It’s sad but true, most great ideas never see the light of day. And it’s our fault.
We get overwhelmed with the constant flow of urgent little things and fail to focus enough on the big things – the long-term goals.
We feel burdened by the doldrums of project management and escape by coming up with a new idea – abandoning our creative pursuits in exchange for something new and exciting.
We crave distraction. Our mobile devices are always blinking and buzzing, and we have almost lost the sacred space required to think big picture and solve big problems.
It is no wonder that most ideas never happen. However, we must confront our obstacles directly. Creativity is not only a sacred gift and opportunity, it is also a responsibility.
Some creative people and teams are able to defy the odds and make their ideas happen, time and time again. In the process of writing my book, MAKING IDEAS HAPPEN, I had the opportunity to meet with and chronicle the insights of the anomalies that consistently make their ideas happen.
Here are a few that you should keep in mind as you embark on creative projects.
Without realizing it, most of us have started to live a life of “reactionary workflow.” We are constantly bombarded with incoming communications – email, text, twitter, facebook, phone calls, instant messenger, etc… Rather than be proactive with our energy, we are spending all of our energy being reactive and living at the mercy of the last incoming thing. To avoid reactionary workflow, some of the most productive people I have met schedule “windows of non-stimulation” in their day. For a 2-3 hour period of time, these people minimize their email and all other source of incoming communication. With this time, they focus on a list of long-term items – not their regular tasks, but long-term projects that require research and deep thought.
Perhaps “sacred space” is a new life tenet that we must adopt in the 21st century? Since we know that unplugging will only become more difficult over time, we will need to develop a discipline for ourselves. Back in the day when the TV became a staple of every American home, parents started mandating time for their children to read. “TV time” became a controlled endeavor because, otherwise, it would consume every waking moment. Now, every waking moment is “connected time,” and we need to start controlling it. We need some rules. When it comes to scheduling, we will need to allocate blocks of time for deep thinking. Maybe you will carve out a 1-2 hour block on your calendar every day for taking a walk or grabbing a cup of coffee and just pondering some of those bigger things. I can even imagine a day when homes and apartments have a special switch that shuts down wi-fi and data access during dinner or at night – just to provide a temporary pause from the constant flow of status updates and other communications.
Every project in life can ultimately be reduced to just 3 primary elements: Action Steps, Backburner Items, and References. Action Steps are succinct tasks that start with verbs. They should be kept separate from your notes and sketches. Backburner Items are ideas that come up during a brainstorm or on the run that are not actionable but may someday be. Backburner Items should be collected in a central location and should be revisited periodically through some sort of ritual. One leader I met prints out his list of Backburner Items (kept on a running Word document) on the first Sunday of every month. He grabs the list and then sits down and reviews the entire list. Some items get crossed out as irrelevant, some remain on the list, and some are transformed into Action Steps. The third element of every project is References – the articles, notes, and other stuff that collects around you. It turns out that References are overrated. Rather than spend tons of time organizing your notes, consider keeping a chronological file where all your notes are simply filed chronologically (not by project name or other means). In the age of digital calendars, you can search for any meeting and quickly find the notes taken on that date.
Meetings are extremely expensive if you consider the cost of time and interruption. Beware of “Posting Meetings” or meeting just because its Monday. Such meetings are often planned for the morning – when you’re most productive – and often end without any Action Steps captured. A meeting that ends without any Action Steps should have been a voice-mail or an e-mail. When you do meet with clients or colleagues, end each meeting with a quick review of captured Action Steps. The exercise takes less than 30 seconds per person. Each person should share what they captured. Doing so will almost always reveal a few Action Steps that were either missed, duplicated, or misunderstood. Stating your Action Steps aloud also breeds a sense of accountability.
Everyone has their own approach to idea generation. There’s no “best way” to be creative. But when it comes to the process of executing an idea, there’s a common challenge that we all face: sticking with it. Most ideas are abandoned on what I’ve come to call the “project plateau” – the point at which creative excitement wanes and the pain of deadlines and project management becomes extremely burdensome. To escape the pain, we generate a new idea (and thus abandon the one we were working on). This process can easily repeat itself ad infinitum, without us ever finishing anything meaningful. It takes a new approach to projects, tweaking how you manage your energy, and short-circuiting the old-school reward system that keeps us all pushing forward.
Show your ideas some respect. Creativity is not only a sacred gift and opportunity, it is also a responsibility.
By Scott Belsky
Scott Belsky studies exceptionally productive people and teams in the creative world. He is the Founder and CEO of Behance which helps creatives make online portfolios, oversees The 99% think tank, and is the author of Making Ideas Happen: Overcoming The Obstacles Between Vision & Reality.