Mind the gap

How to spend your time when there’s nothing left to do?

This morning something happened that reminded me of an important lesson re: time well spent.

Three of us are working on an illustration project for our forthcoming book, “It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work”. In our previous books, we had an illustration per essay. This time we’re going in a different direction. Rather than an illustration per essay, we’re aiming for ~15 full page spreads spaced evenly throughout the book.

We’re going to be illustrating historical and contemporary figures with work methods that line up with our point of view on work. People who’ve done big important things without pulling all nighters, working crazy hours, or forgoing leisure for the eternal hustle.

Here’s an early example of a spread:

We like the direction, and so does our publisher. We’re going for it. So now we’re off to find interesting subjects to illustrate and feature. It’s research time. That means there’s going to be some design downtime — a gap in the project for the designers.

Now, back to what happened this morning… The designer leading the layout charge offered to continue to explore layout concepts while we look for more subjects to feature. He wanted to tweak the layout on the right, add some more details to fill out the space, etc. We’re happy with it, but could we be even happier with it? The tweak muscle yearns to be flexed!

That’s a perfectly natural reaction. Certainly there’s always room for improvement. And there is always more to explore. Always.

Always is the problem.

The always option is where you turn time well spent into time wasted. That time could be used on other projects that need attention, rather than projects that desire attention. The layout above is perfectly fine — it doesn’t need tweaking now. The designer may desire to tweak, because designers love to design! There’s a tendency to keep pushing the thing you’re on because you’re already in the middle of it. Natural. But it’s on us to inject a sense of enough so we don’t sink good time into something that doesn’t need it. Going from 99% to 100% is expensive. I’d rather we spend that 1% going from 0% nothing to 1% something (or 50% on the fence to 51% conviction) on something else.

So I gently reminded him that we’re all good here. He did great work, the layout looks great, and there’s even a risk of fucking up a good thing (it’s always easier to fuck up a good thing than to fix a bad thing). There’s more to do elsewhere, and his time would be better spent on those things.

He agreed. We’ll come back to the layouts once we have new subjects to illustrate and design. And maybe then we’ll see a different way forward once we have more examples in front of us. Now isn’t the right time to continue to tweak. Let’s wait to see if new ideas pop up via new work that has to be done rather than revisiting what we’ve already done.

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