A checklist for when you get stuck

The ditch-or-double-down question, and a duck-based flight of fancy

How do you know whether you should ditch the idea you're struggling with, or keep working at it?

I heard this question pop up while listening to an episode of the Writing Excuses podcast. I'm no novelist, but I love stealing ideas from other makers: writing, art, music, films, advertising, comedy ...

So when I heard this question, my ears pricked up. It’s a question I’m sure you recognise.

All designers have been there for sure. We tend to be comfortable that our ideas start out as ugly ducklings. But soon enough, we’re hours (or even weeks) into a design project and a horrible sensation creeps over us … What if this particular ugly duckling doesn’t grow up to be a beautiful swan? What if it’s … just a big old ugly duck? Did we pick the wrong duckling on day one? Should we throw this manky duck away and grab one of its siblings?

Setting this excursion into water fowl husbandry aside, let’s simply say I was interested in the answer to the “ditch-or-double-down” question posed on the podcast.

Then one of the podcast guests said that they had worked with writing groups to answer this exact question.

“I have a checklist. And the checklist is there to determine:

  • Is this an overarching story problem?

  • Is this a scene problem?

  • Is this a chapter problem?

  • Or is this a “me” problem? – Am I sick? Have I eaten yet today? Do I need to get hydrated? Do I need to go get some exercise? Do I need to go back to the well? Have I forgotten to take my medication today?

There’s all kinds of things. And until I actually acknowledged that there was a checklist, I was really bad at figuring this out.”

Because that “dip” feeling sometimes isn't about the work. And even when it is, it can be hard to figure out which layer is causing you to feel off.

So what might be a similar checklist for design?

Here are some ideas. What would you add?

  • Is this a “don’t know the user well enough” problem?

  • Is this a “trying to do too many things” problem?

  • Is this a “not clear how it helps user / business” problem?

  • Is this a “new information means we need to go back to the start” problem?

  • Is this a “gone down a rabbithole that doesn’t matter” problem?

  • Or … is it a me problem? – Am I sick? Do I need to eat? Do I need some water? (It’s really often this one for me!) Do I need to take a walk or get some exercise? Do I need to recharge my mental battery? Is it just one of those days?

Photo by Jorge Alcala on Unsplash. Quack.