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.
This chapter is here to guide you to that closed mode. We’ll start with the initial idea and let it slowly grow into what some people might call a concept. The keyword here is “grow”. This concept is still the same idea, but more evolved. Evolved into something we can actually implement into something real.
When we have this, implementing it isn’t so difficult anymore. We’ll look at a few ways of motivating yourself to continue working on the project and make yourself more committed.
Keep in mind this part will be less about theory and more about practical use. The upside is you can start implementing the discussed methods right now. The downside is not all methods will work for you. Everybody is different, what might work for me doesn’t necessarily work for you. The underlying principles still hold up though. So feel free to experiment a bit. Try to come up with your own solutions, based on mine or on the theory from part one. Of course there are plenty of other resources online and in the bookstore as well, but make sure you don’t fixate on finding the next best method. In the end it’s about implementing that idea, not about finding the best way about doing it. It’s probably better to improve upon your current working methods instead of trying to find new ones altogether.
Enough talk, let’s dive right in!
“‘[…] 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.’”
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.
Also, my interpretation may differ slightly from yours so I describe mine here so we’re on the same page. First of all this article is geared towards “personal projects”. Projects you initiate yourself. Most of the theory will apply to client projects as well though.
“The Harvard psychologist Stephen Kosslyn says that ideas can be acted upon in four ways. First, you must generate an the idea, usually from memory or experience or activity. Then you have to retain it–that is, hold it steady in your mind and keep it from disappearing. Then you have to inspect it–study it and make inferences about it. Finally, you have to be able to transform it–alter it in some way to suit your higher purposes.” (Source: The Creative Habit)
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.
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.
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?
I think the answer is in the idea. The idea starts the whole process. The idea is our vision of the end result. It motivates us. The idea is the core of the project, everything is built around it. The idea is the thing we’re really interested in. Therefore, by gradually developing the idea into our final implementation we achieve our goal. All working methods will therefore be based on our idea. So first let’s take a closer look at the very beginning. The flash of insight we talked about earlier.
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:
- Act on it. Spend 5–10 minutes developing the idea right here, right now. By developing he means writing it down, brainstorming about it. Expand it into something more. After that, define the next action you have to take. This clears your mind and focusses you on the project.
- 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.
Let’s explore a bit more what we mean by “developing an idea”.
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.
If you do client-work you already do this in the form of a creative brief or project proposal. You have to communicate your idea clearly, because other people are involved. This is something you can put into practice for your own ideas as well. How you do it doesn’t matter, but be sure to translate that initial thought into something a layman would understand. You can even take someone in mind you write it to. Then, when you’re ready, you need to save the text somewhere so you can refer to it later.
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.
Tharp, the choreographer we talked about earlier, does something similar. She uses a box for every project she starts. “I start every dance with a box. I write the project name on the box, and as the piece progresses I fill it up with every item that went into making of the dance. This means notebooks, news clippings, CDs, videotapes of me working alone in my studio, videos of the dancers rehearsing, books and photographs and pieces of art that may have inspired me.”
The box makes her feel organized. “It also represents a commitment. The simple act of writing a project name on the box means I’ve started to work.”
It’s something I recommend you doing as well. You can use a box, or if you’re all about digital files you might create a special folder on your hard disk. Whatever you do, make one place for all things for your project you might need at a later point.
In this article we’ll focus mostly on rewriting your idea using different methods. This will result in a lot of text documents. I recommend using a new page for each part of the process and put it on top of the older ones. This way you get a good sense of the progress you are making as well. You will literally see your idea grow. You might want to put these pages in a folder inside your box.
“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.”
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:
Do I want to implement this idea right now?
It may seem like an obvious question, but it is important enough to take the time and answer it consciously. You only have limited time and resources. You cannot expect to realize all your ideas so you have to be picky. Even if it’s a really good idea, you have to ask yourself if you want to work on it right now. Can you? Some ideas are better left for later. Others should not be worked on at all.
It’s not a shame if the answer is no. It just means you have more time to work on another project. If the answer is positive though, you have to become fully dedicated to it.
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:
- Summary: The idea is a summary of the envisioned end-result. If you’re writing a story, the idea might be like the summary of the back of a book. You already have a good idea of what the end-result might look like. You feel you just have to create it now. Example: “a book about three horses planning world domination”
- 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.
When working with ideas, be aware which kind of form it has. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses. A “Summary” might be easier to implement, because you know what you want, but therefore it’s less flexible as well. If your idea is to “write a book about three horses planning world domination,” you already have defined a lot of things that are not necessarily the best choice. Perhaps you only need two horses instead of four. Who knows?
You can translate your idea into another form as well. Take a look at all the projects you have done in the past and what kind of ideas started them. Perhaps some forms works better for you than others. Try reshaping your ideas, even if you don’t think it’s necessary. This way you force yourself to turn your idea into something more tangible. The new insights might surprise you. However, in the end stick to one final form so you only have one idea to worry about.
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:
You take the underlying intention or objective of your idea. Then you ask yourself the following questions:
- What are its strengths? What makes it a good idea?
- 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.
You take a look at your idea from the four perspectives mentioned above. Than enhance its strengths, find solutions to its weaknesses and respond to the opportunities and threats accordingly.
