Interview with Brennan Banta, interactive graphic designer

brennan

I recently had a chat with Brennan Banta, an interactive graphic designer, about how she organizes work, stays productive, and overcomes procrastination.

First up, can you tell us who you are and what you do?

Sure! My name is Brennan Banta and I am an Interactive Graphic Designer at the web software company TrueChoice Solutions Inc. My job primarily consists of UI/UX design and digital illustration.

What does a typical day look like for you?

After a cup of coffee, I’ll log onto my computer and check Dribbble, Behance, Awwwards and sometimes Instagram for design inspiration. That helps my brain wake up before I dive into emails. If I’m at my day job, I’ll check what assignments need to be worked on through Atlassian’s Jira software.

Otherwise, I have a small notebook outlining my freelance projects. I simply write down requirements per project and cross them out when they’re fulfilled.

Depending on the project, I usually sketch out a concept on pen and paper before translating it to digital. I work with vectors a lot, so I try to visualize how different shapes can come together to make more sophisticated ones for the design. If it’s a UI design, I also keep in mind how implementing the concept with code can be a realistically achieved.

What are your favorite tools or methods for organizing your work?

As I mentioned, Jira is something we use at my job a lot. We also use the Kanban technique to keep track of everyone’s progress. Adobe Bridge helps us organize our library of graphics making them easier to find with keywords.

How do balance collaborative work with focused solo work periods?

I work in teams at my day job, but primarily work alone when I’m freelancing. I don’t have more than one or two freelance projects going at a time, and they’re usually something like designing a logo or build a simple “brochure-style” website.

brennan-desk

What’s the best change you’ve ever made to the way you work?

I like to make a dated folder for each day I’m working on something. For example, if I have a logo I’m working on I’ll make a folder for April 21, 2017 titled 170421. The next day I work on it, I’ll copy the folder, Adobe files and all, and title it 170422.

Many have shared the experience of a client wanting to revert to a previous iteration of something and this helps me stay up to date without losing track of my work. Once the project has been approved and completed, I comb through the dated folders and delete larger files (such as Photoshop or Illustrator files) to save space on the hard drive.

How do you avoid distractions and stay focused?

I try not to lose essence of myself in order to enjoy working. Of course your client’s opinion is paramount, but they most likely chose you to design something because they like your style. If that’s not the case, I remind myself that being pushed out of my comfort zone is the most rewarding challenge. When all else fails, there’s a motto that gets printed on sundials I try to abide by, “Use the hours, don’t count them.”

How do overcome procrastination?

I definitely give myself breaks here and there. If I feel like I’ve made good progress I’ll reward myself with a walk, a YouTube video, checking music blogs or a treat from the kitchen. To me, breaking up the day is essential to keeping motivated. Plus my work feels stronger when I take my eyes away from something and come back feeling somewhat refreshed.

What’s your biggest productivity struggle? How do you deal with that?

Design is so subjective that if you really like a concept but your client or boss doesn’t approve, it’s difficult to rework it into someone else’s vision. Like I mentioned before, I remind myself that being pushed out of my comfort zone will only make me a stronger and more diverse designer.

What do you do outside work to wind down and recover?

Since I’m usually parked in front of a computer, I try to stay physically active when I’m not working. My main hobby is hula hooping, which combines gymnastics and dance. I also try to go running 3-4 times a week and recently have gotten into rock climbing.

If you could work any job in the world for a day, which job would you choose, and why?

I would love to help out designing/developing videogames for Adult Swim. To work on projects that have a sense of humor would be really fulfilling, plus I’ve always had an appreciation for game design.

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Interview with Matt Guay, marketer at Zapier

Matthew Guay

I recently chatted with Matthew Guay, Senior Editor and Writer at Zapier, about how he works, how he stays productive, and what he’s learned about remote working.

First up, can you tell us who you are and what you do?

I’m Matthew Guay, senior writer and editor on the Zapier marketing team. Zapier connects 700+ apps into automated workflows that help people get more done in less time—and through my writing, I help our users find the best apps for their work and teach them how to use software more effectively.

Note: You can use Zapier with RescueTime, too! Check out our integration here.

What does a typical day look like for you?

Zapier’s a fully remote team, so I work most days from my home office. I’ll check email and notifications over breakfast, start work around 9, and finish out the day around 5:30—unless I have meetings with US time zones, in which case I’ll move my schedule around and work in the evenings since I live in Bangkok.

