Why (and How) I Guard my Instructional Design Time

In Ann’s recent post, she outlined some of her workflow processes and how she gets through the variety of tasks she has in any given day. As I was reading through and editing it, I really only had one thought cross my brain.

“I could never work like this…”

Now, let me be clear, it’s critical to prioritize tasks. Without any overall direction for your day, you’re bound to flounder and look up from your screen at about 5:00 (or later) and wonder what exactly you got done. It’s important to have structure.

I just prefer not to let others dictate what that looks like.

For me, the bulk of instructional design is finding time to think about solutions, and if I’m honest, there’s a limited amount of heavy thinking that I can get done in a day before my brain turns to mush. If I spend that time and energy thinking about other people’s problems first, it burns away my ability to think about the issues that I need to focus on. So how do I make the time to prioritize the important things?

Making my Mornings Matter

My schedule allows me to get to the office early—about an hour before the rest of our team arrives. And this may sound like heresy, but I don’t check my email for most of that hour. In fact, I try to avoid even turning on my computer.

Let’s back up.

Really, the cornerstones of my day are laid yesterday. 

Before I head home at the end of each day, I take 10-15 minutes to think and write down any problems, challenges, or projects that I want to work on the next day. Then, in my precious hour in the morning, I already have a list of stuff to look at without immediately de-prioritizing my tasks for someone else’s. 

When I first get to work my brain is awake. I can sit and think critically about yesterday’s problems with a fresh perspective. I take that list, think about it, and jot down any notes, ideas, potential solutions to try, questions to ask, or information I need to gather. By 8:00, I have a plan of attack for the rest of the day. That first hour of deep thought is critical to everything that comes after.

Once I have that plan, I then boot up my computer and prepare to do battle with The Fearsome Inbox.

Here is where my process lines up with Ann’s a little bit more. I quickly scan and sort email into three buckets:

  1. HelpDesk Tickets — One of my responsibilities on our team is do a first level triage/investigation on any problems that get reported in our courses. I then assign them to the appropriate instructional designer to fix the problem (if I can’t resolve it myself). 
  2. For my Information – Stuff I need to know but doesn’t require any action. I read the email, make a note if necessary, and then delete it (or archive it if there’s a chance I’ll need it later).
  3. Tasks – This is everything else. Something needs to be done to resolve these, even if it’s just simply communicating with someone. I scan quickly for dates or deadlines and make a note on my to-do list (Things3 is my weapon of choice here) of the task or any information I need to get before I respond. Critically, I don’t respond to these tasks right away.

Ideally, this process takes no more than 30 minutes. 

Then I close Outlook—not just minimize it. I’m looking for zero inbox notifications.

I’ll get back to email after lunch. A crucial part of my workflow (despite working in an open office environment) is trying to limit interruptions.

I use the rest of the morning to focus on those tasks and problems that I brainstormed solutions for earlier. Morning is easily when I have the most of my mental energy, so I focus on writing, designing, building interactions, and generally getting stuff done. 

Postprandial Productivity

After lunch, I return to Outlook and do a second round of sorting for anything that came in during the morning. My mental energy is usually quite a bit lower after I’ve eaten, so I use the afternoon for lower-effort tasks like responding to email, setting and attending meetings, and completing tasks for others that came up throughout the day.

This workflow only works because I’ve set expectations. We set service-level agreements on tickets and I ask for clear deadlines on projects or tasks. People know that I don’t check email all the time, so they’ve learned to not expect an immediate response…and, people are generally ok with it as long as they know what to expect. 

This whole pattern ensures that I make the time to think about and complete the tasks that only I can do. The things I was hired to do. 

And obviously this is all an ideal. Sometimes urgent matters really do arise that need immediate attention—someone’s sick, a resource is no longer available in a live course, we have an unscheduled meeting that needs to happen. That’s the advantage of an open office. If someone really *does* need me, they can just walk over. But if it’s too easy for other people to put demands on your time, you’ll spend the whole day dealing with their issues, not doing your own deep work.

We know that designing meaningful experiences takes careful thought, reflection, and time. The busy demands of the day will do their best to make sure you don’t have that time. It’s up to you to carve it out.

Then once again, as my day winds down, I make my list for tomorrow and head out.

Author: Dave Zokvic, Assistant Instructional Designer

Dave helps Model eLearning forge narrative and gamified eLearning and side-hustles as a writer and designer for Northward Compass. Off the clock, he’s likely eating sushi, wandering around a bookstore, playing tabletop games, or picking up his next ‘digital native’ skill.

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