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Big Ideas

Set Aside 5% of Your Time For Your “Slow-Cooked” Ideas

We need to hustle to pay the bills, but don't neglect a "slow-burning" project that you can make your creative masterpiece.

The secret behind many of the greatest dishes is patience and pacing. When you cook something slowly, at lower heat for a longer time, the flavors and textures can yield culinary masterpieces. The process of our own creations isn’t much different. Typically we’re searching for an answer with a deadline in mind. We’re generating an idea on a timeline in response to a creative brief, we’re trying to launch a new product or feature by a certain date to meet business goals and/or customer expectations. We’ve got bills to pay and time is money.

Rarely do we get the chance to create something over the arc of life itself, without a deadline looming. Often, it’s only our personal projects that enjoy the benefits of slow cooking, usually by necessity not choice. While these projects tend to be neglected, when (and if) they actually do come to fruition they are extraordinary.

For me, writing has always been the one thing that I cook slowly. While building Behance, everything was a race. Sure, we iterated product carefully and paced the critical decisions, but always with an eye on the clock, a community of impatient customers, and a declining balance of funds to build the business. Our 99U conferences, like all events, always had a deadline that forced quick decisions.

The only thing I could —and continue to —work on slowly is my own writing. Article ideas, observations from other entrepreneurs, insights for starting and leading a business; I write down these thoughts and then I come back to them again and again without a deadline in mind. Sometimes I’ll write down a question or an inkling and then, two years later, I’ll come back to it and add more or finish a sentence. Over the years, I’ll refine these little musings, delete pieces, add layers, and just let them evolve naturally.

In 2010, after seven or so years of doing this, I took some time to harvest part of the crop for my book Making Ideas Happen. And, when nudged by Jocelyn (99U Editor-in-Chief) or Sean (99U Managing Editor), or my friends at OPEN Forum or LinkedIn, I’m reminded to take a scan of what’s cooking and look at my notes with a fresh perspective.

Few of us, except for the most legendary painters and novelists, can “slow cook” for a living. Amidst everyday demands, we are line cooks obsessed with turning out results, and quickly. And this is a good thing—it’s how we keep up with demand and how we keep the lights on.

We are line cooks obsessed with turning out results, and quickly.

But we can round out our work by keeping a few slow-cooked projects going in the background of our frenetic day-to-day lives. The secret of slow cooking is to not to forget what you’ve got on the stove, and keep coming back to it. See if you can give these “slow projects” five percent of your time as part of your routine.

The insight here is to know the difference between the work that requires pressure and deadlines, and the few things in life that should be slow-cooked. Your living is likely the result of the former, your masterpieces the latter.

More Posts by Scott Belsky

Scott Belsky is the Chief Product Officer at Adobe and is the co-founder of 99U and Behance. He has been called one of the “100 Most Creative People in Business” by Fast Company, and is the author of The Messy Middle and the bestselling book, Making Ideas Happen.

Comments (21)
  • Jess

    “The secret of slow cooking is to not to forget what you’ve got on the stove, and keep coming back to it.” So true! With time, as you acquire more knowledge and experience, you’ll be able to look at that initial idea(s) you had a while back and be able to build on it, giving it a chance to evolve and adapt. Great article!

  • tom

    Hopefully it will still be relevant by the time you finish cooking or no one else will serve it while you’re still slow-cooking.

    I guess another analogy is saying grace; if you say grace for an hour the meal will get cold.

  • Dave Irwin

    You better set aside more than 5% if you want your ideas to be real. It’s 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration last time I checked!

  • Dave Irwin

    They’ve invented microwaves for a reason- slow cooking is dead. That is not to say that you can not have a robust, well thought out plan and idea. It is that you must take continuous actions again and again and again to make things happen.

