May 23, 2005

Maintaining Motivation

When I went solo, one of the first of many things that hit me like a kick in the teeth was consistently being able to get into a work mindset when I sat down at my desk. The workplace was now my apartment, where all my fun diversions live, and the staff was now me. When I would go to work before, the change of scenery and addition of new faces would instantly put my mind into work-mode and I would get down to business. Currently, I have three cats that don’t pull their own weight and a picturesque view of a sink full of dishes. Not the most potent inspiration starters. So, I was forced to really reflect on the way I do things. It wasn’t going to be as easy anymore to just sit down and start working. I would have to learn how to motivate myself in a new environment.

There are many ways to get things done, ways to stay organized, and ways to keep things running smoothly. But, they really don’t mean shit if you can’t find something to love about what you do. One of the toughest things to do is stay motivated on a day-to-day basis. Not every project can be the luscious imaginative playground that keeps you up at night. Sometimes they can be the droning, soul-sucking horror that keeps you awake at night. Ideally, you won’t ever have those projects, but realistically you will from time to time. After all, you need to eat. Even when I am feeling beaten down by a project or client, these are some of the ways I can pick myself up to pull through it. Some of these tips may seem obvious, but how often do you actually do them? These are skewed more towards my self-employed situation, but can easily be applied to other situations too.


Some days exercise for me is sprinting down four flights of stairs to meet the FedEx man before he presumes I’m not home and walks away. Don’t you see the apartment number next to the bell you rang?! Hey FedEx guy, it takes time to get downstairs! My own problems aside, I suggest you get out of the house; go for a walk or a bike ride. I love going out for an afternoon by myself to ride or walk around and take photos. It’s a great time for my mind to wander and reflect on problems away from my work situations. By the time I get back to work, I am refreshed and ready to go. Free your ass and your mind will follow.

Stay Organized

Being unorganized affects your mood and makes tasks seem insurmountable. When you walk over to your desk and can’t find the keyboard under all the papers and clutter, or are constantly sifting through an inbox of hundreds of client emails, you are causing yourself undue stress. Come up with a scheme to organize your information. Sort your inbox intelligently. Get a filing cabinet.

Set Your Goals

Have goals in mind when you work on things, and plot out time in your mind (or better yet, on a schedule) that you can allow yourself to spend. Make lists, even of the small things. Recognizing successes and accomplishments, however small they may seem, helps to keep your morale up and your motivation pumping. “Write new post”, check.

Make <insert name here> Time

Along the same lines as “pay yourself first” when you get start making some money, you have to make time for yourself first. This is time that no one else can touch, it’s yours and yours alone. Use it to do whatever you like, read, shop, watch movies, catch up on sleep, whatever makes you happy. If you feel like all you do is work, you will begin to resent what you do.

Keep Busy

Even if client work is on hiatus for a day or two, there are ALWAYS things to be done. You are in business, re-assess your website, brainstorm new ways to promote yourself, write something on your neglected site. The plain fact is, your job is never “done”. Try to stay comfortably busy. Comfortably busy is having enough work so that you don’t slack off and play video games all day.

Walk Away

When a design problem has really got me hung up, the best thing to do is to get my mind off it, at least my conscious mind that is. I go escape into something else; and by the time I get back to work, the problem has incubated in my subconscious long enough that I probably have a solution or at least a game plan.

That’s it. Surely not an exhaustive list, just a few things that I have found help me stay relatively sane. How do you stay motivated? Please share.

Commentary (66):

1. monooso says… may 23, 2005 | 8:54 am

If I’ve got a really tedious task to do, I set strict time limits on each small element of it (right down to “Decide on link styles - 5 minutes”, etc.), otherwise it just drags out endlessly.

Doing so also allows me to tick off lots of things as I go along, fooling me into thinking that this task will end one day, goddammit.

As a bonus, it’s is also a good way to get myself started on something if the ideas just aren’t coming.

Write comment - 2 minutes. Tick.

2. M.e. says… may 23, 2005 | 9:43 am

These tips not only keep you motivated, they keep you and your business healthy. Each one of them already serves a purpose. Realizing their motivational value makes you Dr. Phil.

When I have a particularaly tedious job ahead of me, like laying out an email newsletter, or pathing out a big stack of photos, I pick out a good playlist in the iTunes, put my head down and go. Focus on the music, and it’s easy to have a good time. Doing lots of repetitive tasks, builds your mind chops.

