Four Productivity Tips to Be a More Efficient Designer

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Efficiency. Glooooorious efficiency. The streamlined and punctual Japanese train system. The meticulous movement of precision components in a Swiss made watch. The time saving zzzchick of Velcro shoes. I don’t know about you, but I am getting goosebumps. Certain cultures, like the Germans and their engineers in particular, are known for prizing the concept of efficiency (The German word for efficiency is “Leistungsfähigkeit,” Beautiful). So much so that the word efficiency could be a synonym for “better”. That process could be more efficient. That process could be better.

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Many of us got into this crazy design game because we saw needless problems and complexities and wanted to create a better world through our elegant solutions. Despite our love affair with creating a more efficient world, it often eludes us in our personal and work lives. Inefficiencies in our organizations, or if we are being honest, in our own habits can be preventing us from unleashing our very best work and selves. I love fables. They are an “efficient” way of communicating a big concept. Get ready to get whipped into shape. Watch out Aesop, here comes Dan.

The Apple and the Candy Bar

Many of us developed bad habits in college. We consumed way too much ramen and coffee. Perhaps even cooking ramen in coffee during times of extreme desperation. A lack of funds and time, mixed with a strong desire to get a start on our path of design world domination, forced us into this undernourished/overcaffeinated existence. It was a means to an end. So be it. So why has it continued? Listen, I’m not a doctor and I’m not your mom. Although, I am very proud of you. But I do think this is a collective conversation worth having. Designers can often be overworked and stressed. Grabbing a quick unhealthy bite can seem like a minor trade-off in the name of utilitarianism. Would you use questionable materials in your design or substandard fuel in your high performance vehicle? Of course not. We inherently get that. So why treat ourselves differently? There seems to be a disconnect. We are what we eat. A way to explain it in engineering terms is the principle of “garbage in, garbage out(GIGO)”. Poor diet can reduce the energy you have. Energy directly translates into your ability to have the most net impact in your work and personal life. Also, with a poor diet, you are probably not going to have the same caliber of mental clarity and creativity. But given that you are already overworked, where are you going to find the extra time to eat better? Apply the design principles of prototype, test, and iterate. Make large one pot meals and batch them, get food delivered, and keep nuts or other healthy snacks around your desk. Find what works for you and your lifestyle. It can be as simple as just choosing between the better options already being presented. Whether you are paleo, vegan, or Chipotletarean I think everyone agrees to eat more fresh fruit and vegetables.

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” – Hippocrates

Also, get some exercise. Find an activity you enjoy and do that, preferably outside. It actually doesn’t take much to reap most of the health, mood, and sleep benefits. And start working behind a standing desk (get a standing mat too) because that is guaranteed time you have available to get a little healthier and probably be more productive at the same time. Das ist Leistungsfähigkeit!

The Frog or the Egg McMuffin

You know the feeling of a day that gets away from you? Other people’s emergencies become your priorities, you spend all your time jumping from one unexpected and time “critical” task to another (putting out fires). Maybe you get caught up in the onset of the inevitable robot apocalypse. Things out of our control are guaranteed to happen, and they don’t care about your priorities. Step one is to determine your Most Important Tasks(MITs). But How? Is it possible that looking at Pumpkin, the pet raccoon’s, Instagram is someones most important task? Sure. Is it probable that it is yours? Doubtful. Create a task list and ask yourself what, if accomplished, would make all the other items pale in comparison, and alone could make your day a success. Then filter that list again by prioritizing the tasks you have been avoiding as harder.
Step two is to do your MITs first and get started early, really early. Way ahead of anyone that could potentially deviate you from your plans. You get to be in the driver seat. Step three (optional) is to blast Taking Care of Business by Bachman-Turner Overdrive.
Looking at your list, can you imagine how ahead of the game you would be if you had already been doing this? And by doing hard things first, everything else will seem easy by comparison which has a positive psychological effect. But you don’t care about that. You are an emotionless, performance driven machine.

“Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” – Mark Twain

The Tomato and the Couch Potato

The Pomodoro (Italian for tomato) Technique is a time management technique based around timed work and break intervals. The most common variation is to work for twenty-five minutes, then take a five-minute break. Repeat this four times and then take a fifteen-minute break. Simple and straightforward, yet surprisingly effective. During each work phase(Pomodoro), assign yourself a task or tasks that can be fully completed. These micro goals result in micro wins that build momentum and are very motivating. This tool works as a battering ram to get through the doldrums of design. Also, it is proof that we really function better when “unitasking” without distractions. You can use any old timer or a variety of online apps. Personally, I use a bespoke twenty-five-minute hourglass. But that is just because I am an obsessive designer type. Work phase task examples are completing one view of a drawing, cleaning up features, calling a vendor, or populating all the hardware in an assembly. Use the break phase to get some water, talk to a coworker, stretch, organize your desk, or read a thoughtful and well-crafted article from your favorite blogger and leave a nice comment to boost his sensitive ego. Whatever it is you need to do to recharge and reset in order to power through your next work phase. This tool is implementable immediately. Find a way to quantify your current output, then give it a try.

Axe vs Tree

There is a fable of a woodcutter who chops down 18 trees his first day on a job. The second day 15 and the third day 10. Thinking he is getting tired, he talks to his boss who asks if he has taken time to sharpen his axe. The woodcutter explains he hasn’t had time to sharpen his axe because he has been so busy trying to cut down trees. You see where this is going, right? Why was the woodcutter not just piloting a bipedal lumbering mobile suit (lumbering lumber Gundam)? Like physical tools, our “tools” of design can get dull (or be anachronistic). My primary tool for design is SolidWorks, which I have used extensively for over 13 years. That doesn’t mean I haven’t gotten overconfident and developed bad habits that have been reinforced over time or fallen behind on new functionality (I may think I am Paul Bunyan but may actually be Goliath). Think of improving your productivity tool set as a time investment. You “invest” an initial chunk of time in the learning or setup (digital tools never actually dull), which you then get back every instance you use your new tool until you recoup your initial time and then everything after that is bonus. A few things to consider are mastering hotkeys, learning add-ins, creating standard parts libraries and establishing companywide 3D standards. Great ways to learn are watching videos, taking classes and webinars, requesting advice from mentors and user groups, or just watching pros. Heck, just google “fill in the blank” time saving tips during your next five-minute break. The key is to have dedicated time set aside for professional productivity enhancement. I still remember the moment when I learned that in SolidWorks 2016, I could use the convert entities tool to automatically select all the internal loops, oh baby. Cumulatively, all these time savings can add up and have a massive compounding effect over time. Not to mention saved frustration and preventing a forehead shaped crater from slowly forming on your desk.

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

– Abraham Lincoln

Why place such a high importance on efficiency? Because whether you want to solve all the world’s design problems, or just be a more balanced person (gasp), time is a precious and nonrenewable resource that we could all use more of. So get off the couch and Velcro up those shoes because we have work to do.

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