DesignLab: That Overtime Life, Part II

Hi, I’m Robbin. I’m a full-time student at DesignLab’s UX Academy in the Ive cohort. I’m also a full-time employee at Udemy. This is a short series of blog posts about how I still seem to be relatively sane and still somewhat functional.

Hello again! I’m assuming readers have come here from That Overtime Life, Part I, which was all about the factors that influenced my crazy decision to live this overtime life. If not, that’s okay too. This post is going to be about efficiency.

Pressure + Deadlines = Me

I started Designlab in December, which meant there was a lot of holiday time off. It was the perfect time to start.

I’ve always been a person that liked to learn new things. If I’m interested in something, I can usually pick up on it right away. With UX design, it’s something I’ve wanted to learn for years, so it made it a bit easier for me to stay on my toes.

That said, though, I knew that work was starting again in January. Knowing that I had a deadline in mind increased the pressure enough that I was able to get up and just work. Learning was important, yes, but so too was learning within a reasonable time frame and getting as much into my brain before starting work again.

Matthew Broderick, you are my hero.

I work well under pressure, and that’s something I know about myself. It’s not a pleasant feeling to be convinced that time is of the essence all the time, but being able to think things like, “Do I have time to go out with friends today? Have I put in x amount of hours like I said I would?” really helps.

This isn’t going to the gym, man. This is a freaking career that’s at stake. (Yeah, that thought also helped a lot.)

While this is my mindset at the gym, it was definitely not my mindset for UX…

Time budgets

Pressure’s on. There are 24 hours in the day. Most people sleep for about 8 hours (I have trouble sleeping so mine usually looks like 4–5 hours or less). Meals take up to about an hour, I guess, so let’s call that about 3 hours. The total amount of time that is a necessity for living and all that stuff is 11 hours, leaving 13 whole hours of time to do STUFF and THINGS.

I look at things like this and I realize that 8 hours out of the day is no big deal, especially if I’m learning something I enjoy. This was especially true during winter break, because I was very firm about not wanting to do anything but work. Of course, my friends and family were a good counterbalance to make sure I wasn’t burning myself out. (Plus, if I worked 8 hours, that meant I had a good 5 hours of fun time! That’s a LOT of karaoke! And assuming I had meals with them, that’s up to EIGHT HOURS OF FUN TIME. So it’s really not bad at all.)

And that’s just during the work week. If you’re also working during weekends, you can leave way more time during your whole week for more fun while still putting in 40 hours of design work.

But of course, that’s before factoring in work.

This is where it gets complicated.

Time budgets + full time work

This is where it gets tricky, and possibly a little insane. Once I started work again, budgeting became extremely important. I couldn’t be as loosey-goosey as I was before; gone were the days of thinking I could hang out with my friends for a few hours. January was when the real crunch time began.

Work is how I’m getting paid. That’s about 8–9 hours of my day that is dedicated to making sure I have food on my plate and a roof over my head. This is important. Do not slack off at work, I told myself. You’re getting paid to do that first and you’re not a UX designer just yet, so work as hard as you usually do at work…but no harder than you have to, or risk burnout. Burnout is so very bad.

As soon as work was over, I went straight home, made a quick dinner, and sat right back down to work on Designlab. There were some days when I took a few minutes to de-stress by singing out loud, showering first, reading for a few minutes, or something like that to form a buffer between work and design. I’d get home around 6:00pm. I’d work on design most nights from 6:30–11:30pm. I’d gone from 8 hours a day to 5 hours a day to dedicate to my design studies.

What this meant was making sure my weekends were booked…with enough time to make up for whatever I’d lost. During the work week I averaged 40 hours of work-work with 25 hours of design work. I did 8 hours a day per weekend, which got me to around 40 hours total.

At least, I tried to do it that way. I succeeded mainly because I’d been keeping track of how much time I’d actually spent on learning or on a project vs. the projected time. I often finished faster, which meant I had more time to do other things. Because of this, I tried not to move my timeline around; instead, I kept my goals exactly the same. By doing this, I knew that a project would take 6 hours…and if I finished it within 1–2 hours, that meant I had just earned 4 hours of time to do what I wanted. BAM. INSTANT REWARDS.


