As a creative, it can be difficult to flip the switch from idea stage to taking action and making those ideas come to life.
It’s often difficult to get your work done without becoming distracted by more great ideas.
We all have a basic concept of how it works. You have an idea, you turn it into a workable project, and then simply start to work on it. Sounds easy, right?
Well, every creative knows better than that. Whether you’re a writer, a designer, or a movie director, seeing a project through from idea to finished product can be a real struggle. Some of us spend an entire lifetime looking for the best conditions that’ll allow us to be our most creative selves.
At Meisterlabs, we’re addicted to scientific research about creativity and productivity. We use it to optimize our own productivity and power our mind mapping tools, while simultaneously making the world more productive.
Over the years, we’ve created a scientific approach to moving from idea to execution, that has significantly increased our company-wide productivity. Here’s our process.
Finding Your Idea: Think Problem, Not Solution.
Research has shown creativity is about triggering a conflict in your mind. Thomas B. Ward, professor of psychology at the University of Alabama, proved that focusing on the problem helps to find more original and high-quality solutions.
Einstein was right when he said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”
Starting a project is all about finding a great idea to bring to life, and the best ideas stem from problems we’ve experienced.
Let’s break down the problem of writing a high quality, value-driven blog post.
I’ve read a lot about productivity and wanted to share my experience on the topic, yet as I opened a new mind map and filled it with what I’ve learned over the years, I couldn’t immediately get to work and start writing the post. My goal was to break my insights down into actionable tips – based on scientific research, for creative people who could use a little direction in tackling a new project.
An intention however is not an idea. Though I had a lot of information available, I was far from having a perfect direction for the post. In The Creative Cognition Approach, Ward explains that too much knowledge can actually inhibit your creativity, because information is stored and structured in a specific way within your brain. To use my backlog of productivity knowledge for this post, my imagination had to undergo restructuring, which is triggered by conflict.
My conflict was this: Although I’ve retained a large amount of the necessary knowledge, I didn’t know how to start my project. So, I decided to start by writing about the process of finding an idea.
Chances are, we’re not the only ones facing specific problems in our day-to-day life, so thinking in detail about a problem, helps you locate ideas that could be beneficial to many others. This process also helps your brain select and rearrange your knowledge, in order to address the conflict. This process applies not only to crafting a blog post, but also toward scenarios like starting a business after examining existing companies or products in the marketplace.
Define Precise Outcomes.
In this early stage, you may be highly enthusiastic about your new idea and it’s tempting to jump straight to the execution stage. Force yourself to take a step back and think carefully about what exactly you’re trying to achieve.
This stage can feel like a loss of time. However, in times of “agile this” and “pivot that,” careful planning gets a bad reputation and is increasingly underrated.
Going from point A to point B is always faster when you know where point B is, and what it looks like.
Defining precise outcomes will help you evaluate exactly in which direction you need to go, what you need to do, the fastest route to get there, and which resources you need to allocate, in order to achieve your goals. It also helps you delegate responsibilities and hold people accountable for the results they need to deliver.
Break Down Your Project Into Steps.
With your desired outcome in mind, you can now define clear steps towards your goal, and plan your tasks accordingly. One step should always correspond to one task.
When I started this blog post, I accessed my project managing app and instead of creating one task called “writing a blog post”, I planned different tasks like, “Brainstorm the blog post: subject and outcomes,” “Outline the blog post,” and “Write intro for the blog post.”
If a task still contains subtasks, you need to break it down in smaller chunks of work.
Make a checklist for instance. Checking items off your list will give you the satisfaction of knowing you are making progress: what’s more is that this process helps you manage your effort and your time significantly better.
Some say that ideally, a task should take no longer than 90 minutes to complete. That’s the way we are programmed. Productivity experts link this to sleep research by famous scientist Nathaniel Kleitman, who discovered we alternate between light and deep sleep in 90-minute periods. During the day, this 90-minute rhythm makes us shift between lower and higher alertness. In particular, if you continue on a specific task after 90 minutes, you start to rely on stress hormones for energy.
Personally, in my case this rule is more like 60, than 90 minutes. I think it’s better to create smaller, more digestible chunks of work and push yourself to finish them.
Even when you spend each hour dedicated to a separate task, you might get distracted and find yourself checking out that picture of a dog on Facebook, then slowly move back to the project that was so important to you.
Research by Terry Jud (University of Melbourne) has proven that students can only concentrate on the same task for 31 seconds at a time. Yes, you read that correctly. They are willing to work and spend a lot of time on their project, but while they work long hours, they are actually not getting entirely too much done.
This is mostly due to task-switching. They start a second task before finishing the first, or go back and forth between their work and social media.
The best way to overcome the temptation to interrupt your current work, is to commit to staying off of social media platforms while you’re focused on a specific task. Logging out of your accounts and closing your email for the duration of your task is a very simple way of breaking your own task-switching habits.
If your projects are correctly divided into units of no more than 60 to 90 minutes, this will also help you keep your work from suffering by ill-timed breaks. For instance, I’ve written this blog post paragraph-by-paragraph, not pausing until each separate thought was finished. I took the time to relax between the paragraphs, as I believe rest helps to concentrate better on your tasks, and therefore finishing your work faster.
Having a list of clear tasks in your project management app doesn’t magically make your project happen, of course.
The most difficult step in project management, is actually starting. Psychological research (undertaken by John Bargh) has shown that once you’ve started a task, you’re naturally compelled to finish it.
So yes, the best advice one could have is simply to “just start.” Blogger, Swizec Teller wrote a few years ago that we stick with a task for longer if it is difficult, because when we stop a difficult task, we need to start from scratch after all over again. This is why before a project I sometimes tell myself: “Just start. And start with the most difficult part.”
Turning your ideas into actions, and getting a project done is about defining a problem, sticking to an idea, articulating clear goals, and taking one step at a time.
No matter how simple this sounds, projects can quickly lose their momentum when one doesn’t follow a clear process and take things one step at a time.