Designers / Interviews

Balancing the Grind with Troy Nicoll, Experience Designer at VMLY&R

Troy Nicoll is an Experience Designer at global marketing agency VMLY&R, where he has worked with clients such as Pfizer, the Australian Defence Force and Vodafone.

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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 Experience Designer at VMLY&R in Sydney.

My career-deciding moment was the release of the first iPhone; my life had always been about sport and art, and the opportunity to enhance outdoor experiences excited me creatively.

While completing a Bachelor of Creative Arts at the University of Wollongong, I worked as a Personal Trainer. After graduating, I co-founded a company with Mitchell Johnson and the former Cricket Australia high-performance coach to build an app idea I’d had; a training app for cricketing fast bowlers.

A few years later, ‘Bowlfit’ was launched at the IPL (Indian Premier League). This phase of my career was invaluable.

In more recent years with VMLY&R, I’ve worked with clients such as Pfizer, the Australian Defence Force and Vodafone doing product design, qualitative research, acquisition strategy, service design, CX, and change management.

I enjoy the challenge of working broadly, and I’m fortunate to have lengths of time where I’m able to learn deeply.

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

I live in Wollongong, and the office is in North Sydney, which means my Pre-COVID commute—door-to-door—was a little over 2 hours each way.

I’d get up at 6am, manage some injuries I still carry from playing years of cricket, then breakfast, coffee, cold shower, and on the train by 720 am. I’d use the 4 hours of forced downtime to read.

I’d be back in Wollongong and at the gym or the athletics track by 730 pm, eating dinner at 9 pm, rinse and repeat. Recover on the weekend.

The project guides the rhythm of the day. There are intense periods and others more easily managed, but we have a great crop of people, and you never hear the line, ‘that’s not my job’, which makes any hard day more manageable.

These days, it’s all much the same routine, minus the train ride, and I’ve replaced some of the morning reading time with walks at the beach with a podcast.

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

Pre-COVID, we’d approach flexible working by giving people trust up-front, and if they broke it, we’d have a problem; but we never had that problem.

When people care about the work enough to stay late and work weekends, it’s safe to say they’re reliable. Policies like working from home, half-day ‘Summer Fridays’, and individual agreements all helped people find a suitable balance.

Working entirely from home has been great, but I believe the next transition will be the ‘goldilocks solution’; more of an even split between office and home, which will bring back the human element of an agency culture that people have missed.

For me, it’s certainly better to learn something while walking along a beach than sitting on a train, and it will be great to see people’s faces again. I think the future looks promising.

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

I tend not to think of life in two buckets of ‘work’ and ‘play’; I’ve cruised through 40 hour weeks and been more unhappy than when I was churning 100 hour weeks.

It’s not really about ‘love your work, and you’ll never work’, either; I loved working on Bowlfit, but I’ve never experienced stress like it.

So, I don’t think minimising stress is the path to fulfilment and happiness, and also, bending moments to minimise your stress can increase someone else’s.

The reality is that some people need more help than others on different days, and it’s essential to be flexible to people’s needs so you can accommodate the group. If everyone is going to achieve balance, then it needs to be a team sport.

For me, it’s more a question of values and showing up for all aspects of life that are meaningful to you (or even require you); am I being a good husband? Am I being a reliable colleague?

Responsible for my health? Am I contacting my family? All of these require effort, and if any start to slip, I’ll assess and re-calibrate.

As a baseline, I ask myself three questions every day:

  • Who helped me today? (Gratitude)
  • Who did I help? (Service)
  • What did I learn? (Growth)

Even if it’s been a hard day, if I have answers to each of those questions, I’ll go to bed happier.

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

I think the most significant change this year has been using spare time to be still.

While I was hostage to a daily train ride, I was guilty of using every available minute to cram information into my head. It served me well to cover some ground, but it didn’t leave much time just to let things marinate.

Working from home has given me back 4 hours/day to refine the use of my time. I still read every day, but I’ve just started to figure out a new rhythm that allows me to act with more intent.

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

I love reading about regenerative agriculture, health, and people. I just finished The Happiest Man on Earth, by Eddie Jaku, a 100yr old survivor of Auschwitz; an incredible story with a beautiful message.

Similar would be Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. Both are horrifying but brilliant. I would call these essential reads because I believe it’s important to know about these stories.

Some other favourites are The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande, Tribe by Sebastian Junger, Food Fix by Dr Mark Hyman, Well Designed by John Kolko, Competing Against Luck by Clayton Christensen, Sprint by Jake Knapp, and Start With Why by Simon Sinek.

Podcasts, Joe Rogan, Rich Roll, The Doctors Farmacy, Jake and Jonothan, and TED.

Newsletters, Farnam Street, and the Savory Institute.

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

Daily essentials: Figma, and I use Notion for everything; it’s the perfect piece of software.

Hobby: I recently got a set of Titleist 620MB Irons. I’m 34, and I’ve wanted blades since I was 9. They look like works of art and are my prized possession.

Vice: Edradour 10-Year-Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky. They’re the smallest distillery in Scotland, and they still handcraft it the way they have done for 150 years. There’s always a bottle in the cupboard, and it takes a lot of self-control to make it last.

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

Any single parent who works full-time. They’re geniuses. I’m a white male living in a free country with a supportive wife and no children (yet). As challenging as my days might get, I’m very aware of how easy I have it, comparatively. I’m sure I’m not even aware of how much I have to learn.

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

I’ve always said, ‘you can’t tell people to meditate their way out of mortgage stress’.

Paying huge rents and mortgages to live close to major cities, while doing long hours that reduce your family interaction to ‘good morning’ and ‘good night’ is only going to corrode employee morale and accelerate burnout.

Pushing human beings to function like machines is bound to fail, and the harder they’re pushed, the less they can give. I think the grass is greener where you water it, but the caveat is that both parties need to be holding a watering can. Flexible working has to become the norm.

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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.