenced
#slowentrepreneur on Instagram
Sarah's company: CANOPY
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Leah Archibald: Making It Work is brought to you by The Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary and the Theology of Work Project.
Mark Roberts: Welcome to Making it Work
LA: Through conversation, scripture and stories, we invite God into work’s biggest challenges... so that you can live out your purpose in the workplace.
MR: I’m Mark Roberts
LA: And I’m Leah Archibald. And this is Making It Work.
You're working long hours, you're forgetting to take breaks, you're forgetting to eat meals, you're checking email on vacation. You're scheduling meetings earlier and earlier because there's no room in your calendar and you're going to bed later and later, and yet the work never seems to be done. Stress and exhaustion have become your default state. Does this sound familiar? Today our topic is slowing down and finding balance when you're overworked.
Our guest is Sarah Magidoff. Sarah is the founder of CANOPY, a boutique creative studio offering graphic design and brand strategy for emerging creative businesses. She's also founded the Instagram hashtag movement Slow Entrepreneur. The Slow Entrepreneur movement is a community of people redefining what it means to hustle and achieving sustainable success through the cultivation of healthy work-life boundaries. Sarah, welcome to the podcast.
Sarah Magidoff: Thank you. I'm so happy to be here.
LA: Well, would you just start out by telling us a little bit about your story? What made you realize that you were overworked?
SM: Of course. So prior to running my business, I actually began my career as an architect. And it's an interesting thing in this industry how much overwork is not only encouraged, but it's celebrated. When you answer the question, "How are you doing?" "Oh, I'm so busy." We kind of, within that industry, where busy... It's a badge of honor. I even remember back in my college days, we would have our studio classes which met for four hours at a time, three times a week, and our instructors always encouraged us that we should be spending twice as much time working on our projects outside of our studio classes as we were spending working on our projects inside our studio classes.
So looking back, I... Yeah, I really cultivated that sense of working to prove myself, and that continued on into after I graduated and into as I started my career as a junior level architectural designer. And there was this one time in particular I was on a project that was really, really difficult. My firm had booked a client who didn't really know what it is that they wanted, so we were spending a lot of time designing and redesigning and redesigning and redesigning. So that required me to be in the office really early in the morning, late at night, and through the weekend. And there was this one day I came in and my project manager pulled me aside and was like, "Hey, we just booked another project, which is amazing, but we are totally short-staffed at this point. So would you mind to also hop on this project?" And she gave me my task list of all the things that I would need to have done within the next day or two. And just seeing that...
LA: So doubling up two projects at the same time is what you were being asked to do.
SM: Yes, I was on two projects. And so, being a very eager junior designer, I was like, "Absolutely, I can do this." She gave me some plans and some renderings and some drawings that I needed to work with. I took those, I sat back at my desk, and I just lost it. I can even, just thinking back to it, I remember sitting in this 40-person open office and I had really long hair at the time, so I was kind of just trying to comb my hair forward so no one would see me crying. I was just sitting in my office, or at my desk, totally crying. And I ran to the bathroom...
LA: There's nowhere to hide, there's nowhere to hide in modern architecture firms.
SM: There's nowhere to hide, yeah, yeah. So I ran to the bathroom, and I was heaving as if a close family member had passed away. And I didn't understand what it was coming from. So I just started talking to God of like, "What's happening? Where are these tears coming from? I don't understand. This... me completing this project shouldn't be complicated for me. I'm used to hard work. I went through architecture school, I got through it, I'm ambitious, I can do this." And I had a moment where in my spirit, I realized that I hated what I did. Well, I loved, I loved the act of designing, but the way that it was practiced and the way that the industry really celebrates hard work into over-work I did not love that aspect of it, and I was feeling that impact inside my life as well.
I was newly married at the time, and I was too exhausted to really be there for my husband, nights and weekends, and we began to have those conversations of like, "Hey your work is kind of impacting our life in a way that isn't healthy for us?" So, back to that moment where I'm sitting on the floor in the bathroom. I kinda just ask God "so is this it? Am I…should I? What do I do next?" And I have this distinct visual in my mind of his hand reaching out to me, if you can picture I'm sitting on the bathroom floor and almost like me grabbing his hand and him pulling me up and him saying "I have something new for you do you trust me?" "Are you willing to be called into something else, something that's unexpected?" "I'm not gonna tell you what it is right now, but it's gonna be good. Do you trust me?" So, that started me on a completely new trajectory. I'm not practicing architecture anymore, so that was it, that was my burnout moment.
