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Three Simple Steps to Higher Output and Greater Creativity

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The beginning of a new year is filled with a massive amount of energy and resolve, people setting out to find new ways of thinking and working that can bring them closer in line with their goals. This post is going to give you, a web designer and developer, both practical steps and conceptual advice to help you reach a higher level of output and a more consistent flow of creativity.

This is not intended to be a definitive, objectively proven post, but rather to encourage more intentional work and life practices, which in the end could have a significant impact on your daily life, both professionally and personally.


First, Some Clarity and Motivation

Have you ever met a client and started working on a new design without any pre-planning, discovery, or time dedicated to finding brand inspiration? If you are like me, you've had the unfortunate experience of having to force those phases into your timeline, wasting a lot of time and in the end realizing how much you've lost in the process.

Similarly, you must begin to plan your own day. So many times in this industry, we allow ourselves an extended amount of what we believe to be freedom. Let me explain with a contrived story about our fictional self, Mike. If you would prefer a more female fictional self, Mike is short for Mikaela; I'm trying to save bytes here.


Mike, Our Hero

Mike wakes up around nine in the morning, giving himself time to get ready for the day. He checks his email first thing for leads, or sites that are down, and then goes about responding to any urgent emails.

Illustration by Jacob Zinman-Jeanes
Illustration by Jacob Zinman-Jeanes

Over a bowl of cereal, Mike sits in his pyjamas browsing Awwwards. He fixes a bug or two from his email chain, and then gets to work on a project. Throughout the day, procrastination and distraction plague Mike's working environment. He gets notifications via his phone and his email, popping over the top of whatever he is working on.

Mike sees about an hour of productive, In-the-Zone time, and unfortunately spends the rest of it trying to remember what important thing he was working on last. He clears his inbox every twenty minutes or so, making sure everyone is happy. Around four o'clock, Mike feels the weight of his procrastination, and realizes he still has a few hours worth of work to really be up to speed before the next day. Mike feels burnt out and somewhat guilty at this point in the day.

Unfortunately, it is around this time that one of Mike's clients calls him and lets him know that the Twitter feed on their site broke, sending Mike into a state of panic. Mike works until eight o'clock that night, and despite his New Year's resolution to get to the gym every day, he decides that he is too exhausted to do it that day.

Mike orders a pizza from the couch, and sits in front of the TV. He checks his email one more time around ten o'clock, seeing a thank you from the client with the Twitter feed, and feels a sense of progress. Unfortunately this is balanced out by a server crash. He goes on to make a few minor fixes and then gets sucked into reading a tutorial or two with the TV on, and finally gets to bed around half past one in the morning.

Sound familiar? Perhaps you have a modified version of the story above that includes some more strict health guidelines, for which I would certainly applaud you. Or perhaps you have a worse story where your clients are never happy.

What we don't see with Mike's story, though, is what Mike really wants. Sure, we can see that he experiences a sense of satisfaction, working from home and setting his own schedule. These are all perks of the modern professional office, but they only go so far. No, we don't see what Mike actually wants.

We see what Mike's clients want, and we see Mike getting pulled in a million directions, with little to show except a fixed Twitter feed and a climbing number on Mike's bathroom scale. We see Mike trying to maintain what he already has.

You see, if we look at Mike's list of wants, we might see quite a few things.

  • I want to see the world
  • I want to have a family
  • I want to write a book
  • I want to work with X and Y
  • I want to build Z
  • I want to pay off my debts

What does seeing the world and having a family have to do with Mike's job as a web designer? I'm going to make the argument that it has everything to do with it.


Fixing Mike

Mike, you have to go after what you want, and you have to do it now. The truth is, life is made up of days just like the one we described for Mike. And if Mike follows his current plan, he's going to end up looking at his list of wants and realizing that he's way behind.

Let's stop with this depressing version of Mike, and see what needs to change.

Make a Concrete Plan

Mike needs to set out some concrete rules for himself. In his book The Accidental Creative, Todd Henry tells us that freedom without structure isn't really freedom - it's chaos. Setting rules is the first step to defining a structure. Just like building a site without planning, setting goals without planning steps to achieve them is destined for failure.

So, what should that plan be?


Step 1: Start With a Routine

This one is perhaps the most important factor to success for Mike.

Illustration by Jacob Zinman-Jeanes
Illustration by Jacob Zinman-Jeanes

Setting a routine every day has many benefits, including:

Predictability

successful writers, designers, and other creative types throughout generations have sworn by their behavioral patterns while doing creative work. Some writers like to write in the same place using the same pen while drinking the same tea from the same mug, not necessarily because of the nostalgia associated with the environment or objects, but instead because of the unconscious message your brain learns and adapts to suit: "It's time to make something brilliant."

