Working Hard to Leap Buildings

I’ve always had a tendency to work maniacally on a project, pouring every ounce of energy into it until the outcome is struck.

This has been truest when it comes to Retinart. If you look through the archives it becomes quite clear that I work productively for a month or two, then lie dormant for several – there’s no real outcome to aim for, so I burn out.

A few weeks ago, as I was retreating to the warmth of my bed, I felt the exhaustion of the day swarming in my shoulders. “Hmmm” I muttered, “I have to stop with the Hard Work and just start working.” It was an odd thing to have flutter through my mind, but it was the closing of the day so I brushed the thought off.

The following days found the notion continually snake through my thoughts. Deciding to explore it further, I realised this was something I’ve always done, happily dedicating great effort to Hard Work.

I’ve always had a tendency to work maniacally on a project, pouring every ounce of energy into it until the outcome is struck.

This has been truest when it comes to Retinart. If you look through the archives it becomes quite clear that I work productively for a month or two, then lie dormant for several – there’s no real outcome to aim for, so I burn out.

A few weeks ago, as I was retreating to the warmth of my bed, I felt the exhaustion of the day swarming in my shoulders. “Hmmm” I muttered, “I have to stop with the Hard Work and just start working.” It was an odd thing to have flutter through my mind, but it was the closing of the day so I brushed the thought off.

The following days found the notion continually snake through my thoughts. Deciding to explore it further, I realised this was something I’ve always done, happily dedicating great effort to Hard Work.

I thought of it as something like this:

Hard Work

Hard work is a large task worked through until exhaustion, normally starting as a simple project made more complicated than necessary in an effort to justify time spent and prove something. It generally involves a mad rush to the finish line with little exploration or evolution. Like hacking away for hours with a blunt axe, wood is cut but you’re exhausted and the stump is anything but clean.

Working Hard

Working Hard can be deceptive – it looks as if less progress is made as fewer decisions might be acted upon or the output is perceived as being simple. It’s because big steps are broken down into little ones, contemplated and worked through carefully, ensuring each is worth pursuing, casting many aside. The end result is developed as the work is being done, rather than deciding on a very specific end result and then back-filling the blanks. But most of all, no attempt is made to get everything done in an unsustainable manner – only that worth doing is done, as it needs to be done. I’m sure you see where this one is going – it’s like sharpening the blade for an hour before splitting the air and wood in one smooth swing.

Hard Work is Easy

People often get the two confused or consider them interchangeable, resulting in Hard Work being used as a substitute to working hard. Hard Work is easier than working hard. Hard work is the tedium we instill in a project in the hope that something fantastic will appear if we just keep going and going and going and going and going and going, making it more complex to hide a simple nature. It’s easier because it’s a lot of simple or silly ideas executed in the hope that one of them, or a combination of them, will turn into something great. It’s what we think of as the safe road, employing brawn over brain.

It’s a tenet worth being able to notice in oneself. The immature designer will fill their page with as much as they can, hoping to make up for the lack of weight within their idea with an abundance of it in their execution. The experienced designer will know this isn’t how one finds a solution.

It’s one of those traits we refine more and more as we work, doing so naturally as we learn how to better communicate. But what if we were to continually look at how our processes and how we think about our work? What if we continually try to understand in which camp our decisions and choices truly lie – in the camp of Hard Work where the cabins are made of excess and wasted time, grandiose endeavors filled with trinkets and tacky furniture that holds no purpose, or in the neighbouring Camp Working Hard, where only sleeping bags sit on the floor of the earth below a roof of stars?

Three Months of Talking Without
Saying Anything

Why content dried up a couple of months ago.

When Retinart was relaunched on the first of July, I had written three months worth of content as a safety net. It was a lot of Hard Work, but having a number to aim for suited me well – I like Hard Work.

Once I launched I decided to spend some time marketing. After all, I had my safety net. Articles would be published and I would talk about them.

But my safety net got smaller and eventually the site began to bleed out, losing colour and strength. Wheezing on, forcing out soft breaths as new content was published fortnightly instead of twice-weekly, then monthly, then… then nothing. For months Retinart lay with death standing over head, just visible in diminished sight. I thought the Hard Work would be of benefit, but in the end it just burnt me out, leaving me with an inability to string a couple of simple words together.

