Gearing up to write

As I may have mentioned on this here blog (but also have been oddly quiet about), this summer is a Writing Summer. I’m in the middle of writing Drupal for Designers, a series of guides for O’Reilly geared towards designers who want to work with Drupal but don’t need yet another recipe book telling you how to download a module. It’s a great project, and one that I’m psyched to be doing. But I am noticing that the experience of writing a book, from a project management standpoint, is far different from the experience of creating a website.

In some ways, it’s remarkably similar to what I do in my consulting/UX work. There’s a huge amount of research, and user interviews (I’ve done about 12 interviews thus far, and still haven’t talked to all the people I want to), and the book is basically the result of that research and interviews. But I’m still working on the flow of writing; getting to that state where I can accept that writing and research is what I do all day.

This is, I think, a problem of being self-employed for as long as I have been. I get so accustomed to wearing several hats that wearing any one of them for too long feels foreign. While this is a pattern I’m looking to change in the future, once I find the right team, I imagine that there’s still a bit of unlearning I have to do in order to feel truly comfortable focusing my attention exclusively on the aspects of my job that I love. The temptation to retreat back into code and implementation – which is often easier, but less interesting to me – still catches up to me now and again.

None of this is really a complaint, per se. But it is an observation that being a writer seems to have a different character, and a different set of requirements, than being a site builder or a coder. Because writing is something I love doing, it almost feels like I’m taking a break; I couldn’t possibly be doing this because I’m paid for it, or because it’s my job. This is what I’ve always done just to get things off my chest, or to share information that I’ve learned. Having it as my job, at least temporarily, almost makes me feel like I’ve been given a free ride to goof off. So while I’m making headway on the book day by day, I almost feel guilty having to step away from code and clients for a few hours a day.

And then I remember that there’s a book deadline looming, and I have a lot of research to compile, and I get back to it.

News and Updates

I’ve been quiet on the blog (and my professional site, the zen kitchen) for the better part of four months now. There’s many reasons for that, mostly to do with being insanely busy, but also to do with a change in professional direction towards more of a UX research and design practice and less of a soup-to-nuts branding and design firm for smaller businesses.

To that end, a couple of changes have taken place:

  1. In January, I contributed several chapters on design and Drupal foundations for the Definitive Guide to Drupal 7, which is being released sometime in the imminent future (so I’m told) by Apress.
  2. I just wrapped up one of the most challenging projects of my career – working on a team doing UX and prototyping for a site redesign that will be launched later this year. The project (and my contributions to the Apress book) gave me a huge opportunity to get over some enormous learning curves with Drupal 7 (not to mention UX deliverables and working on multidisciplinary teams), and I can’t wait to do more of it.

Speaking of getting over Drupal 7 learning curves, I’m also in the process of writing a series of books for O’Reilly Media, tentatively titled Drupal for Designers. The series is intended to provide a designer-friendly guide to working with Drupal, estimating and planning projects, managing client relationships, and all the other knowledge I’ve collected over 6+ years of running my own design studio. It’ll be released online a bit later this year, with a print edition (hopefully) planned for 2012 sometime.

In the meantime, I’m still open to new opportunities. If you know of a great team looking for some UX love, drop me a line anytime.

Focusing the Creative Brain to actually get things done

Being a creative professional can be exhilerating. But it can also be frustrating – especially when, like many creatives, you have one of those magical brains that tends to reach for the next shiny thought it sees – even when it’s in the middle of a thought already. While this tendency is part of what makes us so good at our jobs, it often gets in the way of getting things accomplished, which can lead to frustration and burnout down the line.

The easy thing to do is try to fight the tendency. Shut off e-mail, try to enforce XYZ habit that you picked up of of ABC productivity blog, etc. But what I noticed is that, the more that I tried to fight it, the harder the tendency came back. So, I thought, why not work with it? Here is a Very Incomplete List of things I’ve learned about working with your shiny tendencies:

  1. Know what you’re good at, and delegate the rest. As much as we love to believe that we’re good at everything (or that we have to be), we aren’t. And we can’t be. Instead of trying to fight yourself to do the things that you’re bad at (and waste time, inch closer to burnout, and other nasty things in the process), identify the things that you’re really good at, and delegate the rest. If you honestly can’t delegate, at the very least start the day by doing something that you’re very good at. This sets you up first thing in the morning to be productive, because it gives you an easy win.
  2. Organize to-do lists by priority. One of the habits that I’ve noticed in my own life is that I will periodically do a massive brain dump of things to do, which results in a super long list that never quite gets done. Rather than doing that, try creating three lists: one for urgent items (no more than three), one for important items (no more than five), and the third for everything else. If you use an online task manager like Remember the Milk or Action Method Online, go ahead and do a brain dump of all your tasks, but separate them into specific projects, and choose the most important things from each project.
  3. Never multitask, but feel free to task hop. Creative minds tend to reach for the next shiny idea that comes along, and this can cause a lot of problems when you’re trying to focus and be productive. The tendency is to try to do multiple things at once, which usually results in everything either getting done halfheartedly or not at all. Rather than feeling guilty about your brain’s natural tendency to jump from thing to thing, acknowledge that this is the way that your brain works and feel free to do it. However, the important thing is to clearly delineate your focus when you switch from one task to another. If you’re working in one project and need to switch to another, close out the windows that belong to the project you’re switching from. Otherwise, you’ll get distracted, and it will take you longer to do everything. Which brings me to my next two points:
  4. Every project should be broken down into distinct action steps. Everything you’re working on, no matter how intense or how tiny, is made up of smaller action steps. By taking the time to break out the action steps beforehand, you can work on multiple projects at the same time, by hopping from individual action step to individual action step. This helps maintain your focus, while also giving your brain the opportunity to do what it does naturally–switch from idea to idea.
  5. Always have more than one project. The longer that I’m in this business, the more firmly I believe that a creative brain dies if it doesn’t have a lot to work on. If you only have one project that you’re working on, the tendency will be to find other information to fill your brain. By always having a specific number of projects to work on, even if some of them are internal (in fact, at least 1-2 of them should be internal; one to grow your business, and one to help you grow professionally or creatively), you give yourself a way to shift gears productively.

These are just a few of the things that I’ve started doing, and so far I’ve seen a lot of progress in both getting more done and feeling better about what I’ve accomplished. What tips have you discovered to keep you focused and productive?

Finding “Mind like Water”

This is the second in what will become a series I’m calling “Getting it together” for lack of a better immediate title. Details are at the end of this post.

It’s now officially a week and a half into the Happiness Project that I started in mid-May. My goal was to work on productivity; the thought being that if I feel more productive during the day, I’ll be happier, and will also free up my time to do other things that make me happy. Happy happy happy. There, I said it.

So far, I’ve made a lot of progress. Identifying the differences among the various types of work I do – Thought Work, Production Work, Media Consumption, etc. gave me the opportunity to a) accept that my growing tendency towards having my physical workspace change almost every day was actually a positive and needful thing, and b) spend a bit more time evaluating the day’s priorities before setting up my work space for the day, which has been hugely helpful in preventing me from distraction.

Also wonderful is the new habit of using Chrome for web surfing and Firefox for production work. Not only does it help me more delineate “surfing time” from “work time,” helping me focus on production work when I need to, but it gives me a gentle reminder to cross-check different browsers while I’m working on a site – greatly helpful when working on websites.

The thing that’s been sticking me of late, however, hasn’t been a physical space issue as much as a mental space issue. As with anyone who makes their living being creative can tell you, the conceptual part of the job requires a very different mindset than the actual crafting of a piece. Production work can be rigid, focused; concepting work requires (in my experience, at least) freedom of movement and a mindset that’s open and ready to receive inspiration. This week, the biggest challenge I experienced was figuring out how to shift my mindset into one or the other mode depending on what I had to do that day – and dealing with the inevitable procrastination that comes from hot Boston weather and a to-do-list that increasingly feels overwhelming.

Unfortunately, I haven’t found an answer to this yet, but I’m working on it. Today I started my day by deciding to enjoy the weather for a bit, run a few errands and tuck into a blog entry before I settle into finishing up an important proposal and getting closer to launch on a client’s website. We’ll see how well it works.
Recently, I decided on a whim to pick up The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin at my local bookstore. In it, the writer, a journalist by trade, decides to spend a year of her life in a systematic approach to increase her general happiness. What I loved about her approach was that it combined a really solid amount of navel-gazing (a personal obsession of mine) with a set of really practical tools that actually make it feel like a *project.* There’s nothing flowery or New-Agey about it – it entails creating a set of Personal Commandments that guide the process, choosing one particular focus for each month, and then creating a Resolutions chart with 5-10 things that you’re going to use to achieve your focus for the month – and ticking off each day that you succeed, and tallying up at the end of the month how well you did.

As someone who requires an equal balance of conceptual and analytical, this approach seems to be just what I needed. After establishing my “personal commandments,” I’ve decided to tackle the issue of productivity.

Setting up Work Environments for the type of work you’re doing

This is the first in what will become a series I’m calling “Getting it together” for lack of a better immediate title.

Recently, I decided on a whim to pick up The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin at my local bookstore. In it, the writer, a journalist by trade, decides to spend a year of her life in a systematic approach to increase her general happiness. What I loved about her approach was that it combined a really solid amount of navel-gazing (a personal obsession of mine) with a set of really practical tools that actually make it feel like a *project.* There’s nothing flowery or New-Agey about it – it entails creating a set of Personal Commandments that guide the process, choosing one particular focus for each month, and then creating a Resolutions chart with 5-10 things that you’re going to use to achieve your focus for the month – and ticking off each day that you succeed, and tallying up at the end of the month how well you did.