Balance

So you want a social life? Or to exercise? Just like Mike, very few people want to be fulfilling the needs of others every waking minute of their day. In order to prevent burnout and to pursue the things we want outside of responding to client requests, we must institute a balance. This means setting a hard stopping point, and instead intentionally making time for the other parts of your life. Overworking is rarely valuable in the long run, except for limited occasions and circumstances.

Make Exercise a Priority

The human body was not meant to stay still all day. And unfortunately, many of our jobs call for this sedentary behavior. Even if you aren't like Mike (who has now had pizza for breakfast, lunch, and dinner on more than one occasion), a healthy body contributes to more than just appearances. The chemical response your body has to hard exercise can give inspiration, and the meditative effects of aerobic exercise may give you the ability to focus for longer, more productive periods.

Get Dressed

Even if you work from home, take the time to get dressed every day. This will contribute to your mind's proverbial "on" switch. Don't get dressed into pyjamas. This blurs the line between "down-time" and "go-time".

Find a Dedicated Physical Space

Whether this is your dining room, porch, or a particular table in a coffee shop, give yourself a specific location that will trigger your working mindset.

So, now we have Mike being more mindful of his schedule. Waking up at a regular time, and making time for exercise and extra-curricular life has made him healthier and less burnt out. Also, Mike is meeting friends, and has developed an interest in hiking.


Step 2: Using Routine to Focus Your Priorities

Now that Mike's routine has found some stability, let's talk a bit about priorities.

Illustration by Jacob Zinman-Jeanes
Illustration by Jacob Zinman-Jeanes

The Difference Between Urgency and Priority

As technically aware people, developers have a tendency to attach their minds to problems as soon as they encounter them. Whether this happens by finding a bug on a site they are working on, or via a client email, encountering bugs sets off sirens in our minds until the bug is resolved. This sense of urgency can be a good thing at times, but at others, it can be detrimental to our daily productivity. We must learn to prioritize what is actually important to us and to our jobs above what is seemingly urgent. The truth is, most bugs can wait a day, or even a week. Of course, this should be balanced with legitimate urgency: if the client's business operations are significantly impaired because of a bug, you certainly should be responsive and help fix the problem.

Learning the Value of Blank Space

We aren't talking about whitespace here. We're talking about a time where there's nothing in front of you but the thing you need to do next. Follow the Kanban rule of limiting your work in progress.

One of the biggest detriments to our everyday ability to focus is interruption. We have invited interruption into our lives via push notifications, email, and open-office environments. Many studies indicate that knowledge workers can get off track by, on average, about ten minutes for every interruption they encounter. What's more, when we engage with notifications sent to us, we pollute our problem solving cognitive power with new problems. This drains our subconscious ability to solve problems, and can cause a sense of anxiety when those problems are of some urgency. To rid ourselves of these potential issues, make it a part of your schedule to intentionally remove email for a period of time. This is most effective if you start your day with your creative or otherwise mentally taxing work, and put off all administrative work, email, meetings, and social media engagement until the later parts of the day. When you sleep, your mind and body experience a "reset" that could allow for more energy and intentionality in the morning.

Of course, this is also an issue of personal preference; if you have found your quiet, productive space to be late at night, make the night your blank space. No matter how many studies you've read, doing what works for you and doing it consistently is what matters.

Segment Your Life

Don't try to multi-task. Evidence shows it doesn't work. Whatever you are doing, do it fully. If you are in a meeting, put your phone away. If you are engaging social media, completely focus on social media. Tools like Buffer make it painless to manage your social media asynchronously by giving you the ability to preset Tweeting/Facebook posting times. This means you can do all of your social media sharing at once, and then move on to the next focus item.

Remove Push Notifications

To add on to the previous point, it is a good idea to remove your push notifications except for very urgent things (think: tornado warning, server outage, wife is having a baby). Removing push notifications requires you to be intentional about going to your notifications, rather than your notifications bombarding you day-in and day-out. You will likely find that you use some apps and services far less than you thought.

Practice Some Kind of Meditation

When we say meditation, there is no implying of a religious practice of any sort, though meditation is certainly a part of many religions. Meditation allows you to gain awareness and calmness in the midst of an inherently chaotic world. Try this the next time you are taking a hot shower or you have five minutes to kill: stand completely still, and focus purely on breathing. You can close your eyes, or if you leave them open, allow them to focus purely on the shapes and colors you see. If you have a thought about anything other than your meditative focus, try to let it pass and return to the "moment". Practicing mindful meditation will hone one of your most important skills: ignoring distraction (which is a good definition of focus).


