Like most of us, I've struggled with the constant pressure to be more productive and to get more done, whether that's designing faster, making more content or generally optimizing my time to be more efficient.
I've tried a lot of the common productivity advice and while some of it has been useful, I think a lot of it has been really effortful or has taken a lot of time to implement and try. So I wanted to share my personal journey and some of the things I've done in the past year that have not only been super easy but have also made a really big impact.
This past year I wrote, recorded, and edited over 40 videos, I wrote 52+ blog posts, I wrote a book, I taught a lot of students, I held a bunch of live Twitter spaces, a few live workshops, and there was also some client work and other side projects sprinkled in between and I did it pretty much all on my own and most importantly, I managed to do it with what felt like a lot less effort and a lot less stress than it had in previous years.
1. Baseline tracking
You cannot optimize what you don't measure. For me, the first step in being able to do more with less stress was starting to get an understanding of where my time was being spent in the first place. I used to do this a lot when I first started my business but lately, when things had started to go off the rails, I really started to make a more regular habit of this. I do this by using a Time tracking app like Billings or Toggle. I set up a timer for each task that I'm doing throughout the day and you can do that as you're going if you don't have your whole day completely planned out. But I would just set up an individual timer and then hit start when I'm working on that item and pause it when I stop. Pretty easy.
This allowed me to see a really accurate time record of what tasks and projects I spend the most time on and the least time on. When I first started doing this, I was really surprised to find out where my time goes sometimes, and I think you might be too.
For example, I realized that I can design a website in about six hours, depending on complexity, but that it takes me almost double the time to code it. So I learned that by delegating that, I could save so much time on certain projects because that's the part that gave me the most friction.
2. You Can't Work Faster
There's a lot of talk about how to speed up your process and your workflow, but in practicality, you can't really add a significant amount of speed to a lot of the tasks we're doing, especially as creatives. I noticed that really any marginal amount of speed that we do gain is usually offset by something else. There is compelling evidence to show that speed is often confused with hurriedness or busyness, and that leads to over-stimulation, stress, and mistakes, and can actually work against our productive output.
And just to clarify, by productive, I just mean that I'm able to produce a lot more content, do a lot more work at a high quality, and actually be less stressed about it. That's really what 'productivity' means for me.
While you can't really work faster, what you can do is either remove, delegate, automate, or shorten tasks. Again, this is why baseline tracking is so important. By establishing a baseline and understanding what you're doing and how much time you're doing it for, you'll have the insights you need to make decisions about how to shift your time or energy.
3. Time vs Energy Output
Most of us think that what we're trying to solve is the problem of lack of time, when really the issue is managing our energy. When we're feeling overwhelmed, it is helpful to think of tasks in terms of energy output instead of time commitment.
Even though a task may seem quick or small, it doesn't mean that it doesn't require a high amount of energy to get done.
To prioritize tasks, think of your day in terms of energy buckets (emotional, physical, technical, and verbal) and prioritize one high-energy output task per day in one or two of these areas and two smaller low- energy output tasks in other areas.
For example, say you have to call your mom. This could be a simple quick task in terms of time, but for some of us, it could have a high emotional energy output. Completing a course lesson, for example, could take a long time, but it could be a low-energy physical or emotional output task.
Becoming aware of what costs you time versus energy, and then managing and prioritizing your tasks based on that is a good way to help you move through the and avoid overwhelm, and still feel productive without burning out.
4. Keep a Calendar Journal
You've probably heard about the benefits of keeping a journal before and I have found it really helpful It's even been scientifically proven to benefit our brains and our mental health. But the thing is, you don't have to make a formal practice and sit down and spend 10+ minutes writing a novel every day. It doesn't have to be complicated, and you can do it anywhere you take notes or even in your calendar like I do.
Sometimes for me, it's just as simple as noticing when I'm feeling tired and then jotting down what happened right before that. It could be that I just had a really big lunch and maybe I ate something that didn't really agree with me, or I ran into my neighbor and I our conversation made me feel really drained. Over time, those types of small cues can help you to recognize patterns and can give you information about what to adjust, eliminate or change your reaction about in your life.
Once you notice those patterns, then you can get on with some good self-care and refilling of those low-energy bucket areas with self-compassion, and mindfulness about them.
5. Originality is Overrated
I was guilty for a long time of feeling like if I didn't do it from scratch, I was a hack. So, I struggled to create every web design myself to avoid being influenced by other designers or copying their work, and just generally felt that if I wasn't being original, I wasn't a good designer.
