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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)
  • David Batterson

    I agree! Go at things full blast with your heart in it and don’t be afraid to get both feet wet. But don’t do it blindly, be armed with tools and resources!

  • Timo Kiander

    Great post!

    Especially points #3 and #10 are very important.

    Trying to get the first version out is important. First version is always just a draft. The more you iterate (and you are willing to do that), the better the end product/project is going to be.

    Also, rules are nice, but eventually even a better rule can replace an outdated one.


  • Irishmundo

    Thanks for sharing a very good explanation. This will be very helpful. clean up my credit

  • Ryan

    Hesitation is probably my biggest one.

  • Vijay

    Very pragmatic, I can sense it. I love the hindu god image used in the post. I would love to get a wallpaper sized image for my desktop !

  • ingrid nader

    goddess PRODUCTION aka CREATION has 10 helpfull arms helping to amp your productivity

     don’t stop … just t do it do it do it…. 

  • Wes O'Haire

    This is really what GTD all boils down to. Great stuff.

  • kaybyte

    What if everyone withholds payment from the corporations they have accounts with for one month, calling them to notify they are withholding payment based on 99%, and/or stop shopping at stores that carry merchandise for companies that outsource employment to other countries?  We have a serious unemployment issue within these united states, we render aid to those countries in need, and we are neglecting our own.  How does this make sense?

  • Eric Johnson MBA

    I totally agree with you about #5 Suzan.  I agree that getting back into the flow can be very challenging.  

  • Eric Johnson MBA

    Phenomenal thoughts shared here. Thank you!  I always share this with my clients as well, “It’s not about getting things done, it’s about getting the RIGHT things done.”  Just a fantastic article that I will be sharing with clients and friends.
    Eric Johnson

