I woke up at 4am today. I didn’t mean to, but my brain got a jumpstart on worrying about how I was going to get everything done. There was that really important thing I thought of right before I fell asleep that I told myself I’d remember in the morning; I didn’t. There’s a stack of email printouts sitting on my desk from various projects all demanding my attention. There’s a list of deadlines in Basecamp ready to be checked off. Then there are the two quotes from carpet companies my wife and I keep putting off discussing, and there’s the looming trip to my mother-in-law’s house. I know that later today people will step into my cubicle wondering if they can see the latest proof for their project. As I lay in bed at 4am, awake and stressed, I’m hoping I can muster up a different kind of proof. Proof of life, proof of passion, proof of joy.
As a designer, it’s easy to get buried in projects. And during those times, it’s hard to see clearly – not only at work, but at home as well. It’s hard to manage the projects as well as your own life. How can you expect to make it through with sanity, clarity, and still create something great? Is it even possible? Or do you have to sacrifice your family and soul in order to achieve awesome? I want to give you three suggestions for things you can try to get your sanity back in the midst of busyness.
I tried keeping a day planner back in the late 90’s. I ordered a whole year’s worth of blank sheets. I sat at my desk – stared at all those empty lines – and put them in a drawer. I’ve tried various calendar apps. Put in some reoccurring dates. Hit save. Walked away. And I’m still reminded every Monday night about a meeting for a job I no longer work at. I’m just too lazy to delete it. Obviously, these are not the ways for me to see what deadlines I have looming or projects I need to dedicate time to.
For me, I found that taking a little time each day or every other day to focus on what I needed to do was enough. I do that while running. Getting away from the computer, out of the house, and into the sunlight is often the very thing I need to keep my sanity. It enables me to daydream – to budget my time for the next day or two. It helps me think through scenarios without getting distracted by my phone or Facebook. And I have a wicked year-round running singlet tan as well.
You certainly don’t need to become a runner to be able to do this. Before running, I used to do this in the shower. I’ve done it while sitting in Starbucks. I’ve done it while taking a walk around the church building. The important thing is to find some time where you can step away from your desk, clear your head, see the big picture, and dive back in where you need to. You may think you don’t have time to do this. You’re already swamped and crunched for time as it is and I’m suggesting you add another 30 minutes to your day? It may seem completely illogical and asinine, but you’d be amazed at how much time that 30 minutes can actually save you by putting you back on track or reprioritizing your projects.
Face Your Limitations
After my run, it’s time to sit down and do the hardest thing a designer ever has to do. I have to let perfectionism go. I have to face reality, that with five upcoming project deadlines, I’m not going to be able to give each project the additional time that I’d like. My mind automatically refutes that thinking by arguing that if I really loved Jesus I’d stay up later, work longer, and skip dinner to get everything perfect. If my employer didn’t want perfect, they’d just use clipart. But there are a lot of underlying issues at work when I start thinking that way. One is the fact that I want everyone to like me. The fact that I want every design I create to be the best representation of me possible. Did I mention wanting to be liked? A lot of my perfectionism is about me, not the task at hand. I want to be perfect. I want to be in control. And when my time is cramped and I feel like I’m losing control, the thing I try to hang onto is the perfect design. But it’s not going to be perfect. And you know what? Not many people will care if it is.
When I look back at some of the designs I’ve struggled with the most for ministries, it’s almost laughable now. Why was I losing sleep on a design for an event that was only going to bring in 15 people? Even if that design were worthy of being on the front cover of Photoshop User magazine, the event would still bring in 15 people. Part of that is the culture of where you work. The design can be a vehicle to propel the event. But if the event itself doesn’t deliver, it doesn’t matter how good the design is. Give up perfectionism. Let it go. And move on to the final step.
Privately Evaluate Everything
When I have a pile of projects on my desk, I mentally give each one a value between 1 and 10. I don’t tell anyone else this – because every ministry thinks his or her event is the most important event ever. And every ministry leader would think I’m a big jerk. But inwardly, I judge an event on its target audience, success in the past, expectations, timeframe given to me, etc. From there I can assign an appropriate amount of time I’ll spend on it. Every event is not created equal and neither is its promotion. An event for 15 people does not carry the same weight as an event for 50 or 500 or 5000. And as much as I want to help every ministry succeed, there is a realistic hierarchy that I can cling to. (Aside: Even though every ministry might not be a 10, treat them like they are. Never tell a ministry leader that you only have 15 minutes to give their event. If you do, you are a big jerk.)
In the past I’ve used a time tracking app that helps me see in real numbers how much time I’m spending on certain tasks. This is an eye-opening experience. It’s like putting a budget together for the first time and you see exactly where your money is going each month. You can do the same with your time. See where it’s going. See where it needs to go. Make the adjustments. Deliver the best designs you can in the budgeted time you’ve set, and then move on. Click off a few easy projects and updates to give you confidence going forward.
It will take deliberate effort on your part to see through the junk. You’ll need to be diligent with your time. You might need to track how you’re spending it. You need a way to balance your projects. You need to find a regular activity that allows you to step away and see the big picture. And after that, if you’re still buried, and still pulling late nights in the office, you should feel good going to your pastor or supervisor because you’ll have hard data that shows how your resources are being used up. Let them help you. Maybe they’ll be able to see something you’re missing. You’re not in this alone. Design should be fun. It should be something you look forward to. It shouldn’t suck your soul dry, or your families.