Let’s face it, sometimes (ok, lots of times) it feels impossible to sit down at your computer long enough to bust through your latest design project. Sometimes it’s creative block, and sometimes it’s simply too many distractions to stay focused long enough to get started. Confession: I’m supposed to be designing a logo right now and I got nothin’. I made what I think is a killer first round of looks, but my client “wants to see more variations.” That’s a whole different issue in itself in regards to scope creep and guiding your clients to choose the best logo from your comps. For this next round though, my mind is a complete blank and I’m struggling to come up with anything fresh, and honestly, it’s the last thing I want to do right now. If I wasn’t procrastinating by writing this post, here’s how I would (usually) approach this problem.

Do something else

This should actually be your last resort if you truly need to get something done. Don’t procrastinate whenever possible, however, sometimes you need to pick the best time of day when your mind is the most alert for the task. For example, I know that around 3pm every day my mind just shuts down. I plan that time to take a break and get out with my family. Maybe go for a quick hike on the trails by our house, or play a quick game of Mario Kart 64 with my kids. #classic.

When I come back, I feel revived and fresh enough to tackle one more good chunk of work before I head out for the day for dinner and more family time. Sometimes letting my brain think about something else for just a little bit is enough to give it a fresh perspective and jumpstart the project. If you try to press through when you aren’t mentally clear or don’t feel like doing the work, you might turn a simple 45 minute project in to a three hour mess and most likely make mistakes that take even longer to fix. Who has time for that?

Now, if you really just need to get things done, here is what you need to do:

Clear all distractions

Graphic design is mentally taxing, and your brain needs all the help it can get to stay on task. This should be obvious, but the biggest culprits are fellow colleagues, family if you work from home, social media, phones, email notifications, etc. Turn off the tech, close the door, and focus. Here’s why: There’s this thing called “decision fatigue” and the more distractions and decisions you have to make about keeping focused, the more your decision-making ability deteriorates.

From Wikipedia: “In decision making and psychology, decision fatigue refers to the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual, after a long session of decision making. It is now understood as one of the causes of irrational trade-offs in decision making.”

Because I work mostly on a laptop, I find it’s helpful to sneak out to a local coffee shop or library to remove myself from all the things that need done at home or the office. Too many times those things beckon so loudly that I just can’t fight the temptation and before I know it, I’m mowing the lawn (or writing a blog post) instead of finishing my work.

Start on paper

As a graphic designer or web developer, it would seem the most logical place to start on a project would be on your computer. Try starting on paper for your next project, and here’s why: When you work on a computer, you fight all kinds of distractions and limitations. You face the distractions mentioned above as well as any technical issues you might run in to that pulls you away from your original plan. Software update? Computer crash? Can’t get your design to look quite right with your design tools? Start with a roadmap (sketch) so that you don’t lose sight of where you are trying to end up.

Any project without a plan is a recipe for disaster. “A genius without a roadmap will get lost in any country.” -anonymous… but I heard that one from Brian Tracy and Darren Hardy. And it’s true- if you don’t have a plan with the end in mind, how do you expect to get where you want to go? This was supposed to be simple advice for creative block, but turned in to something a little more profound, didn’t it? Moving right along…

I start my projects in a notebook or I’ll even just grab a blank piece of printer paper right out of the printer tray to quickly get my thoughts out of my head. I sketch out my ideas or make a bullet list of the steps I need to go through for the project. If it’s a design project, like this logo I’m avoiding for example, I’ll define three or four variations to explore. If it’s a website project I’m working on, I might simply define the steps in chronological order: Install WordPress on dev server, drop in theme, add plugins, add pages, drop in content from client, modify timezone and wp settings, etc.

The list doesn’t have to be totally spelled out, just something you can look at and refer to if you get distracted by something. Squirrel. What? Crap, where was I? Oh ya, point number 3…

Set a definitive timeline

Parkinson’s Law. It’s this law that says your project will take exactly as long as the amount of time you give it. …I hope you didn’t slot your whole day for this thing. “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Set an aggressive timeline, even if there’s technically no due date, and then get it done.

Define a reward for finishing (or not finishing)

Your reward could be positive reinforcement, or a negative thing depending on how your mind works. For example, positive: “Yay! I finished by 3pm so I can leave early and hang out with my family.” Or, “If I finish in time, I’m rewarding myself with a _______ (steak dinner, movie, candy bar, new xyz thing I’ve had my eye on). Keep in mind the size of the reward should match the level of achievement. Steak dinners or new shoes just for sending out a new round of logo designs is obviously not a sustainable habit ?

For the negative example, one of my mentors (Darren Hardy) told a story about someone he was coaching. I can’t remember the guy’s name, so let’s just call him Andrew. Andrew wanted to lose weight, but nothing he tried worked- not even the “positive” reinforcement and rewards he’d set up for himself. Finally, the mentor had Andrew write a large check that would hurt a little if cashed to a charity that he HATED. He then had him put a stamp on the envelope and hand it to a friend. At the end of three months, the friend would check in to see if Andrew lost the weight. If he was successful the friend would just shred the envelope, but if not, he’d mail the check no matter how badly Andrew begged him not to. The result? Andrew lost the weight!

In Closing

Well, this was a nice little distraction for me but now it’s time to get after it. Time to get out my paper, sketch through some ideas, and knock this one out. I’d love your feedback on ways you keep on task and how you fight through creative block in the comments below. Thanks for sharing!