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July 25, 2017 /UX/UI Design /

How to Keep Your Design Brain Happy – Find the Inspiration You Need, Relax, and Get Things Done

Designer’s block much?

Okay, a designer’s block is perhaps not a concept that’s widely known, and certainly not as much as its older brother – the dreaded writer’s block – something I’m more than familiar with from time to time. Nevertheless, it can be really serious, and, what’s worse, it can have a real impact on your career as a designer.

It all starts with a blank screen. It’s there. It’s looking at you. And you don’t know how to get started at all. Is it your fault? Have you put yourself through this? Is it your fault for not being able to snap out of it and finally get some work done?! – you’re asking yourself.

Well, the answer is twofold, on the one hand, yes, you are responsible for what’s going on. But on the other, it’s not something that just happened to you out of the blue, hence, you can learn how to avoid situations like that in the future. Or, better yet, put things into motion that will help you get work done more effectively even today.

In other words, if you want to learn how to keep your design brain happy, how to get your work done, how to be productive while staying inspired and not feel overworked, then you’re in the right place. We’re going to talk about all of this here.

Note; this article describes individual steps that you can take (one by one) to get inspired to do meaningful work and overcome any sort of a designer’s block. There’s a lot of stuff here, so I don’t expect you to introduce all of it into your workday right away. Even if you just get started with three or four methods, you should still observe a positive impact on your productivity.

In order of importance (my interpretation):

1. Start the Day by Doing Physical Exercise

Sorry, I know this isn’t a wellness blog and that we should be “all business” here, but the fact to the matter is that there’s no better way of keeping your most important muscle – your brain – in shape than by exercising your other muscles.

Not my words, science’s. It’s been proven that exercising is actually one of the few ways to generate new neurons. Basically, exercising makes you smarter.

So here’s what I want you to do. Every morning – can be after breakfast, can be before, your choice – start the day by doing 10 minutes of basic warm-up. Here are some exercise ideas.

This level of exercise has been proven to have tremendous benefits on our cognition and our brain’s ability to get ramped up in general. Some sources here and here – if you don’t believe me.

2. Introduce a Fixed Schedule

We’ve been lied to. Sorry.

The fairy tale about working as a designer, and particularly in a freelance setting, is that you can do your work whenever you wish, that it doesn’t matter where you’re doing the work from, that you get freedom, that you’re your own boss … and other nonsense like that.

The problem with this line of thinking, though, is that, as it turns out, having too many options actually leads us to feeling unhappy and to less productivity overall. This is something that’s discussed in The Paradox of Choice, by Barry Schwartz.

One of the proposed solutions to this paradox is to, (1) introduce a fixed schedule, and, to take it further, (2) always do specific types of tasks every day at the same hour. After a while, your brain adapts and gets itself ready for those specific activities. As a result, you’re at your peak performance when the time comes.

How can you utilize this principle? Some ideas:

  • always do brainstorming and planning in the morning, it’s when you’re the freshest and it’s also when your prefrontal cortex is the most active (the “creative” part of your brain),
  • do invoicing and other paper work in the evening,
  • do email just twice a day, rather than all the time,
  • see what other repeatable types of tasks you can find in your daily agenda.

3. Set a Maximum Number of Work Hours

Don’t work more than is optimal.

Some research (PDF) indicates that your output when working 70 hour weeks differs only slightly from when on 56 hour weeks. The same study argues that going above 50 hours in the first place gives you only marginal gains and isn’t generally worth it.

But even 50 hours seems like too much. Another research states that you can reach your maximum productivity when working even less than eight hours per day. The key is not the number of total work hours but how intense your work time is and how you go about taking breaks.

Which brings me to:

4. Use a Timer and Take Smart Breaks

An aforementioned research experiment argues that the total length of your workday is not as important in the grand scheme of things. What is important, though, is working smarter with frequent breaks.

What the researchers found was that people with the highest levels of productivity worked for around 50 minutes at a time and then took a 15(-ish) minute break.

During those breaks, they didn’t interact with a computer in any way. They didn’t browse YouTube, Facebook, etc. Instead, they went out for a walk or had a chat with a co-worker.

The easiest way to implement this principle is with a timer tool. My favorite one is called Timer. Really easy to use and gets the job done. Simplicity is key with a tool like that.

You can start by setting the timer to 50 minutes. When it buzzes, set it to 15 minutes and take your break. Repeat.

5. Don’t Multitask

Some studies argue that multitasking is more damaging to our productivity than smoking marijuana, no joke. Let me put this in other words, when multitasking, you’re actually less productive than someone who’s working under the influence of drugs.

Even though doing more than one task at a time is very tempting, and it seems like it should work, it’s actually a one-way path to frustration and getting none of your work done.

This is all due to the cost of switching between tasks. Another study says that when distracted, it takes you about 23 minutes to regain your previous mindset and be able to continue with the previous task. The problem with multitasking is that you’re basically switching between tasks all the time.

The solution is simple, do just one task at a time.

Eliminate distractions. If you find yourself visiting Facebook a bit too often, block it via a browser add-on. Some popular options include StayFocusd (Chrome), WasteNoTime (Safari), LeechBlock (Firefox).

