Five Tips For Making Ideas Happen

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Creative types have a problem. We have so many great ideas, but most of them never see the light of day. Why do most ideas never happen? The reason is that our own creative habits get in the way. For example, our tendency to generate new ideas often gets in the way of executing the ones we have. As a result, we abandon many projects halfway through. Whether a personal website, a new business idea or a long-dreamt novel, most of these projects stagnate and become a source of frustration.

Some creative people and teams are able to defy the odds and make their ideas happen, time and again. In my work, I have spent the better part of five years meeting these exceptional people and chronicling their habits and insight, which has resulted in the following tips and suggestions for making ideas happen.

1. Avoid A Reactionary Workflow

Avoid Living In a State of Reactionary Workflow

Without realizing it, most of us have gradually adopted a “reactionary workflow.” We are constantly bombarded with incoming communication: email, text messages, tweets, Facebook posts, phone calls, instant messages, etc. Rather than be proactive with our energy, we spend all of our energy reacting, enslaved to the last incoming item.

To avoid this reactionary workflow, some of the most productive people I have met schedule what can be called “windows of non-stimulation” in their day. For two to three hours per day, these people avoid email and all other incoming communication. In this time, they focus on their list of big items: not routine tasks, but long-term projects that require research and deep thought.

Another idea is to aggregate all messages in a central location. Setting your social networks to email you, and using filters to automatically manage these emails, will reduce your “hopping time” (when you hop between sources of communication) and focus your attention. Some people even have their voice mails transcribed automatically and forwarded by email. In a world of many inboxes, you have to consolidate.

2. Strip Projects To Three Primary Elements

Project Plateau

Every project in life can ultimately be reduced to just three primary elements: 1) action steps, 2) backburner items and 3) references. Action steps are tasks that can be articulated succinctly and begin with verbs. They should be kept separate from your notes and sketches.

Backburner items are ideas that come up during brainstorming or while on the run and that are not actionable but may be later on. Backburner items should be collected in a central location and revisited periodically as a ritual. One leader I met prints out his list of backburner items (which he stores in Word document) on the first Sunday of every month. He grabs the sheet (and a beer) and then sits down to review the entire list. Some items will be crossed off as irrelevant, some will remain on the list, and some will be transformed into action steps.

The third element of every project is references: the articles, notes and other stuff that collect around you. It turns out that references are overrated. Rather than spend hours organizing your notes, consider simply filing your notes chronologically (i.e. not by project or anything else) in one big file. In the age of digital calendars, we can search for any meeting and quickly find the notes taken on that date.

3. Measure Meetings With Action Steps

Measure Meetings With Action Steps

Meetings are extremely expensive considering the cost of time and interruptions they represent. Beware of “posting meetings” or meeting “just because it’s Monday.” Such meetings are usually scheduled for the morning—when you’re at your most productive—and often end without any action steps having been captured. A meeting that ends without any action steps should have been a voice mail or email.

When you do meet with clients or colleagues, end each meeting with a quick review and capture the action steps. The exercise should take 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 missed, duplicated or misunderstood. Reading your action steps aloud also cultivates a sense of accountability.

4. Reduce Your Insecurity Work

Reduce Your Level of Insecurity Work

In the era of Google Analytics and Twitter, we spend too much time obsessing over real-time data because it’s all at our fingertips. Whether it’s your website’s traffic or bank account, checking these repeatedly doesn’t help make your ideas happen. They just make you feel “safe.” Insecurity work is stuff we do that (1) has no definable outcome, (2) does not move the ball forward in any way and (3) takes up so little time that we can do it multiple times a day without realizing it. Still, it puts us at ease.

The first step to reducing insecurity work is becoming self-aware. Identify the insecurity work in your daily life. The second step is to establish guidelines and rituals for yourself that create discipline. Perhaps you could try restricting all of your insecurity work to a particular 30 minutes every day? The third step, if applicable, is to delegate your insecurity tasks to a less insecure colleague, who can review the data periodically and report any concerns.

5. The Creative Process Is About Surviving The “Project Plateau.”

Project Plateau

Everyone has their own approach to generating ideas. There’s no “best way” to be creative. But when it comes to the process of executing ideas, we all face one challenge in particular: sticking with it. Most ideas are abandoned at what I’ve come to call the “project plateau”: the point when creative excitement wanes and the pain of deadlines and project management becomes burdensome. To escape this pain, we generate a new idea (and abandon the one we were working on). This process can easily repeat itself ad infinitum, without us ever finishing anything meaningful.

Show your ideas some respect, and spend some energy improving how you execute. If not for you, do it for everyone else who will benefit from your ideas once they actually see the light.

(al)

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Scott is the Founder of Behance, the leading online platform to showcase and discover creative work, and Adobe’s Vice President of Products/Community. Millions of people use Behance to display and find talent every month. Behance also runs 99U, a think tank and annual conference for creative leaders focused on the execution of ideas. Scott is the author of the international bestselling book Making Ideas Happen (Portfolio, Penguin Books). In 2010, Scott was included in Fast Company's list of “100 Most Creative People in Business.” He also serves as an advisor and investor in several early-stage companies including Pinterest, Uber, and Warby Parker. He serves on Cornell University's Entrepreneurship Advisory Council and the Board of Trustees for the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. Scott attended Cornell University as an undergraduate and received his MBA from Harvard Business School. Website: http://scottbelsky.com

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  1. 1

    Nice! very helpful.

