One of mankind’s most universal and important traits is the ability to rationalize any behavior. It’s how we can justify nearly anything we do to ourselves, even if we can’t quite pitch it successfully to others. Being able to rationalize anything from stealing (“There’s no way taking one shirt is going to hurt Banana Republic”) to having four cookies instead of two (“I’ll walk it off later”). For me, my greatest skill, talent, ability in life was to rationalize any avoidance behavior as not just acceptable, but crucial.
Avoidance behavior is the act of doing anything to avoid a certain situation, thought, or feeling. For me, it was often a particular task that I wasn’t motivated to do, wasn’t prepared to do, or feared I wouldn’t be able to do to the exacting standards of my team. I’ve done it since I was a kid; in sixth grade, my teacher forbade me from getting out of my seat during class. Whenever I had a hard math problem, instead of sticking with it, I’d get up and get a drink from the water fountain…and then stay there. I was a twelve year old with a drinking problem. In adult life, not only can I get a sip of water, but I can make a fresh pot of coffee, sweep the floor, organize my desk…shoot, I’ll even find myself painstakingly deleting old photos or organizing our internal server just to avoid starting my next project.
As we hit peak summer, those distractions and excuses are even tougher to suppress, but to retain gainful employment, I’ve developed a system that keeps me planted and productive. In fact, this new system has helped me take on more work than ever and still get things done well ahead of schedule. From planning, staying motivated, and indulging, here’s what I’ve come up with to avoid my avoid behavior…don’t worry, that’s acceptable.
- Plan ahead. There’s no way you’ll be able to do what you need to do and also absorb new tasks that crop out over the course of the day. From when you first sit down at your desk, put your whole day in front of you. We use a hand project manager, Teamwork, that lets me see what the team is expecting from me by the end of the day. That’s a huge help, but it’s just a part of a structured, prioritized list I make on paper (yes, with pen and ink) every morning. The five minutes I spend putting my day in black-and-white saves me hours of the course of the week; there’s never any question of what’s next, what’s new, or what else I could do to get ahead. BONUS: I like to do the monotonous or repetitive tasks first. This gets the less motivating projects done and dusted, leaving me with more time to be creative once the drudgery is finished.
- Break It Up. If you work in the digital world, you know that the screen in front of you doesn’t blink. Staring at a monitor for hours, sitting still, and listening to “The Dropout” for the tenth time can get old. As a part of my daily planning, I also pick specific times to shake and bake; I work at home for two hours, then head to one of our clients, Brew, for three hours, then back home for lunch. Sometimes, I’ll pack a lunch and work the whole afternoon at our local library. Not only does this shift help break up the day, it really helps me press reset on my thinking and creativity. The ten-minute bike rides both to and fro gets me moving, awake, and helps me shift from, say, writing about washer machines to thinking of creative ways to photograph an auto repair shop. Even if you can’t leave the office, getting up in a productive way helps you physically and mentally prepare for what’s next as a part of the plan so you don’t feel the need to avoid it.
- Small Bites. One of the hardest things for me is writing content. It can be really jarring to shift tone between drastically different industries or brands, especially when I’m six hours into a workday. Instead of putting it off, dive in. I’ll force myself to just write; put 300 words on the screen, then look at what you’re really trying to say. This works for more than just writing. No matter the project, give yourself a time period to start and stop. If it doesn’t feel like a huge commitment, you may be more likely to start. I’ll often build this into my daily planning each morning. Let’s say I’ve been pushing off making some graphics for a specific event; instead of finishing the whole deck in a day, I’ll commit to making just one really, really good image. Guess what? Once you kick down that first domino, you’ll probably have enough momentum to knock them all over.
- Indulge. No matter how much you try, you still need to walk away. On those busy, stressful days, expecting a spartan sort of discipline isn’t admirable; it can lower the quality of your work. I’m sure you can look at your own portfolio and point to things that you tackled creative, energized, and motivated and certainly pick out pieces that you half-assed and mailed in. Too busy, too frazzled, or just have absolutely nothing to say? Go out, get a dog, bring it home, and take that dog for a five-minute walk* when you’re blocked up and overwhelmed. Sometimes, you really do need to take a step away from it and come back fresh.
This summer, we’re hoping you’re balancing staying on it and getting unplugged. The balance to productivity is ample time to freshen your mind, body, and soul. And maybe listen to “The Dropout” for the eleventh time.
*Don’t get a new dog every time. Getting one dog and one dog only is good enough, and it’ll save you a lot of trips to the humane society.