Be comfortable with working fast

What I found was that I was very, very good at making my learning process more streamlined. Here’s a few things that sped up the readings and videos for the foundation lessons:

  • For reading stuff: Skim first. Read in depth later. Take notes on the stuff that you want to work on or the stuff you found interesting.
  • If writing things on paper helps you remember things, do that. If you like typing on things like Evernote, then do that. What you’ll want to be able to do is refer back to your notes when you (or someone else) has a question so that you can answer it pretty quickly and with reasonable detail.
  • For things you don’t understand: ask people. Get on Slack. Join the many UX beginner Facebook groups. Hop into a meetup. Ask your friend if they can introduce you to a UX designer. The stuff you ask about sticks better.
  • Watch videos at 1.5x — 2x speeds.
  • Listen to the videos while you’re not actively working on Designlab. It helps retain what you learned while you were watching.
  • For really long articles/videos: Pomodoro timer! When I’m feeling antsy, I’d read/watch for 10 minutes, do something else for 5, rinse and repeat four times, and then do a longer break.
Fair questions in life.

When you get to the projects, that’s where I got a little creative and needed some advice to get through it. I spoke to my mentor, other mentors during office hours, my friends in UX, friends who were in other UX schools, and the design team at work — and I gleaned some very important information:

  • From my mentor, Vesna: “Don’t overthink it.” This was critical to making sure I could get things done on time.
  • There’s a book out there called Sprint. The word has a meaning and it should be taken to heart in a parallel fashion to running. I spoke to another mentor during office hours who told me, “Never ever say again that two weeks is too little time to get an idea out the door. If anything, it’s too much.”
  • The above sounded like crazy talk to me, sure, but it made a lot of sense. Realistically, you don’t have all the time in the world to make a design that is perfect. Make one that works just enough first. Then learn what isn’t so great about it and keep making changes.
  • Importantly…LOOK AHEAD. I went to other group critiques mainly because I couldn’t make all of mine. This turned out to be excellent. I learned a lot from the people who were way ahead of me so I knew what capstones to expect.
  • Get participants beforehand. By looking ahead in your lessons, you can tell which ones will need research. You can start asking your Facebook friends if they have time within the week to chat. This is how I always had participants when it came time to do my research.
  • Don’t forget that you can ask your classmates on Slack for help with research.
  • Also, LOOK BEHIND. Joining cohorts that joined later than yours means that you can reinforce what you’ve learned by helping your peers. It’s also helpful to see how you might have been when you were starting. Really…you’re helping to iterate yourself as a designer.

Perhaps the most crucial bit, especially when trying to work fast and smart, is understanding the T-shaped designer. The head of design at Udemy explained that the way he hires is he looks for people who can do everything relatively well while also doing one particular aspect of design ESPECIALLY well. He’ll find someone who is especially excellent at visual design and pair that designer with a lot of talent in information architecture to make a solid design.

That made it a lot easier for me to understand where I wanted to put my time. I like research and information architecture, so I put most of my time into that, and I didn’t feel as bad when I made a “good enough” effort on my visual design.

Talk to people

One thing that came up a lot? I talked to a lot of people. A. Lot. Of. People. I can’t tell you how incredibly helpful it was to be able to get an answer or an opinion on the stuff I’d been learning in Designlab.

Why is this efficient? Because you can learn a lot from someone by asking questions. Half an hour for a coffee chat with a designer is pretty great. Even if you don’t know what to ask, just talking about the stuff you’re doing (as if you’re in a group critique) is enough. If you make your interest known, I found that many are willing to give you feedback, and that feedback helps you grow.

Also, it’s very useful to get to know people in the space. Talk to product managers to understand how they prioritize projects and why. Talk to support teams to understand how they deal with the pain points of customers — they are pillars of empathy. Talk to engineers to get a sense of what is plausible when it comes to design. Talk to marketers so you can get a feel for the business goals (and then take a moment to breathe so you can connect that back to empathy in a reasonable manner).

Not everyone has access to these occupations, and that’s okay. That just means branching out is in order. Ask friends and family about an activity they wish was easier. Reach out to your grandparents and see what’s difficult for them when they reach for a smartphone. Go to the library and ask the librarian how she’d personally want to organize the books (or if it’s fine the way it is).

Plus, they’re usually happy to answer your research questions.

Well, this wasn’t the most efficient read, unfortunately, but hopefully it was helpful. I have one more to write and it will be soon since I’m just about finished with my time as a student on Designlab. Stay tuned!