Nicole Fenton

Nicole Fenton is a freelance writer and editor in Brooklyn. As a consultant, she helps people make friendly products and websites. Previously, she worked at Facebook, Apple, Lab Zero, and Mule Design. You can find more of her writing in Contents Magazine and Web Standards Sherpa. She also keeps a journal and posts little things on Twitter.

Published Thoughts

Burnout hits every 6 months or so. I don’t see it coming, because I’ve been working non-stop, ignoring the symptoms. But I can tell when it arrives. Work creaks along. My forehead aches. My neck locks. An eye twitches. Friends invite me out, but I turn inward, hunched over my desk trying to will the machine into action. I’m not really here though; the machine doesn’t do much without me.

Stress manifests like depression for me. I crave exercise, but can’t be bothered to do it. I have to remind myself to eat. Every inch of my body growls in the morning. I hibernate in a full-on bear grump. These are some of the signs. There are others too. In corporate jobs, I hide in the restroom periodically or take a long walk to breathe deeply. Sometimes I cry. That makes it worse. Stress begets stress. And if you’re anything like me, feeling useful and contributing to something bigger can be part of the problem. A little addictive even.

I started working at 14, because I needed the money. I’ve been helping companies with their customers each year since then. The holiday rush is a big part of that. How can we meet the demands of people we can’t see? A great question, but maybe the wrong one.

Stress is dangerous. I’m feeling it now, heavy and tiresome. Too much time on the computer. I need to take my own advice:

  • Stuck on the same thing for over an hour? Time for a break. Go for a walk. Outside.
  • Feeling stiff? Stretch.
  • Get up every now and then. Make yourself tea or grab a snack.
  • Eat 3 meals a day.
  • Breathe. Sit up straight. Whatever you’re doing can wait.
  • Meditate in the morning.
  • Read a book at night. Put the screen down. It hurts your eyes. Let them rest too.
  • Do yoga 3 times a week.

This year was intense. Even good changes are stressful. I have to remember to work the stress out of my body. These are things that help me. What about you? How do you stay motivated and relaxed?

Determinism and self-reporting

Watch out for limiting language during the design process:

  • The only way to do that is…
  • People don’t care about anything except…
  • That isn’t important to anyone…
  • This page is just for…
  • They never…

These are signs of assumptions. But our work is about being open to possibilities. We have to consider situations we haven’t been through and feelings that aren’t ours. One way to practice this is to use words with a little bit of gray area, nuance, or uncertainty.

  • What if…
  • How about…
  • It might be important to…
  • What I notice is…
  • We haven’t figured that out yet…

Revisit your work. It might make you cringe. It might surprise you or make you proud of how far you’ve come. It might remind you of why you’re here and what you’re trying to do (or forgot to do). It might even make you realize that the world moves more slowly than we’re led to believe.

Three things I have to remind myself

Trust your reader

The writing you love is warm and clear. Don’t let arguments get in the way of what you want to say. Your reader’s beside you holding your hand, not across from you or below you.

Listen to your gut

“What I’ve really learned in my 43 years is that the body does not lie; the body actually tells you what’s right and wrong. If you get a sinking feeling in your stomach or a heavy heart about something, you shouldn’t do it; and if you get a lifting, light feeling in your body, you should.” — Cheryl Strayed

Ask questions about a project and the people involved before showing up to a meeting. Say no when your stomach says no. And if your gut isn’t sure when you get there, walking out always feels good when you want to.

Say thank you

People will lift you up and help you out—even when you’re being a grump. Don’t forget to say thank you. You don’t have to be clever or write a novel. You can include a small gift if you want to, but don’t fret over the details so much. It’s the thought that counts.

Fragility

We try to build life and a sense of safety into things we make. Everything will be okay. Just click here, fill in this form, or go to that page. You’ll find what you need. Your information is private. There are humans behind the scenes and we have the machines under control. You can trust us. We promise.

We use words like:

  • forever
  • secure
  • clean
  • flexible
  • open
  • scale
  • sustainable
  • connected
  • data

We hope we get it right. (We try to get it right.)

But what if our work is fragile by nature? What metaphors would matter? Would we build things differently or change anything at all?

Starting Small

About a year ago, I was catching up with my friend Timothy Sanders. He writes short stories and had just been featured in VICE, so I wanted to congratulate him. His book is brilliant and his tweets are hilarious. I’m all-adverbs-out proud to know him.

I told Tim how excited I was. He thanked me and asked, “Have you started your book?”

“No,” I laughed. I was a few months into a new job and full of excuses. I didn’t mention them, but they had me surrounded.

  • I couldn’t decide what to write about.
  • My commute was tiring me out.
  • I was in the middle of a breakup.
  • I had just started a side project.
  • I hadn’t been sleeping or eating very well.
  • Weekends were reserved for relaxing and reading.
  • I could barely keep my exercise routine going.

I told Tim: “I have a few ideas, but the voice in my head keeps saying, ‘Who fucking cares?’”

He shot back, “I care! Also, I think I learned from you that all writing is a failure… like no matter how ‘good’ it is you could always make it better.” I used to be his editor. I don’t remember saying that, but it’s true.

