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With an outdated Dell, new sketchbook, and a strict timeline to launch, my design career commenced in a small rural village in Thailand. Weeks later, on a tranquil afternoon on the side of Doi Chang mountain, I rested on the bamboo platform, pictured above, after signing a contract and handing over my life savings in cash to a group of Thai farmers.

The contract, stating that we’d agree to purchase 3,500 pounds of coffee, was the most literal interpretation of ‘putting your money where your mouth is’ when it came to an idea. Studying entrepreneurship in college, I had a general understanding of business, but I soon found out that the gap between idea and implementation is vast and unforgiving at times.

Like any consumable, coffee goes bad, so our clock immediately started ticking once the pen left the paper. Our timeline looked a little like:

  • Pre-Day 30: build brand, setup e-commerce website, setup freight, export coffee, FDA paperwork, etc.
  • Pre-Day 60: manage US import, social media, source roaster, sell coffee, design packaging, develop collateral, etc.
  • Pre-Day 90: roast coffee, fulfill orders, sell coffee, etc.

This timeline, coupled with the fact that we were teaching full-time, fostered an environment that required us to be incredibly focused and effective with our spare time between classes, at nights, and on weekends between trips.

At that time, nearing the end of 2013, I knew nothing about design. The concept of designing a website, logo, app, presentation, etc. was foreign, and we were unable to afford to hire a legitimate designer to jumpstart our brand because all of our money was tied up in the coffee purchase.

So, I used what I knew, and I designed the first version of our logo using Powerpoint (no joke) because that’s what I was using to create presentations for the English classes I taught.

My design process was clunky, inefficient, and far from sexy, but after many iterations, I was proud to post this on our newly designed (and equally clunky) Squarespace e-commerce site.

Looking back, it’s difficult and sometimes embarrassing to view my initial designs, especially in high-definition, but there’s something that happened in Thailand during the initial stages of our business that I’ll never forget:

Urgency and pressure catalyze my best work

Whenever I have extra time, I procrastinate at a subconscious level. It’s hard to articulate, but at the end of the day, I can always feel that I used my time in an ineffective way, focusing on aspects of a project that are not essential to the end goal.

Now, three years after signing that initial contract, a lot has changed: we sold our company, moved back to the US, and I’m now working with an IoT startup designing products (sans Powerpoint).

Although the ebbs and flows of work and productivity are impossible to control altogether, I’ve worked to create a process that helps replicate what I learned in Thailand on a consistent basis. Here are a couple ways how:

Don’t rely on others to set the pace.

As a marathon runner, one of the worst things I can do is get placed in the wrong ‘pace group’ because I’ll either have to:

  • Spend the majority of the race dodging people in a slower pace group
  • Get stuck running slower than I trained for

In both scenarios, it’s significantly more exhausting than being able to set my pace, find my cadence, and run my race, and it frequently results in frustration and lack of urgency and focus.

In the same way, there are ways to set my pace at work and create an environment that fosters positive pressure and urgency. For example, when my schedule permits, I work in a busy coffee shop setting because I’m surrounded by the energy of people coming and going. Or, when designing, I purposefully avoid relaxing music and choose high-intensity music like EDM or hip-hop because it creates a feeling of positive anxiety and stress.

These two examples allow me to hyper-focus and maximize my output. While they might not work for every person, there are other ways for each person to set their own pace and hit their cadence. Another impactful way: create time limits.

Create time limits and respect them.

Even though a project’s due date might be two months away, our goal as a designer shouldn’t be to utilize the full two months because, in my opinion, time spent on a project ≠ higher quality. Some of my best products were the result of a two day deadline, not two months.

Like Parkinson’s Law says, “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” This is true for any task, but especially design, as we’re perfectionists by trade. Pixel perfect is great, but remember: done can be better than perfect (depending on the project).

For example, this week I started the DailyUI design challenge and for the 001 task (signup page), I began designing without a set timeline and spent the full duration of watching Gangs of New York designing a single page. How I spent 3 hours designing that page I don’t know.

But, for 002 (billing page), I went to a coffee shop with the intent of spending 1.5 hours there, and I was able to finish easily before leaving.

Take ownership of your time, your projects, and your effectiveness by setting deadlines that instill a sense of urgency in your work. You (and your clients) won’t regret it.

No matter how much I want to, I’ll never be able relive the journey of building my first business. The stresses (both good and bad) helped me maximize output and expedite learning, but luckily, there are ways that I can now relive the same sensation without investing my life savings.

Question: What are ways that help you create a sense of urgency in your work to maximize output and expedite learning?

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