6. Start with Warm-Up Tasks

No matter what your current design project is, it probably consists of some tasks that are less intensive or demanding, and other tasks that drain your brain power a bit more. The problem with the latter is that it’s very easy to procrastinate on them endlessly until your workday is basically over.

The way to get around this issue is to start the day with your less intensive tasks – tasks that don’t require that much of your brain processing power to get done. Dealing with them first will help you get your wheels rolling and get in the mood for work.

For a new design project, those might include: looking for relevant articles on the web as part of your research, getting all your materials in one place where you can access them easily, organizing your workspace, etc.

7. Do What’s Critical Next

Once you’re done with your warm-up tasks, it’s time to get working on what is actually critical for the project at hand. This is the core of the project – the stuff that absolutely needs to be done in order to move the project forward.

Doing your warm-up tasks immediately before helps you build up speed and thus be able to tackle the important stuff with complete focus. That way, you don’t need to artificially try getting yourself in the zone since you’ve already been working for a good chunk of time.

8. Consume Only the Minimum Information Needed

Being a designer requires you to have your finger on the pulse constantly, and always be on the lookout for new interesting trends, developments, methods, and tools.

However, doing too much of that can actually inhibit your ability to produce meaningful output. Here’s what I mean; the web is overloaded with information – it’s the one thing that’s truly abundant in this day and age.

What this means is that if you’re working on, say, a new logo design, and you’re looking for inspiration by googling “logo design trends,” then you’re up for an endless stream of roundup posts, tutorials, videos, and whatnots. Thus, making it difficult to finish the research phase, and finally start working on the actual design.

The way to deal with this is to allow yourself to consume just the minimum amount of information needed in order to get started on your task. Learn to say, “okay, that’s enough.”

Here’s how to do that:

  • Consume resources one by one and take action on them immediately. For example, when you stumble upon a nice roundup of logo design resources, think, “okay, how can I use this data right away,” and then do it. Only once you have taken action on the first resource, go to the next one.
  • Don’t consume information in advance – “oh, this might come in useful someday.” Usually, “someday” never comes.

9. Don’t Rely on Your Memory

Even though human brains have really impressive memory capacity – estimated to be at around 2.5 petabytes (2.5 million gigabytes or 13,000 MacBooks-worth), using this capacity to its fullest extent isn’t always effective. For instance, something called Miller’s Law states that the number of things that we can hold in our working memory is only about seven.

In practice, it turns out that we are much better at thinking about things – processing facts, drawing conclusions, coming up with ideas – than we are remembering things.

Therefore, don’t assume that you will be able to remember something that you have to do later that day or in a couple of days. Actually, don’t expect that you’re going to remember anything at all. Instead, write everything down. Put your notes in Evernote, or Apple Notes. Put your to-dos in a to-do manager. Put events in your calendar. And so on.

Being confident that everything has its place in a specific dedicated tool gives you an incredible peace of mind and allows you to focus on your work entirely, without having to worry about anything else.

10. Create an Effective Relaxation Habit

Effective relaxation habit might sound weird, but hear me out.

You shouldn’t just relax when you feel tired. It’s already too late when that happens. Instead, set fixed hours for relaxation – put it in your schedule like any other task.

This goes back to the idea of introducing a fixed schedule overall that we talked about earlier in this post. Your body simply adjusts to your relaxation schedule as well. This means that after a while, it starts anticipating and expecting the relaxation session that’s to come.

The best time to schedule your relaxation session is probably during the mid-day hump. Take a longer break then, say, 30 minutes. Take a nap if you’re one of the nap people.

Also, most importantly, change your “context” when relaxing.

Here’s what I mean by context; basically, when you’re working on a design project, you’re exercising the creative part of your brain, you’re using up your brain power by forcing it to process large amounts of similar data (all related to the project at hand). Therefore, the only way to truly relax is to change the context of what you’re doing entirely.

Let me give you an example, if you’re working on a website design, and then take a break during which you grab a book about design, then you’re not actually relaxing. Your brain is still in the same context – it’s thinking about design. To truly relax, change the context to either “physical” (take a walk, exercise) or “social” (chat with a co-worker, grab a coffee).

I would be careful with books and movies as relaxation in general, too. Even if you’re reading or watching fiction, your creative brain can still kick in and start analyzing the various elements of the book or movie experience that you’re having. “That’s a nice costume that this character has. And look at this set design!” … and your design brain is back at it again. “Social” and “physical” really can’t fail you.

Staying Productive as a Designer

Staying productive for long periods of time as a designer can be tough. There’s burnout, there’s designer’s block, and there are outside obstacles and distractions. Those hit all of us. Add to that the information overload that’s out there, and your day becomes even more stressful than it should be.

What you can do about all of this is take baby steps. Just one method and one habit at a time. Start with simple routines, introduce more as you go forward. Working on your productivity as a professional is never a one-off thing, and more of a continuous process. I hope that the 10 tips described here will help you get on the right track and keep your design brain happy!

UX/UI Design

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