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  2. 6

    Nice simple steps to getting it out there, making it simple to adopt is a big plus

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  3. 7

    Matthew Mueller

    April 21, 2010 6:30 am

    Loved it! Thanks!

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  4. 8

    Man, now I realize I needed someone to put this in words. I´ve spent so much time starting new projects when I reached the plateau that I have quite a big portfolo of unfinished works…

    Fortunately I´m only amateur so I can afford it, but maybe it´s time to finish some of my best ideas before starting new ones, so that I can look back from time to time and feel like I like what I do (and finish).

    Thank you, thank you so much.

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    • 9

      I am in the same boat. I’ve had two of my ideas reach the plateau and then get put into place by someone else… that hurts.

      I have a project I started a couple weeks ago and I’m trying my hardest to focus enough energy on it to see it through!

      Great post!

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      • 10

        Last night I found 3 of the ideas i had in the pipeline (but were procrastinating on) had been completed this week by other people. Tears. And then this article arrives the next day. The world is telling me something.

        Must use the ‘Pomodoro technique’ more and get these projects moving along.

        Thanks for the great article.

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    • 11

      that is sooo true, I was reading this article and every second sentence I was like ” OMG! I thought that just yesterday!” so it’s so good that Scott Belsky took time to put it in words for us. It kind of makes me feel that I’m on the right track with my self-observation and everything else to do with execution and stuff.

      It’s important to be aware of those patterns, or else it’s easy to slip into utter self-disappointment.

      Good news, is that apparently we’re not alone – everyone has same problems..cool!

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  5. 12

    Thomas Vestergaard

    April 21, 2010 6:35 am

    Oh, this post speaks directly to my bad conscience.
    Getting the ideas is fun and easy, but getting them done and making it a success is far more difficult.

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  6. 13

    HA, I knew it, lots of days I refuse to check my email until the end of the work day, and people always ask why I haven’t responded to the emails they have sent, apparently I am doing something correct.

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    • 14

      I hear you on the email trap as I call, it’s so easy to get stuck/lost in emails going back and forth you never get the work done. I check once in the morning, then once before the end of the day.

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  7. 15

    Pietro Polsinelli

    April 21, 2010 6:53 am

    Avoid being slave to your Lizard Brain: http://devineu.eu/lb.jsp

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  8. 16

    Great Article!

    Could you please let us know what industry you work in and how you apply it practically? It’ll be great to hear your take.

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  9. 17

    I suffer from idea paralysis too, maybe these tips will help me get started on an idea and actually stick with it till the end. I’ve been juggling dozens of ideas recently and one is really sticking out.

    The biggest problem is making time for it, work takes a big chunk then I get the evenings which I usually use to think about something else than work/development.

    Good article!

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  10. 18

    Crinid | The Art of Having Great Ideas

    April 21, 2010 7:17 am

    Excellent blogpost, loved the visualizations. If anything I’d add to set clear goals, not only in the far future when your idea will be ‘done’, but write out your milestones as well. In my experience a very effective way to get through that Project Plateau :)

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  11. 19

    Richard Proctor

    April 21, 2010 7:21 am

    I used to check my email and respond twice a day, before lunch and before leaving. Now in this always connected world, I have developed the unhealthy habit of checking my email on my phone as it arrives. Must sort that one out.

    I also suffer from the project plateau, I get bored, then doubt myself (because if I am bored, the idea can’t be that great!), then create something new before returning to my original plan sometimes months later. Fail!

    Thanks for helping me understand my own issues.

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    • 20

      Oh same here suffering it right now!! Bored, mybe the ideas not that great , starting to think of this other great idea !!! oh no the cycle continues. Thing is my wife has started a business and each time she hit the plateau I kept telling her to stick at it , guess what shes starting to do really well. now!

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  12. 21

    love your work guy

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  13. 22

    haha, I was gonna say “this is right out of Scott Belsky’s new book, “Making Ideas Happen.”

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  14. 23

    This article is extremely helpful and came in just in time.

    I will be categorizing my ideas from now on and keep the tips.

    Thanks!

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  15. 24

    Great article! I thought there was something wrong with me. I always start great ideas and then they fizzle out and I lose interest. Glad to hear this is common. Now if I could just stop checking my rss feed and reading all these articles and get to work…

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  16. 25

    Jon-Eric Steinbomer

    April 21, 2010 7:52 am

    Great post, thanks for sharing your insights – and a nice visualization of the Project Plateau that I’ve visited often!

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  17. 26

    Number four couldn’t apply to me any better. I’ve got to get away from the little check and go tasks that take over my work time and focus more on the work itself. As a designer I need to create, and so often do I get pulled away from that.

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  18. 27

    Sometimes I write down my big ideas, then review them several months later. This gives my brain time to “cool down” on all the big things that I’m excited about and determine which ideas really have merit.

