Five Tips For Making Ideas Happen


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.


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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:

  1. 1

    Thank you so much for this article. It really spoke to me, and helped me identify why I have been feeling so frustrated with my projects lately. Now, to take the necessary steps to improve the way I work!

  2. 52


    April 21, 2010 6:25 pm

    Take this article… Read it everyday for a month until you have memorized the concepts then…. Get after your dreams.

  3. 103

    This article nailed the habits of some of us so well that it’s quite scary.

    And Scott, you did a hell of a job explaining things too! This is one of the most insightful articles on smashingmag. Great job! Hope to see more of this writing.

  4. 154

    really helpful. thanks

  5. 205

    Entrepreneurs by nature face many of the problems listed above, especially the ‘boredom’ part.

    The way I overcame this was to keep my mind on the end result, writing it on a piece of paper and reading it morning and night. The end result in my case would allow me to release an endless stream of creativitity and thus kept me motivated.

    I also partnered with someone who was good at ‘gerring things done’. It was very clear that having someone who was focused on finishing things would compliments my entrepreneurial spirit. It was not a business risk as the ideas are still with me, but the ‘doer’ in the partnership makes sure my ideas succeed.

    Some people may frown upon this, but as I have mentioned many times on my blog, a little peice of something good is better then the whole share of nothing…

  6. 256

    Very good, nice how it’s focussed on practical solutions that you can really implement.

  7. 307

    Great article!!! thanks SM!!

  8. 358

    Very interesting… I guess, without planned action, a good idea stays exactly that: an idea.

  9. 409

    I actually never read a complete article, but this one I found so interesting that I read till the end. It really raised some self-awareness and the tips are very useful! Thanks a lot!

  10. 460

    Very interesting post (and oh how true.. ) !!

  11. 511

    Awesome tips – thanks for referring to the project plateau as a higher point! Makes it feel a bit better as it is a point you have stretched to reach and the plateau can be a place to catch your breath before striking out for the summit! It can be a huge challenge to lead a team or even your partners off the plateau! It is the time for true leadership and do as I do behavior!

  12. 562

    Danielle Molenaar

    April 22, 2010 4:40 am

    What a great article! Right now I’m in the middle of several project ideas so this post captured my attention right away. Thanks for the tips, I’ll be implementing them straight away!

  13. 613

    The project plateau is so true. Happens to me way too many times, haha. I definitely need to work on fighting through that phase and keeping on with my idea.

  14. 664

    Marcy from The Glamorous Life Association

    April 22, 2010 6:05 am

    This is a life changing post. No. REALLY.

    I wrote about how this has changed me here…


  15. 715

    Is it ironic that it took me 3 days to finally sit down and read this article?

  16. 766

    Paul Letourneau

    April 22, 2010 6:35 am

    Great article! It unfortunately defines me to a tee! Especially the project plateau part

  17. 817

    pretty helpful !

  18. 868

    God help me overcome the project plateau!

  19. 919

    Thanks for this article, this is the most useful topic i ever seen. It makes me realize that I am currently insecurity. Thanks again

  20. 970

    Absolutely great!!! It helped me understand myself in a deeper way

  21. 1021

    Very good article I’ve always been intrigued by psychology.

  22. 1072

    I am on Project Plateau on so many projects it’s not funny. I’ve taken to holding out things I really want to do as rewards for finishing a project.

    The way to do it is to start the new idea, but still allot your 15 minutes of work to each of the others. You can write almost a full page in 15 minutes, if you’re a slow typist like me.

  23. 1123

    Great article. The whole point five and “project plateau” hit it on the head when it comes to why new ideas fizzle down. Great!

  24. 1174

    Essential Reading! thank you very much.

  25. 1225

    Thank you for this post – great points that I will start driving to my brain right now! First things first is breaking my email addiction … tricky while starting my new business – I feel like I have to be as prompt as possible to keep clients happy, but you’ve reinforced what I already knew, don’t let email prevent from doing the work.

  26. 1276

    Never in my life have I commented on blogs. This is my first .. just trying to say how impressive this article is!!!

  27. 1327

    Thank you! Very cleanly thought-out article.

