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I teach and mentor designers new to their careers. Aside from the technical design speak, a lot of our interactions shine a spotlight on the need for a lifestyle change that often comes through in time management hiccups between balancing home, job and school work. I often say to them that they are going through a life altering event. Less than five years ago, I went through a similar change that required focusing on myself first.

My connection to many of my non-traditional students at Austin Community College (ACC) is through my path to UX design. Like a lot of them, I am a career changer. UX design is my second career after teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL). Different industries, skill sets, and networks made it a particularly difficult to leap from one career to the other.

If we do not seize the opportunity to take control of our daily routines, then someone or something will make those decisions for us

A lot of the struggles they are experiencing, I have also lived. Working, going back to school, doing homework and trying to maintain a relationship with my wife, family and friends needed dedication. That period tested my resolve and my relationships. Ultimately, I emerged a more focused individual with a clearer purpose. Here are the lessons I have learned.

1. Focusing on myself by killing multitasking

The norm is to multitask. Trying to juggle more than one thing at a time is a valued skill. The reality is that the quality of our output goes down the more we split our concentration across tasks. Our brains cannot process different problems at the same time. Switching contexts requires taking time to adjust our concentration from one domain to another.

I have learned to schedule time alone where I can tackle the most difficult tasks. This mostly (not entirely) eliminates interruptions that break my concentration. Overtime, I have been working on setting norms with my work and family to encourage productivity time.

Here are the a couple of articles that talk about the cost of multitasking.
The High Cost of Multitasking
Multitasking Damages Your Brain and Career

2. Prioritize the most important issue first

How do you know which is the most important issue? I use Trello to write out the tasks that I need to do. I create columns by the month, week and day. For example, I created a column labeled ‘For December’ to put all of the tasks that I have to complete in this month. Then I label another column ‘This week’. I transfer all of the tasks that I have to complete this week in this column. Finally, I create a column called ‘Today.’’ All of the tasks that I have to do today will go in this vertical. I put a limit of four to five items. Usually, I can realistically complete three.

waking up early personal trello board focusing on myself

Personal Trello board for prioritizing the top 6 things I needed to get done.

3. Create and stick to a routine

Gretchen Rubin stated in her book, The Happiness Project, “Days can be long, but years can be short.” I hear this quote or some version of it repeated in plenty of podcasts and blog posts about goals. I feel it is asking us to think about how how we approach our days. If we do not seize the opportunity to take control of our daily routines, then someone or something will make those decisions for us.

After years of waking up with just enough time to get ready for work and drive in a hour of traffic, I have learned to get up much earlier. My days start at 4 AM. There is less competition for my time at this time. This gives me the space to exercise, write and focus my thoughts. I can get into work before most of my colleagues. By 9 AM, I am caught up with my emails and Slack messages, and I am ready to engage with my team.

Check out the post about my experiment with getting up at 4 AM.

Waking up early at 4am and the lessons I learned

Waking up at 4 AM. Picture of the sunrise after my run.

4. Evaluate and pivot where necessary

Do I get up at 4 AM everyday? No, I do not, but I tried. When I decided to start my day at that time, I found that the extra time energized me. However, after about two weeks, I realized that I could not continue this pace without a break. To avoid burnout, I altered my schedule to allow for one to two days to sleep later as a reward for sticking to my routine.

5. Seek out others who are trying to same thing

Trying to focus on yourself can be isolating. There is a good chance that your immediate circle will not understand what you are trying to do at first. Seek out groups that have similar goals. I have not found anyone else that I know personally who wakes up at 4 AM. I had to expand my search online to learn about other people’s experiences with this transformation. There is a very active Facebook group that comes from readers of book, The Miracle Morning: The Not-So-Obvious Secret Guaranteed to Transform Your Life (Before 8AM).

Bonus: Add value and build enriching relationships

While you are building up your network and gaining knowledge from those who have started this journey before you, find ways you can give back and offer value. Think about what skills or connections you can offer to enrich the new relationships you discover.

If you are going through an intense period of change, both you and the people in your closest circles should understand that you need time. There will be difficult decisions with how you need to spend your time. This could cause friction with your relationships. It is up to you to find sustainable ways that help you push forward.

Matt Eng

Matt Eng

DesignOps Manager. Based in Austin,TX. Worked with clients such as Alcatel-Lucent, Ogilvy, RBC, Deloitte, Whirlpool, Polycom, Symantec, and Pebble. Matt teaches, mentors, and speaks about design, creativity, and fostering stronger connections within teams.