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Big Ideas

10 Laws of Productivity

Every idea is different. But when it comes to successful idea execution, patterns quickly emerge. Read on for 10 ways to amp your productivity...


You might think that creatives as diverse as Internet entrepreneur Jack Dorsey, industrial design firm Studio 7.5, and bestselling Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami would have little in common. In fact, the tenets that guide how they – and exceptionally productive creatives across the board – make ideas happen are incredibly similar.

Here are 10 laws of productivity we’ve consistently observed among serial idea executors:

1. Break the seal of hesitation.

A bias toward action is the most common trait we’ve found across the hundreds of creative professionals and entrepreneurs we’ve interviewed. While preparing properly as you start a new project is certainly valuable, it’s also easy to lose yourself in planning (and dreaming) indefinitely. We must challenge ourselves to take action sooner rather than later. The minute that you start acting (e.g. building a physical prototype, sharing a nascent concept with your community), you start getting valuable feedback that will help refine your original idea – and move forward with a more informed perspective.

2. Start small.

When our ideas are still in our head, we tend to think big, blue sky concepts. The downside is that such thinking makes the barrier to entry – and action – quite high. To avoid “blue sky paralysis,” pare your idea down to a small, immediately executable concept. Can you trial the idea of a multi-day festival with a smaller performance series? Take an idea for a skyscraper and model it in miniature? Work out the flow of an iPhone app by sketching on paper? Once you’ve road-tested your idea on a small scale, you’ll have loads more insight on how to take it to the next level.

3. Protoype, prototype, prototype.

Trial and error is an essential part of any creative’s life. As Ze Frank says, usually when we execute an idea for the first time, it kinda sucks. The important thing is to synthesize the knowledge gained during the process to refine the idea, and create a new-and-improved version. Serial idea-makers like Jack Dorsey, Ben Kaufman, and Studio 7.5 all attest: Prototyping and iteration is key to transforming a so-so idea into a game-changing product. Rather than being discouraged by your “failures,” listen closely and learn from them. Then build a new prototype. Then do it again. Sooner or later, you’ll hit gold.

To avoid ‘blue sky paralysis,’ pare your idea down to a small, immediately executable concept.

4. Create simple objectives for projects, and revisit them regularly.

When working on in-depth projects, we generate lots of new ideas along the way. This can lead to a gradual expansion of the project’s goals, or “scope creep.” This insidious habit can make it impossible to ever really complete anything. The best way to avoid it is to write down a simple statement summarizing your objective at the start of each project. (If you have collaborators, make sure there is agreement about the objective.) And then – this is the part we overlook! – revisit it regularly. When scope creep starts to happen, you’ll notice.

5. Work on your project a little bit each day.

With projects that require a serious infusion of creative juice – developing a new business plan, writing a novel, or just learning a new skill – it’s incredibly important to maintain momentum. Just as when you run everyday, the exercise gets easier and easier, the same thing happens with your brain. Stimulate it regularly each day, and those juices start to flow more freely. As Jack Cheng argues in a great blog post, “Thirty Minutes A Day”: “the important thing isn’t how much you do; it’s how often you do it.”

6. Develop a routine.

Part of being able to work on your project a little bit each day is carving out the time to do so. Routines can seem boring and uninspiring, but – on the contrary – they create a foundation for sparking true insight.  In his recent memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, famed Japanese author Haruki Murakami writes about how a rigorous routine – rising at 5am and going to bed at 10pm every day – is crucial to his impressive creative output. (In a side note: Alex Iskold derives a series of lessons for start-up entrepreneurs from Murakami here.)

7. Break big, long-term projects into smaller chunks or “phases.”

To help manage expectations and stay motivated for year-long or even multi-year endeavors, break each project into smaller chunks that only take a few weeks or a month to complete. The dual benefit of this approach is: (1) making the project feel more manageable, and (2) providing incremental rewards throughout the project. It’s crucial to pause periodically to take stock of what has been accomplished – even if there’s a long way to go.

