Creative Directors / Interviews

Balancing the Grind with Peter Brennan, Founder & Creative Director at Electric & Analog

Peter Brennan is an award-winning designer with a 20+ year career, and the founder & creative director at Electric & Analog, a brand, content and design studio.

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

I studied Graphic Design straight out of school, followed shortly afterwards by Marketing & Business Management.

My first job was with an incredible advertising agency in South Africa called International Concept Organisation and its sister business, a trend-forecasting agency, International Trend Institute.

I was a baby back then, but I got to learn from some truly awesome people such as Neville Trickett, Paul Kraus, Glen Cherry, Li Edelkoort, Dylan Cherry, Shane Small and Clint DeGoede amongst others.

Following that, after a year or so in London, I was approached for a position at Quiksilver back in South Africa. Having grown up competing as a sponsored junior surfer, it was a dream role, and I moved back to SA where I got to lead the creative endeavours for a world-class surf brand and work closely with our sponsored athletes.

A couple of years in, I started my own t-shirt business called Vintage Industries, where our tees would undergo heavy industrial stone and enzyme washes so that each one looked unique and truly vintage.

We stocked around 50 independent stores in South Africa and the UK. A few years later and I yearned for London life and moved back to the UK yet again. Under pressure to get a job in order to secure an apartment, I stumbled into a role in recruitment for the creative industry.

It was the best thing that has ever happened to my creative career. As a designer, you’re often sort of introverted, sitting behind a Mac all day designing. Suddenly I had to cold call strangers and negotiate deals and meet monthly sales targets and KPI’s.

It taught me how to run a business and be a salesperson. Sales is such an important skill that I feel is so overlooked. Six years into that, my grandfather passed away, and I moved with my girlfriend (now wife) to Sydney.

I had to endure a tourist visa for 6 months, meaning I couldn’t work, so along with my brother Martin, we created an app called ViewPop that let you capture 3-dimensional photos. We made the Top 10 startups at Web Summit in Dublin three years in a row, and got featured in Wired, Mashable and Sky News amongst others.

Around that time I joined a Sydney-based media agency as Director of Innovation, before starting my own business – Electric And Analog.

We’re a brand, content and design studio designed to help create and transform brands in order to make people and companies better. We’re currently into year 4 and have worked with clients such as eftpos, Gloria Jeans, Deane Apparel and Pabst Blue Ribbon.

We partner with established organisations as well as founder-lead businesses that need help with brand, design and content creation.

I’ve also recently started a non-alcoholic beer company called Heaps Normal with three incredibly talented friends of mine. We’re on a mission to change peoples’ relationship with alcohol and we’ve just launched our first brew, a Quiet XPA that tastes as good as your favourite craft beers.

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

When COVID kicked off, we left our office of 3 years at WeWork in Sydney and we’re now working from home, like a lot of the world is.

It’s been 12 weeks so far and it has its pros and cons. The downside is, I’m finding it tricky to create a defining company culture when working remotely, so that’s something I’m really conscious of and working through.

The upside is, no commute, no spending money on coffees and lunches, increased productivity, and time to genuinely reflect and figure out how to evolve and get better at what we do as a business, not to mention less commute times means more time with my wife and children.

I live and die by my Google Calendar, and over the last 12 months or so, I’ve been testing different productivity hacks to try and get the most out of my day. My current routine involves having an alarm set for 4:50am that allows me to get up before the family does, and have some quiet time to myself.

I do 15 – 20 mins of exercise in the lounge (check out The Bodycoach’s YouTube channel for some epic HIIT session workouts), 5 – 10 minutes of mindfulness and visualising the things I need to get done that day, followed by a cold shower and a hot coffee.

I make tea for the family and then jump into my studio. I’m really, really fortunate in that we have a little studio that is separate to the house that I’ve pimped out as my work space. It’s my creative man cave. My commute from the coffee machine to my desk is about 18 seconds.

I currently wear two hats. One as founder & creative director of branding and design studio, Electric And Analog; the other as co-founder of our non-alcoholic beer company, Heaps Normal.

I make a daily to-do list that I write out in my Moleskine book the night before, and then I timebox my calendar to ensure I have no gaps and get the most out of my day. It’s a constant work in progress.

Lately, I’ve been experimenting with 90 minute focus sprints, where you turn off all notifications and go deep for 90 mins of pretty intense and focused work. The goal is to get into a flow state (check out Matt D’Avella on YouTube who talks a lot about flow state) where you get hyper-focused, uninterrupted productivity. You become like Superman.

My usual day entails communicating with clients, managing the team, new business development and coming up with big picture strategy to grow both businesses. I occasionally jump on some client work, or need to be on location for a shoot for Electric And Analog.