  • Ed Vaile

    Without natural selection, humans must decide who is suitable for reproduction, and who is not, or humans will continue to get more obese, and less intelligent, hence more sloth ridden, i. e. lazy, just take a look around you at the supermarket, and ask yourself, is this person productive? Is this person someone who is a hard worker? perhaps you’ll only need to look in the mirror, study my Aphorisms, and Observations I have written below, all of the answers to all of the problems lie there! Ed VaileAphorisms, And Observations, By  Ed Vaile,“ You’re Only As Smart, As A Google Bar Away “” Through Faith, One Gains Eternal Hope ” ” Never Under Estimate, The Power Of Conviction “” Hate, Spite, Envy, Greed, Sloth, And Deceit, Are The Foundation Of Misfortune “” The Key To Good Health, Is A Healthy Ration Of Hard Labor “” A Women’s Greatest Ally, Is Her Vanity “” That Which Is Easily Attainable, Often Bares Little Value “” If You Don’t Make A Mess, You Don’t Have To Clean It Up “” You Don’t Know How Good You’ve Got It, Until You’ve Got It Worse” ” Beware Of The Future, Nature Demands Justice Be Served “” No Amount Of Wealth, Can Buy You Good Health “” Say What you Mean, And Mean What You Say “” In Natures Eyes, We Are But Thieves, Clean Air, And Water, Our Bounty “” Lose Tract Of Your Physical Fitness,  A Physician Will Soon Bare Witness “” A Man Without Principals, Is A Man Without Honor “” All The Intellectuality In The World, Can’t Replace Good Common Sense “” A Little Praise, Goes A Long Ways “” Rhetoric, Is The Preachers Salvation “” Politicians, Say What They Would Like To Mean, And Promise What They Can’t Keep “” Love Is What You Make It “” Good Business Sense, Means Good Common Sense “” If You Can’t Learn From Your Mistakes, Learn From Those Of Others “” Good Lighting Is Everything “” Greed Will Be The Fall Of Humanity, For Nature Has No Emotion “” If You Don’t Stay Ahead Of Your Work, Your Work Will Get Ahead Of You “” Sobriety Is For The Valiant “” It’s Not Charity, If It’s Preformed With Expectations Of Retribution “” Delusion, Is The Seat Of Happiness “” The Domestication Of Humanity, Purged It From The Ranks Of Nature, It’s Called Civilization “” Unlike Nature, Human Emotion Allows Humanitarianism; To Proceed Logic “” Wisdom Is A Combination, Of Maturity, Age, Experience, Patience, And Discipline “” Principals, Are The Building Blocks Of Good Moral Character “” A Wise Man Takes His Loses In Stride, And In Perspective “” Your Word Is Your Bond “” Honor Thy Father, But Worship Thy Mother “” The Spoiled,  Are The Thankless “” He Who Gives Of Himself, Shall Receive Of Others “” The Wind Blows, Which Ever Way You Don’t Want It To “” Rationalization, Is The Product Of Maturity “” He Who Finds Amusement In Others Misfortunes, Shall Soon Find Misfortune Itself ” ” Your Friends, Are Those Who Love You “” A Mans Success, Is Not Measured Buy His Monetary Income ” ” The Less Said About A Lie,  The Better “” True Love, Is Unconditional “” If You’re Sure You Can’t, You Won’t “” The Hardest Thing In The World To Do, Is Practice What You Preach “” Theology Is Non Existent, In The Mind Of Science “” There Is A Fine Line Between Flattery, And Patronization ““ There Is No Beginning, And There Is No  End, Only Constant Change ““ Wit, Is  A Combination Of Deductive, And Rationalizational Skills “ “ Our Biggest Problem Is, We Take So Much For Granted ““  Respect  Is Earned, Not Given  ““ Drink And Delusion, Go Hand In Hand ““ Can You Imagine How Bad, Good Would Be, If There Was No Bad ““  Want To Be Productive, Pay Attention To Your Work ““ They Say Talk Is Cheap, But My Mouth Sure Costs Me A lot ““ If You’re Real Smart, You’re Heart Smart ““ The Harder You Work, The Stronger You Get ““ There’s Head Work, And There’s Heart Work ““ Fashion, Spreads Like Wildfire ““ Food Comes Before Pride ““ Always Give A Man Credit, Where Credit Is Due ““ A Good Boss Has Patience, Finesse, And Tact “ “ Common Sense Occurs, When Rationalization Out Weighs Delusion “ “ The Answers To Creation. And Existence, Are At Present Beyond Human Capacity “ “Sincerity, Is given Little Consideration In Modern Society ““ Cut And Dried, Things Seldom Are ““ You Have A Choice To Make In Life, Science Or Theology ““ For Instant Fool, Just Add Alcohol ““ Most Of Us Would Complain, No Matter How Good We’ve Got It ““ Flowers To A Woman,  Are The Salt Of The Earth ““ What Would Be A Hand Me Down To One Fellow, Is A Family Heir Loom To Another ““ Be Aware  Of Your Priorities, Without Your Health, You Have Nothing ““ If Anything; We’re The Source Of Someone’s Amusement ““ The Greatest Sin Against God, Is Obesity ““ A Happy Crew, Is A Snappy Crew”“ Nature Is God, And God Alone ““ A Mistake Is Something That Someone Else Catches, A Correction Is Something You Catch Yourself “  “ There Are Two Kinds Of Lies, Intentional, And Unintentional ““ Never Ask For Something Given, to Be Returned, Or Return Something, That Has Been Given ““ Expecting The Average Individual To Keep His Word, Is Like Expecting A Prostitute To Keep Her Virginity ““ No Amount Of Logic, Can Un-cloud Those Devout ““ Emotional Security, Comes With Maturity ““ Have You Earned Your Food Today, Have You Burned Your Food Today “ “ Time Isn’t Constant, The Older You Get, The Faster It Goes ““ I’m The First One To Give Advise, And The Last One To Take It ““ You Can Have Anything, You Don’t Want ““ Without Problems, There Are No Resolutions “” Inflation Is The Product, Of An Unproductive Workforce ““ No Amount Of Money Can Mend A Damaged Reputation ““ Beware Of Counterproductive Rationalization ““ It’s June, In Mosquito Lagoon, And There’s No Mosquitoes “ “ You Don’t Have To Be Fat To Be Lazy, But You’ve Got To Be Lazy To Be Fat “ “ Nature Works On Logic, Humans Work On Emotion ““ Western Man, Wants So Much, To Do So Little ““ War Is A Business ““ To Think That Your Religion, Is The Only Right One, Would Be Ludicrous ““ Hormones, And Emotions, Are Very Powerful Things ““ When You Domesticate A Species, One Must Institute Selective Breeding, Or Highly Unsuitable Results, Will Eventually Occur, Humans are No Exception ““ You Only See, What You Want To See ““ Sloth, Is Inherent To Domestication “ “ Trying To Live Life, Without A Crutch Like Religion, Is A Very Difficult Task ““ Poor Humans… Governed By Morality Instead Of Logic “  “ One Of The Most Important Things In Life, Is To Do What You Say Your Going To Do, When You Say Your Going To Do It ““ There’s Two Things You Can Lose, And Never Know The Difference, Your Mind, And Your Life ““ Empathy, Or Apathy, That Is The Question ““ Happiness, Is Relative “ “ Obesity, Is Proof Of Sloth “ “ Forgive, Lest Ye Be Un-forgiven”“ Everyone Wants To Be Friends, With A Good Listener” “ They Let Just Anybody Make Babies, And then They Let’em Vote ““ Envy Runs Deep, In Those With A Shallow Mind “   

  • Denise Turney

    Especially enjoyed “break the seal of hesitation.”  It’s so easy to sit back and expect our intentions and desires and daydreaming to do the work.  No.  If you really want something you’ll want to take action.  In fact, just daydreaming might be proof that we don’t really want something.  Take action!


  • Pat Newcombe

    what works for one person isn’t necessarily right for another. But all your tips are very useful to bear in mind and I especially like the allegory of ‘breaking the seal of hesitation’. That sounds so apt… A very timely blog post – for me anyway!

  • Mike Scobie

    Enthusiasm/commitment/passion/determination are the foundation for all the above. I believe when you have a creative project you really believe in it becomes possible to develop the habits needed to achieve.


  • Andrewpfaff
  • Donne Milano

    Great advices.. thanks for sharing!

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    There is a way to improve Your Struggling Sales Team: by Yasir Khan Faridi.… 

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  • Olesya

    Very True…

  • Gareth Hutton

    Cheers, a useful article. 

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  • Hotels Torquay

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  • Anna Arbuckle

    Just the kind of pep talk I needed. Thank you, so apt

  • Misdemeanor

    The Laws of Productivity is a must-read presentation for startups that want to be more productive.

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