Ultimately, every idea is associated with a project, whether personal (a birthday part you are planning) or professional (a new product launch), every project revolves around ideas that you want to push into action
- Scott Belsky, Making Ideas Happemn
Many creative people have too many ideas. As a result they work on a thousand different things, but don't make progress on any of them. They're rarely able to translate their ideas into results. They struggle to make creative ideas happen.
They use their responsibilities as excuses for not pursuing their dreams. They underestimate the power of starting small and taking consistent actions.They get to the end of the year, or worse the end of their lives filled with regret over everything they never did.
- You have a book idea and had started a fun blog which you've barely touched.
- You're terrified of rejection, stalled by fear of reaching out to people or making yourself vulnerable by sharing what you do with the world.
- You can't find the motivation to get started
- You think you don't have the discipline to follow through.
Does any of this sound familiar? One way to solve this problem is by organizing all of your personal and professional ideas into projects, using the framework that Scott Belsky provides in his book Making Ideas Happen.
I've used this project management framework to make multiple ideas happen: writing a book, planning a conference, and producing an animated series. If you're struggling to make ideas happen, it's possible you just need a better method.
Develop an Organizational System for Your Ideas
Imagine if the library didn't have a Dewey Decimal System or a bookstore didn't organize its books by category. It would take you hours to find things. That store would have a difficult time selling books.
Yet, that's how many of us organize our ideas. Without an organizational system for your ideas, you'll always struggle to make them happen.
Use design-centric systems to stay organized: The color, texture, size, and style of the materials used to capture action steps are important. People who have successfully developed personal systems over years claim that their designs make their action steps more appealing - Scott Belsky, Making Ideas Happen: Overcoming the Obstacles Between Vision and Reality
Design-centric systems are not just about colors and fonts. They are also about how you organize information. I use three different systems to do this.
1. The Bullet Journal Method
Ryder Caroll developed this system using three phrases: Track the Past, Organize the Present, and Plan the Future. I like this system because it gives you an opportunity to unplug. It can be adapted and customized to your own needs. And it forces you to be intentional. Ryder poses three questions that are relevant, regardless of which systems you use.
- Is this vital?
- Does it matter?
- What would happen if I didn't do this?
When you do this, you'll find that the number of items on your to-do list shrinks. For example, I quickly realized that updating my status on Facebook wasn't vital and nothing bad would happen if I didn't do it. So, I was able to quit social media for 30 days without any consequences.
2. The Second-Brain Method
Externalizing information organizes the mind and allows it to be more creative. - Daniel Levitin, The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload
Nobody has a shortage of ideas, they just lack the discipline to capture them. But your brain is a terrible place to store information, so you should build a second one.
What goes in your second brain? This will be the central repository for your ideas, projects, and action plans. The tool that you use is not as important as the framework. I think Notion is the best tool on the market for organizing and executing creative projects. The primary purpose of your second brain is to organize your ideas.
Tiago Forte developed this system for personal knowledge management. He organizes information with the following framework:
- Areas of Interest
I use elements of his system primarily for resources. Because I interview so many authors for the Unmistakable Creative, I keep a running list of all the books I read along with my highlights in Notion. You can see it in the screenshot below.
This is also useful because I can easily find quotes, research, or any other material I want to reference when writing an article.
3. The Notecard System
Ryan Holiday learned this system while working for Robert Greene. If you've read a Robert Greene book, you know how much research goes into them. This is primarily for remembering what you've read and taking action, not necessarily organizing tasks.
- Read a book.
- 2 weeks later, revisit the book.
- Transfer your highlights onto notecards and put them into a box.
This is the most labor-intensive of the three, but Ryan swears by it. In our interview on The Unmistakable Creative, he mentioned that he had the idea for The Obstacle is The Way four years before he wrote it. He put it on a notecard, and the book sold over 300,000 copies. As Ryan said, "Many of these turn into nothing. But one of them is enough to build a career from."