The usual fun that accompanies writing had spun out. Instead of working through the joy, I turned it into a chore and saw my hard work deflate under its own weight.

After a few weeks of soft gasps, I found the strength to write again, a little each day, making it part of a routine.

In a variety of subjects did I drown myself, hoping to once again grip my hand on a joyful word swimming past. After reading and thinking and reading some more I found myself in the middle of a school of the little wonders. Before long I felt compelled to once again catch them before they went off into the mist, so I began to write out of a sheer lustful joy, raising the nets to see what I had caught. I had stopped making the work so hard and everything started to flow. Writing was fun and I was being productive. I was ready to breath life back into the site a word at a time with no number or specific goal in mind.

Writing for the Smashing Magazine Book

Why I didn’t start writing for Retinart, in spite of this energy.

One of the reasons I was happy to take on the challenge of contributing to the second Smashing Magazine book was because of how well I had been doing with writing before hand. I was much quicker, had refined my process and was excited to partner with Matt Ward of EchoEnduring to write the chapter.

I thought of what was at hand and made a catastrophic decision: this was a lot of Hard Work. I put it off for weeks.

I did this to myself – Vitaly and Matt were amazing to work with and never put any pressure on me.As the stench of the deadline grew, I wrote the first three quarters in what I can only remember as a haze. All I did was write. Every morning I would stumble from bed at 5:30 to write for three hours before work, at which morning and lunch breaks allowed me time to write and edit. Once I left the office and arrived home at around 5:30, I would continue to write until 11.

This happened everyday for a month.

I kept this up for the first three quarters of the job, which I sent off hoping to ignore the last quarter as I had run over my word count as it was.

Then we got the email back from Vitaly and he liked what we had done – he asked if I could still do the last quarter on typography. Vitaly is far too nice a guy to say no to, so what could I possible say? “Sure.”

Deciding this wouldn’t destroy me (or my marriage), I changed my approach.

Forgetting the deadline, I took it easy and just simply got to work. I gently engulfed all the words and ideas and philosophies I could, making notes and asking questions as I went. I allowed myself to enjoy the process, working hard as I scribbled notes, worked through ideas and explored what I had before me, but now allowing any of it to turn into Hard Work.

In the end it was (I believe; but you’d probably have to ask Vitaly or Matt) the best writing I’ve done to date. I investigated interesting ideas, wrote with happiness and enjoyed every part of the process.

Best of all, by working hard instead of succumbing to Hard Work, it only took three days.

Retinart Was Hacked.

Retinart was hit by the PharmaHack but no matter how many online guides I ran through, I was never able to vanquish it. After about a week of trying, Google still thought I sold small pills that make small things big things.

The hunt began to make me anxious. The little eyes had to be somewhere in the jungle of my server but no matter how desperately I searched them out in the darkness, the two burning embers weren’t to be found.

A few people suggested I talk to @snipey. Working through my site like a machine, Alison was able to figure out what was going on and why it was proving so problematic to fix. Turns out that it’s not a good idea to have old WordPress installations on your server, even if they’re in different folders, using a different database.

It’s through one of these old ones that the sneaky bastard snuck in. What’s worse is even after cleaning out all the infected and questionable files on the server, there was still an issue with Google — it was referencing cached version of the site that were served up by a plugin now removed.

In my previous mindset and potentially even in this case, my thought would be to hunt through the files once again and hope to find the zombie that was causing all my issues. More Hard Work.

“Let’s nuke the server and start over” was Alison’s suggestion.

Within an hour of starting, my entire server was cleaned out and replaced by a bullet proof WordPress Installation that only brought with it two or three minor design bugs that I was able to introduce to the heel of my boot in less than thirty minutes.

It took 90 minutes to solve my problem when someone decided to work hard on it. If I had approached it as Hard Work, I’d probably still be dealing with it, weeks later.

And the new design changes?

With the site cleaned I had the opportunity to look at my plugins and decide if having them on the site was worth the potential vulnerabilities.

I had been wanting to tweak the design for some time and saw this as an opportunity to do so. I was sick of Hard Work so decided to simply work instead.

