Focusing Your Creative Energy

“‎The successful warrior is the average man, with laser-like focus.” 

— Bruce Lee

Early in my career as a web designer I had trouble focusing. I started off projects strong, but I had trouble following through on them.

Looking back at my various failed starts and poorly executed work, I think of Cyclops from the X-Men series (Jerry Seinfeld says all we men consider ourselves low-level superheroes). Cyclops can’t control the energy beams that come out of his eyes — they’re extremely powerful, but also destructive and a waste of energy. Think of a fire hydrant without a hose attached.

Cyclops needs the help of special eyewear to harness his optical energy so that he can point it in the direction he wants, with the intensity he wants.

Creativity is the same way for me and lot of other people: our brains are inundated with tons of great ideas, but without focus they go out scatter-shot and wind up as unfinished projects, or worse yet, never make it into a sketchbook. It ends up being all wasted energy. I was never diagnosed with ADD as a child, but I feel as though I easily could have been.

Focus is still something I have to work on daily, but the good news is I’ve figured out techniques and habits over the years to channel my creative energy in one direction at a time. 

Below is a list of tools and technics I use to help me achieve focus. They can turn you into a creative Cyclops too.

Get a Notebook and Pen

A notebook and pen are essential before you even attempt to address the other sections. I don’t care if it’s Field Notes, a Moleskine, Austin Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist Journal, or a handful of loose sheets folded in half and stapled together.

Always be ready to write things down where ever you are. If your brain works like mine and you don’t write things down you will forget them. I guarantee it.

Baby Steps

In the movie What About Bob? (YouTube), Bob Wiley (played by Bill Murray) has his first appointment with his new psychiatrist, Dr. Leo Marvin (played by Richard Dreyfus). Bob has a multi-phobic personality and gets anxiety attacks all the time, every day. Doctor Marvin suggests Bob read his book, Baby Steps, which advises people make small, reasonable goals for themselves in the pursuit of their bigger goals. He tells Bob, “For instance, when you leave this office, don’t think about everything you have to do in order to get out of the building, just think to what you must do to get out of this room, and when you get to the hall, deal with that hall…”

We can apply this thinking directly to projects. Break them down from macro to micro. If you have to design a website, don’t think about designing the whole website.

Write down the baby steps:

  1. Capture Client Goals
  2. Request Content/Assets
  3. Create Site Map
  4. Wireframe Key Pages
  5. Design Key Pages 6. …etc.

If you ever reach an step that seems daunting, break that step down into sub-steps.

All I can say about Baby Steps is mash potatoes and gravy.


Checklists are very closely related to Baby Steps.

I use checklists specifically for client deliverables and requests. As soon as I complete a request from the client I check that item off my list.

I could write another whole post just on checklist methodologies. You can have project checklists, daily checklists, checklists for your checklists. The checklists are endless.

I recommend reading The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande for a thorough understanding of the power of checklists.

Repeat It In An Email

Whenever I reach a milestone or deadline on a project I email the client (and any other relevant people like project managers, team members) and in the email, I echo back their list of requests I captured.

I do this for two reasons:

  1. it lets the client see you’re listening to them (clients usually don’t notice when you’re paying attention to them, but they hate when you don’t listen to them)

  2. it helps me be sure I didn’t miss anything on my checklist

Tell Siri to Remind You

Most of you have a portable computer on you at any moment. Use it. Maybe you’re at lunch away from your desk and you get a great idea for your project. As soon as you get that idea, pull out your phone and ask Siri or Google Now, “In 15 minutes remind me to change landing page hierarchy based on Jen’s idea…”

Steve Jobs liked to say the computer is “a bicycle for the mind.” I love this phrase. I love it so much I created a Kickstarter project around it. I love it because it’s true. Amplify your mental abilities and creativity with your mobile devices. 

These devices are literally waiting to help you accomplish more.

Now Go Cyclops the Hell Out of Some Projects

I’m going to stop here before I list more tips for creative focus. I think this is a good foundation of ideas you can start applying to your you work right now.

They’re open to changing as needed to match your particular workflow.

If there’s anything you should take away from this it’s the importance of defining your goals and objectives and then breaking them down into manageable, actionable pieces.

You have the creative energy, now unleash it with focus.

“The perception of skill has led many, many people down a very dark path”

Most people can play daily fantasy or casino games without a problem. “I know there are people that can do it normally,” Mr. Adams said, but he is not one of them. He also acknowledges that he ultimately bears responsibility for his addiction.

Yet gambling counselors say they could more easily help people like Mr. Adams if fantasy companies did not portray their games as involving mostly skill. That alone is a risk for addiction, said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling.

“The perception of skill has led many, many people down a very dark path,” he said.

NYTimes: For Addicts, Fantasy Sites Can Lead to Ruinous Path

People, just don’t gamble.

