CANDIDLY: A freelance audio-designer talks about a rarely admitted mental design challenge and his thirteen-point workaround.

I talk to a well-known freelance audio-designer who currently wishes to remain anonymous in exchange for expressing candid views. We’ll call him John; as good a pseudonym as any.

Neil McCauley / editor in chief


Neil: I'm interested not specifically in your designs – interesting though they are but in the design process; like what goes on in your head? That sort of thing. You okay with being interrogated on that?

John: Yes …. but I'm not sure I can articulate this. It’s a refreshing change from the usual Q&As. Let’s see how this pans out. Shoot!

N: What’s a typical challenge; no – a tough challenge if any re getting your mind clear to kick-start the innovation process starting? I'm assuming you need to mentally prepare yourself?

J: I rarely hit the ground running.

N: Oh! Why?

J: I find it hard to mentally take a leap It’s as if there are two of me inside my head: the cautious me and the crazy adventurous “go for it” me and there’s this internal argument process I go through to see which of me wins.

N: Hmm. Interesting. How do you sort this?

J: I've a friend and mentor. You know him. He refers to the doubting side as my “lizard brain” giving me all the reasons I shouldn’t, couldn’t, can’t and won’t.

N: I've something like this too, it’s my procrastination and prevarication obstacle. I was going to say demon, but that’s putting it a bit strongly – but it’s there, always. Bloody nuisance. Presumably given your success you have a workaround?

J: To do battle with this lizard brain, I employ two great personal arguments: putting a decision off doesn’t make sense because as soon as you decide to delay the decision you’ve already made a decision – and it may not be the right one. The second and more persuasive argument is the life is short argument – and at my age it’s working pretty well.

N: How about an example please?

J: I have lusted after an Audi RS2 but figured I’d probably never own one – so expensive, hard to find they are and spares ….. well, some spares are an issue.

N: You got one, right?.

J: Nope. But at least I made the decision that’s what I wanted.

N: I note the past tense

J: Sort of. I still haven’t found the right one.

N: Procrastination and prevarication then?

J: Ok, I don’t want this to sound like an AA meeting, but I have decided life’s short and I am going for my vintage RS2. I have set a personal goal to make this happen by exchanging as much of the cool audio equipment I’ve collected over the years as I can and then hunt down the right one. Everything goes – nothing is sacred other than the goal.

N: Everything?

J: No, not really everything. But a load of gear I no longer use; don’t have a use for.

N: But there are pieces you’d never dispose of, surely?

J: (Chin stroking) Hmm. Lecson AC1/AP3 and FM1. SAE Model One preamp

N: That’s it?

J: For now …. yes

N: So, diverting us from that diversion, back to the audio design decision-making

J: I've found with these decisions it helps me to take a stand, reach out and announce what my goal is. It used to terrify me to do this – what if I failed? It’s easier to just keep quiet and work slowly in the background because if I fail, no one will know. That was then.

N: And now?

J: I'm ok with stepping forward even if it doesn’t work out.

N: I'm still not getting the flavour of your internal dialogue when considering an invitation to be an anonymous hired-gun designer for a major brand. And then, how you interpret the functional spec.

J: Okay. Re a functional spec ….. well, the more enlightened organisations give me what they want the outcome to be and they leave the path of how it’s to be achieved to me.

N: Within time and budget constraints?

J: Certainly is re budget. Not so often re time.

N: Do your clients know about your procrastination and prevarication?

J: No! Well …. perhaps indirectly.

N: How?

J: Sometimes I don’t achieve the optimum outcome in the time frame.

N: If, and it’s a big if ….. if any of your clients knew, actually new about this aspect of you would it mean the end of the contract, no repeat contracts and so on?

J: I don’t know for sure. I'm not into that sort of risk taking.

N: Hence your anonymity?

J: Hence my anonymity.

N: (Laughs) Talking to you, trying to figure out how you cope with procrastination is like, like trying to pick up mercury with a fork. Come on John!

J: I use a 13-point coping plan in the lab. It goes like this:

  1. I remind myself why I’m doing it. I don’t have to do anything. I choose to, and here’s why. Saying this to myself is very empowering.
  2. I get held accountable by someone else.
  3. I change my environment. I had a good portion of the skeleton for an amp design done, but I was struggling with completing it. I went to Starbucks and I started (and finished) the design within an hour of focused work.
  4. I do the hardest tasks when my willpower and energy are at their highest. That is usually in the morning, and right after having a nap.
  5. I plan daily. I plan what I want to accomplish today in a Mind Map. When I don’t plan, I feel my thoughts are wandering, and I’m less focused throughout the day.
  6. I close everything that I don’t need open on my computer. Just seeing other applications and windows open, such as email, Skype and Facebook, distracts me.
  7. I remove any paper or distraction on my desk. I now try to keep my desk paper-free. Otherwise, paper just keeps piling up, and it’s visually distracting.
  8. I renew my energy. That includes catching up on sleep, eating healthy food, exercising and taking breaks. What I noticed is that in most cases where I’m procrastinating, taking a quick nap renews my energy and willpower enough to get that thing done.
  9. I set a timer. When I know that there is a time limit to the work I’m about to do, I can more easily let go of the other things on my mind. I either do 50 minutes of work then 10 minutes of break, or 25 minutes of work and 5 minutes of break. It sums up to the same amount of work per hour, but setting my timer for only 25 minutes works better for hard tasks that I don’t feel motivated about. I time my breaks as well, otherwise they turn into 20 minutes, 30 minutes or more!
  10. I put myself in a peak state. This is a technique I learned from going to Unleash the Power Within by Tony Robbins. It works every time to raise my energy and willpower. Ironically, when I’m in a low emotional state, it requires a lot of willpower to better my state. When I do push myself though, it’s worth it. A nap usually works better for me when I’m in a low physical state.
  11. I build habits. Look up Eben Pagan and his Wake Up Productive program for more information on this. We have very little willpower and we burn it quickly. It is my positive habits that made the biggest difference in my life so far.
  12. I reward myself. I tell (and promise) myself I’ll reward myself with X if I do Y. I try to choose a fun, positive and constructive reward.
  13. Make it fun. When I have an idea to develop, I use a mind map. It makes it fun, and a lot more productive. I also listen to music I like – ideally instrumental so that it’s less distracting.

N: Wow. Simple as that?

J: (Big grin) Irony Neil. Sarcasm even? Only kidding! Sure is.

N: Thank you

J: And thank you Neil