This is an idea I think is well worth exploring – what kind of visual elements that we add to a design introduce a sliver of Hard Work for the audience in how the design works? I culled anything I didn’t think was needed, anything that caused a visual or philosophical crumb of Hard Work to creep into the design was removed. I had grown so sick of having an aggressive design that was built around the usual notions of what a blog should look like.

But more on that process soon.

One Big Jump

Very few things require the kind of mammoth Hard Work we tend to aspire to. Rather than trying to make the best website in the whole entire world, why not just make a website and work at it, everyday, with quality and dedication in mind? If you aim for making it the greatest in the world, then you’ll work towards a goal that disallows growth and evolution, based on an assumption made before you started.

For me the curse of Hard Work comes from who I am – I love to work hard. I love putting in a great deal of effort. But I’ve grown so tired of that effort being wasted, running in circles rather than forward.

I’m sure it stems from an insecurity – instead of being comfortable developing a grand idea, which is too hard to come by, I instead find comfort in distilling grand effort. So why not just try and hide the average idea I do have in as much fancy clothing as possible, hoping no one will realise how poor of spirit it truly is?

The work we do is only as hard as we allow it to be. We have built up a notion of being the hero, the soldier with no fear. Hard work? What of it! Ha ha ha! We aspire to be the heroes of comics and culture, rather than the heroes of life, thinking a building of effort and outcome can’t simply be climbed a step at a time but leaped in one grandiose—oof, whoosh—powerful jump !

The problem is we star gaze at the real life heroes and think we see them doing this – effortlessly bounding up buildings. What we often ignore is the amount of time spent working hard – laboriously contributing to that which gave them the ability to know how to navigate the steps with great skill at great speed.

We just see them on the roof and think “oh, they must have jumped.”


36 thoughts on “Working Hard to Leap Buildings

  1. As a web designer I have the opportunity to see the man behind the curtain so to speak. I’ve seen how hard people work to keep up a site like this. Thank you for the effort, it is appreciated. Good luck.

  2. I’ve always identified what you call “Hard Work” as Thrashing.

    There’s a lot of writing about it (working smart, not hard), how to notice you’re in Hard Work mode, and how to reassess the situation to create a more productive situation. Your write-up is a welcome and well-written addition.

  3. I can totally relate. That’s spot on for me.

    Thank you.

  4. Thanks. This is by far the best blog I’ve read. Nice to see a less cluttered design, that puts focus on the most important thing on this site. The words.

  5. Great article Alex… and how true. Thrashing and churning, as someone mentioned, is a similar affliction.

    But what the article really triggered in my mind (coming onto christmas) is the importance of finding work-life balance. Eventually relationships, even strong ones, will buckle a little under the weight of not being there mentally… even if you’re around physically. I still get told I’m in my office all the time… which is out of the family flow. And I know I’ve missed a lot of important moments. So getting that balance right is probably the most important career skill at this stage of your life with the new family happening and all.

    The other thing I wanted to mention was the Japanese term “Karoshi”… an article in itself. The Chinese have their own word. But it’s “death by overwork”. People in their 20’s and 30’s dying of heart attacks and over stress… and jumping out of windows probably comes into that, too. It’s a huge problem in our overconnected always-on world.

    Don’t forget to take that time to smell the roses and enjoy your life. Trust me… you’ll be looking down the barrel of 50 in no time.

    And Merry Christmas :-)

  6. Thank you for this excellent piece of reading. There is a lot for me — and for many of us, I’m sure — to reflect on in your article. I’m adding it to my special bookmark folder (the one named “Read this before you actually burn out”).

    Enjoy the holidays!

  7. Douglas T
    Hi Douglas, you’re very much welcome – I’m glad you appreciate the energy that’s been put into the site :)

    Jeff Blaine
    I’ll have to look Thrashing up – haven’t heard of it before so I really appreciate the tip, thanks :)

    You’re welcome :)

    Thank you – I’m glad to hear it as I very recently went through and culled a lot of the extra junk around the site so the focus would be back on the words!

    Steven Clark
    Absolutely. With the bub coming along I decided to have four weeks off of work so I could spend time with my wife and our (almost here) little girl to make sure I have the balance from the very start.