    It should never feel like a slow-cook. I mean, who the hell wants to be at the BBQ that takes the chef 5 hours to make a burger? Certainly not the chef…

  • Douglas Eby

    Psychologist Elaine Aron notes, creative expression is usually “the result of the unconscious or ‘serendipity’ after a person has worked on it awhile.” This “working on it a while” may be more profound for highly sensitive people. Elaine Aron on Creativity and Sensitivity

  • Peggy

    How do you keep track of all these writing ideas that are percolating over the years? Do you catalogue them in some way? My brain explodes with bursts of inspirations and plenty of ‘starters’, but after I initially write them down, I can lose track of them. I need a way to track them, categorize them, etc. How do you do it? Evernote? A notebook?

    • ☁ Brian Peddle

      I have tons of notes — I keep in Evernote. I will randomly review them.

    • Scott Belsky

      I am also a loyal Evernote user, and I leverage tags to provide some order to the ideas. I also take some time every few months for house cleaning…I go through and delete/merge stuff.

      • Peggy

        I’ve dipped in to Evernote, but need to use it more regularly, I guess. How do you set up your Excel sheet? Can you share your template? I tend to spend a lot of time making lists and less time on actual productive work. It can be a bit of a trap.

  • Aaron Morton

    I think of my ideas as the long and the short game. It comes from how confidence tricksters would see their work (the long con & short con).

    I know that my long game ideas will produce the greater rewards once accomplished but i won’t necessarily have the resources (including time) into completing them now. So I make sure I do work in small chunks to keep the momentum going. With the short game things they tend to be projects I can complete relatively soon and I tend to have the resources at hand to be able to do that.

    I think it comes down to having a mindset that, even if you don’t have the resources to do a project that excites you, you still have the insight to keep the option open for later down the line.

    The Confidence Lounge

    • Scott Belsky

      Ongoing streams of insight are the key, I agree. Thanks Aaron.

  • Umair Qureshi

    Great things take time.

  • Andy Shackcloth

    I totally agree. As long as you keep reviewing your great idea; whether reading through your journal, EverNotes, OneNotes, spreadsheet, compost box….
    It won’t die, but will slowly grow and mature.
    Keep reviewing, tinkering, keep brushing the dust off it and one day the idea will demand you MAKE time for it.

  • Web Outsourcing Gateway

    Wonderful ideas comes to those who take time. everyone is having a hard time thinking what to do, what more to those who needs to think creatively. It is better to take time and slowly refresh your memories about specific thing that you will do. Soon, you’ll find out what to write, what to draw and how a perfect masterpiece will come out.

  • DH

    Thanks Scott. This post perfectly resonates with me. The productive side of my mind always manages to place a time bomb to each task I put my hands on. With such pressing deadlines, I achieve a lot more things than otherwise impossible.

    BUT that gets me nervous. Because I cannot fully immerse myself into creative things (e.g. writing, or learning something new). I know those are the kind of things that are done the best, when the time is left out of the equation. (might worth tracking them in the unit of days. but not hours.)

  • France's

    I appreciate your perspective on relishing all aspects of creativity. I am always looking for insights to share with creatives or students. Perhaps I will look into your book. I am building services for offering art and tutoring, so I think I could gain a fresh perspective from your example.

  • Andrew K Green

    I say 95% of my ideas are being slow cooked!…

  • Nikhil Karmarkar

    Your comment on “line cooks” reminded me of the essay “A Writer’s Life” by Gay Talese, wherein he writes that journalism, and in general writing for an impatient audience, was the equivalent of being “short-order cooks for consumers of often half-baked information and ideas.” This is why it’s important to keep working on your personal opus – to “slow cook” your project to perfection over time – to counteract the rough nature of your day-to-day work.

  • Nate Davis

    Great reminder Scott! My wife and I have been listening to Bill Buford’s fantastic book Heat, about years spent working in a Mario Batali restaurant, so the line cook analogy really hits home. Working in advertising, that’s exactly what it feels like–and I am grateful to be able to have a job where I get to be creative. But your closing distinction about living versus masterpieces is one I’ll pass along to my other creative friends, because it’s a great point.

  • David

    Beautiful <3 Thank you for sharing.

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