I rarely played sport when I was a kid.
Mostly a little basketball, but I was an average player on my best days. I think it was mostly a social thing. I showed up for the minimum amount of practice, but never did much on my own.
Maybe that’s why I never practiced as I got older.
I didn’t think about what I could practice – or that I could practice how I practice.
It All Starts With How You Start
I’ve been learning how to podcast.
I’ve been learning how to setup a professional audio studio for recording two-person interviews (the joy of having friends with cool jobs!), which meant learning how to set levels, route mics, ensure feedback wasn’t an issue, and making it so no matter who’s talking, they sound great.
I was having trouble getting my head around how to route the mics and record. I could do it, but stumbled, and it would take minutes rather than seconds.
So I snuck into the studio and practiced. For an hour. Setup, start over. Setup, start over. Setup-start-over-setup-start-over.
And when I realised that the discomfort I felt during the early parts of an interview was because I couldn’t work through my show’s intro?
I got another couple hours of studio time to practice the opening 15 seconds of the show. I did over a hundred takes. Each was different as I wrote and edited, altering inflection, and mood, and tone continuously.
But it isn’t just new process skills that we need to practice. It’s old ones.
I bet you’ve practiced a lot of what makes up your craft. I bet you’ve sat and looked at how to write the best CSS you can and made up small projects to do so. Or perhaps you’ve sat and kerned text more times than 99.99% of people would consider sane.
But how often have you practiced starting? Or finishing? How often have you practiced performing your process? Not the skills of your craft, but your skills of getting to it?
How often have you considered improving the parts of your process that are default, are just “good enough”?
The Process for Your Process
Define Your Process
I like what Sean McCabe has said on his podcast – you don’t have a process until you’ve written it down.
Before we’re able to practice any part of our process, we need to know what the whole thing looks like.
Start by writing down all the steps you go through to get a piece of work finished. This could either mean from your first contact with a potential client, or if you’re wanting to focus on self-initiated work, as the idea comes to mind.
Write down everything that you do. No step is too small – be so granular you become nauseous.
Look for what can be grouped together and what order makes the most sense. For example, you’d want to define current problems and desired outcomes before diving into research, and you’d want to explore ideas before starting roughs.
Clean Up, Combine, Group, and Focus
This is a good opportunity to clean house a little.
This overview of your process will reveal an awful lot – mostly redundancies. It’s no surprise that we all do this, it’s only natural to overcompensate when not keeping track.
So look for any steps that you can combine, or even better, remove completely. With what’s left, look to see what you can automate.
They can be as simple as having a prebuilt folder structure for jobs, or a kind of form-letter for early routine client interactions, or a solid GulpJS (or similar) workflow. Such things can save a considerable time and energy, and help you get from idea to project quickly.
Make Up A Fake Job to Run Through Your Process
From here on out, I’d suggest focusing on one section (grouping) of your process. It’d be too exhausting (and time consuming and probably boring) to focus on every step of every section, and it might be hard to gauge the changes you’ll be making later.
So practice whatever will be the most valuable. What part of your process yields the most value? If you’ve historically found that your best work has come out of a great deal of research, then that’s what you should practice. If it’s sketching, that’s your answer. If it’s networking, then there you go.
Your fake job should have the kind of details that make it feel like a real world project, and enough of them to be ran through a section of your process.
Should you have multiple fake jobs or clients, each with multiple requirements or goals? That depends entirely on what you’re practicing.
For my podcast intro, I could get away with me being the only client as I wanted to get things right for my show – I had that context to work within. I changed wording, tone, pace, pitch, and kept my objective the same – to get the listener excited to listen.
But if you’re working on idea generation for something like a logo or an essay, then I think multiples would be a good idea; in such a case this could mean multiple clients, and multiple topics.
Track Each Step As You Make Changes
Run your fake client or job through your process.
Do it as you normally would, without being concerned about any metric like time or quality. This is just to see if you have enough details and that you’ve got every step of your process written down in order.
Once everything is ok, run through it again, as you normally would, and keep track of your metric.
What kind of metric? Depends entirely on what you’re practicing. It could be the number of widgets you come up with (concepts), it could be how long it takes you to run through it (something administrational), or any other number of variables.
I even gauged mood when I was practicing the podcast intro.
Run through it as many times as you can, preferably in one sitting. Early on you don’t want to be making changes to your process.
It’ll be time to start tweaking once you notice that the changes that naturally come through from your process have differing effects. We’re not robots, so every time we do something, we will simply do it slightly differently. It’s these accidental differences that we can take advantage of once we notice which are advantageous to our situation.