3. Josh says… may 23, 2005 | 9:52 am

Good tips, and perfect timing too!

I constantly find myself staring at a design, changing something, then changing it back - ultimately exhausting myself to the point I don’t even want to think of it anymore.

For me, I find that the best thing to do, the instant I feel frustration, is just to get away from it. Even if I don’t come back to it until 3a.m., I’m much more refreshed and enthusiastic about it.

4. Dave S. says… may 23, 2005 | 10:14 am

“Try to stay comfortably busy. Comfortably busy is having enough work so that you don’t slack off and play video games all day.”

Oh man, you have no idea how true this is. Well, you probably do since you wrote this.

I get into the trap of avoiding being busy. Nobody likes to be busy, so if I’m self-employed I have control over that, right? But when there’s little enough immediate work to be done that it can conceivably done later, it’s definitely hard not to procrastinate.

So being comfortably busy is definitely the way to go. Great advice.

5. AJ Bahadourian says… may 23, 2005 | 10:53 am

I can relate…

Recently we adopted three: 3, 6 and 9 year olds.

…to get in correct mindset, for me, I start and finish my day with daily runs. My private ‘shrink.’

‘One-trick-pony,’ train and race marathons.

6. John Athayde says… may 23, 2005 | 10:59 am

I had a similar difficulty when initally setting up my own shop. Hitting the design walls was fine, I could turn around and be looking at my recording studio. Which could be a distraction in its own right, but I’d be able to rock out while everyone else was at work.

I also found that getting into the groove on a project was critical, so a lot of the suggestions that have been floating around productivity sites lately are key. Less email. Less IM. Break the project into manageable bites.

Start by doing the stuff that’s not fun each day. Get it out of the way. Reward yourself. Otherwise, procrastination sets in.

And I do agree: exercize makes all the difference. Eat breakfast too. Try to avoid the rockstar lifestyle (wake up late, work until 3 am). And having a wife/girlfriend coming home at a certain time can help that a lot.

7. John Nick says… may 23, 2005 | 11:14 am

Excellent recommendations.

You should subtitle this article:

“Jason needs to take a long swim in Lake Jason.”

8. tripeak says… may 23, 2005 | 11:27 am

Excellent post! It’s things that you never REALLY think of, but when you do it make so much sense and a world of difference.

9. Dave Simon says… may 23, 2005 | 11:35 am

Being a new member of the self-employed crowd as well, I have a couple of similar tacts for keeping myself motivated.

First, the office is the office, so I shut the door, this keeps the cats out and anything else too (like my mother-in-law when she was visiting.)

Second, I get up and go for a walk with the dog about twice a day. Short walks, but 5 minutes outside is nice. Even just going to the back yard to throw a ball for her is nice.

When it is raining/snowing/whatever, or I just need to clear my head to figure out a creative issue, I jump on Xbox Live and shoot some people in Halo 2. Clears my head and normally I’m much more productive after.

10. Patrick says… may 23, 2005 | 1:22 pm

Thanks, Jason. This is a great list and as a fellow solo designer, it helps to be reminded of the things that keep us ticking.

More power to the guys willing to go it alone and work from home. Stay productive.

11. elv says… may 23, 2005 | 1:25 pm

I work at home too and recently after a few months of really hard work the apartement looked like a mess. About a week ago I cleaned everything up, not only the desk but also the shelves and cupboards, sorted all the papers, bills, archive CDs. I baught a new carpet, trashed a ton of useless stuff…
Wow, I really felt like I had a new home, and a new brain too. No clutter, free mind.
So my advice would be : don’t let “stuff” settle. Fight chaos.

12. Kristian Walker says… may 23, 2005 | 1:42 pm

The best thing I have done so fara is to have a separate room as my office. I used to share space with my the family computer, which led to endless distractions and what-not. I moved everything down into my basement and that has made a huge difference in my work-flow.

13. Dennis de Grauw says… may 23, 2005 | 1:46 pm

My best advice: make to-do lists!

Always have paper around where you can write stuff on… sometimes I’m not in the mood to figure stuff out, so I put it on the to-to list, with as much detail as possible. Whenever I see the to-do list with all those problems, I just can’t stop myself and will try to solve them (currently a lot of scripting problems).

