What do you think of when you hear the word “pencil”?
I bet that one of the images that flashed through your head is of a yellow-painted piece of wood with a graphite center. The quintessential yellow pencil found the world over.
A Medium article by Melissa Gouty titled “Why Pencils Are Painted Yellow" got me thinking about the parallels between a yellow pencil and your design business.
I'm going to paraphrase Melissa's article for the sake of my comparison.
The common yellow pencil that we take for granted helped spark the renaissance. Before the invention of the pencil, quill and ink were the only means of writing, and they were reserved for the elite. The invention of the pencil allowed common people to record knowledge and write whenever and wherever they wanted.
The discovery of graphite was so valuable that the English government guarded it and controlled its distribution. People took to smuggling graphite around the known world, and innovative individuals devised ways to use it for writing.
In 1565, A Swiss man named Conrad Gessner came up with the idea of encasing graphite in wood and the pencil industry was born. This common instrument familiar to every schoolchild, which you probably have strewn around your home, was a valuable commodity back then. To own a pencil made you special.
But like most things, time and wider availability diminished the pencil’s appeal. Over the next 300 years, the thrill of owning a pencil fizzled out. This marvellous invention was no more than a boring piece of brown wood with graphite in the middle, until 1889, that is.
In 1889 the World Fail was held in Paris, France. It attracted more than thirty-two million visitors and showcased exhibitors from around the world.
One exhibitor was an Austrian-Hungarian company by the name of Koh-I-Noor Hardtmuth. They had been in business for over 100 years and were knows for producing high-quality art and drafting supplies, including pencils. But really, how is one pencil better than another?
Koh-I-Noor came up with an idea. You might even say it was one of the first things to go viral.
At that time, the largest diamond known to exist, coincidentally named The Koh-I-Noor Diamond, was about to be inset to the crown of the Queen of England, Elizabeth II.
So the drafting supply company did something nobody had ever done before. Since the name Koh-I-Nor was getting so much publicity, they gave their pencil the same name. They called it the Koor-I-Noor Series 1500.
But naming their pencil wasn’t enough. They had to somehow make their pencil different. That’s when they came up with the idea of painting their pencils yellow. They put a lot of thought and energy into selecting the perfect colour. Settling on their particular shade of yellow for three reasons.
So at the 1889 World Fair in Paris, France, the Koh-I-Noor Hardtmuth art and drafting supply company introduced their new Luxury pencil, the Koh-I-Noor Series 1500.
This "Luxury" version of the common pencil quickly became associated with wealth, power and prestige. Soon, nobody wanted to be seen with a plain brown pencil, and Koh-I-Noor cornered the pencil market, selling a more expensive "Luxury" version of the same product everyone else was offering.
Back then, there was nothing stopping others from following their lead, and soon, pencel manufacturers around the world were painting their pencils yellow as well. But for a short time, one company figured a way to corner the pencil market by making their product more desirable than what their completion was offering.
So what does the story of the yellow pencil have to do with running a design business? Think of all the services and products you offer and how similar are they to your competition?
We are all designers, and to an extent, we all pretty much offer the same thing.
Take a cue from what one company did 140 years ago, and do something different that makes what you offer unique compared to everyone else.
What are you doing to stand out from your competition? How are you offering the same services they do in a manner that will entice clients to chose you over them? I can’t give you the solution, but I can encourage you to pursue your own answer.
Figure out what may work for you. Become the “luxury” option that clients will covet.
Let me know by leaving a comment for this episode.
Last week I talked about dividing your to-do list into three sections, non-negotiables, procratinatables and optionables, and how doing so will help you organize your day. I also discussed listening to your body's clock to determine the best time of day to tackle certain projects and tasks.
Today's post is all about setting up for a more productive tomorrow. And to do that, you need to start today.
For as long as I can remember, my nightly routine before bed has included looking and preparing for the next morning. Call it my shutdown ritual if you will. I like to know before my head hits the pillow what’s on my schedule for the following day.
