Dress it up as you like, productivity isn’t the most rock and roll of topics. (Trust us, we tried.) And yet, the rockstar designers and illustrators of this world seem to have it nailed – as do the industry's highest achieving creatives, and, well, an overwhelming proportion of successful people globally.
So what’s the secret to being more productive? The key, we know, is to work smarter, not harder. But who has time to research the latest productivity apps, or figure out a new filing system, when demanding clients won’t stop phoning and you’re facing a terrifying to-do list that just gets bigger?
Whether that sounds all too familiar or you’re simply a serial procrastinator, fear not: we’ve spoken to a number of leading designers and illustrators to find out their top tips for being more productive. Sometimes, it seems, you just need to be a bit creative. Read on for productivity enlightenment…
Image: Jonny Wan
According to entrepreneur and author Taylor Pearson, we have only two to four hours of high-level energy per day. Beyond that, he says, we cross a threshold. We still have the energy to complete managerial and administrative tasks, but we’re incapable of high-level creative work.
That means you need to know when you work best, and organize your day and week accordingly. UK-based graphic artist and illustrator Jonny Wan agrees: “It’s important to recognize when you’re most effective,” he says. “Be mindful of when you’re most fresh, and create a manageable and flexible system to compliment your creativity.”
Wan – whose clients include Ford, Audi, KidRobot, Microsoft and Nokia – divides his working hours into four-hour chunks to make sure he achieves a balance between his personal life and professional life. “I get up early and start my first four-hour block,” he says. “Once I’m done I’ll get out and meet a friend for coffee or lunch, and then start another four-hour block when I get home. After a little respite with friends I’m usually more motivated when I’m back at my desk.”
Not only is multitasking dramatically less productive than doing one thing at a time, it also zaps your creativity. And – according to a 2011 study from the University of London – can lead to dips in IQ equivalent to smoking marijuana, or staying up all night. So, er, not great then…
Dr Travis Bradberry, an expert in emotional intelligence, puts it best: “IQ drops of 15 points for multitasking men lowered their scores to the average range of an 8-year-old child. So the next time you’re writing your boss an email during a meeting, remember that your cognitive capacity is being diminished to the point that you might as well let an eight-year-old write it for you.”
“Facebook is the worst temptation,” admits Martin Lorenz, co-founder of Hamburg, Berlin and Barcelona-based design studio TwoPoints.Net. “Especially in the morning. I start doing some promotion for our studio or one of our side projects, chat with friends and before I notice, I’m apathetically scrolling the endless scroll.”
“Only when I’ve accumulated enough anger about having wasted too much of my precious time do I close Facebook. So, my advice for you – and me – is use a timer for Facebook. Or Snapchat, Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter…”
Visionary Apple co-founder Steve Jobs famously simplified the company’s output to four core products when he returned in 1997, and was known for relentlessly filtering out distractions from all facets of office life.
“You could send 100 tweets a day, 400 emails, and fill the world with more crap,” Golden Krishna, senior UX designer at Zappos, told Fast Co Design. “But great productivity to me is having quality output, so each day I try to focus on one thing that I’ll absolutely nail.”
Image: Jing Zhang
Boost your cognitive capacity with regular breaks. Research from Stanford shows that overworking can lead to a decrease in total output – which you’ll know firsthand if you’ve pulled some long days recently. Mistakes are made, and often you’ll re-do those extra hours of work the next day in a quarter of the time.
The big tip here is to get enough rest. “Don’t work too many hours,” advises TwoPoint.Net’s Martin Lorenz. “You’ll be much faster when you’ve had a good night’s sleep.”
“If you do work overtime, treat yourself with something nice like going away for a long weekend,” adds freelance illustrator Jing Zhang, who took a leaf out of iconic designer Stefan Sagmeister’s book and embarked on a sabbatical earlier this year. “I went for a four-month holiday,” she explains, “as I worked double hours last year. I think I deserved it!”
During that time she traveled around the world, researching countries and cities for an ongoing map project [pictured above], and recharging her creative batteries. “There is so much inspiration. It was a refreshing, much-needed long break,” she says.
It’s easy to lose focus when you’re facing a seemingly insurmountable task. But by breaking big problems into smaller ones, you can create a plan with actionable steps and tackle them one at a time. (The key is not to lose sight of the bigger picture.)
Of course, it isn’t always clear which steps you need to take. For a pro guide on how to break down any problem into manageable chunks – and stay motivated while you tackle them – try LifeHacker’s post A Systematic Approach to Solving Just About Any Problem.
It’s no coincidence that your best ideas appear when you pop out for coffee or you’re in the shower: aimless engagement in an activity is a brilliant catalyst for free-thinking. Psychologists call it the ‘default mode network’, and as Wired reports, when “ideas become untethered, they are free to bump up against other ideas they’ve never had the chance to encounter, increasing the likelihood of a useful connection.”
Exercise in itself is a great boost for productivity, helping kick-start creativity and keep concentration levels up – so take a walk, dig out those running shoes, or hop on your bike and get the blood flowing.
Image: Jonny Wan
A good way to stay focused is to remove all distractions. “I find that I really need to be in a quiet space so I can truly get lost and thrive in the work,” says Jonny Wan.
“I’ll take my sketchbook to another area of the house, away from my phone, the internet, TV and so on. Of course all this is subjective, but I think the less distractions you have, the more you can focus.”
Whether you’re planning your day, week, month or next design project, set milestones and know your objectives. “Define your goals before you start working. If you have a good brief, the design concept and its execution will follow by themselves,” says Martin.
When it comes to managing your time and projects, there are a whole load of apps that aim to help. Any.do, Wunderlist, Evernote, Trello, Todoist, Task Timer – the list goes on.
With more of us spending increasing amounts of time in our browsers, it’s also worth looking into things like Chrome extensions. LifeHacker recently published a helpful article, 10 free Chrome extensions to make you more productive, which includes a collection of handy time-savers ranging from tab-remembering extension Session Buddy to Gmail message-scheduling Boomerang for Gmail.
Also read: Retro Photoshop Brushes: 50 of the Best
How often do you open your inbox, read your new emails and make a note to come back to them? Some emails can take three or four returns before action is taken.
Clear Concept’s Ann Gomez suggests that if you get 50 emails a day and read each one twice, you’re building in an extra 20 minutes per day in redundant reading. “Best practice is for us to check email periodically and allow time to act the first time,” she says, adding that the one-touch concept applies to any task, from returning a call to responding to feedback.
Image Jing Zhang
“Have a hobby that isn’t related to your profession. I talk to my plants every day,” laughs Jing Zhang, adding that side projects play a key role in staying motivated. (Read: The creative’s guide to finding time for self projects.)
“Working on several client projects can be tedious and tire you down,” she points out. “I always save a little bit of time to work on my own personal projects in the evening – even 15 minutes is precious. To me this is therapeutic. It keeps me going.”
“Sometimes there are days when you just feel uninspired or lethargic,” confesses Jonny Wan. “Maybe you've just finished an intense campaign, you might have personal reasons or maybe it’s a quiet period.”
“The important thing is not to beat yourself up about it: we all burn out sometimes, especially working freelance where there’s no feeling of security and it’s tempting to work all day, everyday,” he continues. “It’s important to accept that off-days are part of what we signed up for, and let ourselves relax guilt free.”