I remember the day I left my first job out of college. I had been temping as an office manager in the theater department at my old school, mostly answering questions for new students. My boss had suggested early on that during my free time (which was most of the time), I might find ways to improve the office. I had no idea what he meant, and instead spent most of my free time wondering what an office manager does. But that last day, as I packed my things and said my goodbyes, I saw a million little things that “someone” should improve – and for the first time, I realized I could have been doing those things.
I saw files without a clear system for separating trash from value. I noticed old paintings that might be rehung, or replaced. I realized the office could have a candy bowl to offer to new students, an “FAQ” sign on the door, and a suggestions box on my desk. That day it became clear to me that a sense of ownership makes a huge difference for productivity.
As far as I can tell, I was a perfectly decent office manager. I was cheerful, mostly on-time, and had answers to the students’ questions. I made photocopies, delivered mail, and filed paperwork. But I knew it wasn’t a lifetime commitment, and at the time I thought I wasn’t motivated enough to care about work beyond the day-to-day necessities. In retrospect, it just hadn’t clicked for me that I had the power to make changes. This sense of power and ownership is what transforms anyone from good to indispensable.
How to be indispensable
My first job wasn’t the last time I thought “what am I supposed to do when no one gives me a direct task?” But it is the last time I let myself get stuck without an answer. Whether you’re feeling unmotivated with creative work, or unsure what you’re supposed to be doing, there’s always an opportunity to do something more productive than busy work (or surfing Facebook). The key is figuring out what that is. Here are two approaches I’ve found to be helpful.
The intern playbook
Every organization treats their interns differently, but the best and most productive interns I’ve ever met were at FableVision. Their productivity was due in large part to Dawn Haley Morton, the team’s “Creative Wrangler” and the author of what I have since termed the Intern Playbook.
On the first day of their internship, each new intern was provided with a binder explaining the details of what was expected of them. In this binder, their work was broken into three areas, which I will paraphrase here:
Client/project work: Often someone will hand you a project and ask you do a specific task. This is your highest priority.
Help others: If you think you have nothing to do, make a point of asking people what they’re working on, and if you can help. Often, people are too busy to think about delegating, but if you offer, they will have things they need. This may even include mundane tasks like emptying the dishwasher – we all pitch in to do it, and so should you.
Personal projects: If there’s truly no other work to be done, this is the time for you to work on a personal project. Make a goal and set a deadline; this project should represent what you’re learning here in your internship.
I have taken these three types of work to heart, and I still consider them today. If I have no direct project work, I look for who’s busy, and ask how I can help. I do tasks around the office that need to be done. And if I still have free time, I use it to build my own education, often with a goal or deliverable in mind.
Yes, my job
There are myriad stories of projects that fail or plans that go awry because some small task was no one’s specific “job”. While sometimes this is due to laziness or lack of common sense, more often we’re afraid to step on toes, or don’t want to stir up office politics or underlying process issues. I understand these fears, and I believe the following three steps will help you overcome them, and begin to say “yes, my job.”
Let yourself imagine “what would make this project, or office, or (in some cases) my job better?”
Consider: who is the person who has jurisdiction over this? Ask them if the project is underway, and/or if it’s something you might tackle. This simple step of communication can both get you the resources you need, and avoid unnecessary politics. Remember, few improvements can be made in silos.
Take ownership – but constantly ask for feedback. Involve the people who have insight into areas you don’t. Don’t try to be an island.
Productivity is passion
It’s not surprising that we are more productive when we’re excited about a project. When you’re passionate about something you stop worrying about what you should be doing and start looking for opportunities to problem solve. You unconsciously take on ownership. The tricky part is finding the tasks, and engaging that passion.
In the design world, most of us are lucky enough to be working at jobs that inspire us. Maybe not every day or on every project, but we got into design to create things we’re passionate about. It’s easy to inspire passion around creation. By tapping into that, you’ll find your sense of ownership. And once you take ownership, you can make things happen.