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Creative block? Start your spooky season with the Skeleton Method

Last week, I was staring down a huge, important, creatively-demanding project. I wasn't getting started at the very last minute for once--good job me! I wanted to keep it that way, so I stuck myself in my office, far away from anything fun or distracting. Time to get serious!

... Fast forward to two hours later, and I'm lying on the floor, literally begging myself to start. What happened?! I followed all the rules and got nowhere at all!

Luckily, I didn't give up and do something more fun instead. I kept thinking on it, and realized I couldn't get started because I couldn't visualize what my end result would be. How can I start if I don't know where I'm going? A new idea popped into my head, just in time for spooky season. It's the Skeleton Method!

Step 1: Check for monsters

There are many reasons why task initiation might be a major problem for people with brains like mine. I came up with this technique to answer the question "how can I create this thing if I don't know what it's supposed to look like?" But there could be other reasons you can't get started, and you should rule these "monsters" out first.

  • Executive dysfunction: "I want to get started, but there are too many steps and too many things to hold in my brain at once."

  • Perfectionism: "I'm afraid to get started because the thing I make might not be good enough."

  • Autistic inertia: "I know I have to start this thing but I can't unstick myself from what I'm doing right now."

  • Lack of motivation: "I can't start because I just really don't want to do it!"

Lying on my office floor, trying as hard as I could to just get started, I knew I wasn't experiencing any of those roadblocks.

Step 2: Dig a grave

If we're going to make a skeleton, it needs a grave to live in. Open the program you'll be using, create a new file, and save it. That's it. Look at that, you already got started! Go do something fun. You have accomplished the goal of "work on my project" for today.

Step 3: Make a skeleton

The next day, you're not trying to start a project anymore--you're just continuing it! Open your empty grave back up. You still don't know what your end goal should look like, but we're not worrying about that yet. For now, focus on the "bones" of the thing you're making.

Let's say you're graphic designer making a sign for a garage sale. What's on one of those things? The words "garage sale," the date and time, and the address. Maybe there's an arrow pointing which way to go. Now whip up the most basic, boring version of each of those things and slap 'em on there wherever. Boom, step completed!

Step 4: Hunt some demons

Examples are a cornerstone accommodation for Autistic people. When every idea conjures up a million possible results, an example narrows it down and points us in a direction. But when I try to use this strategy for a creative project, examples just make me feel overwhelmed. It's like there are too many people telling me what to do in too many different ways. Instead of narrowing things down, the examples just give me more to worry about!

So instead of looking for examples to emulate, look for examples that you hate! Hunt down "demon designs" that make you start having opinions.

This one doesn't event say "garage sale" on it, seriously?

It would be impossible to read this one from a distance.

It looks too cluttered when it's arranged like that.

Thoughts like this are the next step toward visualizing your project's end result! Maybe you still don't know what it will look like, but you do know what it won't look like.

Step 5: Build a Frankenstein

Open up your skeleton's grave and start moving those bones around! Everything about it is wrong, because you just threw it together. If you're the kind of Autistic that I am, arranging everything and lining it all up is an obvious (and satisfying) next step. And thanks to the demons you hunted down, you have some examples of what to avoid.

Dr. Frankenstein might not have known how to make a whole guy from scratch, but he knew he should include legs and that the head goes at the top. Congratulations, your skeleton is now a rearranged monstrosity, and that counts as another step toward finishing the project!

Step 6: Let the skeleton haunt you

I guess the skeleton/Frankenstein you made is also a ghost, because now it's going to haunt you. You've already spent a decent chunk of time in your skeleton's grave, which means your brain is (hopefully) getting into "project mode."

This is my favorite mental state--being in the middle of a project and thinking about it non-stop. No matter what I'm doing, it's tumbling around in the back of my mind. The goal is not to be worrying about the project and stressing yourself out. Use those hyperfixation powers and get thinking! Ooooooooo, you're being haunted! By ideas for your project!

Step 7: Bring it to life

Let's look back at our garage sale sign example.

First, we checked for monsters (other possible reasons it was hard to get started.) We determined that the problem was lack of a specific end goal, so we dug a grave (empty file) and put a skeleton in it (bare-bones basic elements). Then we hunted some demons (examples of what not to do) and used that knowledge to build a Frankenstein (rearrange the skeleton). After spending so much time moving the bones around, our skeleton started to haunt us (the project stayed on our mind and we started having ideas).

Now it's finally time to bring our skeleton to life and finish this dang project! If all goes according to plan, your "haunted" brain will keep churning out ideas until enough of them come together and start taking shape. Try things out and move stuff around enough, and eventually it will click. You know when you're on the right track. You just needed some help getting there!

Step 8: Professional designers, beware the zombie

When is a project "done"? What is the definition of "finished"? How do I know when it's "good enough"? When your Autistic mind operates in concrete truths, finding the endpoint seems like a cruel joke.

Stop moving that line of text back and forth 5 pixels because you can't decide which is the "right" spot. Do not let your skeleton become a zombie and keep going and going and going. The cut-and-dry answer is:

Your project is "good enough" when the person paying you for it says so.

"But my boss doesn't know anything about design," you might say, "how can I trust her opinion?" That doesn't matter.

I know, fellow Autistic designer! It's a hard truth to accept! But if you're like me, you probably heard the phrase "always do your best" in 3rd grade, took it literally, and then used it as your benchmark for "good enough".

The point of the Skeleton Method is to get it done, right? If your personal definition of "good enough" is "best possible example of a garage sale sign," you will never be done. Just like a zombie, your project will keep shambling along, slowly falling apart and sapping your will to live.

Infuriatingly, art is subjective. If your design includes the required information that it needs to convey, that's as close as you can get to knowing it's truly finished. So stop fiddling with it, email it to the client for review, and go do something else. You probably forgot to drink water for the last four hours like I did.

Conclusion: Stay spooky out there

Is the Skeleton Method helpful for anyone else in the world, or some wacky thing that only makes sense to me? Who can say? All I know is that it got me unstuck that day, and thinking about spooky skeletons makes things more fun. Good luck with your project, it's gonna turn out great!

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