For Heaps Normal, we’re trying to get on the road a bit and build personal relationships with our customers, but I’m generally sitting on my ass behind a computer all day. I try to get tools down by 6pm to have an hour with the family before we have dinner, followed by bath time and bedtime.

Once everyone’s asleep, I tend to jump back into the studio for a couple of hours in order to plan out my next day and put out any fires that might have come up. I desperately try to be in bed reading a book by 8:30pm so that I can get a proper 7 – 8 hours sleep before doing it all over again the next day.

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

I started Electric And Analog to have flexibility, and not have to do the 9 to 5 grind, as I simply don’t believe in it. If anyone’s reading this that thinks starting your own business is less work that being an employee, stop! It’s the opposite.

However, the difference is you can make your own rules. I think any company that doesn’t offer flexible or remote working in this day and age is really teetering on the brink of redundancy.

The power is shifting away from the corporate and into the hands of the people, and I think Covid-19 has accelerated the future of work by forcing people to work from home. To me, that’s a good thing.

I remember in a past role I had at another company, people used to clock-watch. It’d be 5:28pm and nobody would dare leave until 5:30pm on the dot. Ridiculous. And then when there was a deadline you’d be expected to work through the night and be back in the office at 9am sharp.

I literally watched some of my younger colleagues breaking from the pressure. Employers have a responsibility for the wellbeing of their staff. That seems so obvious today, but a few years ago it was anything but, particularly in the creative industry.

We run Electric And Analog around trust. We’re all adults here. Of course, Covid has forced “WFH” onto a lot of businesses, but I feel like the flexibility thing should be non-negotiable.

At the end of the day, if you’re getting your work done and exceeding in your position, it doesn’t really matter what time you start or finish work. And vice versa, if you’re not performing at work then that has to be managed, irrelevant of what time you clock on and off.

Some people are morning people, so there should be the opportunity to start work at 6am and call it a day in the early afternoon. On the flip side of that, what if you’re more of a night owl? Surely, you should be able to have a lie in if you’re working till midnight every night because that’s when you perform at your best?

I think having a routine is really helpful, but what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for everyone else, so there has to be that flexibility. Personally, I wake early and get to work. I try to make family time in the evenings for a couple of hours, and then finish up stuff in the studio before I go to sleep.

Of course there’s exceptions to that, and we’ve all pulled those all-nighters to meet a deadline, but I find having some sort of routine keeps me grounded.

I tend to go hard from Monday to Thursday, and then use Friday as a sort of admin day – try and keep the calendar clear from meetings, have a checklist of things that need to be done, try and jump in the ocean at some point, and get planned and ready for the week ahead.

If I’m not strictly organised, I get distracted and end up having an unproductive day. That really increases my anxiety and makes me no fun to be around, so finding that mix of routine and flexibility for me is really key.

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

My view on work-life balance means having the time to do the things you love to do, and spend it with the people you love to spend time with.

I think first and foremost, and this is possibly one of the most important things to remember, no matter how cliched it sounds, you absolutely have to love what you do for a living. That way, it doesn’t feel like a slog, because you genuinely enjoy it.

Not enjoying what you do is no way to live. Life’s just too short for that shit. My grandfather always used to say to me, “If something stops being fun, stop doing it”.

I recently discovered my purpose, which was a game-changer for me. I used to be a disciple of the “hustle harder” startup mindset – “Sleep is for wimps”, but man, how wrong was I with that point of view?!

I ended up going through pretty bad burnout in 2019 and it made me realign everything. I started journaling my thoughts and feelings and realised that some of the mental health issues I was going through were linked back to childhood experiences.

I lost my dad to suicide when I was 11, so for me, I look at what I do for a living like this: We create and reinvent brands.

If we can help business owners, managers, CEOs get ahead in business, and relieve some of that pressure by doing what we do well – creating & reinventing brands – then that really excites me to get out of bed in the morning and get to my desk in the hope of genuinely making a difference to someone’s life.

That’s my “business why”. My personal why” is to be in a good mental and physical state so that I can provide a good life for my family. When you put your business and your personal why’s together, that’s what I consider your “purpose”.

I never understood that until recently, and what it does is almost create this work-life integration instead of a work-life balance. My daughter is 5 and her creative tendencies are starting to come through.

She’ll draw for hours, then get creative on her iPad. She’s starting to show interest in what I do for a living, which is awesome. I think if you can find that mix, whilst also being able to occasionally switch off work mode completely every now and again, then that’s happiness. And it’s a sustainable way to carve out a meaningful career and life.

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

There’s a couple of things I’m finding super effective in how to create a balanced existence. If I’m as productive as possible throughout the day, then I feel less anxious when I’m not working, which means I’m more present when being a dad and a husband.