    I’m also working hard to cut back on the amount of time I spend writing because of the eye opener co-writing a chapter for the Smashing Book provided.. It nearly killed me and I spend zero time with my wife for weeks. But, as mentioned, towards the end of the project I figured out how to write quicker, better and with far less stress. If i can keep that up, I’ll hopefully be finding that balance :)

    Most of all I’m trying to just simplify everything in my life so I can really enjoy what’s left (family, friends, reading and writing), rather than trying to spread the joy that can be had too thinly over the useless stuff (99.95% of TV, mindless browsing online, etc).

    Merry Christmas to you too sir.

  8. Mitternacht
    Thanks Mitt! I love the idea of having an “In case of emergency burn-out” folder of bookmarks! That’d make a great site, wouldn’t it? A reminder of all the beautiful things that we love about this profession :)

  9. this is a great post… really well written and I think will mean a lot to a lot of 20 to 30 year olds, as a lot of people approach things as ‘Hard Work’ rather than simply working hard, me included.

    thanks for the blog, and design as I love the look and feel of this site.

  10. Amazing article as usual!
    Really helped me with problems I’m facing now.

    ‘Working Hard or Hard Working’ ?

  11. Alex,
    Please accept my virtual hug… how about just a firm handshake?
    Sounds like you are starting the New Year with a fresh, healthy perspective. And THANK GOODNESS! Honestly, my heart sank when I read about your exhaustion. I’d hate to think your creative insights and poetic reflections were on the brink of being crushed by the weight of Hard Work. On that note, thank you for making me take notice of my own virtuous passion for working hard and how it has, on many occasion, wickedly morphed into Working Hard.

    And I just want to say, I see nothing wrong with a blogger posting 1 entry per month. Am I alone here? You talked about posting bi-weekly.. this seems excessive. What I like about your posts so much is that they are reflections, they are researched, well-rounded articles. Quality takes time.

  12. Typo: 1st paragraph, last 2 words should read Hard Work. ;)

    Please correct for me?


  13. I agree, for what it’s worth. Quality beats quantity. You’re doing great.

  14. Heigh-Ho, Alex.


  15. Christopher Gunn January 1, 2011


    It’s nice to see you back in action and overcoming the burnout. Great article, as usual. Also, I’m with Jessica. Don’t feel the pressure to have to stick to your twice a week postings. Take your time and don’t stress over it. I’m sure most of us don’t mind a little wait considering the quality you give us.

    Congratulations on the soon-to-be little girl. My first was a girl. She’ll steal your heart – I promise.

  16. Warwick
    Thanks Warwick, I’m glad you liked the article and the site :)

    It’s not uncommon to hear people post-40 talking about how when someone is in their 20s, they think they have the world figured out but you come to realise you don’t know nearly as much as you think and there’s a lot to learn still. I always wondered what that meant and think what I wrote about might be one of those lessons for me :)

    Hi Ku, thank you very much :)

    Sorry to hear you’re having some problems, but it’s the new year, so maybe time for a shift of view!

    Thank you Jessica, that’s very kind of you, I appreciate it :))

    Oddly enough I think I could do a post twice a week that was of sound quality, I just need to learn to focus better and write more efficiently (I go through a LOT of revision) without allowing the quality to diminish. Time will tell :)

    Jeff Blaine
    Thanks Jeff, and I too agree with the two of you – quality is more important than anything else, but to get retinart where I’d like to see it, I need to learn how to produce quality at a more consistent pace. With such awesome comments from people like you and the others around here, I hate the idea of not showing my thanks with regular content.

    Joe Moran
    Where a million diamonds shine!

    Christopher Gunn
    Thanks Christopher, I appreciate the sentiment. You’re spot on – I’m going to try and enjoy what I’m doing while doing it quickly and better. Having a baby on the way has caused me to shift my focus quite a bit – finding I’m paying less attention to the useless stuff in life.

    Any advice on how to raise a little girl? heh, could use all the help I can get ;)

  17. Kath Harding January 4, 2011

    Completely and utterly relate to this. And by the way you have an incredibly beautiful writing style making it’s a pleasure to soak up each of your words. Thankyou.

