In which a nerd changes almost every part of his life to be better designer

A guide for designers young (and not so young)


As a young designer, I found myself unable to focus on my work. I had to attend to so many other distractions, and I feel like it made it tougher to improve my craft. It took a few years of examination what to remove or change, but I settled into a comfortable groove that helped me think a little deeper about the problems I have to solve.

What follows is a short list of things that ended up working for me. Maybe they’ll help you, too.

My phone is on Do Not Disturb almost all day

It’s one of my favorite features of iOS. I’d been working on something close to it, but stopped after Apple released this. I keep have a list of VIPs that can call me if necessary, but it’s on from 9pm to 5:30pm. That means 3 1/2 hours of availability for calls every day—it’s lovely.

Doing this lets me focus more on whatever I’m doing without worrying about someone calling to distract me. Besides, they’ll call back if it’s urgent.

I don’t have a digital clock in my menu bar

I find I would constantly stare at the clock every day and think “oh, it’s only 3:30! Will 5 get here UGH!” In bring mindful about the clock, I would stress about it not moving quickly enough or that I’d only a small amount of time until some event.
Making it a small analog clock in my menu bar has made it tougher to read at a glance, and I find I’m able to think more deeply about what I’m doing because not really thinking as much about time as I used to. It’s probably my Designer OCD, but it’s been helpful.

Turn off (most) push notifications

Getting into a flow is important, and nothing should interrupt me unless it’s important (or a GIF). I don’t let apps send me push notifications unless they meet specific criteria:

• Will it tell me if someone really needs me?
• Will it tell me if something important’s changing about my schedule?
• Will I get stuck out in some weird weather?

If they don’t meet those criteria, then they can GTFO of my notification list. Why? I’m busy, don’t bother me.

Single task

Doing one thing at at time feels great. Sure, you can bounce between every app and site at once, but you can’t dig in deep and give everything the attention it deserves. Sit down, ignore your phone and other emails until you’re finished.

I find that when I multi-tasked, things would get overlooked and messy. I’d end up fixing mistakes that were caused by my false sense of being productive, which threw wrenches in my plans.

I try to dig in for about an hour, then go check in on whatever I want for a few minutes before repeating.

Make a to-do list and (mostly) stick to it

I start with the 3 most important things for my day. I write them down before I start the day (usually the day before) and come out swinging when it’s time to start. I don’t usually check email immediately, unless I’m expecting something important. More on that in a moment.

I use Things to manage my to-dos. It helps organize things into separate projects, I can attach due dates and filter them by priority. Been a user for years, don’t plan on dumping it any time soon, though holy cow I wish they’d update their UI for iOS 7.

Manage the shit out out of email

As someone who’s a maker, I really like the idea of checking email twice a day (or as infrequently as I can get away with). Not everyone has that luxury, but that’s ok with me. Here’s what I do:

• If I can handle the email and its contents in a minute or less, do it right away.
• If I can’t do it immediately, star or flag it, then archive it to act on later. (Mailbox handles this for you in a glorious way)
• Use filters to automatically move notifications, etc. to their own folder.
• Use unroll.me to summarize all your email notifications.

Remember those things you starred or flagged for later? If you don’t do Mailbox, schedule time at the end of the day to handle all of that. It’ll help you make your list for the next day, too.

Schedule meetings at the beginning or end of the day

Paul Graham wrote a good essay called Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule. It’s good, you should read it. It essentially says folks who make things (designers, developers, etc.) benefit by having blocks of time to do so; it also says difficulties arise when they have to adapt to a randomly-placed meeting.

When you’re operating on the maker’s schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in. Plus you have to remember to go to the meeting. That’s no problem for someone on the manager’s schedule. There’s always something coming on the next hour; the only question is what. But when someone on the maker’s schedule has a meeting, they have to think about it.

If possible, schedule meetings in a way that gives you the most time to do what you’re really paid to do—make stuff. I try to have all of mine in the afternoon.

Eat better

I had my first studio job right out of college. My diet consisted a lot of fat, sugar/carbs, and salt. Sodas, white breads, all that. My head felt like a fog hung over it constantly, and deeper thinking was difficult. So was regulating my blood sugar. My mood was all over the map, too.

I felt like this way of living hindered my work, not to mention I gained weight. After leaving the job, I moved across the country to sometimes-sunny (read: for 2 months of the year) Seattle and changed my diet shortly thereafter. I lost about 20 pounds by stopping refined sugars alone over the course of a few months. I felt so much better, plus I didn’t have to constantly deal with carb comas and spiking blood sugar. Big help for focus there.

Ease up on the caffeine

I stopped caffeine a few years ago. I found myself more stressed, anxious, and unfocused because I ended up having a couple cups a day. I’d drink some before diving into a project, but I felt too buzzy to do much deep thinking—I could crank through some lower-level tasks quickly though.

Dumping it gave me one hell of a headache for a weekend, but I came out of it and felt wonderful. My focus, productivity and overall attitude got much better.

I still enjoy some nice decaf. It took searching through every brand to find the right one that had a decent flavor, but I ended up finding what I needed. I also switched to tea for my main drink, which has many other health benefits. I usually drink herbal teas, but will occasionally indulge a white tea (silver needle). One cup doesn’t seem to have a marked increase in any stress, and helps me feel both calm and alert.

I’d never say you have to dump it entirely, but I thought that’d be better for me.

(I intentionally buried this bit of heresy in the middle.)

Hit the gym

I didn’t start this until a few years after eating better. I avoided it it as much as I could. I hated the idea of (most) physical activity, especially avoided a place like a gym. Who would want to go into a place that stinks, everyone was nasty sweaty and who knows what kind of viruses lurked on those machines.

After over a year at it, I can say it’s consistently been one of the biggest mood lifters. It’s enhanced my quality of life, and turned me onto things like hiking. I try to go 5 times a week for at least 30 minutes. I alternate weights and cardio. I’ve gained a little weight back, but it’s mostly muscle. Seriously, I feel terrific.

I became interested in how working out/exercising could affect how my brain functioned, and a book called Spark spelled it out for me:

A notable experiment in 2007 showed that cognitive flexibility improves after just a thirty-five minute treadmill session at either 60 percent or 70 percent of maximum heart rate.

Basically, go get your heart rate up. You’ll be better equipped to deal with the problems of the day.

Finishing up

I’ve gone though most aspects of my life to allow me the most time and focus to solve problems. It may not be what you need, but it was a tremendous help for me. I’m hopeful this will help make your life better as a designer, too.