I learned that that couldn't be further from the truth. Starting off with things like existing UI kits, design systems from other brands, pre-made illustrations and icons packs are all things that help me to design faster and to leverage the expertise, knowledge and resources from those that specialize better than I can in those areas. So I always encourage my students to study from the best and take advantage of the design elements that our wonderful design community openly shares with each other.
If we're free from the burden of trying to be completely original, we can stop trying to make something out of nothing, and we can embrace influence instead of running away from it.
- Austin Kleon, Steal Like an Artist
I realize that I am a product of my surroundings, my environment and everything I've seen and heard, and nothing we do is wholly unique. But it's through us that our work has a unique expression. Fully embracing that has made me a much better designer.
6. Patterns are better than shortcuts
Have you ever just forgotten what you were doing in the middle of doing it? Perhaps you've forgotten a common shortcut like how to copy and paste or how to enable grids in Figma? I have, about a million times. That's because according to brain studies, memory is notoriously unreliable, and our short-term memory can only hold about seven pieces of information at the same time and only for around 20 seconds!
Sometimes, the better thing to focus on is the patterns or workflow and trying to remember what you to do when you forget something. That could be closing your eyes for a few minutes, which has been proven to help you retrieve information easier. You could also just try to remember the one shortcut that shows you all the other shortcuts (such as by using CTRL+SHIFT+? for keyboard shortcuts in Figma) or it could be taking notes and tracking your process on one occasion so that you can refer back to the checklist when you forget.
7. Don't let project management apps manage you
The mistake I made when trying out all of the notetaking and project management apps was I didn’t invest the time required to understand what I really need out of them and also because I tried to do everything myself from scratch. This is the very reason I created an entire Product Design Workspace in Notion for my design students so that whenever they are doing things like user research or a competitive analysis they would have a built-in, plug-and-play guide so that they don’t have to spend endless hour learning the functionality from scratch.
Another useful way to go about deciding on a project management app is to plan out the information architecture on paper first. Sketching out your mental model and the pages, areas and connections that you need is a great way to get clarity around how you plan to manage your projects and what you need out of a digital system.
8. Create constraints to boost creativity
Want to stifle my creativity? Take away my constraints. It may seem counterintuitive but whenever I’m in a creative or motivational rut, I realized that it’s not because I necessarily lacked inspiration, it’s that I needed better constraints. If I’ve been staring at a blank screen trying to design something for too long, I know that I am missing one of the following:
- Time constraints
- Requirement constraints
- Vision constraints
So instead of pushing through, I try to create more boundaries around what I’m doing. That could be only using the color blue, or creating a layout that I am not allowed break or trying to see how many design ideas I can produce in 10 minutes using a crazy 8's exercies without thinking too much. It’s ironic how restricting no limitations can really be.
9. Reset expectations
When things don’t go as planned, move slower than I expect them to or I run into obstacles, I get pretty mad. Sometimes, really mad. Mostly at myself. I can usually see it coming and yet I often refuse to reset my expectations. But all that does is create resistance in my mind and "anything we resist persists". You’ve probably experienced it on one of those days where everything just goes wrong and then keeps going wrong. When life happens, sometimes the best thing we can do is let it. Often times, if we take a minute to adjust and reorient to the present reality we are in, rather than focusing on striving to get to the reality we wish we were in, we find that another path appears or reason reveals itself.
10. Slowdown to Speed Up
Sometimes we have deadlines and sometimes we have to push through, but oftentimes, when things are blocking the best thin you can do is to let them be blocked. I often think of the daoist saying from the Tao Te Ching
Practice not-doing, and everything will fall into place. - Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
Meditation and other mindfulness practices make for masterful memory. Meditation studies have shown the powerful brain and well-being effects of even short meditation sessions and a regular mindfulness practice. If I miss 2 days or more of meditation I slowly start to notice I feel more anxious, more irritable and more impatient. Sometimes, my brain starts to feel like a computer processor that is too full as though it's spinning but nothing is really happening. Here’s a short, 5-minute meditation I like to do that helps to boost my energy and productivity.
By my calculations this year I’ve worked a lot fewer hours and have output about 10x more and at higher quality while feeling significantly less stressed than in the previous year.
I did this by understanding where I spend the most time, delegating, deleting or automating tasks and adjusting my expectations and slowing down and taking better care of myself. The surprising result is that I’ve become more effective. I hope you’ll try some of these things out too and let me know what happens.
If you’re into this sort of thing and want to explore a career in product design, come check out our mindful product design course.