It’s not supposed to happen. But it always does.
Maybe you’ve just finished a design sprint and you’re blocked on starting something else. Maybe it’s the last few hours before a long weekend and you have nothing left to do.
Or maybe it’s just a slow week. Things happen, and every so often creatives find themselves sitting at their desks with nothing to do.
Sure, you can find some busy work. Reading blogs (hello!) and researching is always a good way to stay on top of things. But there are better ways to use that time to your advantage and stay ahead of the pack.
Can’t I just take a break?
Tim Cook was recently interviewed about Apple’s push into education. He said something that many people overlooked: “We all have to get comfortable with education being lifelong.”
That’s a scary prospect for someone who went to college thinking they were getting an education that would last them a lifetime. But as the 21st-century economy depends more on newer and constantly evolving skills like software development, the ability to learn on your own has never been more important. Not to mention the fact that leaders are lifelong learners.
The rapid pace of change in our industry means we have to work hard to keep up. What you learn today may be obsolete in a year, and that means putting the effort in to learn something new every chance you get . And that doesn’t mean within your own industry, either. It means learning skills you may not have thought you needed.
A Deloitte report from 2016 puts this in a pretty sobering light: “Another development of note is the shrinking ‘half-life’ of knowledge, pointing to the fact that valuable knowledge-work is becoming increasingly specialized.”
The more specialized your skills, the more you can do, and the more valuable you become. For instance, take a look at some skills LinkedIn pinned last year as some of the most essential for success in the 21st-century economy:
- Software engineering
- Data visualization
- UI design
- SEM and SEO skills
- Cloud and distributed computing skills
All of these skills are specialized; each requires particular knowledge and its own tool kit. That doesn’t mean you need to become an expert in all of them. But if you want to survive and thrive, you need to start brushing up on some things outside your realm of expertise.
And those quiet moments are the perfect time.
“What you learn today may be obsolete in a year, and that means putting the effort in to learn something new every chance you get.”
OK. How can I put my downtime to good use?
When those quiet moments surface, start thinking about your overall career––and how you can improve it. These are just a few ways to get things moving in the right direction.
Start learning SQL
Structured Query Language (SQL) is the tool used to understand databases and extract information from them. Although you might not work with them on a day-to-day level, it’s still important to request what you can or cannot do.
After all, you might need some data to work on a particular project one day. It’s much easier if you can just make those queries on your own rather than relying on someone else. There are plenty of free SQL courses online, so starting one in your spare time is easy.
Learn how to program in general
In that same interview I mentioned earlier, Tim Cook said that while not everyone will become a software programmer, everyone should learn to code.
Related: Becoming a designer who codes
Why? Well, software touches everything we do, and every discipline. But it goes deeper. Learning how to break problems down into chunks and thinking sequentially are both important. Picking up a course on Code Academy or enrolling in CS50 at Harvard can go a long way. Plus, it’ll help you talk with developers on a new level––which does wonders for networking.
Stay on top of SEO/SEM changes
While a lot of SEO work has been replaced with general content strategy, it’s still incredibly important to understand the mechanics of how SEO and SEM affect what’s going on. Things change constantly, so keeping up with best practices can inform your day-to-day creative decisions. A few hours here or there researching and reading blogs will keep you up to date.
Hone your design skills
This one’s for the copywriters.
Too focused on words and don’t have a clue how to work in Freehand or Studio? Take your downtime to start brushing up on your visual design abilities.
From learning how to create a wireframe or prototype to manipulating images and editing them, a little design experience goes a long way. Again, the goal here isn’t to become an expert. It’s to become familiar with design tools so you can be more comprehensive with your work. It’ll make you more valuable, and it may help unblock projects if someone on your team is sick or away.
Learn how to write copy
(Didn’t want to the designers to feel left out.)
Not quite sure how to write engaging copy that can really speak to your users, or at the very least, is effective?
Related: The biggest mistakes copywriters and designers make when collaborating
Take a copywriting course or research on some of the latest findings. Practice writing headlines and copy on your own, then work on improving them. The more familiar you are with creative copy, the better off you’ll be.
Learn analytics or data science
There are courses all over the internet about how to understand various analytics tools and data. But the most important thing is to learn how to think in a data-driven way, and how to tackle problems with a data-first focus.
That isn’t easy. And it often gets forgotten in the pursuit of the latest tool, like Tableau or Google Analytics. But tools aren’t always easy to understand. Instead, look for courses or training in how to adopt a data-driven mindset and build a data-driven culture. It’ll take you far. Not only in your own organization, but as a creative who actually understands the practical and strategic ramifications of your projects.
Not a researcher? Change that.
Although many creatives have experience researching, not everyone has the opportunity to take part in one-on-one conversations with users. If that’s you, then start looking up the best ways to conduct user research. Hell, you could even start coming up with ways to do it on your own. It doesn’t even have to be for a specific initiative––just for practice.
Remember, the more experience you have in a range of different skills, the more valuable you are.
“Although many creatives have experience researching, not everyone has the opportunity to take part in one-on-one conversations with users.”
Learn to think like a product manager
One thing that holds creatives back is an inability to think strategically or with a commercial mindset. So why not learn how? Producers have to keep so much of that commercial information top of mind. And while it’s not really your job as a creative to know everything, it’s helpful (and impressive) to have a general understanding.
There are plenty of courses and resources to help you strengthen this strategic muscle. Product management, strategic thinking, or even a course on how to be a producer will enable you to interact with your colleagues––both now and in the future––on a new level. It may even open up new career opportunities.
There’s no reward in boredom
Look: You don’t need to run yourself ragged learning 24/7. But in those quiet moments at work, maybe switch off Twitter and start putting an hour or two into a skill that could advance your career. You never know when they’ll come in handy, and they might just give you the edge you need for your next gig.
Patrick Stafford is an experienced digital copywriter and journalist, having worked at companies including MYOB, PwC and Private Media. His journalism has appeared in Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, Polygon, and Lifehacker, among others. His business, Stafford Content, provides copy for many businesses including KPMG, SelfWealth and Data Republic. He doesn’t like coffee—but loves video games and books.