Want to think outside of the box?
First, have a box to think out of.
The definition of creativity or exceptional productivity is all about solutioning a work product that’s able to rise above an existing set of norms and boundaries.
Those of us in marketing, product or experience design are continually trying to create results that exceed those existing rules and boundaries. When we do rise above, we also exceed our clients’ expectations of what’s possible.
Structure guides our work.
As a writer and interactive linguist, I must work with boxes.
My creative and problem-solving process is framed and guided by a bunch of rules.
I must work with rules of grammer (like having to spell “grammar” right). In conversational design, I work with rules of language, meaning, and the information processing rules for both humans and machines. I also work with rules around deadlines and tech requirements related to the agile process.
So many rules. Yet by leveraging those existing rules and structures, I’m able to build new ideas and new experiences that go beyond them. Solutions that, birthed from the womb of rules and norms, have a familiarity to a reader or user. At the same time, they seem refreshingly different and delightful.
So thanks structure.
Where structure goes to die. Working from home.
For those of us who usually work in an office, home is often the place we retreat to in order to be unstructured and get away from the boundaries of work.
When we get home, we jettison our business or professional attire like we’re tossing off the shackles of structure and conformity.
Now due to the pandemic, many of us have to now attempt to do focused work in what was once our emotional and professional sanctuary.
In doing so, we often discover there’s an enemy (or perhaps frenemy) in the house. Choices.
Like a cheetah in the wild, choice is a seductive, devilishly clever predator that will stalk you at home, smelling and tracking you by your desire to enjoy the comforts and pleasures that your home provides. Patiently, it will prey upon you, your work and your creativity.
Working from home can make you a victim of choices.
Having no structure is like having a car and no clear roadway set out in front of you. You are awash in choices.
The good news: You can go anywhere.
The bad news You can go anywhere.
While most of us say we want and love choice, many of us don’t do well with choice. Because when we have a choice, all the results, effort, direction, decisions and motivations now flow back on us. Now WE must define the goal, the direction, the reasons for moving in a particular direction. And even when we do, because “anything is possible” there is no clear promise of a positive outcome.
With no structure, that’s all on you.
So unless we have some deep overriding goal or desire (usually a hard deadline or deliverable from work), we’re not ready to accept, take personal responsibility and be proactive for those choices.
You can do anything. And ironically, that makes it hard to do something.
This is a different experience than when we are working in an office with other people. A place where we tacitly let people and social norms enforce choices and actions on us.
Your office was the structure.
You got up out of bed and to work on time to avoid a boss’ stare when you strolled in a 9:45. Social pressure made you wear pants, skirts, shoes (hopefully), shave and keep the breakroom clean.
Without that pressure at home, there’s’ a lot of people going over the sales figures with marketing in Winnie the Pooh pajamas. A lot of people binging on Hot Pockets daily because the fridge is just a few feet away. A lot of people not going to the gym because “no one is going to see you anyways.”
Free from the office’s social norms, it’s you that now has to drive personal performance.
So what do you do?
Get a new boss for your work at home. Their name is routine.
We’re not talking about imposing totalitarianism by setting up some highly granular or completely unforgiving level of habit and work process. Rather just enough to give you purpose, focus and so you don’t lose the drive for action that you took for granted at the workplace.
My work-from-home routine.
Besides what I just mentioned, my routine has a personal why in it.
What it means for me is to take advantage of the larger productivity dip (people who give in to being at home and around a million distractions) and use that time to make myself a little better.
So what do I do?
I dress up.
Each morning I still get dressed up like I would as if I went into the office. This creates comments on my morning video stand up meetings (often from people still in near-pajamas).
I’m totally fine with it. You act how you dress.
A man stands up a little straighter and walks with more confidence in a nice suit. A woman feels more elegant and composed and confident in a great outfit.
Not saying you wear those at home. Just something that speaks a little more to your professionalism. I’ll be honest, I have to do a lot of video conferences during the day. And I’m speaking to people who normally dress up but are clearly taking advantage of not having to at home.
In group video chats, all I can say is that I’m getting a good idea of what the Hollywood Squares would look like if all the people in the boxes didn’t give a crap.
And here’s the thing. I work with some amazing, dedicated smart people. And no clothing changes that. But when you see them a little too casual, like in something that you know that they are wearing slippers off-screen, it dings their brand a little. And some of that brand perception will come back with them when offices reopen.
I keep some rituals.
In a previous post I mentioned that, wherever I am working, I usually go to Starbucks before I drive in to work as a hack to make sure I get to work on time. Now working from home, I still get coffee from the local Starbucks drive-through near my home (I and the barista share mask tips). That action triggers a mentality inside of me that I’m getting ready for work.
I work out.
Yes. The gyms are closed. Which is why I’m currently using my condo’s stairs as my gym’s stair machine. And two chairs for dips. I started doing burpees for the first time.
Which, for the record, sucks and makes me wonder why they weren’t used in the government’s enhanced interrogation techniques. However, the idea of adding something new to my routine makes my home workout a little more interesting. Also, I will need a healthy body post-COVID-19. Health is wealth. Why lose all the pre-pandemic gains you’ve made?
Also, it’s hard to worry about work issues and COVID-19 when your immediate concern during a workout is where your next breath is coming from. Exercise is an amazing stress reliever.
What is also great about exercise? For content creators and other problem solvers, exercise often helps provide a level of inspiration and clarity that informs our work. Clinically, it helps decrease anxiety, depression and stress. Something we can all use in the face of COVID-19.
Keep writing this blog from home.
Like Steven King says, writing is like weightlifting. If you want to get stronger, do it every day. This blog was my writing routine on my weekly plane travel back and forth to Miami. Originally designed as a personal meditation on my craft and thoughts to be shared. As a lot of us have a lot more thinking time on hour hands, the need to process things through my writing is even more reason to keep blogging during this period.
Whether training at work or attending seminars or programs I’m always learning. In tech, it’s almost a must. The more you know, the more you’re able to integrate what you know into your work.
Right now, I’m brushing up on my Tableau skills. Studying Python as it relates to NLP. And a personal chatbot. Oh, and my Spanish.
One of the reasons that I learn…
Some are losing jobs. The last thing to do right now is to lose skills.
Tiger King is fun (a glorious train-wreck) to watch. But don’t just focus on keeping yourself entertained. Keep yourself sharp. What skill can you learn during this time that will make you an even better employee, freelancer or consultant when the virus all-clear is given?
My career has survived through multiple economic downturns. A lot of that I credit to proactively pivoting my skill set and business offerings while my peers and firms were comfortable with the status quo. While it’s tempting you can’t stand still in life. Life will move without you.
Businesses (like advertising) are often the first expense to be cut when the economy turns. Already Ad Age reports that 90% of work for freelancers and contractors in advertising in NYC has stopped cold. Advertising may be the first cut again, but in what is likely a deep, global economic slide and reordering, it won’t be the last. And like after re-emerging after the brutal 2008 recession, advertising was never the same. That will be the same for many industries.
This is your time to get ready while you are at home.
Let’s be honest, for those of us who may have lost or will lose jobs during this time, you will be out on the street competing for your next job with some pretty skilled people.
Some people will have a skill set that some companies will be dying to snap up. Others will be a harder sell. Especially now that we’ve instantly pivoted to being an employers’ market for talent.
In such a competitive market, many freelancers and contractors will fight to justify $30 an hour to money-tight clients only months after casually turning down work offers less than $100 an hour.
Routine is the boot camp for building work skills.
Keep learning and keeping your edge in mind, body, and career. To do that, you must forge successful habits and skills through a routine. Know-how will be your best weapon. Especially if the time comes when you have no job.