4. The Action Method
This method is based on Scott Belsky's book. When I revisited the book a few days ago, I realized I'd used this project management framework to make many of my ideas happen:
Every project in life can be reduced into these three primary components.
Action Steps are the specific concrete tasks that inch you forward: redraft and send the memo, post the blog entry, pay the electric bill, etc.
References are any-project-related handouts, sketches, notes, meeting minutes, manuals, websites, or ongoing discussion that you may want to refer back to. It is important to note that references are not actionable—- they are simply there for reference when focusing on a particular project.
Finally, there are Backburner Items - things that are not actionable now but may be someday. Perhaps it is an idea for a client for which there is no budget yet. Or maybe it's something you intend to do in a particular project at an unforeseen time in the future.
-Scott Belsky, Making Ideas Happen
One thing you should notice is what Scott said about action steps. They "inch you forward." In other words, don't underestimate the deceptive power of starting small.
There's no "right way" to do this. Each person I mentioned above developed a system based on their own needs, weaknesses, and strengths. I use different elements of each.
When you follow anyone's advice to the letter, you overlook the blatantly obvious variable that throws off every formula for success: YOU. Take what works for you from above and discard the rest. Build the system according to your needs.
Choose five projects that matter the most: Recognize that compromise is a necessity. Some people narrow their list of important items to just five specific things. Family is often one of these five, along with a few other projects or passions that require everyday attention. The most important aspect of this list is what's not on it. - Scott Belsky, Making Ideas Happen
Lack of prioritization is the biggest reason people work on multiple projects without making progress on any of them.
When my mentor Greg started to work with me in 2013, he had me make a list of all the things that I was doing. Then he asked me if I wanted to be doing any of those in five years. For the bulk of those items, the answer was no. Three things were left:
- The podcast
- The event we were planning
Shortly after that, I wrote a book which became a Wall-Street Journal Best-Seller. That book eventually led to a book deal with a publisher. We rebranded our show as the Unmistakable Creative, and sold out a conference in two weeks.
You have to learn to say no to everything that's not aligned with your essential priorities, and prioritize what's important over what's urgent. If you're serious about bringing your ideas to life, you have to make space for what matters by letting go of what doesn't.
Execution - Bringing the Idea to Life
If you have something big you want to get done, break it up into chunks—meaningful, implementable, doable chunks. It makes time management much easier; you only need to manage time to get a single chunk done. And there’s neurochemical satisfaction at the completion of each stage. - Daniel Levitin, The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload
Great execution is an essential ingredient for translating ideas into output. Project management is a big part of how we run Unmistakable Creative.
At any given time, I have about 5 different projects going on. Some of them are ongoing and some of them will come to an end.
1. The Unmistakable Creative Podcast
This is my flagship project. It's the hub - and everything surrounding it is the spokes. Every week I record interviews, recruit new guests, and publish new episodes. Other people on our team edit the podcast and design album covers for each guest. If you dissect how it comes to life, you'll see the Action Method framework:
The Action Steps
- Recruit new guests
- Record interviews
- Design album covers
- Edit interviews
- Publish the interview
References: As I mentioned above, I read the books of every person I interview, and take notes. Those notes are my references. If I've read something in their bio that I found intriguing, it would go here as well.
Backburner: Every guest I say yes to is driven by one criteria. Does this person make me curious? If something or someone piqued my curiosity, they go in my list of guest ideas. That's how I end up with bank robbers, drug dealers, performance psychologists and billionaires as my guests. This is also where I'd put any ideas I have for potential guests.
While a good amount of this used to be manual, we've used Airtable to automate a lot of this process thanks to the work of my friend Gareth Pronovost, the founder of GAAP Consulting. With the advances being made in technology, you should be looking at everything you can automate, so you can spend your time on the parts of a project that can’t be automated.
2. The Unmistakable Creative Blog/Newsletter
I publish a small piece every day, 2 articles a week like this one, and 3 newsletters per week. Therefore capturing my ideas is critical.
