Ah, January. It’s the New Year, and you’ve decided to work on your core design skills: Creating better ideas on your projects, improving your ability to frame problems, sketching like a pro. But by the time February rolls around, you’ve barely gotten started.
It doesn’t have to be this way. For the skills that you really want to improve in 2017 (and beyond), create a solo workshop practice, where you work regularly on your own to practice and master specific skills.
You hear the word workshop used all the time in the design field, with a variety of meanings. A workshop can be a specific place you can go with the tools that you need to work on crafting things. It can be a group of artists or creators coming together to share their work and try to improve it through critique and feedback. Workshops are also convened for multidisciplinary groups to come together and work on potential solutions to problems. These kinds of workshops usually have a social or collaborative component, and are geared towards improving ideas or things with input and advice of others.
A solo workshop practice is different. It is a safe place to learn, to try new and different things, and to fail on your own terms. What you create is a means to an end, and doesn’t need to be completed or revised or placed in your portfolio or tweeted about. It is not social or collaborative. It is only for you.
I’ve used this approach over the years to learn a ton of skills for personal and professional means. Here’s how to set one up:
Schedule your time
Place recurring times in your work or personal calendar to practice skills. Be realistic about how much time you’ll need to prepare to learn, practice the skills you want to learn, then reflect on what you’d learned. Depending on the skill, it’ll probably require more than an hour at a time, to start.
Prepare to learn
When your scheduled time arrives, go to a quiet place or environment with the materials that you need to work on a skill. Avoid distractions. Unplug from the Internet, if it isn’t needed for learning, and put away any devices like your smartphone that might steal your focus.
Practice in your workshop
Work on a particular skill for the time you’ve allocated. Make sure you’ve got breaks built in for rest, as learning takes effort. Use that rest time to jot down some things you’re discovering, not to post what you’re doing on Instagram.
Reflect and adjust for the next workshop
Wrap your workshop up by thinking about what you would want to explore in the next workshop. Based on what you’ve learned, adjust what’s in your schedule for future sessions. If you have to reschedule based on a conflict, hold yourself accountable to the learning time you’d allocated on a per-week basis.
Sounds simple, right? Then why is it so hard for most people to get started and keep with the habit?
There are three reasons why:
Your expectations are aspirational or arbitrary
Especially in the New Year, people make commitments to aspirational or arbitrary goals, rather than figuring out what their first steps should be. When it comes to learning skills, that can translate into commitments like: “I want to be better at coming up with design ideas.”
The aim is pure, but the intent is too general from the start. With this example, what does ‘better’ mean to you? How do you demonstrate ‘better’ when practicing a skill? Identify what it would look like behaviorally if you had put that skill into practice. Think about the learning outcomes that you want, and let them steer you. Besides, after a few weeks focusing on any new skill, you’ll be able to more accurately gauge how much time and effort it’ll take you to work your way towards a learning goal.
You’re trying to learn too many things at once
Trying to learn or improve a skill can be complex, because mastery comes from knowing how to integrate a lot of different tasks or activities into a whole. To get better at a skill, worry less about how to put all the pieces together, and focus first on dealing with the individual pieces. And don’t get attached to those pieces of the puzzle. They’re disposable.
Your level of effort is influenced by social motivation
Especially when developing a new skill, we look to others for support and validation that we’re going down the right path. Your spouse or significant other might be over in the next room, and you may have the urge to show them your newest creation. Your friends might be clamoring to see what you’re creating.
While it’s fine to share how you’re spending your time in your workshop, or to ask questions of others that help you better understand how to put a skill into practice, don’t share the things you are creating in your workshop with others. Any work output exists solely for you to learn from. If you start sharing what you’re creating with others, you’ll receive feedback that could influence your personal motivation to continue working on that skill.
I see these struggles firsthand every January. This time of year is when a lot of designers and design thinkers get their hands on my first book, Creative Workshop: 80 Challenges to Sharpen Your Design Skills, and set a goal for themselves to publicly execute 40 to 80 challenges to take their design skills to the next level. This is an awesome goal, and I really want them to be able to do it! But the reality of completing 40 or more design challenges solo in a few months, let alone in a year, has proven to be overwhelming. A solo workshop approach, with a private focus on ongoing skills development and habit creation, is a better way to go.
In your workshop, you should be developing the ability to learn skills through your own motivation, separate of external pressures or feedback. As a result, you’ll be gaining personal confidence in your abilities, and know over time when it’s appropriate to invite others into your learning process. In doing so, however, you’ll be creating a different type of workshop that is separate of the one that’s just for you.
So, in 2017, what’s your workshop going to be?