Designers, and all creative people alike, may have difficulty staying motivated and being productive. We're not lazy people - we just have stronger creative drives that may keep us from working on what we need to. Self discipline is universal though. Anyone can build self discipline and create a more productive work life, without feeling overly stressed. It may just take a new way of thinking about things, and a new way of doing things.
In this article, we'll look over ten productivity tips, but tips that are specifically targeted towards designers, or creative people in general. By focusing on an area of self improvement (like increasing productivity), the best results can come from doing so with attention to your own personality type, profession, and professional goals.
1. Avoid Perfection
We creative types often tend to be perfectionists as well. The "do-your-best" mindset has been given as the best advice to achieving more in life, and in each design. However, this mindset can often backfire when it comes to productivity.
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Yes, it is important to try hard and do your best, but that doesn't mean creating perfection each time. Do you often focus too much on consuming information in order to be perfect at something, rather than doing? Do you often start projects and obsess over details and perfection, only to become frustrated, bored, and fatigued, and then never finish the project?
Change your focus to getting more done. Chances are, your overly obsessive, must-have-perfection work will be no better than your just-getting-it-done work. The final product still comes from your own mind, skill set, and work ethic. Then, with the completion of each new project, you get better and faster at what you do anyway — with more practice, every next design will be more "perfect" than the last.
2. Find Your Muse
As a designer, what do you love to do the most? What would you rather be working on right now? Everyone, in any industry, works the fastest and produces the best quality results when they are working on something they are inspired to be working on. As creative people, we may feel inspired, or in other words, find our muse, more often than others do.
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One problem of being a designer, though, is that we may not get to always work on what we want to at the moment. Some things have higher priorities than others. A client with an upcoming deadline has more priority than a client with a project deadline down the road, and far more priority than a personal project. So, we force ourselves to work on whatever needs to get done, and admittedly - do sometimes get distracted by the lesser priority items to keep the job interesting.
So is working on what you want at the moment counter productive? Often times yes, but with a change in how things are done, it doesn't have to be. As a designer, you probably juggle many jobs at once. These jobs differ between marketing, client projects, perhaps a few regular gigs (like blogging), and personal projects. Many have priority over others and have deadlines to be met. How does one get it all done, and still work when inspired? When you have a variety of jobs to do, you can pick and choose which to work on. Which job sounds the most interesting to you right now? If you need to get work done on client projects, then make them a priority. You still have the option of which one to work on right now; choose the client project that appeals to you most at the time, and then after you've made a huge chunk in it, you'll likely feel like moving onto another project you may have been avoiding before.
When deadlines aren't pressing, options are even more expanded. Do you feel like working on a personal project, or getting a bit ahead of another paid project?
3. Treat Procrastination Syndrome
People procrastinate most of the time because a task seems either boring or daunting. If we knew a job could be easily done, and it could even be fun to do, we'd just open up the project and get it done, right away. There'd be no reason to procrastinate. We may even want to work on it in our spare time, such as between meetings, during commutes, or even right before bed. If it's simple enough to see substantial progress with minimal effort, we get that immediate sense of achievement, and we'll just do it - as opposed to putting it off.
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If there is a project to be done and you find yourself procrastinating, first determine why you are doing so. Is the project really boring? Or does it seem so big that you don't even want to begin with the frustration of going through with it? Is it even both of these things combined? First of all, the job isn't as daunting as it seems nor will it take as long as you think. Second of all, with a few exceptions, the job is likely to be more fun than you think. Focus on putting your own creativity and edge into the project, and treat it similarly to how you would treat a personal project.
Then, simplify the task into manageable pieces. Dedicate to doing at least one "piece" of the project today, or within the next hour. You may find that you don't want to stop after that first piece; after you just simply begin. This only further proves the task wasn't as daunting as you were making it seem. If you do get fatigued after that one piece, break the project down further, and keep working in increments. Overall, learn to change your mindset concerning certain tasks to a positive one, and likely more of a truthful one (e.g. "It's a fun task that I'm glad to be doing with my working time!", "It's not going to take nearly as long as I'm making it seem!").
4. Find Inspiration in Simple Things
It's easy to find inspiration in a museum, a walk in the park, and likewise. Can you find inspiration in your daily routine, though? One that doesn't take away from your work time, but rather coincides with it while making you more productive?
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Designers constantly need inspiration, examples, and motivation. Finding these things can be as simple as breaking your routine work in a different location, taking a closer look at the things around you, and collaborating/networking with other designers, developers, writers, and more.
Routines are great for productivity, and can get you in a "work-time" mode once you follow a set of rituals day-to-day — wake up, get coffee, go to library...work mode. Yet, for creative blocks that inhibit you from getting the job done, no matter what that job is, look for small ways to change it up, while still keeping to somewhat of a routine. For example, be sure to wake up at the same time, get your coffee, but work outside today. Or wake up an hour earlier, then get coffee, and go to work in your usual spot.
Also look for inspiration in your surroundings. I, for example, tend to work in a secluded section of my university's library where there's a lot of graffiti on the desks. Seems like an odd place for inspiration, but there are always unique doodles, funny sayings, and even some inspirational quotes that have amassed over the years. Just sifting through some during downtime is enough to help me think of new things, get my mind off of work (for an effective break time), or inspire me to get more work done.
5. Get Into the Work Habit
Just for one day, track your time to see how much time you spend actually working. Don't worry about what you're working on or when you're working on it. It doesn't matter if it's billable time, or not. Just take a timer, and start timing when you work on a project, marketing, or anything productive, and stop it the moment you decide to browse the Internet for awhile, take a break, etc. How many hours are you actually working?