    When I revist those ideas several months later, I can then pick the one I want to move forward with.

    Good post.

    Josh

    *I want to be careful not to “link drop”, but the site below is one of my ideas that literally took months to come to fruition. When it did, I sat down and focused on the project for 2 straight weeks and tried to eliminate all distractions.

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  19. 28

    Simple, genuine, and useful. You called me out on a number of bad habits. Thanks!

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  20. 29

    Very useful tips! I will revisit them periodically.

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  21. 30

    I liked the Project Plateau chart. This is so true. I never get to finish bigger projects because I get less and less excited about them after some time. Then the new exciting project comes along and the old, unfinished one is left behind.

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  22. 31

    Nice for ADD’ ers to :)

    Thanks!

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  23. 32

    Ideal article for me right now. I have a fantastic idea / project that is kind of just sat there in need of a lot of planning, scheduling and development. Sometimes sitting back and looking at everything in less details simplifies the processes :)

    Thanks

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  24. 33

    This has just become my new Bible!

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  25. 34

    Thank you for this article, just what I needed!

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  26. 35

    ADDrynalineRush

    April 21, 2010 8:54 am

    You hit a universal with this one, man. Great piece.

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  27. 36

    I’ve been trying to cut down my email time to 3 times a day during work hours, but it doesn’t always work :)

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  28. 37

    Great post!

    I use the principles of ‘Getting Things Done’ to be more productive and it works great so far, but point 5 hit the nail on the head! The graph shows exactly how I feel when new ideas pass by.

    For me the project plateau means executing the idea and mainly executing an idea is not very creative. Because my mind wants to be creative a new idea pops up and there I am working on a new Idea and delaying (read: never finishing) the first idea and so on.

    The way I try to solve it is by creating blanks in the idea. Those blanks are small parts of the idea that still have to be thought through. This way you can get creative again and keep a higher level of energy/excitement. Also I try to visualize a succesful outcome of the idea to keep the excitement high.

    Again, great post! Tnx!

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  29. 38

    Daniel Hertlein

    April 21, 2010 9:37 am

    That’s it, exactly.

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  30. 39

    This stuff was really great. Actually, I’m creating a CMS right now for travel agencies, and I’m on that plateau you mentioned, the work seems endless, and it’s rarely fascinating. The article helped me better understand the process I’m going through right now (most of the time I don’t have a clue what I’ll be doing next). Thanks!

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  31. 40

    This is an excellent article. You can apply these principles to just about any activity.

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  32. 41

    Right on, Scott!
    Thanks so much for inspiring order amidst the addictive chaos.
    Action, Backburner, and Reference is a great organizational mantra.

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  33. 42

    Thanks for a good article; I often find myself starting things and then dropping, I shall keep this in mind in future!
    Again, thank you!

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  34. 43

    Matthew Giovanisci

    April 21, 2010 10:06 am

    An absolute brilliant post. I have already updated my Google tasks into three categories: action steps, backburner items and references. This post really hit home for me.

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  35. 44

    This article was great! I’d love to hear more about step 5 though. What are some good methods for getting past the plateau?

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  36. 45

    Excellent article. I was very impressed with each tip and realize that I need to do better so I can get more things done. Thanks.

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  37. 46

    fantastic article!

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  38. 47

    Great tips… Thanks

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  39. 48

    You guys are amazing.. Great Tips.

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  40. 49

    Scott,

    Great article. This describes more about my work than I’d like to admit. As you mention, though, becoming self-aware is the first step to correcting these workflow issues. And when they’re explained in such a straightforward and organized manner, it makes them easy to identify and understand — or, should I say, harder to ignore!

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  41. 50

    great article. It’s almost as if you have been spying on me!

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  42. 51

    It’s good to know there’s more people out there who have had the same problem that I do and found solutions. I need to work on tip #5 :P

    Thanks for the post!

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  43. 52

    Thank you for taking the time to summarize these creative pitfalls. I have been so moved by the energy of a new idea I developed only to find myself equally frustrated at myself for dropping the ball to one of these traps.

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  44. 53

    I just read this article because someone emailed it to me and I responded to the email and read the article instead of staying focused on the project in front of me.

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  45. 54

    Muy muy útil, gracias !

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  46. 55

    Great article, thanks.
    As soon as I saw the project Plataea graph I new what you were talking about, I’ve had that experience before.

    Cheers mate.

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  47. 56

    The highlighting of the Project Plateau, and the number of comment responses from others suffering the same problem has cheered me up no end :-)

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  48. 57

    This is a great post, filled with valuable information packed into 5 easy to understand tips. “Avoiding Reactionary Workflow” is a great tip. All to often we are distracted by something like e-mail, that takes us away from a revenue generating task. Personally, I’ve turned off the sound Microsoft Outlook is programed to make when an e-mail arrives. This way, I don’t get distracted by the “ding” of what is more likely thatn not, spam. Thanks for the reminder and the other 4 tips too!

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  49. 58

    Very well put.

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  50. 59

    Thanks for the interesting post.

    The project plateau theory is to true.

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