In the rush of today’s world, it’s getting more and more difficult to set aside time to improve design skills on a daily basis. As a student, there are always deadlines—classes to attend, papers to write, problem sets to puzzle over—and even outside of school, the general taking-care-of-life stuff looms menacingly, eating away at creative time.
How can you establish a daily design practice? How can you give yourself the space to grow a little bit everyday—become a little better at using the pen tool, add something fresh to your body of work, or learn the basics of designing for a new medium? I’ve definitely struggled with these questions—it takes a lot of commitment and determination to keep up a consistent design practice. I’ve found, though, that there are ways to make this process easier on yourself as you work toward reaching your design goals.
Decide on a goal to work toward
When you’re trying to incorporate personal design time into your day-to-day workflow, it helps to decide on a longer-term goal—this will help you focus and measure your growth as you work toward that goal.
If you’re not sure about where to begin, putting together a side project can be a great starting place. Side projects can be as big or as small as you want them to be, and they provide the perfect opportunity to try out a new medium or start a collaboration with other designers. And because you define all the guidelines, you don’t have to be afraid of making mistakes or upsetting clients.
Try asking yourself what you’ve always wanted to work on, but have never set aside the time to do—and start there. If you want to work on illustration skills, try making one illustration a day for a month; if you want to learn photography or videography, try setting up a photoshoot with friends or producing a short film. Writing blog posts, building software projects, hand-lettering chalkboards—any creative project counts!
Break your design goals into daily doses
Once you’ve decided on a side project, you’ll have to keep yourself accountable for actually making progress. Starting is the hard part—once you begin working on your side project day by day, you’ll be amazed at what progress you can make!
It might seem intimidating to tackle the project all at once, so try breaking it down into bite-sized pieces. What can you do to contribute a little bit to your project on a daily basis?
Of course, it’s hard to prioritize your own work when you have more imminent deadlines—you can always work on your own projects tomorrow, but there always seems to be a meeting that has to happen today. One piece of advice that I’ve found extremely helpful is to set your priorities at the beginning of each day. What do you want to finish today? What’s the next, concrete step you can take to bring your project to life? Since your goal is to establish a daily design practice, your daily goals don’t have to be monumental—just enough so that you feel like you’re making a bit of progress, and learning on the side.
Once you’ve set a daily goal, keep it in sight! I use tear-out sheets from Mary Kate McDevitt’s Mini Goals Notepad to write down what I want to accomplish every morning, and I tape it up next to my workspace—whenever I get distracted, glancing up at my goal sheet helps me get back on track. If you prefer digital notes over handwritten ones, there are also plenty of apps out there that will remind you to reach your personal daily goal. For example, One Big Thing is an amazing app that helps you set one big priority every day.
The key is to find a defined time to sit down and get some solid work in. Don’t just work on your project when you’re in a “creative mood”—the most important part of establishing a daily design practice is to just show up and do work. Some days will feel more productive than others, but consistently putting in time everyday will pay off, and you’ll be more confident in your ability to make progress even when you’re not feeling creative.
Try booking time on your calendar for your daily goal, and treat that time like a meeting—don’t let other obligations eat into that time, and take it as seriously as you would a meeting with a client. For some, the early morning hours, before all the notifications and emails come in, will be ideal—you want to be focused, since your daily practice is how you’ll find room to grow as a designer.
Even though it might seem like other, more urgent things are calling for your attention, reaching your daily goals will help you grow more in the long run—a win for you and anyone you work with. Find the times when you will be the most focused, and make it a daily ritual.
Keep track of your progress
Have you ever been in a meeting or a lecture, and thought: I wish I had a piece of paper to write down this idea! It’s no wonder so many artists and designers are in the habit of constantly keeping a notebook with them—having a notebook makes sure that you don’t lose valuable insights or ideas that come your way during the rush of the day.
Whether you keep a physical notebook or a digital list on your phone, make a space where you can record thoughts about your project, and keep sketches or brainstorms in one place so you can draw from them later. Transitional moments—like train rides or waiting lines—are wonderful times to work out next steps or details for your project. Resist the urge to take out your phone—be open to the world around you, and capture your thoughts so you can use them later during work time.
One of the best ways to keep track of your progress is to routinely share your work—keeping a blog or posting updates on your social media channels will help you document your work and also provide encouragement for reaching your daily goals. Although you can decide whether or not you want to make your project public, posting consistently about it has the added bonus that you’ll generate an audience for your finished project as well.
You’ll also build an archive of your progress—documents and screenshots of each step along the way. You can look back at these later, and see how far you’ve come since day one!
Everyone has a different way of working, but I’ve found that these simple, daily steps really help break down something that seems insurmountable into something that you can tackle day by day. I can’t wait to see more designers making time to grow, and building the things they’ve always wanted to work on through a bit of work everyday.
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