Chances are, as a creative person, you have dozens of ideas for art you want to make, projects you want to launch, and much more. But bridging the gap between ideas and execution can be incredibly challenging because you don't know where to start or if you're even working on the right idea. People who consistently bring their ideas to life face the same struggles. However, they do some small things that make a big difference.
No extraordinary journey is linear. The notion of having a bold idea and making consistent incremental progress is impossible. Those seeking a linear journey can still be successful, but often they struggle to create anything new. - Scott Belsky, The Messy Middle
Unless you capture your ideas, you'll never be able to capitalize on them. Ideas are messy, don't occur on a schedule, and come to us at inconvenient times such as when we're at the gym, in the car, or out and about. This is why it's important to develop idea capture systems.
You should always carry a notebook. As I said in An Audience of One, a notebook is fertile soil for creative ideas. I can trace back books I've written, events I've planned, and just about every creative project to something I wrote down in one of my notebooks. Even if all you do is write down one sentence a day, it will do wonders for you.
A Spark File
A few years ago, Steven Johnson wrote an article on Medium about creating a spark file, and said the following:
For the past eight years or so I've been maintaining a single document where I keep all my hunches: ideas for articles, speeches, software features, startups, ways of framing a chapter I know I'm going to write, even whole books. I now keep it as a Google document so I can update it from wherever I happen to be. There's no organizing principle to it, no taxonomy--just a chronological list of semi-random ideas that I've managed to capture before I forgot them. I call it the spark file.
While I've never kept a spark file myself, plenty of people find it invaluable. I think tools like Workflowwy are great for that. But you can use a Google doc, Evernote, or even just notes on your phone. The tool doesn't matter as much as the habit.
A Personal Knowledge Management System
We produce and consume more information than we have at any other time in history. Every day there are millions of new pieces of content on the internet. Because your brain is a terrible place to store information, you need to build a second one. That second brain is your personal knowledge management system.
Between writing books, interviewing authors, and my own personal interests, I read a lot of books. Because I want to be able to remember and take action on what I read, I've created a personal knowledge management system in Notion. It's a digital version of Ryan Holiday's notecard system.
After reading each book, I put it on my shelf for a week. Then I come back and create an entry in Notion for that book, and put in the most important things that I wanted to remember. When I'm interviewing authors, it allows me to reference sections of their book, and if I want to use any of it to support my own writing, I have it at my finger tips.
In addition to the notes from the books I'm reading, I also have an editorial calendar for articles. Each idea has a status (idea, in progress, ready for proofread, published). Between doing this and writing 1,000 words a day, I am able to consistently come up with new ideas to write about.
A Shitty Idea Well Executed is Still a Shitty Idea
It's been said before that ideas are worthless, and what matters is execution. While this is partially true, executing a shitty idea well doesn't change the fact that it's a shitty idea. For example, in his book The 10% Entrepreneur, Patrick Mcginnis shares the story of an aspiring entrepreneur who wanted to create Tinder for dogs. Even if he executed it to perfection, that wouldn't change the fact that it's a shitty idea.
When you're attempting to get from idea to execution, you have to learn how to navigate ambiguity. You may not know all of the steps in advance, which can feel really overwhelming.
Consider something as simple as writing a blog post. When I write down an idea for a blog post, I have no clue how I will take it from a title to a full length article. But because I wrote it down, I unconsciously scan the world for any material that might be relevant to the article I want to write. If I hear someone say something in an interview on the podcast, I'll put that into the document I've created for the article.
I originally thought this article was going to be about building a personal knowledge management system, after reading another blog post about that topic. But given the fact that my community is full of creative people, it made more sense to write an article and write about how a personal knowledge system could help them execute their ideas.
To navigate ambiguity, you have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Uncertainty is inevitable in the process of going from idea to execution with every creative project.
Action is the Path to Clarity
At the start of any idea, you have to navigate ambiguity. For a year, our content strategist Kinghsuk had been hammering me on his question of, "What do you do and who do you do it for? That's not clear."
But after close to a year of writing and half a dozen one-on-one clients, it became clear. I help creative individuals and organizations bring their ideas to life using research-backed principles from neuroscience and behavioral psychology.
Action is the path that gets you from ambiguity to clarity. If you take a first step and it's the wrong one, you learn what doesn't work. If you take a first step and it's the right one, then you make a bet on what the next move will be. An action of any kind is better than doing nothing because the view changes. You'll see what you couldn't before.
