Four Years

Four years. I made it out in four years. College was great in ways, but I can’t say that I understand why people romanticize it. I had senioritis from day one of freshman year.

School always seemed like a roadblock to actually accomplishing something. I gained some good experiences and opportunities, but an amount of time was listening to droning, hour-long rehashes of the same information it took 15 minutes to read or a enduring a 20 minute rant in response to the ever-present question, “what’s going to be on the test?”

That’s why I wasn’t a straight-A student. I studied art and journalism. It was a surprisingly uncommon combination at MTSU, considering the relationship between both disciplines, the shared interest in documenting and commenting on society, and the mutually moderate levels of cynicism.

I sent my résumé and work samples out as the end of my final semester was approaching. I got calls back within hours and had an interview the next day. I accepted a job three weeks before the semester ended.

This isn’t about how terrible higher education has become or about how lucky I was to get a job right out of college (higher education is terrible and I was very lucky). For all the wasted time, I gained a few important things. I gained friends and a few mentors. I had so many opportunities to make my own luck and other opportunities that simply fell into my lap.

I interned with the University’s marketing department, worked with the local newspaper to sell advertisements for the campus paper, managed an ad campaign, hosted an on-campus event, led in rebuilding a student organization, and made an impression on quite a few faculty members and industry leaders.

I have a lot to show for my time at MTSU, but I still wonder if I have as much to show for the last four years as I really should. I’m not proud of many of my projects because the constraints of assignments (whether topic, time frame, or supplied materials) didn’t always allow for great work. Professors rarely gave assignments that would allow for portfolio building, nor did they seem to care that their class might not be the most important thing in the world.

My senior portfolio should have been better. It could have been better. Most assignments should have been smaller, less time-consuming, and more focused. Others should have allowed wider exploration and better expression of personal ideas and goals. Side projects should have been encouraged more, and the final portfolio should have taken a more forefront role in both journalism and art classes. There should have been more opportunities to be recognized for things other than academics.

I never got a chance to intern off campus. Between working to support myself and the coursework, I could’t afford an unpaid internship. I’ve been set up with a fantastic foundation of training and given amazing opportunities, but the ability to make the most of the training and opportunities just wasn’t what it could have been.

So here’s to a year of proving myself, a year of making up for lost time, a year of making something out of the ideas that have been bubbling in my mind for the last four years. Here’s to a year of big things. While I have a lot under my belt, I’ve lost way too time. It’s about time I actually get to do something.

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Essential Workflow (or how I keep myself from exploding into an unproductive supernova)

I need to have a workflow or I will literally get nothing done. I have a lot of trouble focusing unless I force myself. And my brain is like a sieve most of the time. If I don’t record it somehow, I’ll forget about it until it’s too late. I’ve been looking for a good workflow since before I graduated high school. Unfortunately, there is no one-size solution and my situation is radically different from that of most productivity writers. College student, designer, husband, leader, and young professional all collide to make my daily life an exercise in chaos. I try to start every day at about the same time to give myself a well set but flexible routine. From there, it’s all a matter of what the day throws at me.

When I’m working online, I come across so many interesting things that I want to read, but stopping to read them sends me into a productivity tailspin— as I read article after article on topics ranging from astrophysics to typography. I use Instapaper to quickly save things to read later without breaking my workflow. Then I schedule myself reading time to go through everything I’ve saved. This is a huge focus saver for me. But watch out, Instapaper: Pocket has been winning me over lately.

When I need to record or save things that aren’t articles (think quick notes, homework assignments, briefs), Evernote has my back. Since I have an iPod touch for apps like this and an Android phone, compatibility with both is essential. Also, I move from computer to computer a lot, so being web-based is another essential feature. I type up meeting outlines and save them to Evernote, then I fill them out as we knock items out. By the end of a meeting, I have a pretty complete sheet of minutes that I can work from to create action items or to reference later. I can also attach pictures and sound clips when I need to.

