My natural work habits are pretty terrible. I’m prone to distractions, easily paralyzed by insecurities, and generally prefer napping to almost any other activity.
One of my favorite ways to avoid doing work is to read books about work. This allows you to lie in bed and absorb the wisdom of someone else’s labor, which leaves you with a satisfying sense of accomplishment when you’ve actually done almost nothing. I highly recommend it.
I especially love books by writers about writing, because reading them allows me to maintain the fantasy that one day, when I’ve attained enough wisdom, I’ll write the Great American Novel. But until then, I’ve picked up a few useful lessons that I frequently apply to my work as a designer.
1. Embrace the shitty first draft
Our industry loves perfectionism. Every agency and startup is looking for a rockstar-unicorn-ninja designer who’s “obsessed with pixel-perfect details.” It took me a long time to realize that the dark side of my perfectionism is procrastination, and that the fear of creating something bad or ugly is an obstacle that keeps me from getting work done.
In her book Bird by Bird (possibly the most frequently recommended book about creative work of all time), Anne Lamott lays out the damaging effect perfectionism has on our creativity and mental health and urges writers to keep writing until they complete a first draft, no matter how poor its quality.
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.” - Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
When I catch myself procrastinating and avoiding work on a project, I remember the power of the shitty first draft. Just sketch something. Draw a rectangle. Draw another one. Put the pieces on the board. Move them around. No one is watching your notebook or your Photoshop file. Don’t be afraid to make something crappy—you can always improve it later.
2. Spend it all, everything you’ve got
Like a lot of kids in the 80’s, I used to collect stickers. I had hundreds of the coolest, sparkliest, puffiest stickers—and almost all of them stayed on their sheets, unused, waiting for some magical future when the perfect sticker opportunity would appear. I’d admire them and think, “I don’t want to waste my stickers!” And I never did. I’m sure they’re still sitting in a drawer somewhere in my childhood closet, their sparkles hidden from the world. How sad.
We often want to hoard our best creative ideas; we’d rather save them for that amazing future project (which will be perfect and make us rich & famous) instead of spending them on the boring work we’re doing today. Like our favorite stickers, we don’t want to waste them. But treating your good ideas like a limited resource is a self-fulfilling prophecy; the less you use them, the fewer you’ll have.
“One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. . . . Something more will arise for later, something better.” – Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
Have faith in yourself and your creative powers. Don’t leave your sparkly ideas in a drawer for later; spend them now and trust that something even better will come along.
3. Stop before you run out of ideas
Starting from nothing is always the hardest part of any project for me. Those moments when I don’t know what I’m doing or making are the devil’s playground, and likely to attract all manner of demons: fear, idleness, distractions, procrastination. Without momentum, I can get derailed for hours.
Hemingway offered this advice to young writers, “The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck. That is the most valuable thing I can tell you so try to remember it.”
I always end my day or my week knowing what I need to design next. Sometimes I start shitty first drafts late in the afternoon so I have something to work with the next morning. It can be very tempting, when the work is going well, to “just keep going” and stay at your desk late into the evening. That lovely state of flow is so elusive, we don’t want to walk away—and yet we must.
Stopping at the right time is the best way to avoid getting stuck. You can come back fresh each day, build momentum, and actually get things finished.