Organizing the creative mind

Today’s guest post is by Scott Belsky, founder of Behance, oversees The 99% think tank, and is the author of the new book Making Ideas Happen: Overcoming The Obstacles Between Vision & Reality. Thank you, Scott, for joining us today. — Erin

Perhaps you have an idea for a new business, a restaurant you want to open, or a novel you want to write? Or perhaps you have an idea for how to solve a problem at work? Regardless, the sobering reality is that most ideas never happen. While some ideas are killed for good reason, most ideas are abandoned half-baked as a result of obstacles during execution.

I’ve spent the better part of five years studying the struggle to push ideas to fruition. Along the way, I learned that some people and teams are consistently able to defy the odds and make their ideas happen, time and time again. Authors like James Patterson and Chris Anderson; Companies like Google, IDEO, and Disney; and other serial entrepreneurs, restauranteurs, and the list goes on…

While there are a myriad of methods and tips I observed, the force of ORGANIZATION emerged as the most important. I came to believe that organization is, in fact, the greatest competitive advantage in the creative world.

The practicalities of how you organize projects and manage your energy are critical to making ideas happen. Here are a few my observations – and some of the methods I observed:

Reactionary Workflow

We live in a connected world of endless e-mails, texts, tweets, messages on social networks, phone calls, instant messages … the list goes on. Rather than be proactive with our energy, we have become reactive — living at the mercy of the last incoming thing. As a result, we spend all of our energy trying to keep up rather than propelling our ideas forward. Eventually, all of the small inconsequential activity wears us down and we’re liable to jump ship. To avoid reactionary workflow, some people schedule “windows of non-stimulation” in their day. For a 2-3 hour period of time, they minimize their email and all other sources of incoming communication. With this time, they focus on a list of goals – not their regular tasks, but long-term items that require research and deep thought. There are other tricks for how you aggregate messages and reduce “hop time” (the time spent transitioning between sources of communication). But the bottom line is that reactionary workflow is a threat to ingenuity. To combat it, we must focus less on ideas themselves and more on how we manage our energy and ultimately push ideas to completion.

Reduce Bulky Projects To Just Three Primary Elements

Every project in life can ultimately be reduced to just three 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 revisit 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 a beer) 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.

Use Design-Centric Systems To Stay Organized

The color, texture, size, and style of the materials used to capture your tasks (and your notes) are important. People who have successfully developed personal systems for productivity over the years claim that their designs make their projects more appealing (and thus more likely to be managed well). When it comes to productivity, attraction breeds loyalty.

Measure Meetings With Action Steps

Meetings are extremely expensive if you consider the cost of time and interruption. Beware of “Posting Meetings” or meeting just because it’s 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.

Insecurity Work

In the era of Google Analytics and Twitter, we spend too much time obsessing over real-time data. Just a decade ago, we had to wait for weekly and monthly reports for information that is now always available at our finger tips. Whether it is checking your site’s traffic, customer sentiment, or your bank account, these small repetitive actions don’t help you make ideas happen. They just help you feel safe. “Insecurity Work” is stuff that you do that (1) has no intended outcome, (2) does not move the ball forward in any way, and (3) is quick enough that you can do it multiple times a day without realizing — but, nonetheless, puts us at ease. The first step for reducing Insecurity Work is self-awareness. During the research for my new book, I was astonished by the spectrum of self-imposed guidelines and very effective rituals that people use to reduce insecurity work. Insecurity work is yet another workplace phenomenon that can reduce productivity and obstruct great execution.

My book, out this month, Making Ideas Happen: Overcoming The Obstacles Between Vision and Reality chronicles the methods of the creative leaders that have pushed their ideas to fruition (and make our lives interesting as a result). My hope is that the book will prompt more discussion on the mechanics for pushing ideas to fruition.

15 Comments for “Organizing the creative mind”

  1. posted by virginia @ where you hang your hat on

    Enjoyed this post! The discussion if insecurity work is very interesting.

  2. posted by Martika on

    This is exactly the post I needed today. Thank you- can’t wait to get the book!

  3. posted by Glenn on

    This post expands the benefits of uncluttering and organization beyond the physical realm that we can see with our eyes. The items Scott mentions are things that I find easily overlooked. Thank you.

  4. posted by Shalin on

    This post totally reminds me of this video:

    “Why You Can’t Work at Work”

    and this discussion:

    Good stuff, good stuff…

  5. posted by Shalin on

    Also this article:

    More workers are choosing fear over flex time, experts say

    Killer line from article: “Working hard is the new working dumb,” Thacker says. “Working hard does not necessarily create impact,” she says.


  6. posted by Mrs.Mack on

    Informative and a great way to be productive, but this isn’t really about creativity.

  7. posted by Meredith from Penelope Loves Lists on

    I love that you say this:

    The color, texture, size, and style of the materials used to capture your tasks (and your notes) are important.

    I totally agree, and yet people don’t give as much time and attention to these matters as they should.

  8. posted by laura on

    Really enjoyed this post, as always thanks for connecting us with great people, things and ideas

  9. posted by Brenda Nicholson on

    I write a blog about people with ADHD. I find that most all ADDers are also creative; we are more right brained and non-linear in our approach to everything.

    I absolutely agree that “The color, texture, size, and style of the materials used to capture your tasks (and your notes) are important.”

    What I’m not seeing is how your approach to productivity can help creative types get things done. You explain the process very well, but in the end, it seems to me that yours is still a linear approach.

    I look forward to hearing more from you and reading your book.

  10. posted by mydivabydesign on

    Organizing your mind is so hard to do! i always get distracted. They say to delegate tasks that take time away from your business, but what if you have no one to delegate to?

  11. posted by the milliner on

    Great post. I was happy to read the part about using design-centric systems to stay organized. I have always worked like this because it does just make it more pleasant. And as a designer, it just rubs me the wrong way to work with ugly/functionally bad documents. Others would say, ‘it doesn’t need to be beautiful…’, and now I know why my instinct was right.

    Also, I love the concept of Insecurity Work. Just naming it that gives me a different perspective about doing things that would fall into that category. Who wants to give time to insecurity?

    Unlike other posters, I completely see how this would apply to creativity. Essentially, I think all creative minds suffer their own version of writers block. We have a great idea, but we can’t get it started (or finished). Or we can’t think of any new ideas. It’s a question of removing the roadblocks (some of which you mention above) to get down to doing the work which will ultimately lead to successful completion.

    Looking forward to reading the book!

  12. posted by Randy on

    Great post. Will order the book on my next book order. Love topic … and the title!

  13. posted by Create: Day 23 | Habithacker on

    […] you don’t believe me (and why should you, really?), read an expert on the subject in this article from the blog unclutterer. Written by Scott Belsky,author of  Making Ideas Happen: Overcoming The Obstacles Between Vision […]

  14. posted by Weekly Web Reads – 24/04/10 on

    […] I have been huge on organization lately, and anything that enables me to better organize my thoughts and projects is a big hit with me.  Unclutterer gives some great ways to organize your creative endeavors. […]

  15. posted by— Open Loops 5/25/2010: Articles I Think Worth Passing Along— on

    […] I took it as a sign that I should buy the book. The author, Scott Belsky, wrote a great summary at “Organizing the creative mind” on […]

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