MR: Thank you sharing that story.
SM: Of course.
MR: As you know, and I'm sure people talk to you about this now, what you experienced is not uncommon in many, many work environments. I have a friend who was in banking and investments in San Francisco and he was expected to work 80 to 100 hours a week.
MR: It just was assumed, and it was grinding down his soul. And but I think in those contexts to admit that you are struggling, that's just really not okay in that culture, right? And so people are really stuck. So for those who like you can say, "Hey this is what I experienced and this is how it felt. And this is where I got to" is really important, and then to hear just how God graciously met you in that moment, but in God's way didn't lay it all out for you, it was more, "are you gonna trust me and take the first step?" So I really appreciate you sharing that story.
LA: And so when you made that decision, Sarah, what were you up against what did it mean to transition your life or slow down?
SM: Oh, wow, yeah. So first and foremost to end that part of the story, I ended up resigning from that position and my husband was so gracious, he was like, "I just want you to be happy and I want you to love what you do. So we have enough. Don't ever feel like you have to do something that doesn't suit you because you think that you have to prove yourself to me, or you have to hold up your end of the relationship. That's not how we work. We have enough money in savings right now take whatever time you need to explore and figure out what it is that you wanna do next." So in thinking about what was important to me and the type of lifestyle that I wanted to cultivate owning my own time and flexibility were hugely important. So my next step for myself was to figure out, "I love creativity, I love design.
SM: How do I embrace that? But within the context of that freedom and that flexibility." So I actually took a couple of years and I didn't work at all. In fact, I played. I wrote a blog, I cooked and I baked for friends a lot. I even I cheffed an event for a local business, and ended up almost by chance, running into a girlfriend at a coffee shop and she had just launched a brand new line of jewelry, which had been a dream of hers, for several years and she was finally making that happen. And she was struggling to pull together her website and her business cards and her logo, and I remember being like, "Well I could do that for you. I am creative and I have enough design expertise from my experience as an architect to do that. So what do you need? Let me do it for you."
And, I took a couple of weeks I produced all of her assets and met up with her again a couple of weeks later, and showed her what I'd come up with and she just started crying and she was like, "you nailed my vision, and I feel like I didn't even clearly articulate what it was that I was going for, but you read between the lines and you saw the heart of my brand and you produced it. I love it". So, that really clicked for me, and then she referred me to another friend who was starting another business and the referrals kept going like that, so that's how I got to where I am today. I have been running my business for five years, but before then I was up against the challenge of feeling a loss of identity. And I was...
LA: It sounds like just what you described as your time off. Sounds like the polar opposite of what you went through in your architecture career from having every minute wrapped up in your job to having this open space of play time.
LA: It must have been a huge shift for your identity.
SM: Oh, totally. And even to the point where when people would ask me how am I doing, what am I up to? I'd almost cringe at that question because answering, "Oh I am not really up to anything. I actually quit my architecture position and I kind of just take each day as it comes." It was a beautiful time, and I enjoyed it looking back but at the same time, I felt a lot of shame and embarrassment, having to answer that, which made me realize just how much of my identity and my value that I had wrapped up in my position as an architect.
LA: So tell me, during that time, how did your faith factor into whole this beautiful story of God really taking you by the hand and saying it's time to transition out of architecture but then when you're in that next step, how did your faith frame your understanding for you of that time?
SM: Yeah, I had a really incredible experience. So it was an interesting transition internally, because on one hand, I really ended up falling in love with graphic design, I loved working one-on-one with people who were starting their own businesses, it was just a space that I felt passionate about and yet there were these lingering moments in my mind where I would really question if I was doing the right thing.