Getting things ready the night before allows me to hit the ground running and start my next day with a purpose. There's no wasted time in the morning figuring out what projects or tasks I need to do. It eliminates me from looking through emails, creating a to-do list, and getting myself organized because it’s already all done for me. When I sit down at my computer at 9 am, I can immediately get to work on whatever task or project takes priority on my to-do list.
If you don’t have a proper plan of attack, you could find yourself wasting the better part of an hour accomplishing nothing as you try to figure out what you need to do. Do that every morning, and it can add up to several days worth of time by the end of the year.
But what's the difference between organizing yourself in the morning, compared to doing it the night before? The difference is, the night before, or at the end of your workday, you’re pretty well spent already. The time you take preparing for the following day is time you probably wouldn’t have gotten much accomplished in anyways. However, in the morning, you’re much more energized. Even if you’re still groggy from sleep, you still have more “gung-ho” than you do at the end of a long workday. So why waste that energy on prep work?
If you know ahead of time how you're going to spend your day, you’ll be much more productive and much more efficient in doing so.
I usually do my prep work before going to bed. It’s one of the last things I think of at night and allows me to mentally work out my next day’s plan of attack as I nod off to sleep. But maybe you don’t want to do this right before going to bed. Maybe you fear it will get your mind racing on work-related issues, and you won't be able to fall asleep. If that’s you, then I suggest you set aside a few minutes at the end of your workday. 5 to 10 minutes is all you need as you wrap things up to plan for the following workday.
If you combine last week’s topic with this one, you should be working on your non-negotiable tasks every day. If you have the time, you also tackled some procrastinatables and maybe even some optionable tasks. Take the time at the end of your workday to review and reflect on what you managed to accomplish that day. Take satisfaction in the projects and tasks you completed, no matter how small. They’ll help motivate you for the following day.
Research has proven that keeping track and acknowledging your progress actually helps boost your working morale and creates a better outlook in your overall life.
Start a new to-do list. Do not use the same list as the day before. You may think that seeing previously scratched tasks off will motivate you, but they won’t. In fact, studies have shown that our brain has a hard time differentiating checked or scratched off items on a list from the unchecked ones. All that registers is a long list of items that could be discouraging. That’s why most digital to-do lists automatically hide completed tasks. It’s not to subconsciously discourage you.
So start with a fresh list. Take note of those projects and tasks you didn’t complete that day and add them to your new list for tomorrow. Organize them using last week's method. Remember that what might have been a procrastinatable task today might need to be a non-negotiable task tomorrow.
Once you have tomorrow's list, determine the two or three most important tasks and mark them as the top priorities. These will be the ones you’ll tackle first thing in the morning. Then look at the other items on the list and mentally rank them in order of importance.
Try to imagine how your day will unfold. What will you do first thing? What will you get done before lunch? What will you do after lunch? How do you plan on finishing off your day? Having a good mental picture of what you need to do will go a long way towards allowing you to accomplish it.
Prep your space. Declutter your workspace and get it ready for the morning. Put away papers and files. Organizing your tools and take out anything you may need for tomorrow’s tasks.
This also means getting your computer ready for the next morning. Quit any open applications that won’t be needed the next day.
I like to quit my Mail app and Slack every night, so I'm not tempted to check them as I sit down at my computer. I also close any browser tab with Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or any other social media that could be a distraction to me in the morning.
There will be plenty of time to check email to see what’s happening on social media later in the day once I’ve accomplished something from my to-do list. The last thing I want is to waste time at the start of my day by sifting through junk mail or scrolling through meaningless social media posts. All of that can wait until later. If there’s a real emergency, my clients know my phone number, and they can always call me.
That’s pretty much my process. It’s how I end every day and how I’m ready to hit the ground running every morning. It’s also how I can juggle so many things every day. I set priorities, figure out which ones to do, and get to them. It’s that simple.
If you want to give it a try and see if you can be more productive, why don’t you take 5 to 10 minutes at the end of the day today and follow my three steps?