As someone who requires an equal balance of conceptual and analytical, this approach seems to be just what I needed. After establishing my “personal commandments,” I’ve decided to tackle the issue of productivity.

Lately, with the growth of the zen kitchen and all the exciting new stuff that’s been going on (which, of course, we’ve had no real time to talk about – but we will. Soon. We promise.), I’ve been noticing odd shifts in my productivity. I’m procrastinating more, finding it harder to focus, realizing at 6:30 that I’ve only managed about three things on my to-do list. For years I’ve dealt with a mind that shifts from one thing to another constantly and found ways of managing that, but this was something different. Something that was actively preventing me from getting anything done, let alone the work that we need to do for clients.

At first, I responded to this by getting frustrated, and even starting to beat myself up. I started reading productivity blogs all over the place talking about how to “get things done” and organizing books on how to set up environments to be as productive as you can be. I tried a bunch of things, including rearranging my office (which I do with enough frequency that my fiancé Nick just laughs at me when I tell him “Look! I rearranged my office!”). I tried going for something sparse. I tried cluttered. I tried elaborate organizational systems, and multiple journals, online and offline software resources, just about everything you could think of. Nothing worked well enough to keep me effective for more than about a week. Something would shift, and I’d be back in “I can’t work” mode.

Not all work is the same

What I realized as I started paying close attention to how I really did things, is that most productivity systems handle “work” as this generic, homogenous thing; the tools they recommend behave as if everything that you do during the day can fall into one framework. What I realized during my examination of my own workstyle was that most of what I do falls into four distinct categories:

  • Thought Work: this is the work of coming up with concepts and strategies for clients, of writing articles and doing research. About 50% of the work I do falls into this category on most weeks – and it’s been the hardest one to find the right environment for.
  • Business Development: This is the work of meeting new prospects, talking them through their project’s challenges and writing proposals, closing sales, etc. The big challenge to this one is that the environment needs to be flexible; it can happen from anywhere.
  • Media Consumption and Online Networking: This is the time I’m spending building relationships online, reading articles that people point me to, and managing my and the studio’s presence online. This is a significant portion of the work I do, and how we market the studio and stay current on what’s happening in the industries that we’re involved with.
  • Production Work: This is the actual work of making things. Writing code, making logos and print documents, extending clients’ brands across multiple channels. This is actually only about 25-35% of what I’m doing in an average week; most of the work that goes into an effective design actually happens in the Thought Work side of things.

The challenge with this is that each of these types of work has a unique set of requirements, and a unique mindset. I realized that what I’d been considering “procrastination” was actually Media Consumption – an essential piece of the work that I do to build the business, maintain relationships and keep myself current. But, I found that I would often find myself ending up in Media Consumption mode in the middle of Production Work – when most of the production work happens in the same browser, it’s incredibly easy for your fingers to start sending you to twitter and clicking on interesting looking links that your friends are posting. By the time you’ve gotten your head out of the latest interesting article on HTML5, almost an hour has gone by and you still have all that production work staring you in the face.

Separate Media Consumption from Production Work

The first strategy I tried, a while back when I first started realizing the issue, was installing Leechblock on Firefox and blocking Facebook and Twitter from opening at all during the workday. If I wanted to visit those sites, I would have to use Safari, which I hid in the Applications folder. This ended up not working for three reasons:

  1. I was viewing the work I did online as “wasting time,” and not realizing its value;
  2. if, as I often did, I found myself needing an immediate answer to a pressing question and posted it on twitter (which also updates my Facebook status), I wouldn’t be able to check the links that friends would send me as answers to the problem, because Facebook was blocked;
  3. I was approaching it from an angle of punishing myself for being “bad.” Have you ever responded well to someone telling you you’re doing something horribly wrong? Didn’t think so.

This time, I decided to honor the value that Media Consumption brings to my life and my business, but accept that, in order to maintain my focus, I needed to create a distinct environment for web surfing that was separate from the environment that I use for production work. So, taking a tip from my previous experience, I installed Google Chrome on my Macbook (honestly, I hate Safari – sorry, I do), and put it directly under the Firefox icon in my dock. When I’m in production mode (building websites, updating projects in Basecamp, etc.), I’m using Firefox; when I want to surf the web or check out an interesting link, I use Chrome, and I close out of the browser when I’m done.

It sounds like an odd and rather obvious thing to do, but I have to say that in only three days of trying this, I’ve felt less stressed out, and felt more accomplished at the end of every single day. Plus – and this is a great bonus – I have been getting more joy out of my work than I can honestly say I’ve felt in months.

It’s amazing what a simple shift in perspective can accomplish.