Four Ways Being Selfish Will Make You a Better UX Designer

Data suggests there are prolific risks around purpose-driven work like UX Design. Empathy overload, compassion fatigue, and secondary trauma are foremost among them. So-called “selfish work strategies” help designers maintain a work-life balance, an equilibrium that will make them better at both.
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December 14, 2022
“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

Nope.

Confucius had a lot of wise things to say, but emerging thoughts on burnout suggest this may not be one of them. In fact, for those who love their jobs, burnout is even more of a risk. Purpose-driven roles — in which people love and feel passionately about what they do — are some of them.

According to a study published in the Journal of Personality, this type of labor can breed obsessive behavior and significantly higher stress levels. An additional predictor of burnout, according to the Mayo Clinic, is working in a “helping profession.” Both of these characteristics fit nicely into a job description of a UX professional.

Warning Signs of UX Burnout

Empathy towards users alongside a passion for discovering their needs and helping find solutions are not just part of the job — they are the job. This is why it is no surprise that burnout looms large and sometimes prevails against many of us at some point throughout our careers.

Increased mental distance from your job or feeling a sense of cynicism toward your job are harbingers of designer burnout. Anxiety, depression, insomnia, loss of focus, and exhaustion are telltale too, but often go unassociated with the work UX designers, UX writers, and UX researchers purport to love.

Human-centered design is, after all, very rewarding.

The Risks of a Human-Centered Profession

But, despite that fact, data suggests that there are prolific complications and risks around purpose-driven work like ours. Empathy overload, compassion fatigue, and secondary trauma are foremost among them. But none so dire or self-defeating as self-neglect: a cause, not a symptom of burnout. And one that often goes undiscussed. The absence of dialogue around it only reinforces the feedback loop.

Self-Care By Being Selfish

Self-care (the opposite of self-neglect) plays a central role in breaking the cycle that leads to burnout. Not in a social media #selfcare type of way, but rather as a personal and professional mission to define and pursue our own interests and needs first.

By putting our emotional, physical, and mental well-being at the forefront, we affirm that our most interesting design problem is ourselves, allowing us to better serve those we design for. Sometimes that means being selfish: with our time, focus, and outputs.

The Ethics of UX Self-Care

When defined as “taking care of your own needs before others,” selfishness can genuinely make you a better designer, especially within the confines of practicing self-care for your mental, physical and emotional well-being. Some UX influencers, like Vivianne Castillo, even consider self-care an ethical mandate as a means to “do no harm” as a designer.

“But the conversation of ethics needs to address more than the relationship between UX professionals and the rest of the world. They need to address the relationship the UX professional has with themselves because self-care is more than ideal; it’s an ethical imperative, a principle or practice required to avoid doing harm unto others.” -Vivianne Castillo

Being Selfish Means Putting the You Back in UX Design

“Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to do.” -Richard Dawkins.

In a user-centered discipline, it is practically taboo to be self-centered. Which begs the question: when did being self-centered get such a bad rap? Evolutionarily speaking, it is a fundamental part of successful human survival, as outlined by Richard Dawkins in the “Selfish Gene.” More broadly and more applicably: putting yourself first (self-centered) doesn’t mean you don’t care about others (user-centered). It simply means — in airline terms” you are putting your own oxygen mask on first.”

Self-Centered By Nature

As Richard Dawkins also points out, “understanding what our selfish nature is up to” plays a critical part in curbing the darker side of a me-first ideology. In other words, being cognisant of why we choose to, at times, be selfish can indeed justify the ends.

So what does a self-centered UX designer look like? Someone who preserves their best time and focus for the user-facing projects they work on, and this starts with setting professional boundaries.

Say Yes, But No

No isn’t a four-letter word, but as a UX designer on projects that demand attention from every angle, it sure feels like it sometimes. Faced any direction, client, or team, it just sounds wrong. But it isn’t.

No, is a word UX designers owe to ourselves and the users we design for. Why? Because the amount of focus any person has is limited and probably smaller than we realize. Reports on how long humans can actually focus each day vary from one to four hours, but most research shows people can only give their best for one to three hours (free from interruption).

Framing “no” as a prioritization question rather than a hard stop can be extremely rewarding for UX designers feeling over-taxed and pulled in a million directions (which, in all likelihood, you are). Wording like “I can move my focus to X, but that will move the timeline on Y; which item is a higher priority?” goes a long way as a reasonable constraint-based boundary.

Set-Up “Office Hours”

Interruption is the rule whether you work in an office or at home. There are so many ways for coworkers to access our time: email, slack, Microsoft Teams, and Google Chat only scratch the surface. Even small pauses have a ripple effect on productivity.

“When you get distracted by something at work, it takes at least 20 minutes to refocus on the task at hand.” says productivity expert Julie Morgenstern. Multiple that by the number of Slack notifications you get per day working in the UX product development field, and that’s an entire day of unproductive or subpar work.

By setting office hours, you essentially hoard the best hours of the day for yourself, simultaneously assuring the best result for all project stakeholders. That is not selfish; that is smart.

Set and Enforce Hard Stops

Fact: in the human-centered and UX design fields, there is a lot of talking around, a lot of different, yet kind of the same, ideas. Parts of our process are, indeed, ideation and iteration, which require collaboration and conversation. As a result, meetings can go down rabbit holes or in circles. Sometimes this can lead to innovation, but more frequently, it wastes time and causes meetings to run long.

It makes sense, then, to set hard stops for yourself in meetings that you know fall under lower priority or are only tangential to your essential tasks. It is a way of preemptively avoiding tail-chasing that more than likely doesn’t concern you.

Using discretion here is important, but setting up a hard stop ahead of time to move to something else you deem higher priority — even if that thing is your lunch break — benefits everybody. It allows you to participate without the risk of interruption to your schedule, timelines, or focus you are preserving to do your best work.

Use Personal Days to do Something…Personal

Americans are the most overworked developed country. We’re number one [audible sigh]. We work too many hours, too long of hours, and use very little of our paid time off. This is doing us little good. We’re more stressed, less balanced, and physically ill from it. A side effect that may have even sparked the “Great Resignation.”

The PTO we do take is most often vacation leave. Sick days are less utilized. In an effort to change this, there are some who go so far as to suggest renaming all non-vacations days, personal days, because of the stigma around taking days off for mental health. Also, they are often part of compensation, i.e., your pay, and — in theory — you should be able to spend them how you choose.

If this sounds selfish, that’s because, by American standards, it is.

But, research shows this idea is not as self-serving as one may think. Information coming out on workers with business-like hobbies or side hustles are happier, more innovative, and more productive. They are also less likely to burn out. So whether you take a personal or sick day to do laundry or go to Home Depot — you’ll be a better overall employee by doing so.

Maintaining a Work-Life Balance in the UX Field

Selfish strategies like these are healthy and foster personal growth. As your UX career matures, the more likely you will need to apply them to avoid burnout. Professional boundaries are all about maintaining a balance between work and life, and that equilibrium will make you better at both.

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