Ten days after moving to Philadelphia, I went to the office for my first day as a full-time employee. Many questions drifted through my head: Would I float or flounder there? Would I get along with my coworkers? Would they like me, respect me, and value my work? Day by day and week by week, I felt more comfortable at the office. And now, over three and a half years later, I feel like a veteran there. Don’t get me wrong: I’m still learning new skills every day. But I think this is a good time to review some of the key pointers that I’ve picked up about succeeding in the working world—pointers that you don’t learn in school, regardless of how great your education is.
Time Sharing (Not the Vacation Kind)
If your university experience was anything like mine—especially for project-based classes—you can recall some nights when you were up past 3 am, crunching out papers or presentations that you had to turn in or present later that morning. As long as you finished it on time, that was all that mattered. Reviews? Edits? Those were superfluous.
But, in the working world—especially in design—you can’t do that. You have to make sure that you budget time for reviews by subject-matter experts, design reviews, and content reviews. You must also plan time for making revisions based on the comments you receive during these reviews. Going through a cycle of reviews and revisions is a standard protocol and, although the consequent reduction in the time you have to do your work might be frustrating, you can think of this as CYA (Cover Your Ass) for you as a design professional. Later, if you’re questioned about your deliverables, you’ll be thankful you took time for this.
- Count backward. Look at the date when you have to present to a client, then conservatively estimate the amount of time you’ll need for each cycle of reviews and revisions. Doing this tells you when you have to hand off your document for the first review.
- Save everything. Keep a paper trail, including email threads and versions of documents—at least until your client completely signs off on the project.
The Big-Brother Effect
In school, the number of hours you put into a homework assignment or project doesn’t get counted. It’s just your grade that matters. A professor doesn’t care how much time you spend or where you work on a project. But usually there’s a positive correlation between the number of hours you’ve studied for a test or spent on a project and the grade you receive.
At work, you’re being watched. People are always checking in on you to make sure your work is going well and will be done on time—of course, with the best of intentions. Your superiors and even your peers want to know what you’re working on. Project managers need to report status to clients and ensure projects meet deadlines. While you might be happy and excited to talk about your work, sometimes you just want to be left alone. But, it’s hard to hide away in a corner and just do your work while at the office; and you probably can’t go home in the middle of the day to do your work with no one looking over your shoulder.
In the workplace, both how you work and how long you work on a project matter. Regardless of your seniority, the total number of hours you put in at work gets tracked—especially if you work for a consultancy. The ratio between the number of hours you actually put into a project versus the number of hours allotted for the project—in other words, the cost of your working on a project in comparison to how much a client is paying your company for the work—are numbers that drive the success or failure of your company. If you spend a lot more time on a project than you were supposed to, your company is losing money.
- Ask for advice. If you consistently find yourself struggling to complete your work in the allotted time, speak with other people who do similar work in your office and have more experience than you. There may be techniques you can learn from them to expedite your work.
- Prioritize your work. At the outset of your work, understand what is absolutely essential to deliver to a client versus what would be nice to have. Work on the essential pieces first, then the nice-to-haves—if you have extra time.
- Focus on your priorities. It’s okay not to be at others’ beck and call. In time, you’ll learn to differentiate between what’s a real work emergency and what you can defer working on until later. If you need to be working head down, you can use various techniques to let others know that you’re busy.
- In addition to meetings that you book on your calendar, book time for your individual project work.
- Put ear buds in your ears. I’m serious. Even if you can’t work with music on, ear buds signal that you need to be in your own world.
- If neither of the last two suggestions works, try finding a quiet workspace away from your desk. You should remain accessible by email and phone, but it’s easier to filter communications when you’re not at your desk, where others can just stop by for impromptu meetings.