January resolutions are punishments, the hair shirts that we piously pull on to scrub the vices out of our lives. Less delicious food! More uncomfortable exercise! Less TV! More work! Edicts like these are dreary apologies for who I was last year, not optimistic visions of who I might be this year.
I don’t usually take resolutions too seriously. Past reforms have included “drink more beer” and “no more silence in elevators.” I’m pleased to say that both resolutions were a resounding success, if not exactly world changing. The difference was that those pledges were gifts to myself, permission to go easy on myself for once and make the year a couple of degrees more fun.
This year, I’m considering my resolutions with a straighter face, but I’m still framing them as gifts to yours truly. What do I want my year to be? How can I give myself the things I need to make it so?
Resolved: this will be a year of more ideas and fewer screens for me. I aim to deepen the routines that stoke my enthusiasm, attract new inspiration, develop complex ideas, and connect me with people and places.
A year of creative change
The design industry has begun a set of fundamental shifts—from screens to objects, from UX as specialty to UX as basic skill, from mediated interaction to direct physicality, from agency hired guns to in-house smarties, from software to software+hardware, from apps to services. Yep, we’re entering yet another fresh period of invention—not only for our craft but for the way we think about the world and what we might build for it. When everything is an interface and everyone is a designer, things become interesting… unpredictable… full of possibility.
I haven’t been so excited about what I (and we) do in a very long time. This is shaping up to be a year of creative change for what we do collectively. So I’d like to make it a year of creative change for what I do individually, too.
At first blush, it looks like I’m all set there. I have two books in the pipeline for 2015—one on designing for touch, another on the internet of things. I’ve got a new business in the works. I’m starting design projects that are already stretching my imagination of what digital interaction can be. And most exciting of all: I’m getting married in June and becoming a stepdad, too.
I’m awash in stirring projects and life events, which is great on all counts. The risk, though, is that I’ll focus on all these tasks without allowing myself the creative reflection to make them the successes they might be. It’s a trees-forest thing.
My habits need an overhaul. My routine is not well tuned for the creative invention (and self-invention) that our craft requires this year. My creative hygiene needs some work.
The gift of permission
Everyone I know says they’re redlining. We all feel too many demands on our time: too many emails, too much information, too many obligations, too few hours in the day. In that context, how can taking time out for reflection seem anything other than self indulgent? People are waiting for stuff from me. Clients, family, colleagues. Personal needs can wait.
Here’s the thing. Obligations inevitably expand to eat all available time. If we don’t protect space for ourselves, the mean responsibilities of the day will swallow us up like kudzu.
The gift I’ve resolved to give myself this year is permission. I’m giving myself permission to have a healthier attitude toward work, life, and stress, to develop contentment with what I have and excitement for what I might. I’m giving myself the gift of time, reflection, and creative space. At a moment of groundshifting change both personal and professional, what could be more important?
Focus on craft, not just the job
Reading, writing, exercise, play, art… I’ve always considered these things to be decidedly extra-curricular, stuff that doesn’t pay the bills or cross stuff off my overloaded to-do list.
That’s short-sighted. These activities—the things I love most—may not directly serve a job, but they certainly serve my craft. Creative engagement is central to what I do for a living. My gig is to solve problems, come up with new ideas, think differently. If I focus only on “the work” at the exclusion of staying charged up for that work, I’m putting myself at a disadvantage, working on half battery. 2015 will be a year when we’re all going to need a full battery.
More of these, please
So how to stay charged, how to operate at full creative capacity? These are the things I’m giving myself guilt-free permission to do in order to form a stronger creative habit.
750 words per day Mornings just for me Daily runs Tool time Read Look at art Time away from screens
750 words per day
Writing gives form and discipline to ideas. Committing notions to paper gives clarity, tests logic, and inevitably brings up even more ideas. I don’t do this enough, and I miss it. Last year, I wrote only a single blog post. Most of my thoughts stayed trapped in my own head, untested by bringing them into the light.
This year, I’m giving myself time every morning to write at least 750 words per day. It’s a modest amount, and I’m not going to be terribly formal about it. Most of this will be stream-of-consciousness thoughts in a journal. (Hello, Day One.)
I’ll write about what’s on my mind: hopes, anxieties, ambitions, along with ruminations on the industry, on my work, on my family, on technology, on culture, on friends, on news of the day. Whatever is in my head, I want to spill it out. Most of this will be just for my own eyes, but I suspect that some of these scribblings will make its way into the public, the seeds for design projects, blog posts, book chapters, talks, and yep, Pastry Box essays.