Always aim for something. Try to finish before . This keeps you pressured enough to keep doing it. Sometimes I really have to force myself into doing stuff!

14. Jason Santa Maria says… may 23, 2005 | 2:04 pm

Sadly, I don’t have an office per se, but a desk in my living room. It is a HUGE room though. Also, I am the only one home all day, so the entire apartment is basically my office.

15. Adam Bouskila says… may 23, 2005 | 2:30 pm

It’s not that bad, Jason. When you’re in your home, you feel more comfortable and therefore more relaxed, which leads to a better product at the end of the day. I believe I would prefer working at home.

Fantastic entries Jason! I can identify with the ideas.

Please keep them coming. Thanks.

16. Ian says… may 23, 2005 | 2:36 pm

Good article. When you hit the point about playing video games I swear to God I heard my father’s voice. Weird.
It’s an awful big help if you enjoy what you’re doing. I don’t know how many times I’ve spent a ten hour day at the office to get home and immediately sit down at the computer to work on my own stuff and realize “twenty minutes later” that I have to be up and at ‘em in five hours.
I have to concur, to-do lists are quite helpful. Checking a Monday-Created-To-Do-On-Friday list will often refresh more than a few things I would have otherwise completely forgotten.
Guilt over complacency is often a big motivator for me also. If I know there’s something I need to be doing, Halo just doesn’t feel the same. Now if you’ll excuse me…

17. Jason Beaird says… may 23, 2005 | 2:54 pm

Great Advice, I think I’ll take it. I’m starting a new job where I’ll be working from home in June…Then relocating in late July. I definitely got a lot of this kind of advice in my senior graphic design classes, but it’s good to hear it fresh from people in the biz.

18. Phil Sherry says… may 23, 2005 | 3:07 pm

Once I find some inspiration, I’ll be sure to maintain my motivation.

I have a day job as a designer at a TV company, and I also do freelance from home, so feeling motivated after a full day’s work isn’t always so easy. Like now, for instance; I’m surfing blogs instead of working, so I’d better finish up and get cracking. Grr.

19. Scott Fegette says… may 23, 2005 | 4:15 pm

Great insight. I struggle with the home office conundrum daily, and it really is fantastic to hear some of the challenges/solutions from another ‘at-home worker’. Whoops- is that an XBox Live invite coming in on my cellphone? Gotta fly… ;-)

20. Brad says… may 23, 2005 | 4:18 pm

Great post man! And on a Monday like today, it’s a breath of fresh air to read your dilemmas (and accomplishments) of the “oh-so-neglected” task of self management and productivity. I think I’ll just re-read this every morning with my coffee! **hehe** Nice.

21. Jon Buda says… may 23, 2005 | 8:59 pm

Another post I can relate to completely. You seem to read my mind everytime, and from the looks of it I’m not alone. Working from home is an amazingly flexible opportunity to be creative in a comfortable environment and I would never want to go back to the cube world.

Exercise is a must. Loud music can break the monotonous silence, and an organized working area can cerainly reduce stress. However the biggest problem I have been facing is from friends who assume that because you can make your own hours, you can go golfing during the day, working during the evening and go to the bar at night. It just doesnt working like that.

There are those days when you’ve been staring at your computer for 14 hours and you would love nothing more than to have a regular 9 to 5 job. Those come rarely though and in the end working from home rocks. You just have to know when to reward yourself and keep the distractions at bay.

22. Jason Rutherford says… may 24, 2005 | 1:27 am

You forgot the most important tip of all: Take a Shower Every Day.

23. Kathy says… may 24, 2005 | 8:45 am

One more area you might need to deal with: offspring. I tried the kid rule “Do not bother Mommy unless there’s blood involved.” No one took me seriously. Now we have a pretty workable system. At any time, the kids are free to quietly let me know they need something, but then they have to wait a few minutes for me to conclude my thought, finish up what I’m doing, whatever. If I don’t respond within a few minutes, then they can scream bloody murder if they want.

24. Yannick L. says… may 24, 2005 | 10:16 am

Thanks Jason. This shall definitely prove helpful for a young web designer as myself.

25. Darren G says… may 24, 2005 | 1:20 pm

One of the best things ive ever done was put a whiteboard on the wall of my office. It’s a two way benefit - it declutters the mind from stress by writing things down, and serves as an ‘always there’ reminder of tasks or jobs.

