Zero to One: How to execute on your ideas — Chapter 3

A guide for those stuck in idea mode 

This is this third and final chapter of Zero to One, a framework that guides you through the first steps of executing on your idea. In this chapter we will look at how to turn the theory of chapter two into practice. If you haven’t already I recommend you to start by reading chapter one (~5 minutes).

From Open to Closed

In the previous chapter we discussed the open mode and the closed mode. If you’re just starting with your idea you’re in the open mode and want to head over to the closed one. This is where a lot of people have problems with, myself included.

“‘[…] most ideas are stillborn, and need the breath of life injected into them through definite plans of immediate action. The time to nurse an idea is at the time of its birth. Every minute it lives gives it a better chance of surviving.’”
Napoleon Hill

The Process

We’ve talked a lot about “the process” and we all know what it means, but what does it look like? I think it’s important to have a clear understanding of how this process works so you have something to refer to when you’re lost in the process. When you’re not sure what to do.

A Flash of Insight

This is where it all starts. It’s the moment were the idea just seems to hit us. Most of the times it seems initiated by our environment. Something we see, hear or experience in another way. Our mind makes a connection between different concepts which results in a new idea.


We generate thoughts throughout the day, but this one is special. Therefore we have to retain it in some way or another. Most of the time we just jot it down on a piece of paper as fast as we can before we forget the idea.

Idea Inspection

While writing the idea down, we had to transform that thought into words. What we now have on paper is not the idea though. It’s a reference to the earlier thought. This lets us come back to that thought and think a bit more about the idea. Inspect it.


Now we have to implement the idea. Transform it into something real. We have to be aware the idea is not a blueprint for the implementation. The idea and the implementation are just different points in time. The idea is the start, which transforms into the implementation.

Looking Back

Then we look back at our process and learn from it. You really have to set time aside for this, now is the time learn from your mistakes. This way you improve your creative process for the next project.

Developing the Idea

How do we get to that closed mode? That mode where we will actually be working on implementing our idea. We can’t flip a switch, and even if we could that wouldn’t be our answer. What we need is a way to gradually move from the open mode to the closed mode. Gradually, so we don’t break the flow we’re in. So, how do we do this?

A Flash of Insight

You somehow get an idea, then what? In his podcast Accidental Creative Todd Henry talks about the importance of having a “specific urgency” when an idea hits you. He talks about the three choices you have when this happens:

  • Queue it. This is often the more relevant choice, since acting on the idea immediately isn’t possible most of the time. So instead, you notate the idea. You also write down the environmental cues. Ideas arise in context. And there are specific things in your environment that cause these ideas to arise. By writing them down, the idea will still make sense when you read it later on. Also, set aside time on your calendar for further development. Preferably the same day, while the idea is still fresh in your mind. Then, spend 5-10 minutes developing it, and set the next actions.
  • Ignore it. This is not a valid option. You have to write down all your ideas. Our minds are wired to find patterns, so when you ignore ideas you’re saying that’s okay, I don’t need your help. I will figure this out on my own. You then basically train yourself to ignore ideas. We don’t want that.

Writing it Down

First we need to realize our ideas might sound solid when they are in our heads, when in reality they are broken. The first thing we need to do when we get an idea is to write it down. Write it down on a piece of paper, a digital text file, whatever works for you. You probably already do this as a way to remember your ideas. That’s a start, but if your goal is to remember it your writing will just be a reminder to your original thought. This is a good solution when you want to queue it for later, but if you want to start developing the idea you want to rewrite it into something stand-alone. It should be understandable by someone else. This way we force ourselves into thinking the idea through. All the gaps will be revealed and if we’re lucky we might even see some new opportunities to take the idea to the next level.

The Document

We’ll be writing a lot when we’re working on our idea, so it’s advisable to start a document to put all our stuff in. This way we can always refer to it later. If you don’t mind, I’d like to call it The Document. Perhaps a bit cheesy, but we need a name for it.

