8 Essential Productivity Tips for Instructional Designers

I used to think it was cool to be messy. I was impressed by people who were disorganised but still managed to get the job done. It wasn’t until I realised that my creative brain was already a mess and that I needed to maintain some degree of organisation to allow me the breathing room to get creative.

Fast forward 10 years and it turns out that I’m a bit of a geek when it comes to productivity. I read the Getting Things Done book by David Allen and it really connected with me, the reward being the opportunity to have more time to focus on the creative tasks I was passionate about. So I gave the system a go and I have really never looked back.

You can head over to any productivity website or blog to find out some of the techniques that I’m about to talk about, I’ll mention some of my favourites throughout this post, but I’ve been noticing more and more that some of the techniques that I’ve learned about in productivity books and blogs are fantastic for us creative types and align well to the daily grind of an instructional designer – So here we go:

1) Don’t open your emails until after lunch – I’m creative in the mornings but by 3pm I’m flagging and the only work I’m capable of attempting is low energy administration work – which is fine, because there is always a couple of hours of that to do every day. But I try and keep the 9am to 1pm slot free for creating, designing, putting together concepts and getting into ‘the zone’. Obviously this isn’t always possible – but the more you can stop letting email determine your mornings’ activities, reacting to the quick-wins rather than getting on with your project work, the more productive you can be with what you’re best at – designing!

2) Allocate an hour in your diary to create a template project folder with a pre-defined sub-category structure and use the same folder structure for each new project – I stole this idea off the Articulate Elearning heroes website. If you’re anything like me, you will have lots of different projects going on at the same time. This is fine but one thing that I used to struggle with was finding my work within each folder. With instructional design, we use hundreds of different groups of files: technical information, TNA, storyboards, images, videos, colour palettes, patterns, backgrounds, music, narration, sound effects… The list goes on. So I’ve found it useful to keep an empty folder on my desktop that is set up with the sub folders inside. Then any time I want to start a new project, I just copy and paste the folder and rename it and I’m ready to go.

3) Schedule 15 minutes in your calendar each day to learn a new skill – our personal development is vital to our ongoing success, especially when most of us work alone. How often do we see books, courses, video tutorials etc. that we put to one side and say “I’ll watch, read and/or learn from that someday”… But does the “someday” ever come? So I have a made it my responsibility to do this every day – there are thousands of tutorial videos showing new skills and techniques for improving my design and software skills, so my calendar reminds me at the same time every day to watch one. And by learning a little every day, I can learn a lot over time. I particularly like the Screenr series of videos by the Articulate crew but there are also some great TED talks, video demonstrations by LMS vendors and other video training sites such as LyndaUdemy and Vimeo.

4) Use a Pinterest bookmarklet to save any design ideas you find into one central location that you can access quickly in the future – Pinterest has a great little feature called a Bookmarklet which essentially allows you to add a button your internet browser. When you click this button, you are given a selection of the images on the web page you are currently browsing, and by selecting one you can save them to a Pinterest folder. This is a really effective way to quickly save things to a pre-defined ‘My Elearning Design’ Pinterest folder. Then, when you next have a new project and you need some inspiration, you can jump on your mobile device or computer, navigate to Pinterest and see all of the cool designs you have found in the past in one place.

5) Use your calendar – but you already do use your calendar right? When I say use your calendar, I mean use it to schedule time for yourself to do work. We often use our calendar to schedule appointments with other people, but why not ourselves? If we have a number of pressing tasks, surely it makes sense to add those to our calendars as fixed appointments that cannot be moved (unless there is a real emergency). That way, we are reminded throughout the week of what we should be working on. And more importantly, our calendars are not free to be filled up with meetings and other commitments by others. Especially when we have a shared calendar and others can see our availability.

6) Block out your day into 90-minute windows – rather than looking at a calendar seeing 8 hours, I find it useful to block out my day into 4 x 90 minute windows. 90 minutes is dependant on what works for you. For me, 90 minutes is long enough to get into the zone and get some meaningful work done but also not too long that I get tired out. In between each window I take break, get out of the office environment so that I’m ready for the next 90 minutes. I find that by following this pattern, I achieve a lot more in a day.

7) Add work that you have been doing to your calendar retrospectively – so at the end of each day, I like to add the day’s events into my calendar so by the end of the week I can look back and see exactly what I have been working on. Then, when I look at my weekly review (see the next tip), I find that I can be a lot more honest and subjective while observing how I’ve spent my time.

8) Schedule a weekly review for the end of each week – so this is arguably the most important aspect of the GTD process as proposed by David Allen, but I thoroughly recommend that you schedule

a weekly review with yourself at the end of each week. What did you achieve this week? What did you not achieve? What were the main areas of friction that stopped you achieving your goals? Just scheduling this hour each week (often it doesn’t take this long), I can give myself some honest feedback and check to make sure that the things taking up the majority of my time, are the projects that I most need to focus on to realise my goals.

I hope you found those useful. Have you any other tips you would like to share? Or have you used any of these tips in a different way?