Balancing the Grind with Margot Alais, Art Director at Paper+Spark

Margot Alais is the Art Director at Paper+Spark, where she works with pharma, financial services and consumer clients to help tell their stories.

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1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your career background and current role?

I’m an Art Director at Paper+Spark, with over 4 years experience in the advertising and content space. It hasn’t been the most linear pathway to get where I currently am, but that’s how I’ve always played it!

In my final year of uni, I approached one of my guest lecturers wanting to know more about what he did professionally and it turned into the most convenient happenstance; he needed an intern and I (desperately) needed an internship.

Since then I’ve worked for a few different agencies across a variety of clients: Banana Boat, Honda, Pfizer, HSBC, LG, Subway, Johnson & Johnson, to name a few. Thanks to incredible mentors I’ve also been able to really diversify my skill set—from writing, to design, to video editing, to client services, to production, even being the lead producer on a shoot or two.

For a while I struggled with the fact that I wasn’t die-hard about one single thing, especially since our industry tends to categorise creatives as being just a writer, or just a designer or just an art director. In the end, I realised there’s a lot of strength in being multi-disciplinary and my diverse professional background is part of what makes me a good creative.

2) What does a day in the life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?

A typical workday for me starts with a very slow wake up because I am a serial snoozer when it comes to alarms. I am always one to go to bed at a reasonable hour though, so I easily get my 8-9 hours a night.

Once I’m up I will make myself a coffee (black, because I’m French), and make myself breakfast, recently I’ve been loving some yoghurt with granola or some tartines with lots of butter and some of my aunt’s homemade jam I smuggled back from France!

I have a 30 minute commute and I usually like to spend it doing something for myself; I’ll read a book or listen to a podcast, or watch a Vox video (they’re the best!).

Once I’m at my desk, that’s when I check all my emails and see if there’s anything new to add to my to-do list. I usually write a big to-do list at the start of the work week, and then I prioritise it based on deadlines and chip away at it during the week.

Every day at work is a little different, sometimes we’re in full pitch mode and working hard to win over a new client, other times it’ll be creative ideation or getting into production mode for a video series, a podcast, social media strategy, etc.

I’m a very hands-on creative and we’re a tight-knit team at P+S, so I do like to edit and animate my own videos, design my own graphics or even shoot my own content, but that can be time consuming so having excellent time management is key.

At the moment my favourite way to organise my time is by blocking out chunks of time (never more than 2 hours per block) in my diary and allocating each time slot to a client or job. Then I work at that one thing non-stop during that block, and as soon as it’s over, I move onto the next. It’s very school timetable-esque.

Whatever you don’t get done you do the next time you schedule in that client or job. Hot tip: I always schedule at least a 30 minute lunch break to make sure I don’t eat at my desk.

I usually wrap work up at 5:30pm, and I’m home by 6pm. My favourite way to destress is to cook, and every night I like to whip up a nice meal for my fiancée and myself (I cook because I’m a control freak, she stacks the dishwasher). I usually make enough for 4 people, and use the extra portions for lunch the next day, which I find the easiest way to meal prep.

My weeknights are really the time for my partner and I to connect and have some quality time, we’ll even work out together and squeeze in a gym session before dinner. By 9:45pm we’re both tucked into bed reading, or on TikTok as of late—sorry dad, I’ve become a philistine.

3) Does your current role allow for flexible or remote working? If so, how does that fit into your life and routine?

Paper+Spark has been a believer in remote working since the beginning, which is really fantastic. We’re currently allowed to go into the office, but even then I get to choose which days I want to spend in the office and which from home. My current preference is to do two days in the office and the rest from home.

It means that throughout the day I could do something as simple as throwing a load of laundry on, and come the evening I can completely unwind and not have to think about all the things I need to do around the house. Or it could mean prepping myself a fresh lunch, or even going to the beach on my lunch break.

Our 40+ hour work week is so influenced by the post-war family dynamic of the bread-winning husband and the housewife who ensures a clean house, folded laundry and dinner on the table. In today’s increasingly expensive world, you work irrespective of marital status but our concept of the working week hasn’t changed to reflect this. There is no housewife that waits for you at home with all the household chores done and dusted. You somehow have to find a way to balance it all.

For me, flexible working is a smart way to really ease the pressure. It makes life and work fit together neatly, rather than having them as two separate entities, constantly at odds with each other.

4) What does work-life balance mean to you and how do you work to achieve that goal?

Work-life balance for me is knowing what your boundaries are and shamelessly enforcing them.

I’ve learnt over the years that I need to completely unwind in the evenings, because my brain is so alive that if I don’t, it will keep ruminating into the wee hours of the morning. I like to arrive at work fully rested and ready to attack, but I can’t do that if I’m stressed and running on shoddy sleep.

So I am very strict with myself when I answer emails, work phone calls etc. I leave a 30 minute window on either side of my work day for any overspill, but that’s about it. I completely disconnect after that point.

When I was growing up my parents worked really hard but always made sure that when they came home they were fully present, and that’s something I want to enforce while I’m young so that it becomes second nature later on, especially when I have children.

At the end of the day it’s all about setting a good precedent! If you’ve never answered emails or calls after hours, no one will expect you to.

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5) In the past 12 months, have you started or stopped any routines or habits to change your life?

I call my friends and family more often. There was a time when finding a common time to catch up was next to impossible, but I think COVID-19 has really changed the way we connect with each other. Every time I feel the urge to chat to a particular person, I just pick up the phone and call or FaceTime them.

Also due to COVID-19, I’ve swapped running on the treadmill for running outside. I can proudly say I am now one of those weird people that run without headphones, and for me it’s been life changing. I fully immerse myself in my surroundings; the sights, sounds, smells. It’s incredibly therapeutic.

6) Do you have any favourite books, podcasts or newsletters that you’d like to recommend?

7) Are there any products, gadgets or apps that you can’t live without?

Definitely my Bose noise-cancelling headphones. They make the morning commutes so calming, they help me focus in the office, and sometimes I just like to lie down, close my eyes and listen to a whole album from start to finish and appreciate the impeccable sound.

I also highly recommend the app ‘BrainWave’ — my dad’s a neuroscientist and he swears by it. It’s an app that plays binaural tones that manipulate your brain into operating at a different frequency.

For example, I could be really strung out (and operating at a high-frequency) and in need of mental relaxation. So I use BrainWave and pick a setting (‘Deep Sleep’ is the best, even if you aren’t getting to sleep) to help my brain relax to a lower frequency. It’s very nerdy but it works and I love it.

8) If you could read an interview about work-life balance by anyone, who would that be?

Probably someone like Babba C Rivera or Elaine Welteroth. These are the women I look to for inspiration. I know so much work goes into their successes, so I’d love to read about how they balance their professional and personal lives and any important lessons they’ve learnt.

9) Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?

Don’t underestimate the power of a nice sunny walk and some fresh air in your lungs.

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About Author

Hey there! I'm Hao, the Editor-in-Chief at Balance the Grind. We’re on a mission to showcase healthy work-life balance through interesting stories from people all over the world, in different careers and lifestyles.