  18. Hi Kath, I’m glad you enjoyed the article and the way I write – I have far too much to learn, but such encouraging comments make it much easier ;)

  19. Hi Alex,

    I never knew your site was hacked — that makes two of us!

    My entire database was infested with dodgy links, and Google barred me too.

    It’s good that we learn from these things and move on, knowing more about WP security.

    It’s good to hear that you’ve written for the Smashing book. Keep up the good work…

  20. brilliant. lets make the web a better place!

  21. zahra tavangar May 18, 2011

    I have been following your blog for sometime (not frequently enough though!)
    I’d love to get more frequent updates . Cheers!

  22. Joseph C. Moran June 15, 2011

    sorry to see you go… bro…


  23. It’s good to hear that you’ve written for the Smashing book!!

  24. This is a beautiful, thoughtful blog. I hope you return!

  25. I’ve been inspired by quite a few of your posts. As a lurker of the internet, this is one of the rare occurrences that I come out of hiding. If you’re out there, and if you’re willing, continue putting effort into this site! I have difficulty expressing in words how I have read some of what you have written. I am sick to my core that you have stopped writing. I believe that this is a very hard thing to stand your grand and continue blindly. It just saps away time, and for what? A few words of thanks from random people of the internet? Well, it may not mean much, but I hope my few words of thanks gets to you. I won’t say that this has changed my life, as that is too cliche. However, I will say, that the impact that what you have written has had on me, will be affecting my life for the next few years. I wish that hard work was recognized and appraised, you deserve many more people commenting on what you have written.

    I hope that you will one day continue writing. It has had an effect on my life, I would be led to think it has had an effect over others. You have helped me with a major life decision, I found help in the most obscure of places.

    With that, I give a simple “thanks.”

    -Random Person of the Internet

  26. I read this blog here and there when the pace of work slows at the agency I design for. After checking this site every day to see if you commented about your absence from the site or if you posted something new, I felt today was a good day for me to share my thoughts. I would love for you to revive your efforts on this site. This blog is the best I’ve come across in reference to the study of design-related topics. Your words enlighten me and makes me think further on the subjects you present. Your words are powerful. Whether you return or not, I thought you should know that your writing makes me actually want to read on where most others make me want to skim and get the just of what is trying to be said. With how curious and open you are, I’m sure you’ve been busy elsewhere since your last post here. If I’m not being too forward in asking, I’d be delighted to read of your new adventures and if you are writing anywhere else, even in the future, be sure to keep all your readers here in the loop.

  27. I have read through a lot of your articles and really find them to be well thought through and expressed.

    I am hopeful that you will return, to again share with us your thoughts and especially your feelings. You have helped change the way I look at the world, and for that I thank you.

  28. I am all to familiar with the idea of loving “hard work” and not “working hard”. Hard work truly is “easy” because you feel as though once you get through this mountain you can coast. It could be an article or a redesign that is that giant thing that you need to conquer. The sad part is that it’s a misconception to think that once you’re done…you’re done. Integrating your work into more of a routine is a much better way to go about tackling big projects, especially a website. Thanks for putting in the work!

  29. Any pointers you could give me would be much appreciated. Thanks within the table just use the normal HTML code similar to the following in your table cells:

  30. 1. Very good article and nice explain
    I want to post tis article on my web site with write this source site if you no have any problem.

    Thankyou so much

  31. Maybe this is the time to say thank you for the wonderful results your hard work always delivers, for the inspiration and finally for the thoughts your lines seeded in my brain.

    This is a beautiful site and I always come back for more :-)

    Thank you

  32. Really remembrance site.Keep with this.

  33. Very good article. Hope you return

  34. Simply working hard is a better way to avoid burnout . To get a wonderful results it is essential to keep our thoughts flowing in the right area. This site has provided some insights on working culture. Thank you!

  35. This is really useful for any one. Really Creative one

    Thank you so much

  36. Hi, Alex,

    First of all, thanks for a great article. Animated gifs explaining canons helped a lot – thank you for taking your time to make them.

    I wonder if the same principle can be used in web design. But the screen height varies wildly, so even with a fixed-width design we could hardly ever achieve the necessary ratio. Have you tried to use these techniques when designing web pages?

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