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Rumination, iteration or procrastination

I recently saw a Tweet from Kyle Turman that prompted me to think about the role of ideation in the design process, and when that becomes procrastination rather than rumination.

Many successful people talk deeply about the idea of ruminating on a thought to evolve it into what it needs to become. Steve Jobs famously enjoyed taking long walks to develop an idea he had the seed of and used that uninterrupted time to ideate in his head.

But, as I stated in my reply, I've seen many designers early in their career ruminate on an idea to the point of procrastination. To be clear, I'm using procrastination to cover two thoughts here; that the designer is either wasting time by pushing an idea around without actually developing it, or that they're deliberately exploring every avenue despite knowing that many of them will be unsuccessful so that they can prove they've tried it.

Let's unpack these a bit. For simplicity I'll shorten these to two simple ideas.

  1. Non-iterating procrastination
  2. Over-iterating procrastination

Non-iterating procrastination

This is something that affects all designers to some degree but I've tended to notice that it's particularly troublesome early in their career. I struggled with this a lot. I still do some days. Just pushing around rectangles without really making meaningful changes.

It might be that it's unclear what you need to do next. It might be that it's totally clear but seems overwhelming to take the next step, or it might be that you just find the thought simply boring.

This situation is somewhat akin to writer's block. Arguably I think any creative goes through this at some point but when your creativity is boxed into 8-hour time blocks, it's even more likely.

The challenge here is that when you're not making any progress, you'll start iterating on bad ideas. That way, you can demonstrate progress but is it good progress?

Instead, it's important to take a break. Here's a few simple things you can try to get past this all.

  • Take a walk
  • Ask a colleague to jump in and try some ideas (offer to do a project swap for an hour and iterate each others' ideas)
  • Throw a few ideas to your team in a group channel and ask for feedback whilst having a ten minute screen break
  • Switch contexts to a different skill --- if you're comfortable in code then tackle a logic problem, if you're happier with writing, work on a blog post
  • iA Writer wrote a bunch of helpful tips for this. Some of these mirror the above, but there's some other handy ideas in there too

Whilst these small ideas won't solve things immediately, they'll help to get you into a habit of switching off when you're not making progress or teach you to switch contexts to use the other side of your brain, unlocking your creative lock.

Over-iterating procrastination

This second variant is often the killer though. If you're already experiencing a non-iterating procrastination state, it's easy to start falling into a pattern of over-iterating to make up for any shortfall. The issue here---and this seems especially common early in your career---is that you end up iterating on bad ideas to solve the problem.

The challenge here is you then start making poor decisions to feel like you've made any decisions at all. This ends up leading you down bad paths and lots of wasted time.

Another side to this, especially when you're more junior in your career is that you might lack the internal clout to be able to push back on a bad idea suggested by a colleague, manager or leader. In these instances you'll feel like you haveto explore them because you don't have the ability to push back.

This isn't necessarily procrastination in the usual sense, mostly because it's not self inflicted, but it can end up going that way or have the same effect on your progress.

This is challenging because you can't simply earn internal clout overnight, but having the ability to push back when you know an idea is wrong is key. With seniority and clout comes the ability to push back with little or no justification. That's a privileged position to be in and doesn't come easily, or to, everyone.

If this is the situation your in then I have some suggestions for what to do.

  • Gather a single example of your idea done badly with some simple redlines to point out the issue. Present this when challenged.
  • Explore one bad idea and present it alongside two better ideas. Don't show more than three ideas as it'll provide too much choice. Get your colleagues to vote on them and use this as extra justification.
  • Confer with a senior colleague ahead of the meeting and explain you want to push back. Ask them to back you up when you do.

But what happens if you don't realise your over-iterating a bad idea? Or how do you even tell if you are?

There's a few tell tale signs of when a design has gone awry.

  1. You can't justify the reason for your decision to yourself
  2. You can't convince yourself you'd use it
  3. You can't see the potential future/long term vision for the idea
  4. You can't confidently tell what question you're answering or what problem this solution solves

In these situations, again, lean on your team to provide that nudge if you can. If you're a team of one, show someone outside of the project (i.e. a friend or loved one) and see how they'd feel. Without context they can often give the most brutal, honest and helpful feedback.

I've seen people get caught in a context loop many times, I myself have been in that situation, where you justify bad ideas because as part of the wider context you can convince yourself that they make sense.

Try talking to a friend or family member about this work and explain with the context. If it takes too long or is incoherent or messy, take a step back and ask yourself whether this has gotten too complex.

And to really simplify the problem and avoid bad iteration, step away from your designs entirely and revert to pen and paper. Don't use it to sketch designs though, use it to scratch down thoughts and concepts. Think of it like a way to journal your thoughts around the idea you're solving for and let the thoughts flow. It may take a few goes to get into this mindset but it can really help unpack the idea and take you away from designing a bad idea whilst keeping you inside the same headspace. It might not feel like progress but it actually likely will get you further in the end.

As you grow in your career you'll find that your hunches or initial concepts tend to be the ones that stick (most of the time) and you just iterate on that to get to a final solution. That isn't always the case, but you'll learn quickly when something has value or not and whether to push it further or let it go. Earlier in your career though you'll probably find that you get attached to an idea that might not be the right one and find it hard to let go. Hopefully some of the advice above helps you to avoid that trap and the possible procrastination loops that ensue.

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