“A woodpecker can tap twenty times on a thousand trees and get nowhere, but stay busy. Or he can tap twenty-thousand times on one tree and get dinner.”
Seth Godin

An Important Question

Now that you have your idea translated into something tangible, we can really start working on it. But before we continue you need to ask yourself the following question:

Different Ideas, Different Forms

If you decide to keep working on the idea, great! It is now time to take another look at your idea. Ideas come in a variety of forms, here are a couple:

  • Direction: A direction looks a lot like a Summary but is more abstract. You’re not yet sure what the end-result will look like, but the underlying concept is very clear. Example: “Mother nature takes back the world.” This could become a book, movie, etc.
  • Question: You are wondering about something, looking for an answer. What happens if … How can I …, etc. You’re probably not sure what to expect, which makes it an inspiring idea but generates more Resistance since you don’t have a good overview of the process ahead of you. Example: “What happens if I walk through the city in a monkey-suite?”
  • Form: You know what the end-result will look like, but are not yet sure what it is about. This is a tricky one, because normally the form is based on the function or contents of an idea, not the other way around. Example: “A movie with a film-noir look”
  • Feeling / Intuition: The origin of some things are hard to find. When doodling you generally don’t start with a clear idea, but you are working to an end-result. This is either the easiest or hardest form. It’s easy if the idea reveals itself when working, but it’s hard if you can’t start working but know there’s something there. In that case you have to describe what you feel and make it into something more tangible. Even if it doesn’t match perfectly, you still have something you can work on and while working on it you can reshape it to your initial intuition.

The Underlying Intention

Depending on the form of your idea, there might be an underlying intention you are not aware of yet. You might think you want to “create a website where people can discuss their favorite books and movies,” but in reality you might want to connect like-minded people. The website is just a way of achieving this underlying intention. Your ideas will take on the forms you know best. So if you’re a web developer you just think in websites. If you’re a painter you think in paintings. Therefore, it’s not a bad thing to immediately think of how the idea will be implemented, it actually means you’re ahead already, but be aware of the underlying intention. This will guide you in all further choices you have to make. Since you can just base them on the underlying intention.

Strengthening your Idea

Now you should have a pretty solid understanding of your idea. The next action is to take one more critical look at it. There are plenty of methods for this, one of them is called the SWOT- analysis which stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. Here’s how it works:

  • What are its weaknesses? Does your idea lack anything?
  • Are there any external opportunities that can help your idea?
  • Are there any external threats to your idea? Competitors, for example.

Ideas within Ideas

So we’re making some real progress now. Really working on our idea. But if you’re still getting new ideas each day, they may distract you. And what I said still holds true, you shouldn’t ignore those ideas. Instead you can try to find the relevance to the current project you’re working on.

The Next Action

You should now have a pretty clear picture of what your idea is about. We started with just a thought, clearly the open mode, but now you have a real concept you can actually work on, we gradually moved to the closed mode. We’re almost there. The following step really depends on your specific idea, so I will provide some global guidelines instead of telling you exactly what to do as I did before.

  • What the next required action is.


Welcome to the closed mode

You’re now working on your idea, one action at a time. You’re in the closed mode. Congratulations!

Surround yourself with progress

One last tip, we talked about this earlier. By surrounding yourself with your progress you motivate yourself. It also shows all the time you have invested, which makes you want to finish the project.


So, that’s it. I really hope you followed the guidelines instead of just reading them. Otherwise it would just be another escape from working. If you did only read them, I suggest thinking of an idea you would like to work on right now and start to read part two again. It’s so much more valuable if you really do the exercises instead of just reading them. If you did the exercises, keep up the good work!

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“Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, magic and power in it. Begin it now.”
–J. W. von Goethe




  • Belsky, Scott. Behance Magazine. Insights & Tips from Creatives on Making Ideas Happen. (accessed March 1, 2009)
  • Henry, Todd. The Accidental Creative Podcast, #146 — Urgent. (accessed March 17, 2009)
  • Mann, Merlin. 43 Folders. Time, Attention, and Creative Work. (accessed February 10, 2009)
  • Trapani, Gina. Lifehacker. Tips & downloads for getting things done. (accessed March 1, 2009)


  • Cleese, John. Creativity in Management. London: Video Arts, 1991
  • Mann, Merlin. Towards Patterns for Creativity. San Francisco: Macworld Expo, 2009


  • Koppenol, Ruth, interview with author during March, 2009
  • Kuijper, Joep, interview with author during March, 2009

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