That brings up another crucial part of my workflow: my iPod and phone. While sometimes I’d prefer that these be the same device, I think keeping the two separate helps me focus. I save my reading list to my iPod and keep it there, and I primarily use Evernote from the iPod as well (I like the bigger screen and the better keyboard, but the non-ubiquity of wifi can be problematic). The lack of constant internet connectivity seems to help me focus on just reading or writing, whichever I happen to be doing. Also, two devices takes twice as long to keel over from battery exhaustion and provides some redundancy in case anything happens.

In day to day getting-stuff-done mode, I have to use focus lists, otherwise I get overwhelmed with the sheer magnitude of things I need to do. Just narrowing the day down to five or six things at a time really goes a long way. I don’t really like Clear as my primary to-do list, and there are several reasons for that. However, Clear is absolutely my favorite tool for making quick focus lists. The simplicity makes it easy to make for breaking an active project or hectic day down into a small handful of workable parts. The real limitation is that you can’t add a due date to tasks, so I usually end up forgetting about stuff that I put into Clear after a few days, but it is fantastic for lists of tasks-at-hand.

The most recent additions to my workflow are a hardcover Moleskine notebook and 18 month weekly planner that basically go everywhere with me. I use my planner as a to-do list as well as a calendar, but not a diary. Things that need to be done on a certain day get written on that day, non-specific tasks get written on the recto page and checked off as I do them. This way I have a list for everything I intend to do in a week, and at 34 lines, it’s the perfect length to keep me from getting too ambitious. The plain hard-cover notebook is my diary, journal, and notebook. Being hardcover, it also gives me a decent writing surface, so I use it behind my planner when I don’t have a table or a wall handy.

I have a few other tools for dealing with email and files or other specific tasks, but those are a little more detailed. I’ll cover my workflow for those in other posts. I hope that sharing my workflow will not only force me to evaluate and critique my own methods, but also help anyone looking for some pointers, even if it’s just a pointer for where not to start. I’ve been collecting ideas and testing them out for a while. I know how frustrating and time consuming it is to find a workflow. Bare with me, it’s my first attempt at writing something useful—let me know how I’m doing or what you’d like to see.

Just the Essentials

Since my last post, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to what it is that I need in my life and what I could probably do without. For example, I have at least 150 separate applications installed on my iPhone, yet I feel like hardly any of them get used. My wife and I have a closet full of art supplies, but we don’t have time to sort through all of them–much less even use most of them. I have so many saved documents that it took me an hour to find the specific one I was looking for.

I think I’m going to continue my productivity posts with a couple of lists. Not those over-used “Five ways to Accomplish More While You Sleep” style posts (I really hate those), rather my iPhone essentials or my essential wardrobe items. As I work through those posts, maybe I’ll be inspired to finally get rid of some of the stuff that bloats my life.

Up next: Essential Workflow (or how I keep myself productive)

Struggle versus Juggle

Life is insane sometimes. I tend to make it worse by biting off more than I can chew. I like to accomplish. You could almost say that I’m motivated by pure accomplishment. It doesn’t often matter what I’m doing, as long as I can accomplish something through it. That feeling gives me a rush. If it mattered and I accomplished it, I feel complete.

Unfortunately, my biggest challenge is managing all of my projects and priorities. I’m a full time student, a husband, president of my campus’s advertising club, and the soon-to-be founder of a student run advertising project group. I also used to sell advertising for the student newspaper, and I was a lifeguard at the local city pools. There’s always a lot going on inside my brain, and I often lose track of it all. My desk often looks like it was attacked by post-its, and my inbox pushes forty if I leave it alone for a day.

Being a student complicates things a little bit. Contrary to the one piece of productivity advice that I hear everyone recommend (and that I completely agree with), I spend two full days doing nothing except gather information. I check emails constantly because of assignments and class announcement and I’m listening to presentations all day for two full days a week. It’s hard to get things going when a large portion of my week is spent listening and having things handed to me to do. It’s really hard to start a project at 5 p.m., but if I don’t, I waste an entire day—usually because I forget about everything. It’s a constant struggle to keep on top of things. Plus the deadlines.