For example, I accidentally spoke in a lower pitch for one the hundred takes I did, and when playing it back realised that it sounded much more like me. Turns out I was talking slightly higher than I would during normal conversation.
It was an accident but one worth keeping. But it was only once I realised it’s worth that I felt comfortable to start deliberately making changes. It’s hard to change things you can’t see, so keep working until you start noticing new corners on old shapes
Try Everything You Can Think Of (Even The Stupid Stuff)
Once your comfortable working through the process noticing the small tweaks that naturally arise, and are maybe even forcing a few small tweaks just to see where they go, start changing things up.
Start with every alternative way you can imagine doing. Do what you’ve seen others do, do what you imagine your heroes do, do what you’ve always wanted to try.
In front of the mic I went high and low, I put on accents, I tried to be monotone, loud, quiet, gentle, charming, funny, intelligent, and dozens of other alternatives. Some worked well, others sounded creepy.
But in each I found a new thing to try and explore. I might not have thought that being loud was the way to go, but it showed me a thing or two about pace, things I wouldn’t have been aware of exploring on their own (minus the loudness) if I hadn’t been experimenting.
That’s why we should do every alternative we can imagine working, as well as every one we think is stupid. Worse case scenario, we’ll show ourselves that the stupid options were genuinely stupid, so we’ll be right. Best case scenario, we might find a new way of doing things.
Try small changes and try big, stupid, loud ones, the kind that you’d be embarrassed by if anyone were watching.
As always, gauge each alternative, trying to find what works and what doesn’t. This can be as formal as you like – for me I used each thing I learnt on the next take, but the context allowed for it.
Practice Till Your Face Hurts
Now that you only have the essential steps, and know what you want to practice, and how to go about practicing it, with your small and stupidly big changes in mind, practice.
Practice till your face hurts.
I walked out of the audio booth and my face was killing me. Saying the same phrase, even with some alterations, a hundred times causes some serious repetitive strain. But it’s essential.
Repeat your process over and over and over until it is so committed to memory that you’ll be able to do it without thinking.
It’s not enough to figure out what has the biggest impact on your workflow, and what yields the biggest results. That just shows you what’s important.
What you need to do is get good at doing what’s important, and the only way to do so is to do it a million times, keeping track as you go and making changes as they come up.
The mastery part will start to come in when the elements of your process that seemed golden when you first started to practice now seem ordinary relative to what you’ve been working on.
… or Start From Scratch
The benefit of getting a solid look at your process by writing it down and then (laboriously) working through it is that you begin to understand what works and what doesn’t.
This is great as it gives you the opportunity to start from scratch with good perspective.
You can try an entirely different method of working, but it won’t be some arbitrary change – it’ll be one backed by intimate experience of what has, and hasn’t, worked before.
You won’t be trialing a heap of defaults (your new ones) against another heap of defaults (your old ones). But new defaults against tried and tested methods.
By understanding your process well enough to know what and what doesn’t work, as well as why, it gives you a marker against which you can grade new possible processes.
This marker against which new ideas are graded will help you decide if anything you try is worth incorporating into your new process, if your current process is as strong as you’d want it to be, or, if the whole thing should be swapped out for something new.
The Small Influences
The way we do things influences how well we do them.
When we start our work from a strong place we feel inspired, energetic, professional.
We can begin knowing that we have nothing to worry about, that everything is in its place. Everything is done in a certain order, a certain way, and at a certain time.
It sounds dry and … it is. But why not allow the dry parts to remain as waterless as possible so that the creative parts of our process can get all muddy and sticky and fun?
Ultimately, all that matters is shipping. We can get drunk on the process and never get anything out the door, which would make all effort spent done so in vain.
But I’ve found that when I feel good about the process, I feel good about showing up, and without showing up the work doesn’t get done, nor does it get shipped.
When my process has been orderly and well-considered, I can show up to get to the fun work even when I’m feeling the antithesis of fun. And before long my mood quickly turns.
Refining how you get work done can be as simple as:
- Defining your process by writing down every step and grouping them together in a way that makes sense.
- Look to combine or remove any of the fat and focus on what will have the greatest impact.
- Make up fake details to run through your process .
- Keep track of each step by some sort of sensible metric.
- Understand each step your practicing as deeply as you can so you can notice changes.
- Make every change you can imagine, but big and small, smart and stupid.
- Practice what’s left of your process over and over and over and over.
- Or, start from scratch with a different process and see what does and doesn’t work.
Hopefully you might end up in a place in which you’re able to do your best work, and do so quicker.
It’s so easy to overlook the way we do our work in favour of doing it. It’s understandable, but picking the low hanging fruit that is refining our process will give us the room and the energy to grab the sweeter stuff at the top of the tree.