SM: I had spent so much time pursuing a career as an architect, and fell in love with architecture as a really young girl, I spent a lot of money on college and I felt guilty for having walked away from that even though I distinctly know I had been called out of that position, there was still this lingering doubt in the back of my mind to the point where once a year or so after starting my business, I would have a full-on breakdown, and just question everything. But around this time last year, I had the same experience and I just got up from my desk and I was like, "You know what I'm gonna go out for a walk. I'm gonna talk to God about this". And once again, I started just asking him questions. "God, I really feel like you're calling me to the space that I'm in, but what is this lingering guilt?"
"How do I deal with this, how do I move on because I wanna live a healthy and full experience inside the path that you've created and laid out for me." And once again, I remember him saying, "Your identity, I did not create you to be an architect, I created you to be a disruptor, I created you to be a voice, and right where there are wrongs, whether they be systemic issues in the workplace, in the church, in relationships, I called you to disrupt and create health and wholeness where there is none. So don't act like your role as an architect or a graphic designer, or whatever it is, is who you are, your purpose is to disrupt where I ask you to and take that, take that role wherever you go, whether that be in the professional space in the personal space, what have you." So that was very transforming and since that time, since that conversation between me and God, a year ago, I have not felt an ounce of guilt for being exactly where I'm at. So it was a very powerful moment for me.
LA: Wow, go ahead Mark.
MR: I'm fascinated by your use of the word disruptor, but I noticed that you qualified it in the middle too.
You're not just a disruptor you don't come in and just make a mess. You said disruption, so that things move in the direction of health and wholeness so the disruption is really coming into a system or relationship or an organization where there is disease and un-wholeness. Division, or whatever it is, and what you disrupt it sounds like are the systems and patterns and assumptions that keep that organization and its people from living in greater wholeness.
SM: Correct. Yes.
MR: And Sarah, you and I know that you've actually worked for the organization that I lead, the DePree Center, and it's interesting to hear you talk about being a disruptor because it is true that your designs have sometimes forced us to think really hard about things and I wouldn't have said at the time "Oh, you're being a disruptor" but now that you use that language, I think, yeah, there really is a sense in which that's true but you're doing it for the good. And then in terms of dealing with the issues you were talking about, it sounds like you've been in a process with the Lord of getting clearer on what it really is that you're called to do in this season of your life. And in that, as you gain that clarity, there's more peace about what you're doing and what you're not doing.
LA: So Sarah, tell us about the slow entrepreneur movement, #slowentrepreneur, and how you thought of this and what other people are thinking about it.
SM: Yeah, well, simply put, I like to define slow entrepreneurship as simply the pace it takes to complete a given task without compromising the quality of the work or the well-being of the worker. So that's both broad and specific at the same time. I believe once you have that fundamental truth, you can customize that to your own business, to your own personality, to your own industry. I'll never tell... It's kind of like a diet. We all know that eating well and exercise is good, so that's your core truth, but which diet you choose to subscribe to, which type of gym or training you choose to be a part of, all of that is uniquely suited to who you are. So I don't... When people ask me, "What is slow entrepreneurship? Give me specific things that I should be doing." Well, I have some practices that I like to employ, but I'm not saying that everyone needs to practice slow entrepreneurship in exactly the same way that I do.
LA: Well, tell us a little bit about what you do for yourself to be a slow entrepreneur, or we could say, to put more balance into your work.
SM: Sure, sure. I am really adamant about keeping strict office hours. And I actually like to use the word boundaries over balanced, because I think that using the word balance can complicate things sometimes. But when we think about our lives as creating boundaries between our work life and our life-life, we can both more effective at work and more present at home. What I mean by that is, so I've created a strict nine-to-six schedule for myself and I'm not 100% perfect about this, but as soon as it gets close to 6:00 PM, I'm done. I shut off my computer, I shut my devices and any emails, phone calls, text messages that come in after that, I'm responding to the following morning. So what that creates in my life is I know that I only have a given amount of time to complete the work that I need to complete. So I'm hyper-focused, I'm not doing a million things all at once, I don't have multiple tabs open on my browser, I put my phone on "Do Not Disturb" and I just go down my to-do list one by one and I focus on completing each task.