A few months ago I discovered a system of time boxing your calendar. I then escalated this into a colour coded system within my Google Calendar. First, you have calendar entries that are green. Green represents revenue-generating activities – anything you do that you get paid for.

This is where the money is made – things like sales, delivery, client servicing, the day-to-day marketing of the business. Depending on your set up, 70% – 80% of your calendar should be green when you zoom out and look at it by day, week or month.

Then you have blue calendar entries. Blue represents strategic elements for future profit. This includes things like up-skilling yourself, proposals, working on your sales collateral and brand assets – all the stuff that will generate profit in the future. This is working ON the business, not IN the business. Blue entries should make up 20% of your calendar.

Then you have red calendar entries. Red represents business support tasks – things that cost you money but don’t make you money, but they still need to get done. Things like office management, IT, legal, finance and compliance. As a founder, you should be outsourcing most of this stuff. Your calendar should be 0% – 10% red.

Finally I use yellow to represent travel (obviously no yellow in the calendar at the moment – thanks, Covid), and grey to represent personal stuff, like fetching the kids from school or date nights with my wife.

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

There’s so much content to consume out there, and I’m a sucker for buying books, courses and listening to podcasts, but I always think about something Gary Vaynerchuk once said:

If you want a 6-pack, it’s not about reading books and watching videos about how to get a 6-pack. It’s about going to the gym and doing the work that’s going to get you an actual 6-pack.

So I think balancing educating yourself with actually doing the work is really important. It’s easy to get in a trap of reading and watching things that educate you to do better, but not do the work. Be careful of that.

To answer your question, however, we published a post on LinkedIn a few months ago titled 20 Books to Read in 2020 to make you a 20x better person and company. There’s some life-changing reads in there.

In terms of podcasts, I subscribe to The Futur with Chris Do, The School of Greatness with Lewis Howes, The GaryVee Audio Experience, Creative Rebels, How I Built This with Guy Raz, The Entrepreneurs by Monocle, Jake & Jonathan, Business of Hype with Jeff Staple, Making Sense with Sam Harris, Australian Design Radio, The Diary of a CEO with Steven Bartlett, Tales of Silicon Valley, and Startup by Gimlet.

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

Like most people, I run our businesses from my iPhone and MacBook. In terms of efficiency, we use Streamtime for things like time-tracking and invoicing.

I run my entire life on Notion, which is an incredible app (The Futur has done a great video on their YouTube channel about how to use Notion effectively).

I find Headspace awesome for learning mindfulness and how to meditate (which I’m not very good at). Habit is a great app for keeping track of daily habits, like drinking water, sleeping and exercising.

My most prized possession is my first generation iPod. I’m a big Spike Jonze fan and I read an interview on him once where he said he had one, so I completely copied him and found one on eBay.

It’s in a glass display in our studio and it’s a daily reminder of how a human can execute an idea that can completely change the world.

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

Robin Sharma. I discovered his work a year or so ago and he’s incredible. He’s a best-selling author from Canada who’s written a number of books including The 5am Club where he talks about the 20-20-20 routine.

Essentially, you wake up an hour earlier than normal. For the first 20 mins you exercise, for the second 20 minutes you meditate, and for the final 20 minutes you learn something (read, listen to a podcast etc).

He talks about how University College London undertook a study where they discovered that it takes 66 days to form a habit. His daily routine for hacking productivity and wellbeing would be incredible to hear.

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

Yes. I think it’s really important to have genuine balance. I suffered from pretty severe burnout last year and it’s debilitating.

To me, being organised means being productive. If you’re productive and you have a schedule that works for you, you end up being focused on work and getting shit done, and then you’re focused and present when you’re not working.

That means your downtime from work is more efficient – you’re in a better mood, you sleep better, you perform better at sports, hobbies, parenting, being a partner.

I used to wear the working all night and not sleeping thing as a badge of honour, but it’s dangerous. Our non-alcoholic beer company, Heaps Normal, has recently been accepted into Startmate, the startup accelerator of Blackbird Ventures.

As part of that, we’ve been introduced to Google’s “Search Inside Yourself” leadership programme and it’s fascinating. They talk about how Olympic athletes train hard, but then they know the importance of sleep and rest in order to recover and reach peak performance the next time they train or compete.

It’s the same for us mere mortals. You can’t expect to perform your best at work, as a parent, as a partner, if you’re not getting enough rest. It took me a long time to figure that out. Try as hard as you can to get 8 hours sleep every single night.

It’s hard to maintain that, and I still battle with it, but I’m really conscious of it. It takes sacrificing things like socialising with friends, doing things you enjoy like watching Netflix and going out, but if you can make it a lifestyle change (66 days to form a habit) I believe it can be life-changing.

Work hard, exercise, sleep, and don’t be a dick. Good things will happen.

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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.