But maybe more important, it’s a way to get my engine fired up first thing every day, to get thoughts flowing and ideas loose… before other voices descend, before distractions mount, before email sends me on a detour, before the next deadline takes hold of my brain.
To pull that off, though, I have to give myself another, particularly big permission:
Mornings just for me
Sorry outside world, the doors are closed until 11am. Before that, I’ll take no meetings, read no email, do no project work. This is time I’m giving myself to tend to tilling the creative soil (in hopes that I can come up with better metaphors than tilling soil). This is time that I’m giving myself every day for writing, reading, thinking, meditating, or just sitting.
When I was younger, night was my productive time. Age seems to have turned that around. The morning is my most imaginative time of day. The morning’s for thinking, and the afternoon is for cranking. If I crank in the morning instead, I lose my best thinking. This year, I’ll guard those fertile hours more aggressively.
I love to run. Twenty years ago I wrote a running schedule called Couch to 5K to help skeptical would-be runners start running. A confession: I’ve followed the program a jillion times myself, because I keep falling off the wagon. I am an inconstant runner, because I let other obligations push it out of my day. Running is time consuming, after all: a one-hour run plus warmup, warmdown, and shower takes two hours in all. It’s easy to tell myself I don’t have time for it.
Truth is, running is enormously productive for me. I do some of my best thinking on the run. It’s a kind of free-associative meditation. I return from a run in a great mood and full of energy, new ideas, and solved problems.
And, hey, it’s good for my body, too (lord knows I’m not getting any younger). Running keeps me healthy both physically and mentally; both are crucial elements of a sustainable creative life. In The Accidental Creative, Todd Henry writes that it’s not enough to be brilliant or prolific to create consistently great work; you also have to be healthy. His simple equation:
Prolific + Brilliant + Healthy = producing great work consistently and in a sustainable way
Last year some friends and I started an occasional hacking group to make stuff on Sunday afternoons. (Among other things, Larry Legend and I built the Happy Together interaction to make phones and desktops more friendly with each other.)
I plan to make this a weekly routine: three or four hours on Sundays to play with hardware, take stuff apart, build things up, or tinker with new web technologies. Tool time is my weekend laboratory to build prototypes and develop hare-brained schemes.
I hope a few of these prototypes will turn into something useful, but I expect most of them to turn into glorious dead ends. “It is as important to discover what cannot be done as what can be done,” wrote Arthur C. Clarke; “and it is sometimes considerably more amusing.” This is gonna be fun.
When I look over my past reading list, I see too much technology news, too few big ideas, too much inside my narrow professional discipline. It’s confining.
This year I give myself permission to read beyond my job description and, I hope, outside of my normal comfort zone. I want to read non-fiction in a variety of disciplines, to see the creative process at work for other thinkers. I want to read some sublime fiction to enjoy how talented authors create new universes by carefully stitching words together. I want to read science fantasy that imagines the world as it might be. Most of all, I want to read in order to remove myself to far-away worlds that, through their distance, give me a clearer perspective on my own.
Look at art
Art and design are cousins. Both are about solving problems, about connecting with the viewer, usually about creating something new. The crucial difference is that art is untethered from the commercial and, as a result, can go in many more directions and rise to a much higher altitude.
Walking through a museum or art gallery is electrifying to me. I love to see this collected result of hard creative work and thought, especially in a different discipline than my own. I imagine the problem the artist was trying to address, the process they took to solve it, how many different routes they might have attempted in getting there. I arrive at museums with a big goofy grin on my face in museums. I leave wanting to make.
I’m fortunate to live in New York, one of the world’s great art cities. Tons of museums and galleries are always within reach. In 2015, I plan to indulge myself with a weekly museum or gallery visit.
Time away from the screen
I do almost all of my work on screens. Most of my designs are created for screens. My communication happens through screens. I seek entertainment and leisure in screens.
This, my friends, is too many screens. I’ve bent my life to technology, when it should be the reverse. Time to flip it around. This means: leaving my phone at home on the weekend; leaving my computer at work; weaning myself off the social-media habit (FOMO is overrated); less TV at night.
This last one is tricky because TV is, for better or worse, our family hearth, a shared experience that we have together, and a way for all of us to unwind from overprogrammed days. That’s all good in moderation, but we’re experimenting with alternatives. We’re cautiously circling the idea of a game night on Sundays. Last weekend, we slouched over to a board game, dragging ourselves away from the TV. But after the first game was done, it was all let’s play that again!
More of this, please.
The idea is to spend less time with screens and instead spend more time with my head in the world and my heart with the people I love.
This is a year for ideas that matter. I’m aligning my habits to contribute my bit. So what’s your plan?