That helps me be hyper-efficient, and being hyper-efficient allows me to get my work done quicker so that I create more space in my life for the things that I enjoy. So then on the flip side of that, as soon as I shut off my devices and I'm done with my work for the day, I am totally present at home. I go for a walk to end my day, I enjoy making a meal with a glass of wine, and I end the day chatting about our lives with my husband. So, yes, to answer your question, creating those distinct office hours has really worked for me and really delineating, "No, this is work time, and no, this is family time," has been hugely helpful. Also, putting boundaries on my relationship to my device and saying, "These are my device off hours: In the afternoons, in the evenings, and also on weekends. I mean, I'm on my phone on weekends, but not on my phone to get work done. Our devices have allowed us to really blur the lines between work and life in a way that really encourage us to be working all the time, but when you create that boundary and set device off hours, then it automatically forces you to be present and to do whatever it is that you're doing and to be with whoever it is that you're with.
LA: I love your use of the word "boundaries" and it makes me think of this word that the Bible uses that literally means "separation", and the word is "Sabbath". And I was taught when I was growing up in Hebrew school [chuckle] that what "Sabbath" actually means is a "separation". There's a separation between the time that we work and then the time that we have our rest. And God commanded that to us. Well, God did it first Himself, right? In Genesis 2:2, He created everything, and then on the seventh day, He finished all the work that He was done and He rested. And then God commands us to do that in the Ten Commandments in 20:9, but it's... In Exodus 20:9, but He says, "Six days, you shall labor and do all your work." And there's a boundary, there's a separation around those days that we work. And then there's something on the other side, there's this rest that you can only get when you have that separation, that boundary. I love that word.
SM: Yeah, thank you for illuminating that. I did not know that that was the definition of Sabbath. And I really like... I already liked the word, but I really like it now.
MR: Yeah. Well, also, Leah, that's a great connection to the Sabbath because we talk about that as, of course, the Sabbath law, when actually, the command is, "Six days, you shall labor and do all your work." So it's strongly also a command to work, and yet, that little word "all", do all your work, [chuckle] so that the Sabbath is set apart in a very particular way because you do all your work on the other time. And also the fact that the Sabbath law not only says, "You shall not work," but also those who work for you, I.e., your servants, even your animals, they'd have a rest, so that when we honor that kind of approach to our own work, we're also thinking about those who work for us. And whether they're our employees or our contract workers or whatever they are, we are concerned also for the well-being and whole lives of the people that are entrusted to our care.
LA: Now, Mark, you mentioned the other people that we work with, right? They might... Our employees, or they might be people we work with directly and our employer or there might be people we work with in a broader network. Sarah, would you talk to us about, how do we set boundaries if we're not the boss? How do we set boundaries in our relationships within our company, or outside of our company, what would you recommend for doing that?
SM: Wow. So... I actually did have a woman who is a practicing architect, reach out to me through Instagram and asked me a very similar question. And my response to her was, "If I could go back in time, I wish that after I had that breakdown in the office, I would have scheduled an appointment to sit down with the person who was my direct superior, and just lay it out and say, 'Hey, this is how I'm feeling. I'm overworked. I feel like the quality of my work isn't as good as it could be because I'm not allowing myself adequate rest. In fact, I see the same instance happening for other people on our team. And I'm just wondering, would it be possible to begin to brainstorm ways for our office and our team to create better boundaries that allow us to work better and rest better? And if so, could we start implementing those right away?'" And I'm so curious if I did have that conversation, if that would have played out, and if I could have created a cultural shift just by asking those questions.
So to people who do have a boss, I think I'd start there is, if you have that relationship with your direct superiors, ask them. Ask them if there are ways to create those boundaries and to really honor working hours and off-hours, so that you as an employee are creating better work and creating a better work environment.
