Even if you’re working your dream job, staying productive can be tough. That’s why designers are such productivity experts: time after time, they overcome the temptation to slack so they can brainstorm new ideas, find fresh solutions, and get things done–all while hitting deadlines and keeping things under budget.
We asked dozens of designers from Google, Argo Design, Huge, ustwo, Sagmeister and Walsh, Moving Brands, OKFocus, and more about their best tips for staying productive. The answers we got back range from the physical to the mental to the chemical. Staying productive is a personal thing, but we guarantee at least one of these tips will work for you.
A number of years ago, it was rumored that Steve Jobs took his inner circle on a corporate retreat to talk about company priorities. At the retreat, he went around the room and asked his inner circle their top priority for the year and jotted them down. At the end, he erased all but one priority and said, ‘This is what we’re going to accomplish this year. We’re going to crush this one thing and do it better than anyone ever has.’
You could send 100 tweets a day, 400 emails, and fill the world with more crap. But great productivity to me is having quality output, so each day I try to focus on one thing that I’ll absolutely nail.
You want to be productive? Focus. Do one amazing thing each day. It could be for the world, your life, your partner, or for a friend. But if you do one great thing a day, well, that’s a fucking productive day. –Golden Krishna, senior UX designer, Zappos
By far the most fruitful strategy to stay productive I know of is to go on sabbatical every seven years, to spend a year working on things that there never seems to be enough time for during the regular client oriented years. –Stefan Sagmeister, partner, Sagmeister & Walsh
For productivity, the No. 1 tool for me are old-fashioned lists. I make a lot of them. I make lists for the day, sub-lists for projects, and sub-sub-lists in rush-hours of work. Simply on paper or in Apple Reminders, the simplest and sturdy to-do list tool. –Florian Mewes, graphic designer
I start at the top and work my way down. Surprisingly, as soon as I think I’m done, there are new projects waiting. Right now I have about 40 of them of varying complexity, from looking at my taxes to having a new engine fitted into my vintage car, and, of course, design projects. I have stacks of other projects around and tend to ignore everything but the most urgent ones. If it doesn’t hurt to leave undone, it’s not important. –Erik Spiekermann, designer
I found breaking down big goals into smaller tasks to be the best way for me to get things done. I can make small progress and knock off these bite-size tasks whenever I have a moment. –Jannie Lai, head of UX, Light
For me, I simply design toward a series of trenches, with each trench being a presentable stopping point, just with a higher fidelity than the previous one in the series. I typically give myself a day or two for each trench, depending on the scope of the request. This keeps me from focusing too long on something small that could end up being scrapped or unimportant. –Matthew Santone, Argo Design
Being clear on the definition of success (a specific deliverable type) with my team from the beginning allows me to be more productive. I can focus my energy on being creative and iterative as opposed to second-guessing and worrying I’m falling outside any bounds. –David Schwartz, Argo Design
A lot of time can be wasted in pursuit of the wrong goal. The longer I have worked as a designer, the more I have learned establishing that you are working on the right thing from the beginning, not just working, boosts productivity. Sure, in the moment, time spent asking yourself, ‘Am I working on the right thing?’ makes you feel anxious, but it’s worth it. –Jared Ficklin, Argo Design
I use my alone time during the beginning and end of the day as a time to plan, reflect, and strategize. –Jannie Lai, head of UX, Light
My trick is reading. The first thing I do when I get to the office is start reading. I have a stack of books on my desk, all design related, and I’ll read for a little bit. Not long, maybe 15 to 20 minutes. I switch back from different books on different days. It calms me down, gets me focused, and lets me think about the bigger picture… When I am running out of steam and I’m getting distracted, I grab a book and do the same thing. Read for 15 to 20 minutes. I find myself re-focused and fresh, it’s like taking a nap. I don’t know enough about these things, but it seems like I’m using a different part of my brain–so my design brain gets to rest and my reading brain stimulates me. I come back ready to go and feeling content. –Joe Stewart, partner, Work & Co.
