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On Distractions 

I love being well read and I consider myself to be well rounded. I enjoy hearing people’s opinions and trying to understand their point of view. As such, I read, watch, and listen to a pretty wide variety of things. And while I certainly value this immensely lately I’ve been wondering if it hasn’t been causing me to be distracted.

Often times when I’m absorbing something I’ll have an idea and then I’ll get really excited it. This happens time and time again to the point where I don’t feel like I’ve done much of anything. I’ve talked about this before but lately I’ve been trying to pay attention to whether this is a by-product have a diverse group of things that I consume. Maybe focusing what I’m consuming for spans of time will help me focus on the projects I’m working on.

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The Importance of Having a Creative Outlet 

For much of last year I was in a bit of a creative slump. Its seems so strange to think about now with the way things have been this year but I would often sit down with some extra time on my hands with no idea about what I should work on. I would beat my head against the wall trying to come up with ideas and have nothing to show for it (except a metaphoric bloody brow). Right now, I don’t have enough time to get all of the things done that I want to. Big ideas, small ideas. Great ideas, dumb ideas. I’ve almost filled up a Field Notes notebook completely in these first two months of the year. And it feels great.

I attribute this newfound creative boost to the work I’ve done on Eligo. Its so important—for my mind, at least—to have some productive creativity. The creative part of my brain needs to be excerised, just like a muscle in my leg. Not only that, I need to feel like I’m making progress or moving toward something.

Reflecting again on last year, one thing I certainly learned about myself is that I need creativity in my life. If I’m not getting that out of my workday then it is up to me to provide myself with an outlet to flex those muscles. I plan to, from this point forward, always have some sort of side project that I’m working on and make sure I’m giving myself time each week to work on it.

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Last Week I Nearly Gave Up & I’m Glad That I Didn’t 

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Exactly a week ago today I posted that I had been having a slow week while working on Eligo. But that wasn’t even the worst of it. By the end of that day I was starting to talk myself out of making Eligo altogether. If you’ve worked on any sort of large, personal, creative project before then you’ve likely done the same. Maybe you even gave in. I almost did. I was asking myself things like “is this even worth it?” and “will anyone use this?”. I was telling myself that the answer to these questions was a resounding “no”.

One thing missing from this discussion that I was having with myself inside of my head was my reasoning for working on Eligo in the first place. The real purpose of the project, which I talked about in my announcement post, wasn’t so people could use it. I was working on Eligo to get back into the habit of working towards something. Giving up in the middle didn’t seem like a great way to make a habit. So I decided to persist.

I’m not sure if these two things are related or not—it’s impossible to detach the two in my mind—but the moment after I decided to keep going I had a bit of an epiphany: the design was all wrong. Keep in mind that I had already redesigned once. “Surely I can’t rip everything out again”, I thought to myself. All of those start up guys talk about “good enough” constantly. Couldn’t this design be just that: good enough? Once I asked myself who I was doing this for, the answer to the question of it being good enough was obvious. It was not.

I talked to my wife about it. While she was encouraging about my decision to scrap the direction that wasn’t working, she urged me to sleep on it. And I did. But it was hard. I feared that I was going to loose all of the energy and positivity I had just acquired. I had vague ideas in my head of a direction to take the design and I had an even clearer picture of what was wrong with the current design. I wrote down everything that was floating around in my brain and went to bed. Against all odds, I was able to get a full night’s rest. And you know what happened? I woke up positive and with an even clearer picture of where I needed to take Eligo.

I got to work immediately and by the time my family had awoke, a few hours after I did, I had a clear direction for the design of the product. I was working quickly and efficiently. Things were coming together. By the end of the day I had a very solid style guide for the product committed to the project’s code repository. I had gotten more done that Friday by 5:00pm than I had the whole rest of the week.

I was encouraged by what had happened when I went to bed with unfinished ideas the night before. So I did something similar and contrary to what my brain was urging me to do: I put the project aside for the weekend. I spent time with friends and enjoyed the beautiful weather we were having here in Southwest Missouri on the porch with my family. I was thinking about the project constantly but was doing so away from the screen. I felt like I was doing honest-to-good problem solving in my head, rather than rummaging the internet for other people’s solutions to my problems.

Something magical happened again on Monday morning: I had the same productivity superpowers. In fact, they seemed even stronger than they were on Friday. Every decision I was making seemed to just be right. And if it wasn’t right, I was in a state of mind that I could see what was wrong and adjust easily. Things were simply coming together and the project was finally starting to feel like a product.

It’s Thursday morning now and I feel like I’ve had three weeks of productivity crammed into these past three days. The best part is that I haven’t been exhausting myself. I’ve still had to keep myself focused—which hasn’t been too difficult this week—but I’ve been making serious progress on Eligo. To top it off, I’ve been able to stop working around 4:30pm which, as a result, has helped me make progress on some of my other goals, like cooking dinner for my family most nights. And Eligo is in a great place. In fact, I hope to get the alpha up by the beginning of next week!

I don’t have a clear path to this elevated state of productivity. I wish I did. However, if you’re struggling to work through something, here are a couple of things you can try that worked for me this week:

  1. Spend some time away from the problem. I’ve read the advice from creative people before to “take a walk” when you’re at a mental roadblock. This can be very hard to do but it is wonderful advice. Detach yourself from your work and your brain may solve some of the problems for you when you’re not deliberately thinking about them. Your subconscious is better at solving problems than you probably realize it is.
  2. Don’t be afraid to scrap work you’ve already done. Its important to not get too attached to the work itself and instead focus on the quality of the outcome. If something isn’t right don’t continue working at it for work’s sake.
  3. Don’t exhaust your energy. This is related to point #1 but I think it’s important to separate it out. When you do find yourself with some energy, fight the urge to work until it’s been drained. This is especially difficult if you’re coming off of a productivity “dry spell”, like I was, where you fear that the next time you sit down to work the energy won’t be there. Fight the urge. Leave some of your ideas for tomorrow.