MR: That's good from that side. I could speak into it from the side of somebody who is the boss of my team. And it's funny, I actually... I think about these things, because partly I really do accept the responsibility for the wholeness of the lives of the people that work for me. So absolutely, I want productivity and accomplishment and all that sort of thing, but I really am also committed to their wholeness, and especially in terms of where they are in their lives. And what does that mean for me? I'll tell you one thing it means. So I'm in a season of life where my kids are grown, I have much more discretionary time in a way. So sometimes I will do work on a weekend, when once I wouldn't have done that. And sometimes that involves sending emails to my staff for things that I want them to do, but I will generally preface the title or the subject with, "To look at on Monday. Because I'm thinking if they look at their phone on a Saturday, they see an email from me, they're gonna think, "Oh, he's the boss, I better attend to this." And... So they know that if something's really important, I will contact them some other way, but mostly, that's just one little thing. But I really wanna protect their lives. Now, the other piece of that, you could say, "Well, in the end, that's actually self-serving because there's all kinds of research on the fact that people who rest well and are healthy actually do better work and more productive."
But for me, that really isn't the main point. The main point is really exactly to try to live in this biblical understanding of wholeness that you're talking about and experiencing, Sarah.
LA: Sarah, do you... When you think back to that time on the bathroom floor, [chuckle] in the open concept architecture firm, what has changed for you now, going through this journey? Is your spiritual life different?
SM: Yeah, reducing the amount of time that I work has also opened up more space to be. I have a big beautiful backyard, and I love making my cup of coffee every morning, going out there, and sometimes I just sit and I talk to God, I watch the breeze blow through the trees, I listen to the birds sing, and I'll do that for 30 minutes, an hour. And often, I will experience some profound epiphany in regard to a lesson that I'm learning just in life, and these moments in the morning in my garden have become, yeah, times of inspiration that I do... I get to work into these new epiphanies into my life, share it with my husband, with other people. I get to think of new ideas for the slow entrepreneur movement and how I want that to exist in the world. So, yeah, creating that space, creating that separation also gives me really intentional time to be in that spiritual space and listen to what God has for me, and then implement that into the world.
LA: Your description of your quiet time in the morning, checking in with God reminds me of Psalm 46:10, says, "Be still and know that I am God." Whether someone has 20 extra hours in their week or has one extra hour a week cumulatively, we can all take a moment to find stillness and to meet God in stillness. I think sometimes we forget that what it takes to find God is to take a moment of stillness. I know I get a lot less stillness than I used to. I have three young kids at home, I have a 10-year-old and two of them who are younger than that, God bless me. There's a lot of demands and noise in my house, but I find that there's always a second that I could find to be still in the midst of work or transitioning from work, work to homework to the work of raising kids. There's always a moment to be still, and that's often where I can clue in, where I can key in, where I can find God is in a moment of being still.
SM: That's great. Yeah, which is why... Exactly what you're saying is why I like using the word boundaries over balance because when we think of balance, we think of dividing our time into equal parts, and there are just gonna be times in life, be it raising children or taking care of an aging parent, or even just being on a project at work that are gonna demand so much more of our time than the other parts of our life. So that being said, how do we create those tiny boundaries, those tiny windows, even if it's just for a moment to say, "I'm gonna stop everything else right now, I'm gonna put up these boundaries, and I'm gonna have this intentional time to sit, to be, to reflect. And five minutes can be just as powerful as spending five hours doing that.
So another thing that I wanna encourage within the Slow Entrepreneur Movement is taking the pressure off of feeling like you need to spend mass quantities of time pausing or committed to other aspects of your life and instead go for that quality of time. Whatever it is that you have, how do you make that valuable and purposeful? Absolutely.
LA: I love it.
MR: As you're talking Sarah, and you've really spoken to, I think some of the folks who would maybe be listening to this and say, "Well, that works for you, but I'm in a crazy time of life." I do think of moms and dads, but especially moms, if they're home with new young children and it's crazy. I had a friend of mine who the only alone time she would ever get was in the bathroom. So literally she would just lengthen her time in the bathroom to just be quiet, 'cause that was a break for her. But I also know, I think of a friend of mine who is massively successful in the energy business, gigantically successful. Early in life he was a huge workaholic, worked himself into a mental breakdown.
MR: And in the context of that breakdown, he actually really met the Lord in a profound way and sensed a real transformation. But when he went back into the work world, he was convinced that God wanted him to work only 40 hours a week in a field that has massive overwork. And perhaps had he worked more, he would have done more or whatever, but the fact is, he built an extremely solid successful business, he provides the similar kind of lifestyle for the people who work for him. And my point in bringing that up is just that I think some of us might assume there's no way I can do this.