I bet, if you do this, you’ll soon discover how much more productive and efficient your time will be.
Let me know by leaving a comment for this episode.
If you search through the Apple or Google app directories, you will find dozens, if not hundreds, of options for creating so-called perfect to-do lists.
I like Anylist for grocery lists and shopping lists or keep track of the unending chores and tasks I need to do around the house. For work-related lists, my go-to is Evernote (get a free month with this link). I have Evernote fine-tuned with different notebooks for every part of my work life.
But it doesn’t matter if you use a digital tool or pencil and paper if you don’t understand the fundamentals of the perfect to-do list. For a to-do list to function at its best, you need proper time management along with your to-do list. When the two work hand in hand, your to-do list becomes much more achievable.
To write the perfect to-do list, you must determine what to put on it and in what order. You must also decide what not to include on your list. If you put too many things on your to-do list, it becomes unmanageable and discouraging. A good to-do list has three sections.
Nonnegotiables are things that absolutely have to get done on time. These are priority items such as scheduled appointments or tasks with a fixed deadline. If you don’t get them done promptly, it will be too late.
Procrastinatables are things that absolutely need to get done, but are not as time-sensitive as nonnegotiables. It would be nice to get them done soon, but if you don’t manage to get to them today, tomorrow or the following day will do fine.
Be careful putting them off; procrastinatables will eventually become nonnegotiables if you don't get to them. So try not to ignore them for long.
Optionables are all the projects and tasks that you would like to do, but have no priority as to when, or sometimes if you should do them at all.
Optionables are tricky. You need to figure out how each one aligns with your goals. For example, if there’s a recording of a webinar you missed, but it's only available for a few days, you need to figure out if watching the recording will help you achieve your goals. If yes, then make the time on your to-do list to watch it. If you determine the webinar doesn't align with your goals, let it go and forget about it.
Once you have your list of optionables, rank them in descending order of priority and tackle them in that order.
Once you have a to-do list with the three sections mentioned above, it’s time to get to work.
Mark Twain is credited with saying, “if you’re tasked with eating two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest frog first." In other words, look at your to-do list and figure out the biggest and possibly the task you're dreading the most and get it done first. Not only will you feel good crossing off the biggest and most dreaded task, but it will also make the rest of the list easier to get through.
HINT: Whenever possible, try to complete as many items from your to-do list before checking your email or social media. Email and social media have an uncanny way of disrupting your day and often add to your to-do lists. Avoid to-do list overload by completing a few things before you end up having to add to your list.
The perfect to-do list composed of nonnegotiables, procrastinatables and optionables is your guide to get through your day. However, the order your list is written in isn’t necessarily the order you need to complete it in.
Tackle your list according to your body clock. If there are certain times when you feel the most creative, use that time to work on the creative projects on your to-do list. When you feel less energetic, such as first thing in the morning or late in the day, tackle the to-do list items that don't require much brainpower.
To make the most of your perfect to-do list, you should have a rough idea of how long each item on your list will take and plan your routine accordingly. If it takes you an hour or so each morning fully wake up, choose tasks that fit that time. Don't start a mundane task that requires three or four hours if it's going to eat into the more focused time of your day.
Try not to block to-do list items into 15 minutes, 30 minutes or 1-hour time blocks as most calendars do. Most tasks are not structured that way. What you think will be a 30-minute phone meeting with a client may only take 8 minutes or could end up being over an hour long. If it finishes early, you have extra time to take on something else from your list. However, if it goes long, you won't feel stressed for the call eating into the time block of the next task.
Of course, time management and to-do lists are not as cut and dry as this. Brain fog and high creative periods can't be scheduled, so your days need to be fluid and flexible. Plus, there's always the unexpected you can’t plan for. The school calling saying your child is sick. Or a client in a panic because their website suddenly went down.
Life can’t be perfect. It would be nice if it were, but that’s unrealistic. But hopefully, by writing the perfect to-do list and taking control of your nonnegotiables, procrastinatables and optionables, you’ll add a bit of peace and order to your daily life.
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