Boosting my productivity (and fun) – a designer’s journey

When you work full time as a designer, and the thing you love the most is designing, things can get a bit complicated. Obviously everyone has different priorities. My main struggle is finding enough energy to do more things I love after work.

When I get home sometimes, after designing stuff all day, I feel like I haven’t got any more energy or inspiration. I still have my freelance work to do, and the house has its own claims on my attention: there is dinner to prepare, chores to be done, emails, calls, and yes, I need some time to rest too. So when can I just design for fun?

I started thinking about this around a year ago when I was on Jessica Hische’s blog, reading about her Ultra Schedule  and how she planned her entire week in an extremely efficient way. I loved her Administrative Mondays and how she planned her work around the time when she feels her brain is more productive. Another thing I found very clever is her alternating ‘Lunch with a Book’ and ‘Lunch with a Friend’ – what a good idea! She really inspired me to optimise my time and give some order to my life too.

I know that if I have a list of things to do I’ll spend less time wandering around and looking at the ceiling, but a few post-its here and there won’t solve the issue. Sometimes I don’t even start doing new activities because I know I’d do it once and then forget about it for a month. I need a way to find more time or use the time I have more smartly. But most importantly I need to be more consistent.

I’ve come up with some principles

Some principles that should help me organise my time more effectively and productively so I can finally look at my achievements and be able to pat myself on the shoulder.

1. Prioritisation

To-do lists are not the problem. The problem is that on a to-do list I would just pick the tasks in my comfort zone and totally fail at prioritising. So I shall focus on priorities. And give my day a meaning.

I recently found this: http://johnhenrymuller.com/today

The concept basically is “If you do THIS and only this, today will be a good day”.

John is suggesting to start every day completing this statement:

“If nothing else, today I am going to ___________. I am going to do this by ______ then _____ then ______. If I do this and only this, today will be a good day.”

Sounds good to me.

2. Optimisation

I shall use my time efficiently. For me the struggle is avoiding switching continuously between different projects. Even while writing this article I would very often look nervously at other -unfinished- stuff that is open on my computer.

In my quest to reach the perfect day, I stumbled upon this method which, funnily enough, comes from my country: http://pomodorotechnique.com/

The technique consists in working without interruptions for 25” (the time of a ‘pomodoro’ kitchen timer) and then taking a short (or long) break to do not work related stuff.

Can I manage to work on something for 25” without ANY (phone, social media, people, thoughts, other projects) distraction? Let’s set up a timer like Tomato Timer and try.

3. Motivation

Motivating myself – and reminding myself WHY I’m doing what I’m doing – is the hardest part. There are things like ‘going to the gym’ that, well, yeeeeeah I know they’re good for me, but I would never feel motivated enough to bring myself to the gym floor and suffer.

That’s why I thought that the only thing that would work for me would be to trick my brain somehow… and that’s when I started studying habits.

The first step has been learning to wake up earlier in the morning. Second step, repeating my actions (prepare gym bag the night before, wake up earlier, go to the gym, go to work) for a couple of weeks with no exceptions, until my brain didn’t need to process those actions any more. Third step, find someone that would wait for me outside, just to add some social pressure.

The key is understanding that the more you do something, the more it becomes natural, instinctive. The human brain loves habits, and it’s more than happy to switch to auto-pilot whenever it can.

There are also a couple of apps I found quite helpful in this process. I started using Coach.me that helps you to transform your goals into habits, as you try to achieve the longest streak.

Trello is simply really good to list your long term goals and keep track of how things are going. Sharing your goals with people also makes you feel more motivated, as you feel more unlikely to break your pledges.


My Trello board. You can see there are only 3 things in ‘Goal for 2015’ as most of them are in progress.

3.1 Gamification

OK, I’ll go full-geeky here. I’ve just learned from Adrien Lemaire about Habitica a free habit building and productivity app that treats your real life like an RPG game. Accomplishing something in your To Do list will give you XP, performing a good habit will raise your HP level while bad ones decrease it. You level up if you do well and if you don’t, well, your avatar could die.

I’m currently testing this for fun (and it is fun), I just I have to make sure Jim, my boss, doesn’t think I’m playing RPGs at work.

4. Harsh selection

Another thing I’ve learned during my journey is that I should carefully select the jobs I get as a freelancer so I can align better what I love with what I need to do to pay the bills. This required me being a bit more merciless and actually ‘fire’ those clients that wouldn’t give me any fun or challenging work to do. Or that simply would waste too much of my precious time. Basically I went full #onlygoodclients.

Setting goals

So, now that I’m sorted out with all these tricks optimising my time and making sure I keep myself on track, I need to clarify exactly what I want to get out of my week, to eventually accomplish my initial goal.

I’ve started brainstorming some activities I would like to find time for during the week.


list of things to squeeze into the week


My list is still in progress and already looks quite scary. I wonder when am I going to find time for my uke?

Building routines

Now that I know more or less what I want to do, I need to find the time to do it, and I want to create some routines to make sure I never miss or postpone a task.

I’ve used TimeTune (Android app) to plan my week and try to stick to a routine. It’s quite interesting looking at the statistics.


My week with 7.6 hours sleep per night


This is a very quick way to see that I have more than 17 hours to find time for my uke, drawings, movies, meditation and whatnot.

Next step is going to be planning exactly when I want to do these activities. Movie night seems like a good activity for a Monday, right?


In case no one told you before, you can achieve (almost) anything you want. You can find the time. It’s all about prioritisation, optimisation and motivation and you can find some good tools to help you along the way.

The momentum

Obviously you can have all the tools you need, the best pens, the best paper, the best environment, but in certain moments you might just not feel creative at all…

…and it’s OK. You can’t push yourself to be creative, you can only create all the best conditions to be creative.

I’ve come to the conclusion that finding that creative sparkle is about a balance of forces. You need to stretch your will, get out of your comfort zone, stop procrastinating. You need to be aware of the obstacles but not care about them. At the same time you need to feel it’s the right moment, you need to feel the creative energy, you need to be ready, with a cloudless mind.

You can follow the principles above, you can optimise your week as much as you can, you can be an unstoppable machine, but eventually you need to find that momentum. The hardest exercise is to make your mind ready for it.

So Designers, what does your week look like? Do you design in your spare time? What’s your secret for a healthy work/life balance? Leave a comment below: I’d really love to know more about it!

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  1. Hi Barbara! Thank you very much for using TimeTune! We have many improvements planned for the app and we hope we can help you even more to achieve your goals. Have a really good and productive time! 😉

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