Ordinary people doing extraordinary things #1 | Brain Füd

Staying the course

I’ve just finished a design challenge lasting 10 weeks. So, here are a few thoughts on how I get to the end with a successful result. Design challenges are competitive technical challenges involving electronics, software and in my case a toy Furby and radio controlled car. 15 of us were challenged to upcycle some old electronics to make something more interesting. I took my two old toys and created an interactive race car driver.

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When I tell people about these challenges they typically ask me the same two questions. “Where do you find all the time?” and “How do you keep going for 10 weeks?”

Spare time

If you look at a working day, about 8-10 hours are spent working, 7 hours sleeping, 1 hour eating  and another hour for household chores. That leaves at least 6 hours left over every day. If you spend just one of these each day on your challenge then that’s 70 hours over the course of 10 weeks.  You may not get to read the newspaper or keep up to date on your favourite TV show but it’s possible to find spare time without making major sacrifices. The other key to success is ensuring you make your time productive, so make sure you have the things you need to hand so that each session is just about working on your project.

I currently have an extremely long commute to the office. Two hours each way on public transport for three days a week. Mondays and Fridays I work from home. Typically I’d spend that travel time reading. When working on a challenge that is given up to research and writing up the blog posts that are required for these challenges. So I now have a backlog of reading to catch up with.

Staying focused 

Over 10 weeks it can be difficult to keep track of all of the parts of the project. That’s partly where the blog posts come in. The initial blogs allow you to plan your project and think about any dependencies like parts that need ordering or topics needing researching. I like to get all the potentially troublesome items out of the way near the beginning of the challenge. You can’t plan with lots of unknowns. Blogging your progress allows you to clear your head of a particular topic ready for the next one. It is also a good way of sharing problems or successes.

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Much as you might be tempted to work late into the night – it is not advisable. Working when tired is when mistakes are made and an insurmountable problem one day can be easy the next. Again, using the blog to offload your problems allows you to go to sleep with a head full of worries. As well as sleep you’ll need to look after your health during a challenge. It is, after all, a marathon rather than a sprint. Keeping fed and hydrated helps you focus your mind. Some light exercise and fresh air can also help you clear your head of knotty problems.

Towards the end of the challenge, I like to turn my plan into a checklist. Ticking off items as they are complete and crossing out items that are really not essential for the project. This gives a sense of completion as the list gets shorter. Also at the end of the challenge, you need to allow time for to make a demonstration video.

Once you’ve submitted your final report and demo your strategy needs to change slightly. You need to ensure your project holds together as people might be asking questions or wanting to see photographs. So it’s worth spending a little time ensuring you’ve got pictures of key parts, that loose connections and wobbly parts are sured up. It’s not a time for dramatic change but tidying up and improving quality.

I’m still waiting to hear if my project is a winning one but I’m happy that I’ve done the best I can.

Andy has completed several design challenges and has already won a trip to New York with one project. When not competing, Andy is making and repairing in a shed at the bottom of the garden. A blog of his exploits can be found at Workshopshed.com and he’s also on Twitter here

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