My main tasks are writing new content for the Zapier blog, reviewing apps, and creating Learning Center books—and then editing content for each of those from our own team and freelancers that write for our site. Working on opposite timezones from most of the Marketing team, I spend the first part of my day catching up on email, Slack messages, Trello comments, and so on. Then, depending on the schedule, I’ll dive into writing or editing. For either one, I try to work a couple hours on one task without distraction—perhaps writing something from 10 to noon, then checking back on Slack/email right after lunch before focusing on something else or going back to that original task.

You can’t always stay productive on focused, large projects like that forever, so I like to break them up with other tasks. I also have smaller edits, publishing tasks like drip emails and social networking posts, and other internal tasks that I can slot in-between larger tasks. Those are great to get started on something when I’m not feeling focused or “inspired” enough to dive into writing a longform piece.

What are your favorite tools or methods for organizing your work?

Trello for putting stuff into a workflow. With teams, it’s a great way to list where each task stands in its current workflow—something that’s important for content with its various drafting and editing stages.

OmniFocus, Todoist, and other to-do lists are great for making sure you don’t forget crucial tasks that’d otherwise slip your mind. I use OmniFocus right now for that.

For day-to-day tasks, though, paper and pen are my newfound favorite way to organize things. There is something about looking through a list of tasks and writing down the things you must do today that keeps the most important things in mind—and keeps you from getting distracted.

One related thing is using a large, standing desk. That gives a bit of spatial organization to my work, where I use my main monitor for core tasks, try to switch to the laptop screen to read or use social media (where it’s just a bit more inconvenient so I’m less likely to do it), and move over to the right to write tasks or ideas down on paper. It feels nice, at least.

How do balance collaborative work with focused solo work periods?

As a remote team member, collaborative work is harder to find the time for than focused, solo work. That’s the one we have to push for.

A few things that have helped us:

Make time for it. Sometimes, you just have to rearrange your schedule, make sure you’re online at the same time as others, and collaborate. Whether it’s in video calls or live-writing in the same Google Doc, some of our most productive times have been in late or early sessions where we pushed ourselves to find time to work together.

Find ways to collaborate asynchronously. It’s actually easier than it’d seem, especially if you can divide up work in a way that each person can take over where the other left off. Say you are editing an article for a coworker in another time zone. Add the edits and ideas during your work day, and they can reply with theirs during their work day (and your night). It takes longer in one way, but in another way the project will be pushed forward while you sleep and you can jump into the finished version in your morning.

Then, even when you’re remote, doing focused work can be tough just because there are always extra distractions. Sometimes you have to force yourself to do the most important things—and deadlines help with that. It’s a terrible thing that we need them, but hey: Deadlines really do make you do things that need done most.

matthew-guay-desk

What’s the best change you’ve ever made to the way you work?

Hiding the dock on my Mac and/or working in full-screen apps is likely the best change I’ve ever made. It’s so easy for that red notification dot to distract you and pull you away from what you should be doing. When I first got an external monitor, I noticed that when the dock was on my laptop screen and not on my larger, main monitor, I was less likely to notice it—and the same effect happened when working only on the laptop in full-screen mode. That prompted me to hide it by default, and it at least seems to keep me more focused.

A standing desk also helped me avoid that drowsy slump after lunch where it’s far easier to do random things instead of being focused. Come back to work and stand while doing it, and just standing there doing nothing productive feels strange (and you’re less likely to feel drowsy, too).

How do you overcome procrastination?

A few things that have helped me:

Starting something and leaving it for the next day. If I start writing the first bit of an article, or edit something in the intro of an article right before leaving work for the day, it’s right there when I open my computer in the morning and easy to jump into.

Do a small task. It’s easy to procrastinate when you feel like you don’t know where to start, so don’t start. Instead, do some other smaller task that you also need to do; that’ll get you being productive and “in the mood” to dive into something bigger.

Jump into the easiest part of a project. Can’t figure out the intro of an article? Don’t worry—write the part you know what to write, and the rest will come. Struggling to reshape a larger article or project that needs deep changes? Start by making the smallest, obvious changes, and it’ll be easier to switch gears and finish out the whole thing.

Keep working when you’re “in the zone.” This may not be the best solution all the time, but if you feel like you can finish something, just finish it even if it makes you work late. If your job is flexible with time, you can then shift things around tomorrow—either way, you’ll be more productive since it’d be harder to re-start tomorrow.

