As a product designer, I’m often faced with creative challenges that require focus, energy, and dedication to solve. I love problem solving, which is why I’ve stayed in this profession for so long. On good days, I have the focus and resolve to come up with great ideas based on a complex set of information at my disposal. On good days, I am excited to sit down and crank out sketches for something really difficult. Recently, it hit me – I hadn’t had many good days recently. I was doing the motions without taking a step back and thinking with a fresh mind.
Parenting was taking a toll, for sure, and that became my primary excuse. The kids were wearing me out, I thought. Working full time and staying home with two young children all day, every day, due to COVID-19 seemed like more than enough to have to take on. Any parent would feel this way, I thought. Who has time to be creative, on top of all this?
Part of being a good designer is knowing what problem you are solving, and why it needs to be solved. So, I approached this like any other project.
I found myself trying to apply the same techniques I always do with a design challenge, yet I wasn’t coming up with much that was great. Finding good solutions just seemed to be getting more and more daunting and require more work and more energy. Energy I didn’t have.
I tried the old pep talk first. I told myself to really get my act together and focus intensely on generating and working on ideas. It didn’t work. I wound up spending more time and energy worrying about it, and got less results. I blamed myself more, but I didn’t really produce more. In fact, I started to lose interest in all creative and difficult challenges. There was plenty that I wanted to do, but little energy left to actually do it. I wanted to learn video editing. I wanted to learn more about animation. I wanted to find the time to make fine art again.
So, I took an inventory of what I was actually doing. The first thing I noticed, right away, was that I was tending to fill every extra moment with apps and messaging – Discord, Slack, iMessage, or Netflix. I was doing a lot of snacking, too. Constant trips to the kitchen or for a drink. Really anything but sitting alone with my own thoughts, or, god forbid, actually picking up a tool in an endeavor to do anything hard. It became easier to be distracted than to actually accomplish.
I installed an app to track how many times I pick up my phone per day. After a few days, I read the results. 127 times. 96 times. 130 times. Hours and hours wasted every day.
I was addicted to instant gratification – all those “little things” that fill up a day when you aren’t paying much attention. I was using up all of my mental energy reading and doing pointless things. And I was wasting a TON of time. With what energy I had left, I was doing the same things over and over again without really thinking about alternative approaches.
It turns out, my problem is universal to all human beings. There is still a lot to learn about the human mind and all of the chemistry involved, but, in a nutshell, whenever you take an action or see something that offers some sort of gratification, even a very small thing, your brain gives you a little feeling of reward. That is how our brain works, because it is hard-wired to help you survive. You go for the easy and cheap things, should they be available, over the hard ones, because, well, why not? It’s possible to maintain a relative level of happiness simply by doing very small and pointless things over the course of a day. The problem, of course, is that meaningful things don’t really get done.
The world is full of rewarding distractions. Fast food, instant messaging, instant access to entertainment, information, news, social media, same-day delivery, all of the things you can have at the push of a button are alluring and seductive. It’s easy to fall into a trap of always being a little happy, because it’s easy to always make yourself a little happy.
How is it Being Exploited?
People naturally tend to want to repeat the behaviors that result in a little feeling of reward, and product designers have taken notice. Social media platforms are actively designed around reward addiction models. Fast food is engineered around it. Amazon’s push-to-order products, designed for you to overtake your own house with feel-good pushbuttons, have taken instant gratification to a whole new level.
So our lives beep and boop incessantly with notifications, links, chat messages, and advertisements. Every resulting screen is littered with links and offers of more, and more, and more.
Because reward is linked to survival instinct, we can’t really help going for it as often and as much as possible. If we have the choice between our favorite cheeseburger, or a plain looking salad, it becomes nearly impossible to resist the cheeseburger, even though the burger leads to heart disease if we eat too much of it, and the salad leads to good health.
What Can We Do?
It’s not our fault, but it is time to wake up and teach our brain a lesson.
The lesson is this – make yourself hungry. Stop doing so many little things, stop doing things the same way, and just do nothing for a while. Clear your mind.
It doesn’t have to be difficult to have great ideas. It just takes an unencumbered mind, like that of a child. Throw away everything you know, remove the clutter, and start fresh.
A 24-hour Reset
I picked a day on the weekend and, from the moment I woke up to the moment I went to sleep, I didn’t do anything to give myself instant gratification. I put away my smartphone. I closed my laptop. I avoided the TV and the iPads. I told Alexa to shut it. I resolved not to buy coffee, or fast food, or anything else, for that matter.
I walked. I took notice of the smell of the air, of the moisture evaporating from the sidewalk. I thought about what I was doing, what was around me, what was happening right now at this moment. I spent time thinking. I did nothing that brought any immediate pleasure. I did a little exercise. I cooked healthy food.
Eventually, of course, I became bored. It was hard not to pick up a phone or take a look at something in Discord or Slack. It was difficult to not want to pick up a game console or even a book. I stuck to the plan.
As it turned out, boredom was the key. Being bored, I found myself suddenly thinking of things that need to be done. Planning for the week, at first, thinking about work and what needed to be done. I just took time and did nothing at all for a while.
Suddenly, a new thought came to me – “What do I really want to be doing with my time?” I realized I hadn’t asked myself this question in a long time. I realized that I could make a conscious choice to spend my time the way I want to spend it.
So, what I really learned was to start to value my time. I figured out some bigger things I want to be doing with my creativity. It was such a good feeling, I decided to continue to have at least 2 days a month just doing nothing except thinking about what I want to be doing with my time.
A strange thing happened. Once I gave myself a rest from all the distractions, ideas came to me much more easily and clearly than before. I realized that I was able to come up with things more easily and think outside the box once again.
As they say, “everything in moderation.” A little bit of nonsense is good for the soul. However, rather than decide which “guilty pleasures” to remove, it may be better to reset back to nothing, see how that feels, and then re-introduce things with intention, rather than assume everything you did yesterday will carry forward into today. Our time is too valuable to make assumptions like that.
Some tips for the next 24 hours (and beyond!)
- Start with a clean slate. Just take everything out of your life and start from there. Assume nothing will continue as it was. Assume none of the apps, the websites, the games, the fast-food, the online shopping will continue into tomorrow. A 24 hour reset can make you mindful of all of the things that you normally want to do, so make a little list. When you start the next 24 hours, decide what you are going to intentionally add back in, and why, and how much time it should be taking.
- When you do get bored, turn to your big goals instead of distractions. Get busy on something big.
- Think like a child. Spend less time grinding a solution in the same way you always do it, and more time thinking of alternatives. If you’re killing yourself trying to come up with an acceptable answer, you probably need to step away from the drawing board for a bit. How else might this problem be solved? If alternatives aren’t coming to mind, give yourself a break and take some time to declutter again.
- Vanquish self-doubt. Self-doubt is the biggest killer of creativity. Kick it to the curb by remembering that doubt is a thing you create for yourself. Instead of thinking “I can’t do it” or “I can’t do it good enough,” take it instead as a challenge. You’ll always find that you’ll win as long as you just start doing!