Plus there is nothing like crossing out tasks as you do them and looking back at the end of the day and seeing all those jobs done on it

26. anansi girl says… may 24, 2005 | 1:30 pm

Thanks for the advice, Jason! They’re a great help.

27. Alex says… may 24, 2005 | 2:38 pm

Eat well and don’t drink too much coffee.

Loads of good vegetables and fruits will do wonders for your energy and creativity levels.

Food and drink with lots of sugar and fat can cause you to crash and sometimes give you headaches and other lame health problems.

That being said, sometimes a couple of glasses of wine really help to stimulate the creative neurons. That and a clean desktop.

28. greg says… may 24, 2005 | 3:38 pm

add: keep web browser closed. open email client only at intervals, not all the time!

29. Greg says… may 24, 2005 | 3:57 pm

I missed the part where you launch World of Warcraft and start killing Horde.

30. Miko says… may 24, 2005 | 4:37 pm

It’s extremely difficult to stay motivated, especially when the RSS reader says ”(1) New Article.”

Must Read

31. Wagemage says… may 24, 2005 | 6:49 pm

This is wonderful material. Thank you to everyone who contributed.

I wish I had more to contribute but I will say this, from someone who’s been on the bottom of it, stay on top of this stuff. Once you get buried it can feel insurmountable and throwing in the towel starts to seem like a viable alternative to unearthing yourself and trying again.

One thought that’s helped me recently is that everyone on earth get’s 24 hours. You can’t borrow your way into debt, you can’t lose them, no one can take them away and everyone has the same amount. Make each one better than the last.

32. Tim Hill says… may 24, 2005 | 10:13 pm

woo video games all day!

33. Duncan Hopkins says… may 24, 2005 | 11:33 pm

All true. i just started working solo again after a year in the corporate grind. here’s a few things to add: get up take a shower and get dressed like you are going to the office.- put’s you in the mindset. better than dragging your ass in your underwear over the Mac and staying that way til noon.
summer vacation is next week - make sure your kids understand that even when you are at home you are still at work - hard for the younger ones to grasp. but make sure you make time for them- that’s more important.

get away from the machine if you can - go concept somewhere with a sketchbook. as mentioned already, Sunshine is good for you. go out as much as possible.


34. Paul Perton says… may 24, 2005 | 11:42 pm

All too true. I’ve worked for myself for more than 20 years. Here’s two ideas that no-one else has mentioned:

One - If the work is that tedious, or you’d rather be doing something else, set small achievable targets and then take the reward. Play, walk, cycle whatever. It’s good for motivation, gets things done and the next target you set won’t seem so much of a mountain to climb. Works for me.

Two - this is probably the most important piece of advice any of you will ever get. Never, never, never forget the panic and fear of not being able to pay the bills at the end of the month. Be it your salary, the utility bills, your wife/SO’s housekeeping. Anything. If you always remember how easy it is to fail, you chances of success will be that much greater. It’ll help motivate you away from the XBox as well ;-)

35. Leon says… may 25, 2005 | 8:27 am

Wonderful post, Jason. I have linked and posted comments on your “maintaining motivation” to here.

36. Bryan says… may 25, 2005 | 9:31 am

Geez, keeping your desk clean is SOOOOOOOO overrated. I mean, just look at mine
My Desk


no, that really is good advice and you wouldn’t believe the headaches having my desk like that has caused. It sucks because sometimes you just fall into a rutt and never clean your shit up.

37. Rutger says… may 25, 2005 | 10:53 am

Oh man, reading this was really all I needed. For days now I’ve been in quite a bad mood working in my home office. It’s kind of comforting to see there are actually other geeks just like me who have the same hangups about work, getting things done and just staying productive!

Also really cool to see people actually thinking up solutions. Great post AND replies :)

38. Vitaly Friedman says… may 25, 2005 | 2:20 pm
When a design problem has really got me hung up, the best thing to do is to get my mind off it, at least my conscious mind that is. I go escape into something else; and by the time I get back to work, the problem has incubated in my subconscious long enough that I probably have a solution or at least a game plan.

It’s what I have just invented for myself several weeks ago. It really helps; just make a break, walk away, observe other people, your environment, nature, sea, whatever. Sometimes, even a small-talk with a neighbour helps.