Step 3: Cultivating Constant Creativity

Ah, the days are so much more productive with a routine and aligned priorities. Mike has been able to start working on the things that are most important to him as well as his employer and clients, gaining extra time while losing stress and a few pounds.

Illustration by Jacob Zinman-Jeanes
Illustration by Jacob Zinman-Jeanes

But how can he cultivate creativity? Writer's block has plagued him when he sits down to work on his book, and he's noticed an increasing difficulty in coming up with innovative ideas for web work. As a result, his confidence has taken a hit. Let's help him out a bit, shall we?

Recognize that Creativity is Closer to Science Than You Think

Cultural understanding of creativity has made it out to be some kind of ethereal, mystical power that is as predictable as a leprechaun and as rare as a unicorn. Fortunately, creativity is a real thing that we can study and cultivate; leprechauns and unicorns are only rare because someone wrote a story saying so. Creativity is much more like lightning; while we can't necessarily predict exactly when or how it may strike, we do know what conditions are most likely to cause it, and we know what it looks like.

Create Something, Constantly

Make it a habit to create something every single day. Whether this is writing 500 words a day (highly recommended), building a polished Codepen, or taking up another craft completely unrelated to web design, getting into the habit of creating is the first step towards creating the environment needed for that lightning strike. No one minds if you create something horrible. You have nothing to lose.

Cross-train

Creativity is, by nature, the creation of something that did not exist before. However, there is some truth to the statement that "there is no new idea under the sun". While that's certainly not true on its face, the fact is that creativity often comes in the form of combining two elements that have not previously been combined. For this reason, exercising your creative muscles doesn't always mean banging your head against your keyboard until something cool comes out of Photoshop.

Take some time to cultivate a broader understanding of your creative interests. Perhaps you happen to have an interest in carpentry, or maybe you have a secret obsession with fashion design. Maybe you enjoy building model cars, or you are an aspiring playwright. Whatever your external creative endeavors are, make an intentional decision to cultivate creativity in separate disciplines. This can help create new pathways in your mind when looking at the same blank screen isn't sufficiently inspiring.

Take Time to Evaluate Your Wins

As a creative, especially for those who are self-employed, it is particularly easy to over-evaluate the negative aspects of our work. As human beings, we are all addicted to approvals, attaboys, and pats on the back. We start our young lives being given grades on a consistent basis. When a student receives an "A", that's a semi-tangible anchor for them to say, "I've done well and my work is approved by the people that matter."

But what anchors do we have in our day-to-day? Sure, we may have the occasional dinner from the boss, or even an Awwward. We starve for proof of approval so much that we wait with Twitter to see who retweets our articles. But what if we could evaluate our selves, and give ourselves something to be proud of? Try this with whoever you work with on a given Friday afternoon at around 4:45: Look back over the last week, and identify your wins. On a semi-regular basis, look back over a month, and re-affirm the wins you've achieved. Write them down. Create digital certificates that you award to team members or even yourself. Make it a ritual. This gives you a unique and legitimized, systematic opportunity to satisfy your natural craving for approval without begging the rest of the world for it.

Note: Don't let anyone tell you this is arrogant or narcissistic. Reviewing your work is as important as planning your work.

Break Your (Established) Routine

Once you've established a routine, your brain can get used to the patterns you repeat each day. As we've said, having a predictable routine can help get you into the right "mode" for creating. But your mind is also an efficiency machine that cuts processing corners when it can. As you learn new things, your brain "optimizes" and catalogs those things so that the next time you encounter them, it takes less energy to comprehend their function.

A perfect analogy for this is the scene in Elf, when Buddy the Elf first arrives in New York City from the North Pole. While New York is old to most others, Buddy finds everything to be novel. This includes the revolving door, which the average New Yorker would habitually simply pass by, and a sign saying "world's best cup of coffee" on the outside of a diner. Our minds work to reduce the energy needed to do repeated, learned tasks. However, if we trick our mind, it might help create the mental momentum we need to get past the hurdle of hyper-efficient anti-creative efficiency mode. Try going to a new place and working remotely for an hour or two, or eating a different kind of food. Or try walking on your lunch-break. Force your mind to completely engage with whatever it is you are touching, seeing, smelling, and hearing.

Teach Someone Something

By teaching people, you sharpen your skills and are challenged to re-evaluate the fundamental elements of a given skill. If you don't have anyone to teach, teach everyone: the Internet isn't limited by time or classroom space. Instead of the traditional teaching environment, you could start a free blog and create content for anyone to find. Or, why not try writing for Tuts+?


Conclusion

We've provided Mike with quite a few concepts and practical advice for going from a stressed, unhealthy, unhappy developer to a happy, efficient, powerfully creative developer with a wide array of knowledge and experience. What would you do to cultivate creativity and efficiency?

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