Make Little Bets Instead of Taking Big Risks
At the moment, we are working on a new event for our listeners. Because we don't have a clue what the demand is, it would be foolish and insane to pay for an event venue and hope that people show up.
Instead we're making a series of what Peter Sims refers to as "Little Bets". These are low-risk actions that give you useful feedback to help you determine your next action.
We built a simple landing page and started collecting email addresses. The number of people who sign up to be notified when tickets go on sale will determine if we should keep moving forward. If nobody is interested, we will pull the plug.
When Chris Rock prepares for a national comedy tour, he makes little bets by testing all his ideas at open mic nights. If a joke flops, he removes it from the routine. By the time he's on the national stage, all of that material has been tested.
When I published The Art of Being Unmistakable, I made dozens of little bets by posting sections as Facebook status updates. I was able to measure the emotional resonance of the content and when I combined it all together, it struck a major chord with my readers.
You can plan, prepare and research something until you're blue in the face. At some point you have to execute. Procrastination, preparation, and research are forms of resistance because the moment you stop doing those things, you have skin in the game. You might lose money, create something that doesn't resonate with its intended audience, or reveal the fact that your idea is terrible. But as Seth Godin says, “The key to having lots of good ideas to have lots of bad ones.”
Execution is a combination of little bets, things that might not work, and things that blow up in your face. You adapt to whatever happens, determine your next move, and keep going.
Moving Your Projects Forward
In the interviews about her amazing book Becoming, Michelle Obama described Barack Obama as a plate spinner, someone who is at his best when he has a lot going on. For people who are creative, this happens naturally.
At any given time, I'm usually working on a new book idea, articles for the week, and the podcast. But if you want to keep the plates spinning, and not end up with broken dishes all over the floor, you have to know how to move your projects forward, and also decide which plates to stop spinning.
Take Minimum Viable Actions
If you care about something it will elicit resistance. For the writers, the hard part isn't writing, but sitting down to write. In An Audience of One, I suggested that people overcome this by taking a minimal viable action.
- Commit to opening a notebook instead of hitting a word count.
- Drive to the gym instead of deciding you're going to work out every day.
If you do something enough days in a row, the inertia will get you from minimum viable action to momentum.
Track Your Progress
Tracking your progress is invaluable because it has a massive impact on your motivation. Too often, people measure their progress based on outcomes, which causes them to believe they are not making any. But if you focus on the lead measure, the things you can control, the number of words you wrote, call you made, or days you made it to the gym, then you'll not only make progress but stay motivated throughout the process.
Break Everything up into the Smallest Manageable Parts
The main reason people don't finish what they start is because their efforts are unsustainable.
- You're not going to write a great American novel in one sitting.
- You're not going to build an empire over a weekend.
- You're not going to get fit from a week long insane crash diet and exercise program.
Significant accomplishments require a consistent investment of time, attention, and energy.
The first time I saw a blank Google doc after signing the contract to write my first book, I was paralyzed by fear, self doubt and a voice in my head saying, "I wonder if my editor is going to think giving me a book deal was a mistake.” But I knew if I showed up every day and made an effort, eventually I'd finish a book.
In the process of planning an event, there are hundreds if not thousands of little tasks that need to get done. Pick a location, reach out to speakers, put up a web site, etc, etc. This is why people take a year to plan a wedding and the planning process for a book or product launch begins months in advance of the release.
Decide What's Not Essential
When I started working with my first mentor Greg in 2013, he had me make a list of all the various ways I was making money: as a freelance writer for an online marketing site, managing social media for a pro-surfer, and book marketing for a few authors. He asked me a really important question. "Do you want to be doing any of that 5 years from now?" The answer was no.
In the months that followed, I self published The Art of Being Unmistakable, which eventually led to the opportunity to write An Audience of One and Unmistakable: Why Only is Better Than Best. Scattered focus leads to scattered results. Laser focus leads to progress, momentum, and escape velocity.
There's a profound power to consistently doing something over an extended period of time, and it will do far more for your creative progress than doing it inconsistently over a short period of time. For momentum, objects in motion have to stay in motion.
So how do you put this into practice? Take inventory of your current ideas. Capture them somewhere. Then pick one, and use the ideas above to move it forward. Once you've made enough progress, then add another idea to the pipeline. As you continue to do this, you will become a prolific and productive creative.