Oh, btw, Jason, thanks for an interesting and useful article!

With warm greetings from Saarbruecken, Germany,
Vitaly Friedman

39. Dionne says… may 25, 2005 | 3:20 pm
However the biggest problem I have been facing is from friends who assume that because you can make your own hours, you can go golfing during the day, working during the evening and go to the bar at night. It just doesnt working like that.

Jon Buda, you forgot to add “take friends to the airport and pick them up at any time day or night” to that list.

40. neil says… may 25, 2005 | 3:54 pm

I highly, highly recommend you get a laptop with wireless capability (which most do these days) and work out of the house at least twice a week. I head out to a café or some other place and actually get a lot of work done… plus being around humans helps chase that scary-nerd-person aura that the crazier members of the opposite sex finds oh-so attractive…

I also recommend getting into a basic routine on work days. Get up at the same time, shower and dress like you’re going into the office and try to stick to the same quitting time every day. Because for most of us what we do is both work and leisure, I try to limit the number of hours I work in front of the computer - 10 hours a day total, and no weekends except when close to launch.

Having a hobby that isn’t nerd-related is a good thing, too. I play music and take language classes with my sweetie.

41. Lyndon says… may 25, 2005 | 6:15 pm

Oh boy, can I relate to this article as well! Thanks Jason and everyone else that have re-affirmed some ‘truths’ worth paying attention to - for a sane and happy [enough] life!

Top Tips
• Close your email client
• Close web browser
• Have a workplan
• Excersize

Get out of the home office once in a while! Your mind may be a fertile plain, so seed it with some real interaction with other people. It will help your work.

42. clint says… may 26, 2005 | 9:20 pm

I pray and pray and when I’m done I pray some more.…

43. Janice says… may 27, 2005 | 1:40 am

having just gone from painting (art not walls) full time in a home studio to computer work full time in my home as well, i laughed out loud when I read someone else’s comment about the importance of not dragging one’s ass in one’s underwear til noon — while painting a wall-size piece in my underwear and blasting iTunes feels sexy, typing about futures, equities and chart analysis in my skivvies sans a shower until the afternoon most def. does NOT! Ah, GOd has a sick sense of humor.….bleggh! Great tips, thx.

44. Clem says… may 27, 2005 | 11:32 am

I find a nice view helps for reflection also.

45. Trenton Boyd says… may 28, 2005 | 3:10 am

Okay, the whole “biking” thing has forced me to take my old bike out of the cellar and get it cleaned up. Not only do I have no motivation lately, I also have a lot of excess weight I could stand to lose. I supposed it would make a pretty good tradeoff.

Hell, maybe I’ll haul my camera around and make a photoblog. Thanks for the idea, Stan!

46. nova says… may 28, 2005 | 2:40 pm

I like to light a candle by my workspace to add an extra element of creative energy. It also works as a timer.

47. kmccaul says… may 28, 2005 | 6:15 pm

I go by this credo “Get up with a goal for the day!”

And I unplug the internet connection for a few hours. Trust me, you will getthings done quickly.

48. gobloq says… may 30, 2005 | 7:39 am

Out of Topic.
Is there anyone can inform me how to make comments in MT appear in different colors like this comments?

49. Andy Budd says… jun 3, 2005 | 10:45 am

I so wish I had a day where there was so little to do I could play computer games.

50. nortypig says… jun 3, 2005 | 6:40 pm

Working from home also means you have to make an extra effort to get out and network. A failing I have to admit to. It’s easy to sit in the home office and basically disappear if you just code code code. Everyone needs a social life and some free time.

I’m quitting full time freelancing and picking up my bachelor of computing degree at uni again simply because I’ve done most of the things on your list wrong over the last six months lol.

Great post, by the way.

51. J-Dot P-Dot says… jun 11, 2005 | 7:53 am

Dang, I needed to read that. The tips were great, but the comments were just as good. Lets you know there’s more solo designers out there who get a little frustrated at times.

I say it’s most important to get out of the house, and breathe some of that freshness.

All that stuff about daily showers and breakfast? I don’t know anyone who does that. Maybe I should make some new friends…

52. Joshua Kendall says… jun 11, 2005 | 10:44 pm

Well that certainly is a helpful post. I start college in about a month, and this should help me get my work done, as well as prepare me for doing some freelance design while I attend the college.