With projects that require a serious infusion of creative juice, it’s incredibly important to maintain momentum.

8. Prune away superfluous meetings (and their attendees).

Few activities are more of a productivity drain than meetings. If you must meet (and this should be a big “if”), make sure everyone knows what needs to be accomplished from the outset. If people are present who don’t help out with achieving that objective, let them leave. Qwest COO Teresa Taylor, recently interviewed in the NYT‘s Corner Office, starts her meetings with the question, “Do we all know why we’re here?” and then follows with, “Does everyone need to be here?” To trim the runtime of internal meetings, you can also try the standing meeting.

9. Practice saying “No.”

Creative energy is not infinite. Seasoned idea-makers know that they must guard their energy – and their focus – closely. Take author Jim Collins for example. His books Built to Last and Good to Great have sold millions of copies. His business acumen and insights are in demand. Yet, “even though Collins demands over $60,000 per speech, he gives fewer than 18 per year.” More than that and Collins wouldn’t have enough time to focus on the research and writing that yield those bestselling books. When you’re in execution mode, keep in mind that “unexpected opportunities” also mean distraction from the work at hand. Saying no is an essential part of the productivity equation.

10. Remember that rules – even productivity rules – are made to be broken.

Did we say develop a routine? This and other tips here should only be followed as long as they are working. If forward motion has become impossible with your current routine, try something else. Whether it’s taking a long distance trip, popping into the art museum, walking around the block, or talking to a perfect stranger, make sure you occasionally shake up your normal routine. Breaking habits offers new perspective and helps recharge us to head back into the fray. — How About You? Is there an idea you could break the “seal of hesitation” on and start executing right now?   Are there other rules of thumb you’ve found particularly useful for making ideas happen?

Comments (119)
  • Thomas Traub

    Don’t leave open ends, finalize always

  • Joe

    Fantastic tips. I’m the type of person that will leave the work out until it’s PERFECT but there is no perfect. By the time I’ve finished, I see 10 things I wish I could change. All 10 tips start TODAY.

  • Web Design Kent

    Some good tips, I always find working ona few projects at the same time helps… when one is causing a headache look at the other!

  • Ian Greenleigh

    11. If there’s a guide to help you execute, it’s probably not an idea worth much of your time.

    Big ideas to come with how-tos. The people that realize these ideas initially face some form of “blue sky paralysis”–and that’s a good sign, if it is followed by an actionable plan.

    Thanks for sharing this. I found it really encouraging.

  • Pavan K

    Absolutely brilliant post. Who wrote it? I particularly like comments 2 & 3 (starting small is critical). Also your routine comment is very relevant, something that is difficult when starting out as self employed and revolving days around clients or projects. Planning the week in advance and still having a routine, whether that be the morning read, reading Techcrunch on the toilet to save time, or seriously – consuming information from across the web, separating out time slots for each daily task and knowing what has to be done when, leaves the mind clear to attack one problem at a time.

    Thanks. I feel the seal of hesitation breaking, we have started executing and are about to go on a roll. 😉

    Some links that might help startups in particular:

    1) Guy Kawasaki – The Art of Innovation

    http://blog.guykawasaki.com/20

    2) Guy Kawasaki – Weave a MAT



    3) Doug Richard – 3 things this ex dragon believes:

    http://www.schoolforstartups.c

    There is an immense amount of valuable information on this blog.

  • nobody

    Great points. Unfortunately, you only understand them if you actually do them.

  • Martha Giffen

    This is an awesome post! I really like breaking through the hesitation. That happens somewhere on every single new project. Just push on through. Especially like the breaking it down into little pieces too. So much easier when you are completing small tasks along the way instead of being overwhelmed and paralyzed by the big picture!

  • Samuel

    Thanks for some good advice. I need this reminder. You know, “I already know these things…” but then I forget.