On that last point, Ernest Hemingway had some great advice for people writing a novel that I think applies to all creative work. He answers the question “How much should you write in a day?” with:

The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck. That is the most valuable thing I can tell you so try to remember it.

— Ernest Hemingway “Monologue to the Maestro: A High Seas Letter” in Esquire, October 1935

I’m thankful that I stumbled upon some productivity this week. Although, at second glance stumble upon isn’t the right way to put it. I worked hard to get to here and I don’t think I’d be where I am on the project if I hadn’t gone through all those dead ends at the beginning. So perhaps that leaves us with one more point that didn’t make in onto the list. This may be the most important point: don’t give up.

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Eligo Update: A Slow Week 

Those who have built a product before probably saw the writing on the wall after reading my last post and in hindsight I should have known better too. I’m still confident that I made the right choice at the end of last week but I should have known what better about was that it wouldn’t be smooth sailing. The excitment of a new direction will not last long when you’re doing the tedious work of reimplementing something that you have already worked on.

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Scrapping What You’ve Done to Move Forward 

Yesterday I woke up no longer happy with the direction I was taking the design on Eligo. It was derivative, corporate, and even a bit faux-playful (think Hawaiian shirt day at the cubicle farm). My first instinct was to “finesse” the design into something that I would be happy with but after an hour of beating my head against the wall I realized that it needed to be ripped out and scrapped.

Design has always been something that I am able to get away with but I’ve never considered myself that great of a designing things. Design inspriation does not come cheap for me and I have no process or much talent to fall back on when things aren’t coming together. The only thing that I can rely on is my taste telling when something is right, which means a lot of iterations. Because of this, I tend to get really attached to my design work once I’ve settled on something. Even in the case of Eligo’s design where, from the beginning it never felt quite right, I sunk in my heels when I realized the design wasn’t going well. But, with some nudging from Luke Beard and Kyle Bragger, I ripped out the old design and started again.

Redoing what you’ve already done does not tend make you feel like you are oozing with productivity and at the end of the day yesterday I was feeling that maybe I had made a mistake. Luckily a tweet came accross my stream from Bastian Allgeier that made me realize that scapping what you’ve done is sometimes part of the process and it is a way to move forward:

design & development require one important common skill: being able to throw away your own work in order to come up with something better.

— Bastian Allegeier (@bastianallgeier) 13 Feburary 2016

I never have an problem ripping out code that I’ve written—in fact I enjoy it. So I’m trying to channel that same part of my personality with my design work. And so far I feel like getting similar results as when I scrap code: a simpler more deliberate design and UI. And I’m confident it will be for the best in the long run.

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Dealing with Difficult to People 

I recently got thrown into a project with a particulary abrasive programmer manning the ship. He is the sort of programmer that belittles and questions every little decision you’ve made until you feel that you can’t have a thought for yourself without consulting with him first. The sort of person that judges without any thought to context. The sort that likes pile needless tools onto a project to try and make up for their own personality deficiencies.

So, as I was saying, I’ve recently had to work with a character like this and I’ve adopted a simple rule when responding to him in a diplomatic way: write a response and then walk away for five minutes before sending it. Writing my initial response is like a pressure release valve when my blood gets boiling and helps me feel a little better. Taking a short break from the situation and then coming back to read my response really helps me analyze my reaction outside of the heat of the moment. Then I am able to civilly respond to his demeanor, if necessary, or simply respond to what he is complaining about and get on with doing my job.

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Small Wins 

Yesterday I was chatting with my good friend Luke Beard about ideas and projects and I came to the awful realization that I don’t have a lot to show for last year. Obviously I worked and delivered all year long, however, I worked on parts of projects and specific features. Things like an integration to a third-party service, code restructing and refactoring, and a lot of similar things. I also had a lot of research projects for clients that simply never saw the light of day.

My conversation with Luke made me realize that I need to get back into the habbit of making money on my own again and I need a small win to get the ball going. If you’ve been keeping up, this has been a goal of mine for a while but I was invisioning a medium-sized project that would eventually replace the income I make from consulting. The thing is, without any momemtum, the odds of me getting through the slog of a project are pretty slim. I think I need some small wins to start gaining some momemtum. Since sales from Bloom have all but dried up (and rightly so, hello iOS 6 design) my income has been 99% percent from the hours I put into consulting for clients. And I would like to change this soon.

One idea is bring Bloom back to life but I’m very skeptical of making any money from App Store with a utility app these days. I have a fear that so few are willing to pay for app that it would be more demoralizing than helpful to go the App Store route. Another direction is to build out a small scheduling web service; an idea that I’ve been kicking around for a few weeks. Web development is certainly where my greatest strengths are and I think the core of the idea is small enough that it could be done very quickly. The last option is go down the route of “info-product”. I’ve been programming and in “tech” a long time now. I also learn quickly and I enjoy writing. However, this option feels douchey and I’m not sure I have self-promotion chops to make it a success.

I’ve been graced with some beginning-of-the-year optimism and I want to focus it on a project quickly. I want to spend a good chunk of the day exploring and, more importantly, I want to decide on a direction by the end of the day. Tune in tomorrow.