MR: Your encouragement, "Hey, finding even five minutes." But I know for me, if I've got let's say 15 minutes with nothing to do, my inclination is to pick up my phone and fill it, not to do the other things you're suggesting. And so, I think many of us have more opportunity than we might imagine and I appreciate you are speaking into that for folks.
LA: So I'll love, if you could... We could each of us go around and to say if there's one piece of advice for someone who's overworked and overstressed today, just one piece of encouragement that you could give them, what would it be?
SM: I'm gonna have to think about that a little bit. So if someone has a prepared answer, I say go for it.
MR: I'll try something, 'cause it's related to what I said earlier. I think the first thing I might wanna say to somebody is, "You know, you're not alone. You're not the only one." And in fact, there are millions of people who are feeling as you do and a few of them like Sarah have had the courage to talk about that. But as you try to confront this driven-ness and busyness in your own life, there are people who can walk on this road with you. Now, it may not be obvious to you right at this minute who those people are or how you get them, but there are those people. And if you are open to them and ask the Lord for some guidance, there'll be some people, 'cause this would be a really, really hard thing to do all by yourself, you need some others. And it could be very well your spouse or a family member, but we need to be together in this because we're swimming upstream with the culture and it's really hard to do that all by yourself.
LA: I agree with you, Mark. I would also add, if this is something that you're looking to do, get less, bring more boundaries into your work, you have this resource in the Bible. We have a different way that's set out to us in the Bible of putting a Sabbath, putting a separation around the work that we do. And if you do go on this path, it is countercultural as you said, Mark, but so is everything else that we read in that book. So we can definitely, when we take up this cause you can know that there is precedent for that in this book that's the foundation of our faith.
SM: I think also too starting small can be really effective. We think of slowing down as going from an 80-hour work week to a 20-hour work week, well, that's gonna be... That's gonna, we'll need quite a bit of strategy and some time to be able to reduce your work hours by that much. But what is one thing that you can do starting today that can help you slow down, and that might be just choosing, "Hey, every Friday, from sundown to sundown on Saturday, so for a full 24 hours, I am not gonna check my phone." In fact, I'm gonna turn it off and if I have other people that I'm living with, be it roommates or a husband or whoever, ask them to do it right along with you and that can... I'm so curious what 24 hours away from a device will open up. If it opens up a new idea, if it opens up a new opportunity, a conversation that you might have with someone that you wouldn't have had otherwise.
And it doesn't have to be that, it doesn't even have to do anything with your device, whatever makes sense for you. What is something that is simple and concrete that you can start doing today to make that small adjustment, and after you do that, and you feel good doing that practice, then you ask yourself, "What's the next change that I can make?" And the next change, and the next change, and then who knows where you'll go from there.
MR: You know, I love that and I think that next step, in fact what you just said reminded me of a change. So I have spent much of my professional life when there was the internet, basically the first thing I do in the morning is check my email. And that was getting to me, and I was in a small group with some guys who really challenged me, like, "Why do you check your email before you even pray?" And there was not a good answer to that. So I, with their support, really said, "You know, I'm gonna change that practice." And I did. Now, probably three years ago. So now, I don't look at my email until I have had my devotional time in the morning, that just goes first. And it hasn't radically transformed my life, but it has substantially changed my experience of God's presence. So that by the time I get to the email and especially, I get some of that stuff that maybe is gonna make me tense, and you know how all that goes, at least there has been this time of quiet and time with God that's sort of the grounding of the day rather than the anxiety and the hurry that used to start my day. And that was a, really a relatively easy transition. All I did is move two things, but it's made a big difference. So, I love your suggestion that we just take a step.
LA: That's fantastic, thank you Mark. Sarah, thank you so much for joining us on this podcast.
SM: Thank you. Awesome, it was so lovely. Appreciate you having me.
MR: Well, so appreciate, as I've said before, your openness to share your story, but also the wisdom and encouragement that God has given you to share with others and we're really glad to be able to share that with our audience, so thank you so much.