    But I don’t agree with “always finalize” as Thomas said.
    Well, I do agree with it sometimes. But not for always. It depends on the situation.

    Sometimes an open end (an open door) leads to more possibilities.

  • Charles Valerio

    Always come back to why you’re doing this. A project will not be strong unless it resonates with you strongly.

  • Swaroop C H

    Just today morning, I wrote something on similar lines at – http://www.swaroopch.com/blog/

    Yes, I stole the title from Scott’s talk 🙂 [have given credits in the blog post]

  • Steve Kercher

    I need to spend 2 to 3 hours a day practicing my classical repertoire on guitar. When I schedule this time for early in the morning and stick to it, I get 15 to 18 plus hours a week in. When I miss this morning appointment, it’s easy to get distracted by other daily responsibilities. Not good. Keeping appointments with ourselves and being disciplined, focused and consistent is critical to accomplishing anything.

  • Ellen O'Hara

    Fantastic posy. Have just shared this with our readers at http://www.cockpitarts.wordpress.com

  • Denver Photographer

    I think the most important one is “Thinking small” it’s really important to be able to break up ideas into small parts to be able to easily work on them.

  • Henri Schauffler1

    Great list!

    For me, #9, “Practice Saying No” is a biggie. In this comment, I would like to highlight the need for saying “no” so as to protect personal and family time. Too many business people, particularly small business owners who work 80 + hour per week simply because they think they “have to,” sacrifice vital relationships in their lives because of their business.

    I like the idea of using an Executive Assistant to run my life – to literally “say no” for me, based on my predetermined priorities and schedule, which he/she knows. However you do it, “say no” to business-related activities that will cut into your personal and family life.

  • Janine Libbey

    Number 7 really resonated with me. Building a business is certainly a multi-year project and it can be dauting at times. Breaking down projects will not only keep us motivated, it will allow us to track our progress along the way.

  • Guest

    I don’t remember how I came to your website – twitter / blog posting – but I am very happy I did. I am adding you to my rss reader immediately. Thanks for the great content

  • Gaurav Mishra

    Above all the i like the natraj picture/pose in this post . That draw me here

    I really like the practical steps put in there.
    Good productive post. Better to implement the same.
    Else will be going out a just fav. commented post

  • Mary St. John

    Number six is major to me…personally I am petrified of the idea of a routine, thinking that this somehow kills creativity and spontaneity. However, as a designer who has left the corporate world, I now need to institute my own structure to get projects/unpleasant tasks underway. It’s not easy-but these 10 tips help a great deal…I’m printing them out and keeping a copy next to my computer to read as inspiration in the mornings…thanks

  • Marc Ashton

    Nice post – I still think number 1 is where it starts and ends.

    There is a saying: “He who dares” – it doesn’t necessarily matter whether the plan works out but if you push against the universe this prompts a reply from other parties and at some point you will hit on to some momentum.

  • Jeff Goins

    Yup. This inspired me to fire up my laptop and just spend 30 minutes this Sunday evening working on my book project. I’ve been putting it off – leaving a series of half-written word doc’s in a folder for months now. It’s time to just commit to working on it a little bit each day. Thanks for this. Great stuff. Really appreciate your website and the resources it offers.

  • TheFASHIONISTACHIC

    Thank you for the post. I find it extremely beneficial

  • Alex Birch

    This is a great way to state things I feel are true but I never enumerated / articulated them. I do like the analogy of running and think that it could be expanded to many other laws such as 5 running more frequently instead of longer distances and pruning away people from meetings (running groups) if they’re not needed they tend to slow things down.

  • Constança Correia

    Wow this was extremely useful, thank you! 1, 2 and 3 are a huge help. Number 7 isn’t anything new but, unfortunately, often forgotten.. and so important to remember. I feel the urge to design all of the sudden 🙂

  • picky

    creative energy is not finite?

  • Maicon Sobczak

    Precious tips. And the most important is where you say “…tips here should only be followed as long as they are working”.

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