Why ‘punching the clock’ is the easiest way to kill your creative momentum

Dann Petty on living an inspiring life and finding mental and physical space

Too often we see the successes of other creatives and focus on how they work, thinking that if we follow their steps — wake up when they wake up, use their tools, drink the same brand of coffee — our work will be the same.

We act as if how you live and how you work are separate things, when really, separating the two is like trying to pull apart a ball of rubber bands — they’re so intertwined that you can’t get one without at least part of the other.

Seasoned creatives know that you are what you create.

Your work is a curation of your experiences — the moments that touched you, the colors you’re drawn to, the way things make you feel.

Few designers embody this holistic approach to their work like Dann Petty. From his time as a successful freelancer to being handpicked as the first designer for Medium, to launching his own ‘non conference’ Epicurrence, Dann brings all aspects of his life into his work.

We sat down with Dann to talk about living an inspiring life, finding mental and physical space to be creative, and why ‘punching the clock’ is the easiest way to kill your creative momentum.

Tell me a bit about how you like to work

While so many people focus on the importance of collaboration (and rightfully so), I think there needs to be equal focus given on space in the creative process. Without space, I find I just can’t think, which is such a crucial part. Sometimes we need to let ourselves get distracted.

There are good distractions and bad distractions. Good distractions are epic swells or pow days. Bad distractions are too many meetings, noisy offices, and being forced into a strict 9–5.

I’ve got methods of inspiration that some may consider procrastination, like grabbing a surf — this might take 2 hours out of my day.

Imaging telling your boss you’re going for a surf at 11:20am, middle of the work day when everyone else is jamming. Or imagine it’s dumping in Tahoe and you want the day off. One whole day.

Taking these opportunities to give yourself space will change how you think and increase performance due to pure stoke on being able to live life. Hence, better end results.

Where do you go for inspiration? Are there any places or activities that refuel your passion to create?

For me, it’s simple. Just go outside.

Living is the best inspiration you can get and life does not happen behind a bright screen.

Taking a break from the creative process does not mean scrolling your endless feeds. My best work comes when I’m surfing, snowboarding, walking around new places, traveling, spending time with my family, and things like that.

This is why I created my conference Epicurrence. I want to give people an excuse to get a week off of work to come relax, have fun, and to share the way I get inspired with them — by going outside.

Surfing, in Pacifica, CA, is also a huge inspiration to me. There’s a huge range of surfers there, from first timers to guys that are semi-pro. There’s something special about that spectrum coming together, surrounded by mountains in a small cove of the Pacific Ocean.

On one hand, you can teach the new surfers — one of my favorite things in the world to do — while on the other hand, you’re learning by watching the better surfers. This is a lot like the design community to me. We all teach and learn.

At Pacifica, the waves are poor on average but I learn a lot about patience and what it means to just enjoy the simple moments. I think this relates to the creative process as well. You need patience — it can’t be forced in a straight 8-hour day.

A good day for me is being the last person to see the sun go down while on my board in the Pacific.

That’s my biggest inspirational moment. You have to experience it to feel it. Anytime I’m needing a refuel, that’s what I do — no matter the surf conditions.

Like design, surfing isn’t always about catching the best wave. It’s about the connection between you and water. Or you and your creation.

You’re talking a lot about giving yourself space, but you seem to always have a million things on the go at once.

I do my best work when I’m working on multiple projects at once. I rarely have just one project running. Getting my start in school and then advertising, I had to constantly jam on multiple things. Now, I believe it’s my greatest skill thanks to how I got my start. I just feel most comfortable when I have 2–3 projects on the go at once.

I’ve realized each project is related in some form. Whether navigational issues or hard conceptual problems, working on multiple projects lets you tackle all issues at once.

You know all those 100s of concepts you come up with when thinking how to design that landing page?

Typically there are at least a handful of great ones. Well, now instead of throwing those ideas away, you can use them on the other two projects you’re working on and not have to repeat the cycle each time.

Design inspires design.

You’ve talked about not punching the clock, but rather doing what’s right, no matter what. Can you explain that philosophy a bit more?

First off, counting hours is the most archaic thing any creative can do. Not only does it waste time, but 50% of the time you are lying to yourself or to your client.

Most creatives won’t charge the client for that inspirational walk, lunch when you’re browsing Dribbble, or going for a surf to get inspired. But you have to, it’s a part of the process.

My philosophy is simple. I believe in charging a projects worth out front or a flat weekly fee. No hidden costs. Everyone knows exactly what they are getting into and both parties come to the table strong. Some might say there are too many unknowns with that philosophy, if that’s the case, it’s because the projects are being managed improperly.

I also believe not every project has the same price, nor does it always need a price.

Too many creatives lose projects based on pricing pride. My best work, and my best referrals for highly paid work, came from free projects. I did Nixon.com for free because I loved that industry and brand. In return, I got some free watches and tons of referrals. Not to mention, long time friends and relationships.

To me, that’s priceless.

I also do Epicurrence for free. All of the money earned goes back into the attendees. Why? Because relationships and experiences are priceless and more valuable than a bank account.

Money is forgettable and hardly even physical in today’s world. So don’t pass up a good opportunity, experience, or relationship for a few extra bucks.

Lastly, what’s one piece of advice you’d give to any new or aspiring designer or creative on how to find their space and create their own unique style?

This is the most important thing I could ever say: Live a life you can enjoy and be stoked.

Also, be flexible in how you charge. Money isn’t everything.

Remember this: Relationships + Experiences > Money.

Catch Dann on Twitter at @dannpetty and read more from him in The Unsplash Book.

Quit punching the clock, and start building your own inspiring life.

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