I voraciously consume science fiction and peruse several design blogs a day. It keeps the lateral thought pathways open. Vision pieces are not just marketing fluff. They exercise the design muscle one employs for clients. –Jared Ficklin, Argo Design
I used to tutor kids in SAT prep, and when they asked how to memorize the endless lists of vocabulary words, I would tell them to read books. Which probably annoyed them. I feel the same way about productivity–it’s not about an app or short-term fix but building a long-term foundation. –Daniel Soltis, user experience director, Moving Brands
Whenever I need an extra hit of inspiration, I browse books from James Turrell, Tadao Ando, or Santiago Calatrava while enjoying a glass of scotch. I also go to museums and parks on a regular basis with my family. –Hector Ouilhet Olmos, product designer, Google
Think about all your haters and the people who don’t believe in you. That’s a huge motivator, as well as thinking about how good it feels to see something you made in the world. Focus on the ends and the means become easier. –Ryder Ripps, creative director, OKFocus
Make sure you end your day on a clear, high-point with your work so that when you come in the next day you’re starting from a good place. –Renae Alsobrook, Argo Design
Every morning when I wake up, I ask myself, ‘What task is causing me the most anxiety?’ Sometimes, it’s an easy answer since it’s been keeping me up all night, but sometimes I need to think deeply. My strategy is to start the day by tackling the thing that generates the greatest stress. After having completed the most stressful task of the day, I get a huge burst of energy and my creativity and productivity soars –Joanna Berzowska, head of electronic textiles, OMsignal
When I have a lot of things on my plate I use President Eisenhower’s Urgent/Important Matrix, which identifies which tasks and activities you should focus on. –Florian Mewes, graphic designer
When you really need to get something done, it can be helpful to force yourself to focus on it without distraction for an extended period of time. I find that it helps if you set a timer for an hour or two and set a goal to focus 100% on the design at hand until the timer goes off, after which you can give yourself a little break. Some people use an egg timer for this, but I just use the iPhone timer app. –Andrew Ofstad, co-founder and chief product officer, Airtable
The creative process is a flexible one. It rarely gets into economies of scale at a level that entrenched repeatable processes are needed. But knowing when and how to build a jig to speed up a repetitive or often repeated task is paramount for increasing productivity. –Jared Ficklin, Argo Design
When I really need to get stuff done fast, taking a walk is one of the best ways to increase creative output or get through a block. –Ian MacDowell, Argo Design
Productivity comes for collaborating closely with teams outside of design, so getting up and taking a walk to get coffee down the street helps us to reflect out loud. –Blade Kotelly, VP of design, Jibo, Inc.
Many of my design ideas and strategies came from my showers or evening walks. –Jannie Lai, head of UX, Light
I’m a believer that divergent experiences, with the right mindset, can be inherently creative. If I’m struggling to make strides in something more conceptual (like a framework), I’ll let myself off the hook and work on something else but keep it in the back of my mind. Then, when I’m in an art gallery or in a plane or falling asleep, I’ll come up with a connection I couldn’t have understood before had I tried to force it while sitting in front of a monitor. This mindset is all about trusting yourself to get the work done in the practice you’ve chosen for yourself. –David Schwartz, Argo Design
To stay productive as a designer means you have to remain creative. It is important to reserve time to unwind, recharge or get inspired. I try to have a personal project that is not work related, say a painting project. –Jannie Lai, head of UX, Light
It’s hard to tear myself away, especially when I’m stuck and I’m starting to get get anxious, but it helps ground me and puts me in a better mood if I take a moment to do something I enjoy. Instead of trying to get inspired by looking at Dribbble, or other apps, I look at something completely different. For example, I love mid-century furniture. So I’ll go on my favorite sites, Instagram accounts, Etsy, and look at beautiful mid-century furniture and accessories. I also love to cook, so I’ll go to my favorite YouTube channels and watch a couple videos. –Addy Beavers, UX designer, Google Play
It’s important to make sure that when I’m not working, I’m not working. My job requires me to be in front of a screen all day, so I try to spend weekends away from screens–hiking, cooking, reading a book. And it’s important for me to have a life outside of work. Most of my friends aren’t in the design or tech industry. When life is interesting, meaningful, and offers different perspectives, then productivity at work comes naturally. –Daniel Soltis, user experience director, Moving Brands
When I’m working on my own, I try to toggle back and forth between the overall structure of a design and the tiny details. I’ll typically spend some time laying things out and trying to get everything on the page, but will then jump into the details, such as designing icons and getting them perfectly on a pixel. In my opinion, this is something that designers don’t always spend enough time on. It slows you down, so you should do it for a while then return back to the overall design. I’ll usually repeat this process until I’m happy with the work. Inevitably, if I get up from my desk and come back, I might hate the work and may even start over–but that’s an important part of the process. –Ian Burns, group creative director, Huge
There is plenty to be gained from when you stop talking about a solution or approach and move into building an example. Think by making, deliver by demo, not ‘think by talking, deliver by more talking.’ –Jared Ficklin, Argo Design
Chris Rock has this one covered. As much as designers want to be uncaged and eccentric, too much unpredictable behavior takes a toll on productivity at some point, especially among team efforts. Chris was speaking to us designers, too. –Jared Ficklin, Argo Design
It’s hard to get any serious work done when you’re in an open office full of distraction. Meetings, casual conversations, and the bustle of an office can all draw you away from your work. Go in early (or stay up late) before anyone else is around in order to get some quality design time in. –Andrew Ofstad, co-founder and chief product officer, Airtable
A trick that keeps me productive and organized is naming my layers and having structure. I’m helpless without this process, but I’ve also seen great, fast designers who are fine skipping that step. Heaven help you if you have to open their files, though. –Ian Burns, group creative director, Huge
Earlier this year, I wrote a book (The Best Interface is No Interface) which was a monumental project. I told myself, ‘I can do this! I’m great! I can do amazing things!’