I have a section of Notion called Freewriting, which is where I write my 1000 words a day. I don't transfer anything to the editorial calendar until it starts to take shape as an idea because a lot of free writing is incoherent psychobabble.
- The Second Brain: The editorial calendar which you see below is my second brain. That's where every article goes and it's given a status: idea, in progress, ready for proofreading, or published.
- The Action Step: After I finish writing it, I assign it as a task to my assistant Lauren to proofread and draft on our website and Medium. This is the action step.
- The References: I will also refer back to my reading list to weave in quotes that might be relevant to what I'm writing. Those could be quotes from books or even from transcripts of our interviews.
What you'll notice is that for my written content, I use a combination of ingredients from the organizational systems I mentioned above.
3. Client Work
I work with and coach a handful of clients, helping them to write books, and bring their ideas to life. And after the third client, I realized I needed to standardize the process. So I developed a template for each client, with the following organizational system:
- Call Recordings (Second Brain)
- Homework Assignments (Action Steps)
- Project Materials (Second Brain)
- Additional Resources (References)
Because each client is different, I needed a framework that's constrained enough to be clear, but loose enough to be modified.
4. Special Projects
In the interviews about her recent book, Michelle Obama described Barack as somebody who is at his best when spinning plates. He gets one spinning and adds more. I feel the same way. If I'm not making something I'm not happy. To me ABC means Always Be Creating. So I do a number of special projects that range from animation to books to ones like our upcoming event, The Architects of Reality.
It was the special projects that caused me to revisit Scott Belsky's book and write this article. I wrote it just to clarify my own thoughts about this. With special projects, you have to start small and break them up into 1000 pieces.
I've jokingly said that planning a conference is like a wedding with no wife or sex at the end of it. And I'm sure my mother would much rather I was planning a wedding instead of a conference. With special projects you have to make decisions by thinking in bets. That means taking small risks and continually raising the stakes.
For example, when our soon-to-be event manager Elaine and I spoke for the first time, I told her about one cardinal rule I follow for events: "Never spend your own money. Only funds from ticket sales." She asked, "How do you plan to pay for my services"? I said, "You're the event manager, you tell me." She suggested selling early bird tickets. I reduced my risk. Problem solved.
For something like a conference, the Action Method is the one that makes the most sense. But let's break a conference down to the basics:
- Pick a date/location
- Recruit speakers
- Sell tickets
The first two things are done. “The Architects of Reality” will be April 9-11, 2020. I've emailed the speakers and they've all confirmed. Those are my first few action steps. We've also been mentioning the event on our podcast every episode and built a pre-launch list. The easiest parts are done.
In Notion, I have a list of tasks that I need to do each day to keep everything moving forward (Action Steps).
I also use my bullet journal to write down anything that might occur to me. The bullet journal is where the idea for this event was born.
I've also included video below to explain how all of this works inside of Notion.
If you know anything about me, you're aware that I have to get shit done despite having ADHD. Systems like the ones above are essential for creative output. If I didn't have them, I'd never get a damn thing done.
Imagine you have a factory that makes cars. Then imagine what it would be like if there was a pile of tires, a bin full of nuts, bolts, and engine parts. Then imagine having to build 100 cars every day. Now imagine if you managed your life and creative projects in the same way. It would be chaos.
Without systems, that's what knowledge work is like, and why Cal Newport says the way we do knowledge work is the way we built cars before the industrial revolution.
Attention is the currency of achievement and ambitious projects take sustained focus over an extended period of time. Whether it's consistently creating content, writing books, or planning events, you have to be able to do cognitively demanding work for an extended period of time (aka deep work).
Side note: If you've found this post useful, you might like my course on designing systems for creativity that I produced with CreativeLive.
If you run any project (personal or professional) through this framework, you'll gain a great deal of clarity on how to move that project forward. Organizing your life into a series of projects won't just help you get shit done. It will change your life.