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Debbie Ridpath Ohi on Prioritization and Making Time for Play

Debbie Ridpath Ohi Childrens' book author and illustrator

How a childrens’ author and illustrator finds the space to pursue all her creative passions and projects

At Freedom, we love our users – not just because they use our product, but because they’re cool – cool people working on cool stuff. Academy Award-nominated screenwriters, bestselling authors, editors, journalists, developers, illustrators, designers, academics, coaches, podcast hosts, comic book writers, students, and entrepreneurs – the Freedom community is packed with curious, creative, and passionate go-getters. We love to share their stories, advice, and processes because how better to learn about productivity than from the productive?

Meet Debbie Ridpath Ohi

Debbie Ridpath Ohi reads, writes, and illustrates books for young people. She is the author and illustrator of Where Are My Books? and Sam & Eva (Simon & Schuster), and her illustrations have appeared in books written by Judy Blume and Michael Ian Black, among others.

A former computer programmer analyst, Debbie launched one of the first online communities for writers and was also a columnist and author for Writer’s Digest/F&W. Now she writes and illustrates for a living, and has helped create nearly 25 books for young people!

Debbie is one of our favorite friends on Twitter, where she regularly shares her inspiring and motivational messages through her words and illustrations. We were super excited to learn more about her career journey and creative process. If anyone could help inspire you to follow your dreams and pursue those passion projects, it’s Debbie!

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How did you know that you wanted to be a writer and illustrator and what were your first steps in making this your career? Did one come before the other – or did your storytelling always involve both words and images?

My first career was as a computer programmer/analyst after graduating with a Bachelor of Science from the University Of Toronto. After a few years, my boyfriend (who is now my husband) convinced me to quit so I could pursue my creative dream of writing books for young people. 

Even though I had always enjoying drawing as well as creating comics, it never crossed my mind that my first big break would come through being asked to illustrate a picture book: I’M BORED, written by Michael Ian Black, which was published by Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers in 2012.

I still haven’t given up my original dream of getting middle-grade novels published, though. And that’s where your Freedom app has been a huge help!

You’ve been involved with tech since the early days of the internet. At what point did you realize it had started to take a toll on your productivity and time?

I remember reading a book on productivity that advised people to keep track of every single thing they did for a few days and decided to try this. I was horrified to realize how often I was interrupting creative work to check email, social media, or “researching just one thing” online and then fall down a black hole of link-clicking. The habit had become so ingrained that even when I tried setting a timer to force myself to keep on track, I’d find myself constantly fighting the urge to interrupt my creative work to go online.

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How do you stay motivated and focused on a daily basis? Do you have a routine, process, or place that helps to get into a productive flow? 

My routine tends to change over time, depending on the projects I’m working on and also what’s going on in my life. I usually prefer to reserve mornings for working on my middle-grade novel, but I often need to switch things around because I have online meetings or presentations in the morning. This has been especially true during the pandemic. 

Sometimes it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the things I want to do, so I find it really helps to make a list of THREE THINGS I want to accomplish on any given day. Each thing needs to be a concrete achievable task. Instead of “work on middle-grade novel”, my goal will be something like “write 800 words for my middle grade” or “work for 30 minutes on my middle grade.”

I have also started doing daily Zoom writing sprints with a small group of fellow book creators. We all keep our audio and video off while writing but turn it on at the end of the session to talk briefly about our progress. Between using Freedom and these silent writing group sessions, I’ve been getting much more creative work accomplished work every day!

No matter what is going on in my life, no matter how crazy-busy, it’s important to ALWAYS MAKE TIME FOR PLAY!

What resources or tools do you use daily and have found most beneficial to your writing and creative processes?

The Freedom app has been incredibly helpful in keeping me focused and on track.

The other tools I find the most useful in my writing and creative processes include:

  • FocusTime app on my iPhone, which I use for 12-minute writing sprints. I aim for several in a row, and if I’m in the flow I will increase this time length. I do find 12 minutes perfect for any time, though – no matter how crazy-busy things are, I can almost always spare 12 focused minutes for just writing. And chances are good that at the end of that 12 minutes I’ll decide you know, I could probably do a second 12-minute session.
  • Pacemaker, a flexible word count tracker.

How do you incorporate Freedom into your daily working routine?

I rely on Freedom constantly now. When I start a focused creative session, whether it’s writing or illustrating, I often turn on Freedom. I started with just 15 minutes at a time. That may not seem long to the average person but the first few times I did this, I was shocked at how often I’d find myself with a “not online” message and realize I had just tried to check email or social media or look something up online.

I’m up to 25 minutes at a time, now. That’s long enough that I can get a solid chunk of focused work done, but not so long that I get distracted by wanting to go online. This was especially a challenge earlier in the pandemic and also during the U.S. elections. Freedom helped me resist the urge to constantly doom-scroll.

Once I decided to give up some projects (or at least put them on the back burner) and prioritize, it was much easier to figure out what smaller, concrete, achievable tasks I could do each week to help me move closer to my goals. 

What is one small shift that you have made about the way you spend your time that had the largest impact on your quality of life?

There are SO many things I want to do, to learn, to create. It was too easy to try to do them all, flitting from one to another then back again, but I inevitably ended up frustrated and feeling like I trying to scramble up a sandhill only to lose my footing and slide back down, over and over.

Once I decided to give up some projects (or at least put them on the back burner) and prioritize, it was much easier to figure out what smaller, concrete, achievable tasks I could do each week to help me move closer to my goals. 

As a freelancer, how do you prioritize what tasks, activities, or people get your time each day?

This is still an ongoing challenge for me! 

Family always comes first, of course. But then it depends so much on what events and deadlines are queued up, stages of different projects. Right now, for example, I’m mainly waiting for other people (feedback from my art director and editor about the first round of sketches for a picture book project, waiting for the people I’ve hired to revamp my website to let me know when it’s ready, etc.).

What productivity or work/life balance lessons have you learned from the children in your life?

No matter what is going on in my life, no matter how crazy-busy, it’s important to ALWAYS MAKE TIME FOR PLAY. Everyone’s interpretation of “play” is different. For me, it’s doing something enjoyable that is just for me, not work-related.

What inspires you to improve your craft?

Reading. I read everything, from picture books through middle grade, YA, and adult. The more good books I read, the more I’m inspired to improve my own craft.

I also find that taking online workshops and webinars like the ones offered by SCBWI and CANSCAIP always inspires me.

What projects are you currently working on that you are most excited about?

I’m SUPER excited about the upcoming launch of I’M SORRY, which is written by Michael Ian Black and illustrated by me, coming out from Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers on September 6th, 2021 It’s the fourth in our I’M… series of picture books about kids’ emotions.

And I’m also SO enjoying working on my middle-grade novel right now! It’s been a lifelong dream of mine to get my middle-grade novels published someday, and it’s how I got my (awesome) agent many years ago. While I was trying to get the attention of the children’s book publishing industry through those novels, I was “discovered” as a picture book illustrator. I have embraced the picture book world for the past decade and look forward to continuing to help create picture books….BUT I am really missing working on middle-grade writing, so am scheduling in more regular time to work on it.

At first, it was challenging getting going on my longer-form writing again because of multiple reasons (much-needed eye surgery and the pandemic were just two) but now I’m back in the flow. There’s still no guarantee my novel will ever get published, of course, but first I need to FINISH WRITING IT.

Thanks to the Freedom app for helping me on my journey!

Writer and illustrator Debbie Ridpath Ohi

To keep up with Debbie and her projects follow her on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube. Debbie’s latest book, I’M SORRY will be published this fall by Simon & Schuster and is available for pre-order.