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For many, the results may be disappointing. Is it just a few hours? How often do you find yourself getting sidetracked? Make a new primary goal to increase your actual working time each day, until you are up to a desired amount. It can be far easier to stay focused when you are actually tracking your time - you feel more responsible, and you feel more productive when you know you're getting things done versus just thinking that you're getting things done.
Each day, mark down an "X" on your calendar when you reach the desired amount of actual productive hours logged. Keep it up, and form a habit. You'll soon be getting a lot more work done, be enjoying work more because you'll feel less stressed, won't be behind, and will make it routine to do that much work in a day, rather than it being a stretch.
6. Don't Bum Around All Morning
This one is more geared towards freelance designers, but can easily be applied to designers in the traditional workforce as well. Have a headstart to your day. Get up, take a shower, go to work. Don't lay in bed for an extra hour, get up and watch TV during breakfast, and then play a video game before getting to work. Don't do a small task, then slack off for even ten minutes.
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A productive day begins with a productive morning. Plan your day knowing you'll get the most done in the morning, and slowly lose momentum throughout the day. Don't assume you'll have more energy at 8pm tonight - you're just putting things off!
Do whatever it takes to get to work. If that means heading out of your own home to a public work space, then go there. If it means simply changing out of your PJ's, then do it. Know what you're going to do first thing in the morning as well. It can be helpful to plan this out the night before. Do the task, or work on the project, no matter how much you don't feel like it straight away in the morning, just as you would if you had a boss.
7. Use Tools, and Choose them Wisely
As designers, we have so many options available for certain tools to use. These tools can be focused on productivity itself, such as business, collaboration, timetracking, and invoice tools, or can be helpful during the design phase, like typography, color, code snippets, frameworks, and grid tools. Take advantage of these, because they are intended to provide better results on your projects, and save you time as well.
Do keep in mind though, that not all tools will help you be productive. Use the tools and applications that will help save you time on things you do regularly. However, if a certain tool is too bulky, or takes too much time to learn to use, then just don't use it! Sometimes the fastest, easiest, and most productive way of doing things is to just do them the old fashioned way; just do them the way you're used to.
8. Set Deadlines and Take them Seriously
We all have deadlines for client projects and paid tasks. Whether those deadlines be general or set to a specific date, we all tend to respect them, and feel horrible if we don't meet them. If we don't meet them or cut too close, we feel stressed and worry about our future relationship with the client and where the future of our business is going.
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That's great - it's stressful, but it keeps us moving! So why don't we apply that same importance of deadlines to other things, like personal projects, tasks, responding to emails, or ongoing gigs that don't have set deadlines? It's very common for us designers, who likely have a lot of side projects going on behind our client work to set goals and self-made deadlines to get things done. "I'll have a new post up on my blog by the end of the week," you say, or "I'll write this new promotional e-book by the end of the year." Does it always happen?
Set clearly defined deadlines for all the things you want to do, not just for the things you have to do. Treat those deadlines with respect, and get them done. These things you want to do will move your career forward, and are not to be treated as 'if-I-feel-like-it' or 'in-my-spare-time' tasks. It's what you want to do, and what you know you should do to get what you want out of being a designer. So do them! Get into the habit of feeling stressed when a personal deadline is pressing, and use time management accordingly to get it done on time.
9. Get and Keep Organized
Keep financial records organized, as well as inspiration bits, tools and resources, contact information and more. If there is a specific area where you do not keep organized, don't just try to keep organizing it in the same way you always have. For example, if you tend to keep design resources in a bookmarks folder within your browser, but often times end up just writing down the URL of the resource, or referring back to it through your browsing history, then maybe that organization style isn't working for this specific area. Keep notes on paper, or in a file instead - if that's what works best for you.
Image credit: roscoe
Finding organization habits and sticking to them is one of the best ways the often erratic creative types can keep moving forward. You won't spend time looking for things you need or want, and you won't lose tools you once found helpful. With adequate organization, you can also see what needs to get done, what you can work on, what you should work on, and how much time you have to do what you need to do, or want to do.
10. Stop Multitasking
No, it's not productive. It's just an excuse for distraction, and moving from one thing to the next. If you do feel the need to switch projects (for the purpose of tip #2), spend at least an hour of focused energy on one thing before switching to the next, and then switching back. Give yourself time to get into the focused mindset, and give yourself time to get fatigued by the project in the first place!
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"Even a half hour of focused effort can get more done than an entire day of distraction and multitasking." - Scott H Young
Besides working on two projects at once, another bad habit is to "multitask" between a project and something more fun. Do you let Facebook, Twitter, or another social network sit in the background while you work on a task? How often does a new message end up distracting you, and how much greater is your compulsion to keep checking back for new tweets, messages, and updates, rather than what it would be if it weren't up at all?
Put everything else away - including other projects and distractions, and focus, even if only for 10 minutes to start, on a selected project. After a while, you can work on the next thing, just don't try to do it at the same time.
Productivity is all about knowing what works best for you, and forming new habits around those traits. For free-spirited creative people, it can be much more distracting when we feel the need to create something not related to what we should be working on. Productivity is harder for designers, or creative people of any type. It doesn't have to be though. It just takes some effort and understanding to form habits that work for us, as opposed to more logic-oriented minds.
Learn about other productivity tricks and habits, and try a variety of them out. These ten tips aren't everything that's out there. Remember to place action with everything you do, though. Don't just read these or other productivity tips, and then never implement them! Create action - form new habits and get things done.