What do you do outside work to wind down and recover?

Running. It puts a gap between my work day and evening time, gives me a chance to expend the physical energy that’s not used up with an office job, and is a great way to reset and clear your mind. Half the time I’ll come up with ideas for new content or figure out what put in an intro I’m stuck on; the other half of the time I’ll literally think about nothing as my own version of meditation.

What does “meaningful work” look like for you? How do you determine what’s meaningful work and what’s not?

Meaningful work means pushing your most important projects forward. The recurring tasks and email can be part of that, but typically they’re things you need to do but that don’t materially change your overall work and performance. Things that have outsized impact.

For me, meaningful work then typically is writing content for our next books. They’re part of our core content strategy, typically drive strong traffic over the long term, and thus have effects beyond just checking off another to-do today.

New projects very often fall under this umbrella, too. Maybe they’ll work; maybe they won’t. But they’re the things we learn from that that just might make a big impact. That’s the stuff worth clearing your schedule for.

How do you make sure you’re always making time for meaningful work vs. everything else that needs to be done?

One of the best things that has helped me have time for meaningful work is to schedule the routine tasks I need to do. For instance, the entire Zapier team does a customer support rotation, which I do on Mondays. I also send a drip email on Mondays, and typically have more weekend notifications to respond to. That makes Mondays great to do all the smaller tasks I need to do, freeing up Tuesday to do focused work.

Is there anything that’s surprised you about working remotely, or anything that you think most people assume incorrectly about remote work?

The most common misperception is that working from home is easier, that you’ll work less and have more free time and could watch TV whenever. That could be the case, perhaps, but it usually isn’t. Instead, you honestly have to try not to work too much since you’re never more than a few steps away from work. This is a growing issue for everyone, though, since smartphones keep us tied to the office everywhere.

And, it’s on you to focus. You could have the TV on—but you’d be much wiser to focus on work just as if you were in the office with everyone watching you. It’s just on you to actually make yourself do it when no one’s watching.

You said you check in with your team when you start your day and again after lunch. What do you do to manage notifications so they’re not overwhelming you, but you’re staying informed of what’s happening?

You know how everyone talks about the email inbox like it’s the worst thing that needs reinvented or killed? I actually like my email inbox, and use it as a place to triage notifications.

Both Slack and Trello are pretty smart about sending email notifications when you’re away—and not sending them when you’re actively using the apps. As such, the easiest way for me to triage notifications and stay informed without being overwhelmed is just to quit apps when I need to focus. Important notifications end up coming in via email, and it’s easy to click through to the correct conversation and add any info you need.

Then I hack Slack to cover the rest of the notifications with a Zap and a filter. Say, GitHub: I need some notifications from GitHub, but I don’t need to know everything the dev team does. So, I have a Zap watch our team’s GitHub for activity, filter it for mentions of my name or projects I’m involved with, and then have Zapier send those to my Slackbot channel. If I’m away, those will filter down to my email inbox the same way.

Most stuff isn’t so urgent you must know right then, so you can let your team know you’ll be “offline”, cram in the work you need to do without distraction, then come back and get caught up rather easily.

If you could work any job in the world for a day, which job would you choose, and why?

I’d be fascinated to work in logistics or at a shipping port for a day. The flow of goods and international trade fascinates me, as perhaps a more tangible version of the internet with its bits flying through the air and fibre, and the scale is mind-boggling on a level that makes tech’s hordes of data seem mild by comparison.


You can find Matthew’s work on the Zapier blog or in Zapier’s Learning Center books. You can also find Matthew on Twitter at @maguay.

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Lev Kravinsky on procrastination and staying productive

lev

Please welcome Lev Kravinsky to the RescueTime blog! Lev is a software engineer whose current project is Everydev, “A job board built on inclusivity and individuality, featuring companies that care.”

Can you tell us what you do, and what your typical workday looks like?

Right now, I split my time between building products and freelancing. My typical work day is usually spent about half writing code at my desk (or in a coffeeshop) and half doing marketing, sales, copy, and all other sorts of tasks that are not quite as interesting to me as software.

Do you have a morning routine as part of waking up or starting your workday? What does your routine consist of?

