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The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Freelance Instructional Designers

A habit is something that you do habitually, that is, without needing much or any thought, some are good, some are poor, and some are GREAT to have. These are some of my personal favourites.

We have to learn them – which can be hard work! To turn a behaviour into a habit can take about 7 weeks, with hundreds of repetitions. The good thing is that THINKING about habits is almost as good as DOING THEM – the brain has a hard time of understanding the difference.

This is my own list of 7 Habits for freelance Instructional Designers (IDs) – with apologies to Stephen R. Covey. In reality, you do not have to be a freelancer – they are concepts that are useful to any ID.

Happy Christmas.

1. Be a master of time – finish every day knowing what you will be doing the next day, and when.

No-one can invent more time. We all have the same 24-hour days – being an effective user of time is one of the most important personal skill you can possess.

Waking up and knowing what you WILL complete in a day offers enormous benefits over waking up NOT knowing what you will complete that day. Notice, I said “COMPLETE”, not “do”. If you get yourself into the habit of focusing on completion, you will find your task completion rate increases. When you commit to something, you are much more likely to “do” it, especially as your subconscious asleep brain will have a few hours to get cracking on the solution while you are asleep… Plans may, and do change, but it is a highly effective way to live when you have a plan that has been made in advance and had time (literally…) to “bed down” in your brain.

2. In any project, differentiate between promises, probabilities and problems.

Each of these three things may happen during a project, and each will require different communication skills. Promises are what you can do, and include a time element. Probabilities are the things that might happen, and require negotiation. Problems are things that were not anticipated or have emerged, and require trust, tack, diplomacy and negotiation.

These 3 things will ebb and flow during any project. There will be moments of elation, and moments of abject self-doubt. The trick is not just “dealing” with them, but having the self-awareness to spot them coming, and the confidence that you and your client will be able to work through them if needed. It’s always good to have discussed how you will do this, if the need arises, in advance.

3. Actively explore and mine your “creative self”, but borrow ideas from others.

Being an ID is strange. We invest our heart and soul in creating a digital masterpiece, and then, more than likely, we end up getting paid when we deliver our baby, (and the source code that goes with it) to an IT department which might instantly re-use our ideas!

That’s the territory. It’s not stealing; it’s being inspired by others. Our best design, our best learning has to be the one we are just about to do – you need to keep looking forward, not be worried by the fact that someone may “steal” your design concepts.

I would not be able to understand Articulate Storyline Variables were it not from de-constructing the work of others. It is only natural that, to a point, I will copy what I have learned to start with. At some point we get to a “Tipping Point” – where we have enough understanding and skill to be original. That’s when you can fly, (and also the point where others start copying from you!)

4. Explore and experience as many other industries and areas of life as you can (while getting paid!)

Your business motivations, experiences and personal creativity will be enhanced if you get out of your “silo”. How many of us left corporate life because we hated the silo’d, myopic, “departmental” operating processes and politics of companies? Experiencing as many industries as possible, and being scared of none will allow you to view “business” in a new light, you will see that most of the issues are the same, but that using examples from other industries in your discussions opens up new points of view. Also, seeing as many different working environments as possible makes being a freelance ID more interesting!

5. Investigate the ID envelope and be an information and contact hub

Learn about your industry. I (currently) always ask “LMS providers” what their views on the Tin Can API are. If they look at me like I have spoken in another language, I figure they probably won’t be around shortly! Learn about design, fonts, video, voiceovers, animation and writing. Learn about design and communication concepts in other countries if you are producing “Global” content. You do not need to be able to DO everything, but you should understand some of the words and concepts used.

You do not need to know everything, (there’s too much to learn), however, you should try and know where to go for the bits that you do not know. EVERYONE in business is allowed to use a network, just think of those people as company departments. You may be good at your job, but your role relies on your understanding of the business we are in as well as the businesses we serve.

6. Get out of your Comfort Zone, and dare to dream.

Force yourself out of your comfort zone as often as you can. Remember – it is only a ZONE that you prefer, it is not a prison sentence. You can walk out of it whenever you want to, the door is always open. If you do not explore the new ground, then you had better move out of the way because someone is going to run past you very soon.

Dream of World domination, (or at least City or Regional domination) in what you do. Challenge the status quo, and always try to have a Plan B and C and D if necessary. Practice thinking up alternatives when you do not need to have alternatives – that way you will be better prepared when the situation arises – and it WILL arise.

Try and be new and different when you are with clients. Sell a vision, not features and functionality – because anyone can sell F&F, and you want to be a trusted, long-term business partner rather than just a transactional seller. Don’t you?

7. Rest and relax

Working at PCs and Macs, we need to rest our eyes, our legs, and our backs. Working with 1s and 0s means we also need to see, feel and touch something “real”. Get a dog, learn to dance, walk or run by rivers and mountains. Meditate. Learn to breathe deeply and effectively. Talk to your family around a dinner that you have made. Enjoy the altered time that your freelance lifestyle allows you to have, but ensure that you make time for all the other important things that life offers. It will make the early starts, late nights and weekend working all the easier when they are required.

Freelancers have a natural reticence to stop, especially if we remember any hard times. This out of all habits is the one that will give you the biggest returns.

  1. December 17, 2012 at 12:22 pm

    This articule is cool, Bruce, thanks for putting together all these important points a good freelance instructional designer should never forget.


  1. February 12, 2017 at 11:56 am

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