Tim had found a way to get started and to finish. His book was resting on my shelf. I was wasting time asking myself, “What have I done that’s worthwhile?” But despite what I thought, Tim was grateful for my help. That shook me up in a good way.


On January 17 of this year, I wrote an outline. It took me 20 minutes to write. It took me 29 years to be able to write it.

Between the bones of that basic skeleton is the meat of my life. Notes. Questions. Journal entries. Arguments with myself. Conversations with friends. Things I learned while working with Tim. Things I’m still confused about. Years of practicing patience. So many fights and so many feelings.

I cleaned up the outline and decided to get my act together. I shared it with a few friends. I’m still working on it. All the while, I keep asking myself, “What am I doing? What do I have to say to anyone about anything?”

That voice — that ridiculous, antagonistic voice — is the same voice I help clients and colleagues through each day. We all have that nagging, second-guessing, self-editing, joy-stopping, sad-hearted weasel squirming around inside. Fuck that voice.

There are so many days when “the work” is remembering you can do the work. You have to start small. It’s okay, just get the facts down. Say what you know, one word at a time. Take a walk when your chest gets too tight. Be around people who make you happy to be alive. And when you sit down to work and that voice starts shrieking, give it a moment to wear itself out — and then do the work anyway.

Embracing the Mess

What began in a state of grace soon reveals itself to be a jumble. The human mind, as it turns out, is messy. — Ellen Ullman


A couple of weeks ago, Adam Michela and I were talking about the design process. He said something that was revelatory for me, and I’m still working through it.

We were talking about systems and how we try to make them extensible. When it’s finally time to ship a product, things start getting weird. All those hours and conversations start to unravel. Every last-minute change feels like a punch in the gut. I said, “I hate it when people do things without thinking about their implications.”

“But that’s why we are designers,” Adam said. “Because we can see those implications and think through them.”

It was a Friday afternoon. I was tired. I went home and rested. But Adam got me thinking, how do we embrace the mess? Or should we?

If we notice things most people don’t, what kind of responsibility does that give us?

On Community

I just went to Confab London, a conference where people from 28+ countries come to shake hands, sip cocktails, and listen to each other’s experiences in the web industry.

While Confab is made for people who work on content and communications, everyone’s welcome. The environment is so welcoming that it kind of makes Twitter feel like a mosh pit or an overcrowded shopping mall. We shove and shout, and every now and again things get so ugly we need a professional timeout. This kind of aggression leaves me with questions:

  • How can we show empathy for other people in the field? What assumptions can we make about our peers?
  • When something new launches, what kinds of responses are appropriate? Is it always the best or worst thing ever?
  • If something is broken or needs work, how can we tell someone that can do something about it?
  • If we dislike a design in 140 characters, are we teaching clients to judge based on personal taste?
  • If we’re unhappy with a customer service representative, should we shout about it to friends on Twitter?

I’m not sure where the lines are here, and we’re all figuring it out as we go. I mess up a lot. But if we give strangers the same kind of respect that we give clients, we might learn more from each other along the way.

I like change, which means I switch up how I write once in a while. I move furniture first or go for a photo walk. I draw boxes on a whiteboard or type directly into text fields. I think out loud to hear my own voice. I ask questions and listen to other people’s feelings and ideas.

These patterns come from different things around me, like my environment, friends, and how I’ve been feeling. Writing is a personal and subjective practice. As we change, our styles and interests do too. With that in mind, here are three patterns I’ve noticed in myself lately:

  1. Wait until the end of the day to write something personal. When you’re completely exhausted, it’s easier to speak from the heart.
  2. Don’t worry if your work isn’t perfect. Focus on the feelings you want to convey, even if they’re fuzzy at first. Cover what you care about. Then, fill in the facts, reread what you wrote, and edit for details.
  3. Talk with people a lot more than you think you can. You’ll be a better human for it and your work will improve too.

So what about you? What kinds of patterns do you find yourself following these days? I’d love to hear about them, whether about writing or anything else.

This year’s for the stuff that makes me nervous.

Hard stuff. Like standing up for myself in bad situations. Getting specific and elaborating when I’m comfortable with the opposite. Or starting conversations that need to happen.

The times when I need to apologize immediately or not be such an ass. The times when I have to retrain my brain to think positively and make something great.

Messy stuff. Like selling ideas or teaching people how to give feedback, instead of giving up when we don’t speak the same language.

This year’s for taking steps toward understanding.

When I was consulting, I measured my work in hours. I’d guess how long something would take, add a small amount of slack, do the work, and then measure against my estimates. Did I charge fairly? Am I good at guessing how long something takes? Am I profitable?

But now, back in the world of salaries, I find this model to be a bit unfair to myself and what I want out of life. More and more, I’m measuring my work from the energy I have at the end of the day. Do I have enough energy to explore new ideas, learn something everyday, and keep my motivation going? Do the people I work with bring me up or wear me out? Will this project ship—and if it does, will it help people?

Energy is hard to measure. It’s a gut feeling. An end-of-the-day question: was that the best use of my time?