Again great helpful post.

Joshua Kendall.

ps. your commentary preview steadily updating as I type draws my attention away from the text area and it creeps me out.

53. Robert Eicher says… jun 16, 2005 | 10:41 am

I use paper.
Any goal, any project, anything:
I type up a sheet that outlines it, and systematically carries me through the process.
Its the only thing I’ve found that helps me retain
focus: on my original objectives, and
perspective: on how things are actually going.
If I lose either of those I lose heart.

54. Ryan Fait says… jun 17, 2005 | 2:57 pm

Walking away works for me. Not necessarily to just get motivated, but to gain perspective as well. For example, sometimes a wonderful idea pops into my head and make a rough sketch before sitting down in Photoshop. It may not going as planned once I get it on the screen, but I still feel that it has potential. Once I get up and saunter around the block to clear my mind a bit, I usually end up returning to take a look at what I’ve done so far. It seems like more often than not, I clap my hands over my mouth and think, ‘What the hell was I thinking?!’

On a lighter note, I swear that getting a Mac helps keep your desk clean. When you have something so sharp and elegant perching atop the workstation, you get these impulsive desires to categorize your belongings.

55. digibudi says… jun 18, 2005 | 5:48 am

Great tips! thnx

56. David M. says… jun 20, 2005 | 10:37 am

Oh, yes indeed. Getting dressed and “going to work” is a very good one — one I need to do better on. I also find that it’s important to get out and about, not necessarily for networking or business opportunities, but just to ensure that I don’t get to the end of the working day and realise I haven’t spoken to a single person, which is a really depressing realisation, I can tell you.

A clean desk would be nice, too.

57. Troy Worman says… jun 26, 2005 | 12:32 am

Excellent tips.


58. Salami Olapade says… jul 14, 2005 | 12:47 pm

i want you to send more information about motivation in your apartment.

59. Burt says… aug 1, 2005 | 7:45 pm

These tips are awesome, I think its important we freelancers support each other because were emotional basketcases sometimes. Changing my hair due often helps me, and if im extremely un-motivated shave it all off into a mo-hawk. Mo-hawk = mo mo-tivation. Also I try to get into character before I sit down and work, I find that if I dress as if i’m going to a real job it gets me in the right mindset to work. :) “do it”

60. Russell Christensen says… dec 10, 2005 | 2:02 am

Thank you for the tips! I’ll be sharing them with the readers of my personal finance blog and will definately refer to them for motivation when needing to stay on track with my goals!

61. James Denny says… jan 8, 2006 | 3:32 pm

Thank you.

First of all it’s nice to know “it’s not just me”!
I’ll be tring all of yor tips as I have a long way to go.

Second your comments about subconscious problem-solving sounds familiar. One memorable time at university I was trying to write a program in a “knowledge based” language for the first time (not procedural, logic based or object-orientated all of which I’d done before). I was very tired, sleep deprived and this was an assessed assignment due in a few hours!

I was completely stuck, very tired and couldn’t work out how to even begin solving the problem, so I decided to go to sleep. Not sure how long for, maybe an hour or two.

Within just five seconds of waking up I knew the answer! (Tried out and found it worked). Luckily I didn’t sleep too long, and still had time to hand in the assignment! :-D

62. demetrius says… feb 17, 2006 | 5:59 am

Very useful article and elegant literary style! Russian translation is out there, if u’re not against.

63. karen says… feb 20, 2006 | 12:41 pm

thank you, thank you and thank you again. starting to go ‘round the twist with not getting anything done. good to be reminded of the things that make happiness and sanity possible while working on projects away from the normal work environment. it’s out into the world for a bit of head-clearing for me …

64. Gina Lynn says… mar 24, 2006 | 4:43 pm

I love this. I am so reading the rest of this when I get home! I feel like making lists! Thank you!

65. Pravesh says… apr 16, 2006 | 10:26 pm

This article is indeed motivational. For a dreamer like me, who gets easily distracted by flying thoughts, I ought to be implementing some that in my daily life.

66. Brad Chmielewski says… jun 8, 2006 | 10:31 am

Jason, great post! Just what I needed to read, motivation has been at all time low.

Also thanks to everyone else on their own tips.