It’s bad. I had to quit a job because of the massive amounts of stuff that kept piling on top of me. I got to the point where I just couldn’t dig out. My inbox reached 370 unread messages in just over a week. I shut down. I had been desperately looking for a system that would help me juggle all my projects, but I didn’t find one in time. I dropped all of it.

We really have a tendency to try to juggle too much. We keep adding more stuff until we just can’t take it any more. I think we—but maybe just I personally—feel like we struggling is a sign of success. The more we do, the more valuable we are. But the struggle won’t last long before it starts to crush you. That’s been my life in the last few weeks.

Now I’m back and trying to pick up everything that I can, adding one thing at a time. It’s a constant balancing act—struggle versus juggle. I can accomplish so much by juggling, but struggling under the weight isn’t healthy. I’m on a journey to find the best method for juggling as much as possible without struggling to keep up. I don’t want to be forced to drop it all and start over again.

I’m going to write more over the next few weeks, focusing mainly on productivity, balance, and staying focused. I’ve learned a lot about various systems, tried out a lot of apps for all of my devices, and reorganized my workspaces more times than I want to admit. I figure sharing some of my experiences might help someone else. Check back soon, and if you don’t see another post in a reasonable about of time, remind me, because I’m probably buried under post-its and emails again.

Failing, Gracefully

Sometimes we just have no other option than to give up. Failure is a part of this world we live in. Knowing how and when to let yourself fail is an important thing to know. I wish I could figure it out.

I’m not a quitter. I’m a get stuff done-er. I like to do things. I don’t like free time. I’m super hard on my self. I am a perfectionist as well as an over-achiever. Much to Alyssa’s frustration, I run myself ragged doing things rather than just relaxing like I probably should.

Last year, I had an interesting experience with being forced into taking a step back, rather than a step up: I had to give on two major things. I didn’t exactly quit, but I had to let go.

First it was a very short-lived career as a server at Carrabba’s, then it was a drawing II class. They were such hard decisions. I occasionally – rarely (more often than I want to admit) – bite off more than I can chew, and unfortunately I don’t like admitting that. Not one bit. Maybe it’s my hereditarily large ego. Whatever the reason, I felt like I was quitting, even though I really just dialing back my commitment level to a somewhat reasonable level.

Learning to fail at things is one of the toughest lessons I’m still trying to learn. I don’t like giving up, backing down, or walking away. But sometimes that’s exactly what I need to do.

The Time Monster

I haven’t been in class since Tuesday. It seems like it’s been a lot longer than only six days, and I wouldn’t argue if this break went on forever. It’s not that I don’t like learning, but over the course of the last six days, I have noticed how much time is wasted with classes.

My girlfriend’s great-grandfather recently passed away. Her family opted to have the memorial service on the Tuesday before thanksgiving, as many family members had already been planing to visit that week. That got me out of Tuesday classes. Two professors said that attendance on Wednesday would be somewhat optional, and I work on Fridays. We traveled down to her parents’ on Tuesday, leaving mid-morning. In the time that I was gone, I got significantly more work done towards any of my class projects than I would have in a typical week of work. Even with time that was “wasted” on going to dinner, cooking, or visiting with family members, I still managed to write a part of my groups media plan, write content for a website project, and work on my final art project.

Essentially, I was more just as productive, but I actually enjoyed myself. I ate more pie, turkey, and Chinese food than I could have possibly needed. Alyssa and I spent all Tuesday afternoon (after the memorial) in Huntsville, we met one of her friends and sat at the mall, talked, and then went to another mall and sat in a coffee shop for an hour. I even painted last night and decided to type this blog post today. I’ve had  fun, and I still got things done – instead of running from work to class to bed to class, grabbing a bite to eat while on from way from one to another and just barely managing to finish all my projects on time.

School is (not so) slowly devouring all my productivity and creative energy, and it really needs to stop. Less than a month to go. I think I might make it. Then again, there’s always next semester…