    As a sysadmin, I find that I’m already doing the first 4 steps pretty successfully:

    1) you won’t get any important work (planning and testing) done as a sysadmin if you’re being reactionary – though in IT, there will be a non-trivial amount of reactionary work regardless. The key is to try to do enough planning and testing to reduce the amount of reactionary work you’ve got to do.
    2) IT is complex. If you can’t break a problem down, you’re not going to get it done. The process I find myself falling into is keeping just enough notes to stay on top of things: I’ve got several legal pads I scrawl things on (yes, I’m a bit old-fashioned) with dates and/or project scope at the top of the page, segregated to pad by the type of work. Sticky notes will grow on my desk and wall until I come back to them, organize them, throw half of them out, and put the other half in a notebook or some other form of long-term storage (if it’s Important).

    Sticky notes are your friend; they help organize complex ideas and reduce them to something brief.

    3) This one is really important, not only for yourself but also for the group: it helps you keep each other accountable and assists in keeping everyone on the same page. Without at least a brief “this is what I’m working on, this is what I’ll be working on” every couple days (even if it’s just a 2-sentence exchange) it’s quite significant to not feeling like you’re floundering.

    4) I’m not sure I’ve got too much “insecurity work”; in my line of work, if something has to be repeated, it’s for a good reason (monitoring tasks) or it can be scripted. I try to do as much of the later as possible so as little of the former is required.

    5) This is a big one for me. It seems like as soon as I’m making headway on a project, something else big lands in my lap and pulls me away for days/weeks until it’s finished; meanwhile, I’ve lost momentum and focus (nevermind my mental mental map) on the original project. It’s a constant struggle and my biggest work-related frustration.

    The difficult part is #5.

  28. 1378

    Perfect timing for me to read this post… It’s articles like this that are the biggest reason Ive been a smashingmag reader for so long. Thanks!

  29. 1429

    Excellent post! I didn’t even realize I was doing some of the more unproductive things on that list until I saw them in black and white, thought provoking.

  30. 1480

    Easily one of the more important documents I’ve read on being an artist. I have so many ideas in black books, sketches, half-finished Photoshop files, and it at times makes me feel somewhat less of an artist. I’m glad to see I’m not alone here though, and I’ll implement these steps like, STAT.

  31. 1531

    Man, I’d love to buy this book, but the shipping alone is the value of the book itself..

  32. 1582

    What a great article and some killer insights!

  33. 1633

    Excellent post!

  34. 1684

    nice article!

  35. 1735

    I’m finally developing (and will launch) an on-line business. Hard to believe I found my old “idea” notes & I was planning it as a mail order biz. That’s a long plateau! Your insight is great. Now I can recognize what is happening & deal with it.

  36. 1786

    Thank you for this post Scott, running out to B&N this weekend for the book.

  37. 1837

    The Project Plateau is just brilliant. That’s something I feel all the time!

  38. 1888

    Great tips considering that my companies tagline is “…because success comes not from great ideas, but from those which are implemented.”

    Having great ideas is not only about the idea, butmore importantly which ones are worth pursuing. Great organizations put processes in place that help their teams not only ideate, but identify, pursue and implement their ideas. Many use idea management software.

  39. 1939

    Sardar Mohkim Khan

    April 25, 2010 2:19 am

    Good points. There must be a plan and your actions should never be reactionary. It just paints a terrible picture for the team and people who are associated to the brand.

    Thanks for the article – really nice and informative

  40. 1990

    Great for me…. I have been facing the same problem for last few weeks.

  41. 2041

    As someone who frequently says “I have more ideas than time.” this article really sums it up for me. I always seem to come up with a critical short-term project each week that takes time away from the Big Project, and so progress on the big one is almost invisible. Thanks. This one is a keeper.

  42. 2092

    Great article… worth the read.

  43. 2143

    okay. would not have found this article if I was not totally engaging in a reactionary workflow. but never mind. excellent!!!!! thanks for inputing into my brain.

  44. 2194

    Really helpful article. Definitely something I can use. Thanks!

  45. 2245

    I really like the points about the “project plateau” – spot on!!

  46. 2296

    This article came at the right time for me – I’ve been thinking about my projects unfinished, that don’t have the energy behind them anymore, and I definitely have the tendency to leave an older, stagnating idea in favor of a new exciting one. Thanks for that!

  47. 2347

    Maura Alia Badji

    April 30, 2010 10:41 am

    Follow through to completion has often been a challenge, complicated by ADD & a packed work/life schedule. I like the way this article breaks it down. I found the Project Plateau theory very useful.



  48. 2398

    Very nice article on putting ideas into action and getting the output. Really helped me. Thanks.

  49. 2449

    Thank you for articles like these they really help.

  50. 2500

    After reading this article feel as if i have been taken off from a dark room, …. Thanks scott belsky…..!!!


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