Dave Seah is a freelance designer and developer who works out of southern New Hampshire, and has been documenting his passions for a long time.
He runs a self-titled website that is designed to help people who are learning to develop their creative strengths and pursue truly meaningful work. He writes often about the challenges of making a living while working on his own interests. He covers topics such as the battle against procrastination and handling the expectations of others. It’s a surprisingly candid expression of productivity.
How did you become interested in studying, writing about, and sharing tools related to productivity?
My interest in productivity emerged organically from freelancing. I had started my blog in 2005 as a way to express what I did in a more personal way. Today we would probably call that approach “conversation marketing”.
I wrote about what caught my interest at the moment, figuring I would eventually see the pattern in what it was that I was naturally inclined to write about. Instead of writing about interactive design and computer graphics, which was my then-focus, I wrote about everything else! One of those topics was a throwaway piece about how I tried to make a pretend paper CEO and it got picked up by one of the more popular design blogs at the time in the blog network I was part of. I liked the feeling of having produced something of interest to other people under my own banner, and kept pursuing it in the context of my own goals.
For me, the productivity tool development has been a side-product of pursuing my own personal development.
What is the GHDR Challenge, and what has kept it going for ten years now?
I started what I called “Groundhog Day Resolutions” on [February 2nd, 2007], having made the observation that on January 1st was a terrible day to make any practical goal-setting decisions. I noted that 2/2 was a “doublet” day like January 1st, so decided to follow-up on my resolutions with a “review day” on all doublet days (March 3rd, April 4th, and so on).
Regular review is critical for making progress on anything! I felt obliged to write a report on my progress as well on my blog, and have just kept doing it even when I didn’t feel like it. I don’t think I’ve really succeeded at accomplishing any of my goals 100% for any of the years, but thanks to the reports I have a 10-year snapshot of what I tried and where I failed. I fail a lot, but I have also learned a lot and achieved more than I otherwise would have.
The GHDR Challenge is [new in 2016], an attempt to spend 300-plus days working on my Groundhog Day Resolution goals every single day of the Groundhog Day Resolutions period, which lasts from February 2 to December 12.
The idea came from conversations with some good friends who suggested bringing more people into the process as an experiment. I also thought I might be able to apply the “30-day challenge” format that had worked well for me in previous years.
So far, the GHDR Challenge has not gone as well as I had hoped. I burned out about two months in, and am now making adjustments to my expectations. In short, my corrections will be accepting how long it takes to do less work while allowing healthy life activities such as socializing.
What are your own greatest challenges when it comes to making a living while pursuing your creative interests at work?
Cash flow is always something I’m a bit worried about. I have a bit of a financial cushion thanks to some money from our family selling a house way back in the 90’s, which helps even-out the highs and lows of freelancing. I’ve been fortunate to have some long-term customers and projects that don’t demand a huge amount of time for most of the year, and my expenses are fairly moderate.
I don’t make a huge amount of money, but I usually have enough. Such is the freelance life, but I prefer the freedom over stability. It’s not for everyone. Most normal people would think that I’m wasting my skills, I think, but then again I am not a normal person 🙂
The single greatest challenge, though, is not having peers that are working along side me. This is one of the loneliest lines of creative endeavor that one can pursue, I have come to believe. It takes a tremendous amount of time to translate my thought experiments into a tangible product, and much of the time this has to be done solo with no distractions. Much of this work isn’t very fun for me, so getting myself in the state of mind to be able to start the work has been an ongoing challenge.
How has it worked for you to offer free printable content while also offering the same content for sale in pre-printed versions, or, to put it in a broader way, what’s your advice for people who love to share content and also hope to see some financial return for their ideas?
It’s worked out surprisingly well, though not because of any master plan on my part. In hindsight, I would describe what I did as a “slow growth” approach, allowing myself the time to see what it was that I was doing that had value in the eyes of others. Also, as many of my free downloads started out as thought experiments, I didn’t feel I could offer them as “solutions” to any particular set of problems. It took me a while to figure out that I’m applying more of an “artistic” process in my work as opposed to a more “business-oriented” goal like maximizing revenue.
The main challenge, I think, is just getting your work out there by any means, and have it easy to find and try out. This is even more important today, with the shorter attention spans and increased content.
Back when I started, individual blogs were still relatively rare and had a lot of clout, but today it’s all aggregators and social networks. With marketing, being where your audience can see you frequently and start to think of you as someone that has what they like or want, is the way to go.
You should own your primarily delivery platform as much as possible, I believe, because social media is so fickle and their link structure is not under your control and subject to change. What you are building with your primary delivery platform is the foundation for your business, your claim on a tiny bit of the Internet, where you can be easily found. There is where you should plant your work.
Once the work is out there where everyone can see it, that’s where the universe will step-in. That sounds mystical, but it’s really just common sense: if your work isn’t out there, how can anyone ever see and respond to it in the first place?
For me, my dream wasn’t to start a stationery business, but merely to make my own paper product because I thought it would be cool to make something physical. I started selling them on Amazon after doing a test run fulfilled from home, as I no longer wanted to manage orders and inventory. As it happens, the Amazon rating system started driving more traffic to the products themselves.
Now my site hardly drives traffic to Amazon; new buyers are finding it first on Amazon and then learning more about me. Also, through my website I’ve had various job offers and project gigs over the years, and have made quite a few friends along the way. I have not been so great at defining my solo design-for-hire offerings and have withdrawn from taking new projects, but perhaps in the future I can explore that as a new line of business again.
How have your printable productivity tools helped you in your own work and life?
Each productivity tool served a different purpose. Some of the ones I use more than others are:
* The Concrete Goals Tracker (CGT) helped me learn the habit of critical-path task prioritization. After about three months of it, my awareness of what tasks contribute (or not) to a goal became automatic. It’s a good habit-builder and principle-testing form, I think. I make new variations when I want to try to learn something new that requires a kind of awareness that I don’t usually have.
* The Emergent Task Timer (ETT) helped me see where my time was going. This was eye-opening. I knew I was not focused, but the combination of timer + note taking in a convenient form gave me a low-friction way of tracking my time.
* The Emergent Task Planner ETP) was first created as a focusing aid, an improved version of the Task Project Tracker mashed-up with an idea I got from watching *Iron Chef*. The ETP was designed to focus on getting things done in a chaotic environment, whereas the ETT is more of a tool for tracking what ended up happening. I use the ETP still when I need to be more structured about my day, but my natural preference is to not be planned at all.
In a more qualitative way, all the various productivity tools and related forms have helped me understand HOW I think and WHAT is important to me. They are all also an expression of my information design philosophy, and have probably become the core of my business identity to the world. It’s something I know has some value, and that’s a great place to be in.
My big challenge for 2016 is to figure out how to give light to my PERSONAL goals. Productivity is a stepping-stone to personal development, which itself is an approach to achieving a personal dream that to date still continues to elude me. I’ll keep plugging away at it until I find it.