Professor Y

When I was in design school I had this one professor who overwhelmed me. If I was crying in the bathroom, she was normally the culprit. She was always saying stuff like this to me:

“Work smart, not hard!”

She’d normally say this as I sat at a desk in the design lab, red-eyed and close to tears from staying up the night before. Long nights working against my growing exhaustion because I desired so strongly to not be mediocre, to not fail myself or her. I wasn’t good at this seemingly basic tenement of design, this “working smart”. This is why you could sometimes find me crying in bathrooms. Professor Y I should mention did not have a reputation for being kind.

Even now I sometimes have pangs indescribable jealousy of others who seem to get this, who are working smart, not hard. How the hell are they able to accomplish so much? Am I a failure? Why am I not getting anything done when others are?

Since leaving design school I’m not sure I’ve tried to get better at this axiom, this Work smart, not hard business. These are the rules I’ve created for myself:

Do the things that make the biggest impact first. As important as a choice of framework for your next project is, no one will see which framework you used. As much as we care about accessibility and performance, nobody ever sees those things. Section off content and dump it into pages and put some simple styles on things. I’m not saying don’t care about making your code elegant, but wow people enough to give you the time to do those things. This is a sad, unfortunate fact; nonetheless embracing it gets you places.

Turn off notifications. You’ll miss emails, and people will have to wait. Turn all of them off on your phone. If it’s actually important, you’ll check it eventually because we all look at our phones so damn much. If it’s important to someone else, they’ll get annoyed and get your attention sooner or later.

Don’t look at other people’s work endlessly. There’s a time and place for it, for sure, but you need to timebox it. What starts off as looking for inspiration quickly becomes a way to make yourself feel awful. The only workaround is to go and get work done before you start beating yourself up.

Work in silence. No music, not audiobooks, no nothin’. Put on headphones so people don’t bother you. Don’t check Twitter and Facebook and Snapchat and Instagram. Instead, write down in a sketchbook what you’ve learned to break up the monotony. Invest in headphones that drown out noise. Don’t listen to anything but leave them on your ears.

Keep a clean desk. Buy the things that make you get your work done well. Make your employer buy them for you, if you can. My setup looks like this:

You can follow me on Instagram here: @helenvholmes.

I keep only the essentials on purpose and clean it regularly because it’s useful. Duplicate your setup at home and at work if possible so your workflow is always the same.

When burnout creeps up, as it inevitably will, let it happen. Show up to work at 9 and leave at 5 and don’t guilt yourself for not staying late. Watch Netflix with abandon and throw yourself into the other parts of your life which are just as important. Don’t scroll through the highlights of other people’s lives on the internet. This is not easy; the internet is an addiction. Like all addictions, it is thrown off with practice.

I’d love it if you followed me on Twitter at @helenvholmes.