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Designing Beautiful Work in Chaotic Times: How to Stay Focused

Designing Beautiful Work in Chaotic Times: How to Stay Focused
Liam McKay April 21, 2024 · 9 min read

Staying focused is a challenge even at the best of times, but trying to produce design work that you are proud of when life is throwing everything it has your way is understandably something that would challenge even the most composed of people. So how do we stay focused, and design beautiful work during chaotic times? Here are some simple pointers that could help you to cut through the chaos.
I’m sure we’ve all had moments where the pressure seems to be piling, tasks are stacking up, maybe the boiler has broken, you need to handle some paperwork, juggle bills, and distractions or world events are sapping away your energy and creativity. How do you cope? Where do you start when chaos seems to be creeping in to every part of your work life?
I think it’s important to remember that you’re not ever likely to have ´perfect’ working conditions: there’s always going to be something going on that you have to make do with, but aiming to put yourself in a comfortable place to get some solid work done in any given moment is a more achievable goal. Limiting the chaos, and working through it is infinitely more achievable than eliminating the chaos altogether.

Declutter. OR Make a Mess…

Sometimes a chaotic work life can begin to show itself in a physical way. It doesn’t take long for clutter to pile up once your time is pressed and work is getting on top of you. But there’s more to clutter than it just looking unorganised, studies show that clutter can actually negatively impact your mood, and your productivity, so letting ´stuff’ build up around your home, or office could be doing more damage than you realize.
It certainly seems like there’s some good evidence out there to suggest that minimising clutter in your life can reduce stress and increase focus. If this is something you are struggling with, a simple declutter might be a good place to start when looking for ways to get focused again.
Interestingly, however, there are other studies that seem to suggest that some level of ´untidiness’ can actually lead to increased levels of creativity. Participants in this study were split between one clean and one untidy room, and were asked to come up with creative new uses for a ping-pong ball and while they found that both groups came up with a similar number of ideas, the group in the messier room were deemed to have produced more creative and interesting ideas.
So clutter can impact different people in different ways. Maybe clutter contributes differently depending on what kind of tasks you are trying to get done. If you are feeling some stress and are lacking focus, it might be worth looking around to see what you could declutter to help with your wellbeing and organization. But if you’re already in a tidy environment and lacking some creative ideas, it might be worth getting a little bit messy! Surrounding yourself with some ´creative mess’ such as sketchbooks, art supplies, toys, artwork etc. might just open up some new channels of inspiration for you, and give you that small creative edge if all else has failed.

Ask for Help & Feedback

For me at least, when I’m struggling with creativity or focus on a design task or project it can be too easy to get so wrapped up in trying to come up with the solution on my own that I forget that there are plenty of people out there willing to help me if I need it. My advice: next time you are stuck on a particularly tricky creative problem, why not try to reach out to a friend, colleague, or even the wider design community for some help or feedback.
In my experience, people are far more than willing to help & give advice than you might think, all you have to do is ask. Of course, you have to be willing to put unfinished work out there and take some honest replies without taking it personally, but something as simple as a Twitter post, or Dribbble shot with some details of what you’re struggling with could unlock a number of surprising ideas and solutions for you with the help of others.
Example: Asking for opinions.

This post from Wesley Marc Bancroft is a great example of this. Instead of spending too much time stressing about the small details and which one looks better, just put it out into there and get some quick simple feedback that helps you to keep your momentum and flow and give you some focus in the right direction.
Final Result.

In this example, with the help of some quick feedback the bolder version (B) of the logo was chosen for the final project and it looks fantastic.

Plan Your Distractions

For a lot of people, when it’s time to find focus, the first thing they might do is to remove distractions completely in order to stay on track. But as with anything in life that you completely restrict access to, there’s always going to be part of your brain that keeps reminding you of the very thing that you can’t have.
So instead of cutting out your distractions completely, it could be a good idea to simply group them all together and then plan time for them to happen in short chunks of time throughout the day. This way the distractions don’t creep in to your normal work flow, and you retain some control over them and how much time they take.
Being distracted is normal, and some studies suggest that a distracted mind can be a more creative one. The very nature of distractions of-course is that they are unpredictable, so this advice won’t apply to all distractions – but think of some inevitable things that might interrupt your creative work on a recurring basis and give them their own schedule instead of trying to avoid them completely.

Tackle Your Trickiest Tasks First

One mistake I personally make far too often is that I like to ´settle in’ to projects, handling easier to do things first as a way of getting the ball rolling. Sometimes this isn’t a problem and the momentum keeps up, but other times it can feel like you’re not really making progress and those bigger tasks are still looming.
Research shows that deciding to tackle your hardest task first is more likely to give you the positivity to stay focused and get more work done in the long run as the smaller tasks then begin to take care of themselves. We all get an emotional boost from completing a task, but relying on smaller tasks to get this buzz can give a false sense of progress if you become over-reliant on them.

Limit Yourself

If you are frequently struggling to stay focused, it could simply be down to the fact that you’re taking on too much. Perhaps you’re setting deadlines that are putting you under more pressure than they should be? Perhaps you are taking on work that might require you to work overtime without thinking of the knock-on impacts? It’s hugely beneficial to learn your limits and to protect yourself from overworking or burnout by simply being more honest when work comes your way.
In my experience, when a client or project calls for something that you think might have you stretched a little too far, it’s better to just come forward and say so. Recognizing when something might be too much to handle is a good habit to have, and it can actually make projects run smoother in the long run as usually there’s some wiggle room to re-arrange schedules. Don’t be afraid to say no if something is likely to overstretch you.
Setting sensible limits, and finding time for your own mental health is especially important during times of chaos. On a similar note, I recently wrong about 5 Science-Backed Techniques To Overcome a Creative Block and 10 Mindfulness Techniques for Designers Feeling Overwhelmed which both include some helpful advice on how to look out for your own wellbeing during work.

Give Back

One interesting thing you could do when you’re struggling with your own projects is to help out someone else in need. It can be something as simple as giving your time, skills or advice to someone else who is struggling creatively, or of-course you could look to do something more substantial by giving your time as a volunteer, or donating to a good cause.
Studies actually support the idea that giving has it’s own benefits that directly affect the giver. Positive effects such as the ability to lower stress or lower blood pressure along with the benefits of increased happiness and self-esteem. These physical and mental benefits to your own well-being are all something that will have a positive knock-on effect when it comes to your own work, creativity and focus.
Heres a fantastic list of Design for Good resources if you’d like some ideas on how to begin helping out with either your time, or your money.

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Liam McKay

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