My morning routine varies, but on an ideal day, I wake up around 7:30am, eat breakfast, go to the gym for an hour, shower, and then get ready to work. In reality, I often am too tired to go to the gym and just waste time on my phone in my bed, but I’m trying to cut back on that.

What’s the first thing you normally do when you start work/arrive at your office/desk?

The first thing I do when I go to my desk is check my email and Slack, browse HackerNews and ProductHunt for anything interesting to check out, and look at traffic or revenue analytics. Then, I create a daily to-do list of what I believe I can/should accomplish today.

lev-workspace

What’s your favorite thing about your daily workspace?

My favorite thing about my workspace is my monitor – I absolutely love having a big screen.

What does a successful workday look like for you? How do you measure success on a day-to-day basis?

A successful workday for me involves pushing features to production, making product sales or landing clients, and having some time for myself to go to the gym, read, or watch a movie. I measure success by evaluating 3 things – how many of the tasks I said I would complete that I actually completed, how many sales/clients I landed, and how happy/fulfilled I am (this is the most important one).

What’s your biggest productivity struggle? How do you deal with that?

My biggest productivity struggle is probably procrastination – I often have the urge to just zone out and watch Netflix or order food when I should be doing something productive that I don’t want to do.

How does RescueTime fit into your workday?

RescueTime is something that I don’t use every day, because obsessing over time too much stresses me out. I use it more retrospectively to look back on a week or a month. From that viewpoint, I can see if I was productive or not, and make adjustments for next month accordingly.

How do you plan for mid-term and long-term work? Do you set goals, conduct regular reviews, or do other planning for big projects?

For mid and long term work, I use project planning boards like Trello or Waffle and Google Docs.

What are the most important tools, apps, tricks, or techniques that help you stay focused and productive during the workday?

One of the most important tricks for me that keeps me productive is to use the Pomorodo timer technique, where I spend 25 minutes working and then take a 5 minute break. I often have the urge to work through the break, especially when I feel like I’m being very productive, but I almost always am better off if I just take the break.

What are you working on right now (or coming up) that you’re most excited about?

Right now, I’m working on launching Everydev, a job board that features inclusive companies. I’m really excited about this and can’t wait to see what people think. You can check it out here, at everydev.io.

Want to learn more about spending your time well and doing more meaningful work? Sign up for our newsletter to get our latest blog posts in your inbox every week.

Kyrill Potapov on how to maintain work/life balance and stay productive

kyrill

Can you tell us what you do, and what your typical workday looks like?

I’m an English teacher and Human-Computer Interaction researcher, so half the time I’m planning and delivering lessons and marking work; the other half of the time I’m reading articles and writing up my PhD thesis.

Do you have a morning routine as part of waking up or starting your workday? What does your routine consist of?

I’m not sure if this is safe or even legal but I always listen to an audiobook as I cycle into work.

What’s the first thing you normally do when you start work/arrive at your office/desk?

I set a focus for the day on the Momentum Chrome extension. This is the one thing I will be unhappy if I go to bed without doing.

What’s your favorite thing about your daily workspace?

That I have several work spaces (my room, my classroom, my university desk) which I can assign different types of work.

kyrill's workspace

Editors note: moving between workspaces could boost your productivity by “location boxing” different activities.

What does a successful workday look like for you? How do you measure success on a day-to-day basis?

I’m very susceptible to the Zeigarnik effect: unfinished tasks wear away at my self-esteem, so I prefer to do long stints on one task at a time. This is in contrast to the days on which I get caught up in small tasks that don’t relate to my bigger aims or fall down a social media hole.

Do you have any go-to approaches for resetting a bad day and getting back on track?

Changing my physical state: going to the gym. I used to rely on stimulants but when I measured their impact, they didn’t actually add up to more productivity overall. Now I prefer to try to keep things flat through a low carb diet etc.

Stimulants and external punishments are fine for one-off tasks like end-of-unit essays, but for longer projects it isn’t sustainable. As my RescueTime dashboard would show, stimulants got me revved up to send a load of emails and sort through my materials but they also prevented me from settling into the kind of contemplation I need to write. It’s like the Hemingway thing: write drunk; edit sober. The monthly report on RescueTime helped me to reflect on what was worthwhile in the long-term.

kyrill's monthly RescueTime report

Kyrill’s monthly RescueTime report

What’s your biggest productivity struggle? How do you deal with that?

Procrastination. I have to juggle so many things that juggling many bits of information at the same time and reading random things feels important and it’s hard to recognise when I’m time wasting.