The iPad Pro and Pencil Were Engineered Together

Interesting observations from John Gruber on the iPad Pro and Pencil:

For capacitive (finger) touch, the iPad Pro samples at twice the rate of previous iPads — 120 times per second instead of 60. With the Pencil, though, the iPad Pro samples at 240 times per second. The way the Pencil works requires cooperation with the display, and so there’s no way this Pencil could be made to work with existing iPads. The Pencil is not iPad Pro-exclusive out of product marketing spite — it’s exclusive to the Pro because the two were engineered in coordination with each other. And if Apple had designed the Pencil differently, to allow it to work with existing iPads, there’s no way it could have had this level of accuracy, because the tip would have needed to be broader and capacitive. (The Pencil’s tip is not capacitive at all — it doesn’t register as a touch at all on any other iOS device.)

I think it’s quite possible the iPad ends up being a slow win for Apple unlike the quarter-after-quarter smash hit the iPhone is.

Good Coffee

At The Awl, Matt Buchanan on The Cool Way to Brew Good Coffee:

This exchange was a series of dog whistles between two obnoxious people: I wanted the coffee most appealing to a coffee jerk; the barista told me that this shop was aggressively Goodc. If you are not a beanboi, but are vaguely aware that a certain kind of highly conspicuous consumer likely enjoys “pourover” coffee which is made agonizingly slowly, one cup at a time, then you might be wondering how an automatic machine that brews like a gallon of coffee at once became a Cool Brewing Method in this age of All Things Craft. (Or not! RUN AWAY FROM THIS POST NOW, SAVE YOURSELF.)

I admit I’ve become a bit of a coffee snob in the last few years and enjoy multiple, self-made, pourover cups of coffee per day. I live in San Francisco, what do you expect?

My current favorite brand of coffee bean is by Ritual Coffee Roasters.

‘Exclusive RIght’

From Reuters, Taxi owners, lenders sue New York City over Uber:

Taxi owners and lenders on Tuesday sued New York City and its Taxi and Limousine Commission, saying the proliferation of the popular ride-sharing business Uber was destroying their businesses and threatening their livelihoods.

The lawsuit filed in Manhattan federal court accused the defendants of violating yellow cab drivers’ exclusive right to pick up passengers on the street by letting Uber drivers who face fewer regulatory burdens pick up millions of passengers who use smartphones to hail rides.

I use Uber all the time in San Francisco, but I’m also aware it’s not the most upstanding business.

There’s a reason people flock to Uber: the experience of requesting and paying for a ride is seamless. What pisses me off is hearing taxi owners whine, bitch, and complain about Uber rather than figure out a way to improve the process of hailing a cab. No group should have an ‘exclusive right’ to business over others. Fuck that noise.

[To be clear, I could spend many blog posts on how much Uber’s business practices piss me off too. They’re a shady bunch.]


Nick Statt at the Verge on the Coolest Cooler Kickstarter disaster:

Coolest, the company behind a popular Kickstarter-funded cooler, is now selling its product for $499 on Amazon in an effort to raise enough money to continue producing new units. The news may frustrate Kickstarter backers, who were promised the product in February of this year. Coolest said today it now plans to deliver the last shipment of coolers to Kickstarter backers by April 2016.

In a video uploaded to YouTube, CEO Ryan Grepper said the Amazon sale is to “keep the lights on” and “make certain that every single backer’s Coolest can get made and shipped.” The problem lies in the cooler’s blending motor, which is made by a supplier that’s currently on strike, he said. Coolest has been unable to find a viable replacement.

As I’ve said before, making things at scale is not something you want to take lightly.

User interpol in the comments makes a great point:

Uhh, so $12,000,000 in funding — take off $1mil for Kickstarter fees — divided by 60,000 units is only $200 per unit.

This seems like a vastly underfunded project.

My two successful Kickstarter projects, Bicycles for Our Minds and Charms, Quivers, and Parades both involved two ingredients: paper and ink. Once your project involves electronics and moving parts it takes the complexity to a much higher level.

This doesn’t mean poster and book projects can’t be highly complex. Then can be.

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

At Re/code, Noah Kulwin on investor Fred Wilson:

Last week, Silicon Valley freaked out when Fidelity lowered the value in its stake of Snapchat, Zenefits and other startups in which the investment conglomerate holds equity. In Snapchat’s case, it reduced the company’s worth from $16 billion to $12 billion. Zenefits’ $4.5 billion valuation was cut in half.

Union Square Ventures’ Fred Wilson, a longtime venture capitalist known for his early bet on Twitter, says in a blog post that these write-downs are going to keep on coming.

He argues that the “blurring of the lines between the public and private markets” means that as the economy slows down (or the air gets let out of the tech bubble, take your pick), the valuations of unicorns like Snapchat and Zenefits that have taken funding from late-stage growth giants like Fidelity are going to continue going down.

As Alan Kay best put it, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

If angel investors want to pop the bubble, or let air out the bubble or do whatever the fuck they want to do with the bubble, all they need to do change the amount of money they’re putting into these ‘unicorns’.

Also, can we stop using the word, ‘unicorn’?