Three weeks in, I was utterly depressed. The internal deadlines I set for myself? Missed them all. Progress on the book? Dismal. I was lost in a sea of unproductivity. Then I did something that dramatically changed my productivity levels. I turned off my Wi-Fi and hid my phone. Instead of being mid-sentence in my writing and jumping online (perhaps looking for Google’s quarterly revenue and then spending an hour watching kittens chase lasers) I made a note to myself to check it out later. I shifted my work from online and distracted to offline and focused and my new process led to a dramatic change in pace.
So, don’t install an app to become more productive. Just turn them all off. –Golden Krishna, senior UX Designer, Zappos
The problems that appear the simplest are usually the most interesting. They tend to be deceitfully simple, and can lead to either an obvious solution or to an elegant and complex solution. I don’t tackle simple design problems right away. I let them linger in the back of my mind, sometimes for days. I often find that the most compelling solutions come from elsewhere. I am inspired by art and literature, various other disciplines, unusual materials and unexpected experiences. By taking my time with simple problems, I often find a truly elegant and unique solution. –Joanna Berzowska, head of electronic textiles, OMsignal
When I’m working with others, I make sure to share my thoughts on the work early and often. To me, good work comes from a combination of persistence and a commitment to being flexible and changing direction. –Ian Burns, group creative director, Huge
I’ve found that putting up work on social media is a huge help here–it becomes more tangible and keeps you honest. Give your Tumblr/Twitter/whatever a bit of structure, set up a schedule and then go for it. Make the project doable in chunks and tie it to something external rather than just a pure design exercise. The reactions from your audience will create a useful feedback loop that drives you to the next installment.
The real advantage is that it will give you momentum in all your work, and you’ll begin to find useful connections where projects bump into each other. Again and again, old ideas that seem completely unrelated can prove useful. And by staying productive on the fun stuff, you’ll find you have more energy when it counts. –Jake Mix, lead product designer on Kong
A tool I picked up from the Seanwes podcast: if you have hankerings to Facebook, tweet, etc., just write it down instead on a piece of paper. I wonder if our brains have these little nervous ticks of energy that need to come out but don’t have to take up so much time and attention. This is also why I’ll sketch or doodle–it’s a brain dump. That’s good. It unloads while forcing you to pay attention. –David Schwartz, Argo Design
I have my sketchbook on me at all times. Sketching helps me to externalize the craziness going on in my head, allowing me to see a clearer path of what to move forward with. –Leah Shea, product designer at ustwo
My favorite productivity tool is my notebook because it’s with me all the time so I can quickly jot down or sketch ideas. I also use it to keep me on track. I really like the Bullet Journal approach. –Jen Kozenski Devins, user experience designer, Google
The beat of my day is set by the music I listen to. Music is also how I can slip away into my own world and get into a focused state. I listen to different music for different tasks, and even different music for different moods. Regardless, music helps me move through my thoughts more smoothly and efficiently, often shielding me from the city around me. As long as I have my headphones, I’m able to work in any environment. –Leah Shea, Product Designer at ustwo
I listen to heavy metal. –Ian MacDowell, Argo Design
I usually listen to new music as I find it inspiring. My coworkers and I contribute to a playlist that is always growing with new stuff. During the evenings when I ride back home, I listen to songs I know as I like to sing to them (terribly, by the way). That makes me forget about work and tune out. –Hector Ouilhet Olmos, product designer, Google
Embodying a positive mental attitude keeps me productive, and I see it increasing the productivity of the people around me when I project it in the right ways. Now, I am by no means the most bubbly-happy person, but having the right mind frame can be the difference between crushing a project or just barely getting by. Work can be stressful, but it’s my choice as to how I want to deal with it. When I am thinking positively, I feel my creativity increasing, my number one power. –Leah Shea, product designer at ustwo
One method I’ve leaned on for the past five years is capturing a screengrab every day of something I’ve worked on. The can be rejected work, happy accidents, memorable moments, or abstract visuals of development. It is part system of record and part timeline of my career but is often a useful way to park ideas in order to move onto something new. The sense that ideas have a conclusion or destination I think frees us to more easily explore other avenues. –Jonny Naismith, design director, Moving Brands
My number one productivity killer is ‘more of the same.’ UX people probably more than anyone else need stimulation to be productive and inspired. I catch myself being most productive if I challenge myself with new experiences at least once a week. For example, when you are observing blind users orient themselves, using their hands and their ears instead of their eyes in a way that you never knew you could, I immediately start generating ideas: What do these extreme experiences mean for technology? How could I transform my observations into innovative design ideas for everyone? –Astrid Weber, UX researcher, Google
Set goals for yourself, be disciplined, and drink lots of coffee. –Jimmy Watkins, Argo Design
Take Adderall. Water helps too. –Ryder Ripps, creative director, OKFocus