Can you tell us about how you’ve been using RescueTime in your classroom, and what you’ve discovered from this process?

It’s interesting to see the lengths students will go to to lie to themselves. I would never look at a students’ data but many students are reluctant to even look at their own data because of the unpleasant feelings associated with realising the extent of their intention-behaviour gap. RescueTime works like a meditation mantra for the wandering mind: notice that you’re wandering and refocus on the task at hand. You had 17% productive time today? OK, just start again tomorrow.

You mentioned you’re working on a MOOC about RescueTime—can you share more about that?

Quantified Self tools assume that data is significant and intuitive to the user – this is often not the case. My MOOC is about setting goals and reshaping them as a result of reflection on the reality. RescueTime provides the reality.

How do you maintain work/life balance? What do you do to recharge when you’re not working?

I use IFTTT with RescueTime to block Facebook and Twitter when I’m not at my desk at home. I have two separate Chrome accounts: one for work, one for leisure. I have a daily meditation practice using the Muse band. I used to fine myself for not meditating through Beeminder and RescueTime but this did not prove a useful strategy. I also read a lot of fiction, naturally.

What’s the best improvement you’ve made to how you work, or a change you’ve made that you wish you’d done earlier?

Having my week visually laid out on Trello so that I’m not constantly running through which lessons I haven’t planned.

Are there any workday habits you admire in others but haven’t been able to adopt yourself?

Digital Sabbaths. I’ve tried not using technology on a Saturday and it really does feel like a cleansing process but I always slip.

Want to learn more about spending your time well and doing more meaningful work? Sign up for our newsletter to get our latest blog posts in your inbox every week.

Featured RescueTimer – Will Lam

We wanted to take this opportunity to start mentioning some of our more outspoken and exciting users and Will and RescueTime have been a match for years now. We sat down and asked him some questions about who he is and see if he can unlock any secrets to productivity and time saving for the rest of our community of users. So follow along for our Questions & Answers.

Featured RescueTimer

Q: Who are you?
A: I’m a coffee snob, personal data nerd, connector, Crossfit nut, and curator of the Toronto Startup Digest.

Q: What do you do?
A: I’m an Inbound Marketing Specialist at Powered by Search and just recently started blogging about one of my passions that ties data, personal analytics to personal development. 🙂

Q: How many hours of RescueTime do you have logged?
A: 5229 at the time of this email

Q: Which version of RescueTime are you using?
A: Latest versions on my Macbook Pro, Windows 7 (at work) and Android app.

Q: Why do you use RescueTime?
A: To find out how I’m spending my time.  I want to ensure how I’m spending my time is used wisely.  I pay you guys (Rescuetime) to make that happen.

Q: Everyone remembers their first computer – what was yours?
A: Ahh.. the memories.. Pentium 133 MHz, with a 2.1 GB Maxtor HDD, 16 MB of RAM, 16 x CD-ROM, 32-bit Soundblaster audiocard and a ATI 3D Xpression 2MB video card. It was the s*** back in the day 🙂 (1996)

Q: Where did you go to College or High School? (if any)
A: Ryerson University, University of Toronto, Jarvis Collegiate Institute in Toronto, Canada

Q: What do you listen to while working?
A: Mostly stuff through Doubletwist on my Nexus S.  Other than that, I occasionally use Grooveshark.com.  Most played artists are Justice, Daft Punk, Kavinsky, Zero 7 and The xx

Q: Best advice to Get Shit Done
A: Timebox and attach a deadline to EVERYTHING.  I follow Parkinson’s Law and the 80/20 Principle religiously.  I’m really digging the Pomodoro technique nowadays.  I input all of my todo’s into GTD setup that consists of Due Today and Toodledo.com.  I also mix it with good old pen and paper where I write it down my Most Important Tasks (usually 3 and no more than that) on a Post-It Note.  Oh. And keep on hitting the Focus button via RescueTime 🙂

Q: What other services or applications are you using that you cannot live without?
A: Dropbox, Mint.com, ReadItLater, Daytum.com, Mindmeister, Pulse.me, DueToday/Toodledo, Fitocracy and even though it’s not a service or application – my Moleskine journal

Q: Is there anything else rad we should we should know about you.
A: In a previous lifetime, I was heavy into improvisational theatre but now I just appreciate the art form 🙂

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