This specific model will not work for all ideas. Partly, it depends on how far your idea has evolved so far. But you can come back to this model anytime you’re stuck or feel something needs improvement.
Also, make sure to try out other methods of strengthening your idea. You can ask a friend to make a list of 100 reasons why your idea might fail. That might sound discouraging, and probably is for some people, but it gives you a fresh way to look at things. Every reason it can fail is an opportunity to improve your idea. You can do it the other way around too: 100 reasons your idea will succeed. This is encouraging and also shows you the strengths of your idea which you can improve even more.
The alert reader will notice these methods all refer back to the SWOT-principles. I like them because they provide a very clear perspective on things. Of course you can also just talk about your ideas with friends and family, but don’t forget to take notes when you do that.
One last thing you should try is stripping your idea to the bare essentials. Make it as concise as possible. Don’t forget to keep rewriting your idea based on all the improvements you have made. Don’t forget to add them to your document. Not just as notes. Rewrite the entire idea instead, with the improvements incorporated. When reviewing The Document you shouldn’t have to browse through all the pages to get a good sense of the current state. It should be on top of the pile. The other pages are just there to refer back to, so you can get a good sense of the progress made and the different paths taken.
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.
Ask yourself what qualities of this new idea you can incorporate into your current project. I’m not saying you should make a big mix of all the ideas you get, but you might be able to reshape some ideas into something useful. Something that can be part of the current project.
The key element here is to find a way to link the new ideas to your current project. All these extra ideas will empower your project and let you focus on it even more. Every new idea will remind you of the project you’re working on. And since you probably get a lot of ideas, this is a great way to stay focussed.
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.
The next step is to look at your idea and think of the very first action you have to take to further the project. Also see Getting Things Done by David Allen. Let’s say you’re writing a book, the first thing you probably want to do is to write down a working title. So your next action would be to “brainstorm for words for a working title.” Again, the “next action” really depends on your idea, but make sure it’s the very first thing you need to do and make it as small as possible. Notice I didn’t gave the example “think of a working title.” First you have to brainstorm, then you combine the words into a nice title, these are separate actions. I can’t stress enough how importance this difference is. “Coming up with a working title” takes more mental capacity then just “brainstorming for words.” Your mind knows the difference. It will postpone bigger tasks, while it doesn’t have any problems with the small ones.
Also, you have to make sure your next action is what David Allen calls actionable, meaning two things:
- You know what the outcome looks like and what you’re committing to.
- What the next required action is.
In most cases your action will start with a verb. For example “buy paper” instead of “need some paper”. The first one tells you what to do, while the latter just offers a problem. We don’t need problems, we need solutions. We need actions.
When your next action is clear, write it down. Write it down somewhere you’ll surely see it again often. If you’re an avid user of a calendar that might be the right place. Or perhaps just write it down on a post-it note and stick it at your computer screen. The important thing is you will be reminded of the action, preferable in place where you can immediately act on it. Then as soon as you can, you do. Make it top priority. If it takes less than two minutes don’t bother writing it down, just do it right then.
If the action is indeed well thought-through and is written down as concise as possible (you can take your time here, it pays off in the long run) you shouldn’t have any problem actually acting on it. And when you have completed it, think of the next action and write that down. Just repeat the cycle of thinking about the next action, writing it down and doing it.
You can keep adding all documents that extend on your idea to The Document. This way it always provides an overview of the current state of the idea.
As long as you keep the action items as small as possible and write them down in such a way you know exactly what to do when you read them this method will work perfectly. The real problem of procrastination is being overwhelmed by all the work you have to do. You just cannot wrap your mind around that, you do not know where to start so you don’t start at all. The solution is to know where to start. Then actually starting is not hard at all.
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.
The Document is one of things we already implemented to keep ourselves up-to-date with our own progress. So make sure you read it frequently. Flip through all the previous pages to see how far you’ve come already. You’ll see how small your initial idea was and how it has grown over time. Besides The Document we can implement other methods as well. For example:
If you’re using post-it notes for your “next actions” instead of throwing them away after you accomplished the action, stick it on the wall. After a while the wall will be filled with post-it notes. All actions you have accomplished. This may look a bit messy, but it’s a very visual way to show off your progress to yourself, and potentially others.
Another trick is the calendar chain, something Jerry Seinfeld uses. Brad Isaac talks about a conversation with him:
“He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker.
He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day. ‘After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.’”
Isaac goes on explaining it “works because it isn’t the one-shot pushes that get us where we want to go, it is the consistent daily action that builds extraordinary outcomes.” And this consistent daily action will turn into a habit. “If you don’t break the chain, you’ll start to spot opportunities you otherwise wouldn’t. Small improvements accumulate into large improvements rapidly because daily action provides ‘compounding interest.’ Skipping one day makes it easier to skip the next.”
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!
There’s one last thing I’d like you to do: create one page with all the key elements of this guide. Make it a step-by-step plan. This way you don’t have to keep coming back to this article, which is filled with examples and theories you will probably become sick of if you needed to read them everytime when working on an idea. So create your own guide, based on your your own process and with your own tips and tricks. Like ideas, it’s a good practice do write down your process, this will open up your eyes and clarify what needs improvement and what works as-is.
Writing this article certainly helped me. I hope it helped you as well. Good luck!
– Marc Köhlbrugge (March, 2009)
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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
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