I’m preparing a business school seminar at the moment and I notice that I am slightly procrastinating with it. Partly i have been busy with other projects and partly the creative, inspiring streak has not hit me yet. I’m aware something is percolating in the back of my mind and I’m expecting that awesome genius idea but days are passing through and I’m slowly thinking I just have to start!
And just this morning having gone down to my local coffee shop with pen and paper to brainstorm ideas, I am joined by a good friend of mine who is also struggling with getting herself going with a marketing proposal brief she needs to draft for a client. We get talking about the nature of procrastination and our ideas for how we would tackle our respective projects and it reminds me of something I noticed about people in my years of work and procrastinations.
When it comes to the issue of struggling with getting started, people divide into two broad categories: 1. those that excel at idea improvement stage but find it hard to populate an empty canvas and 2. those that come up with initial ideas but lack creativity to work them up into finished products.
Most people I meet, including myself, tend to be good at one or the other but rarely has our experience allowed us to hone in both processes with equal flair. In my experience what will hold you back from starting the work and generating a finished results efficiently will be the weaker of the two functions as successful projects need both.
So, equipped with this information here are some practical tips based on my work with clients and what I have learned myself that may help you overcome your stuckness and get you tackling that key brief, project, novel, job application etc.
If you struggle with populating the empty canvas but feel much more at home being able to improve greatly on whatever is in front of you try the following:
1. let go of the pressure of perfection associated with your imagined final product (the place where you are naturally good at getting things to eventually) and remember that what you need is rough material.
2. Note down key ideas or elements of what you think needs to be in: this could be a bulleted list, a flow chart, a mindmap or maybe some PostIt notes. It’s like setting out the ingredients for a good meal. At this stage they are simply possibilities.
3. Work with questions such as: what would this work need to have in order to be really good? This sort of thinking will highlight criteria and ideas for things you may need to include.
4. When you have a reasonable list look out for a story that emerges with what you have. Often a natural order comes up and it is clear what will be included and what may need to be left out or added. Make a note of it. Keep it simple.
5. Once you have a rough plan and structure that hangs together well you will know you have a foundation for a promising results. It is now time to work this up and give the bare bones a beautiful body.
Your only goal is to give yourself the rough material you need to fire your natural strength which is to improve upon what is. Trust that you can use this process over and over again until you get something you really like. The key therefore is not to procrastinate, but in fact to start as early as possible.
If you struggle with working up ideas into finished product but feel much more at home drawing up the basics:
1. Look at the elements you have and the structure and think about the best format for your work: will it be a website, a powerpoint, a written brief, a video etc…
2. What characteristics would it have if it was top notch? Would it be witty, or clever, or contain the latest facts? What impression would it convey to its audience (viewer, reader, client, employer)
3. Can you think of any specific examples you can draw on for inspiration? Look within and outside your field/sector. Consider adverts and radio programmes, or newspapers headlines. Be open to ideas emerge for you from pretty much anywhere.
4. What extra features would add to the impact you are making? Remember this may sometimes mean things you decided to subtract rather than add. Will it be more effective being shorter, multicoloured on monochrome etc?
5. Work up all the ideas that you feel good about and trust your instinct. Examine how the new elements work within the totality of your project. Do they support, enhance, distract?
6. Always get a second opinion. Look for smart people who are natural product improvers. Tell them what you want to achieve and see if they can see your intention in your product. If they can, you succeeded. If they can’t, adjust things until you get it right.
Your goal is to use your ability to generate initial starting points and apply them to ask many potential ideas as you can. Ideas for how to dress things up, connect things, and polish things. Trust that the skill you have naturally will work for you as long as you feed it the material it needs to build with.
Many people say they do their best work last minute. In my experience this is only true for a small fraction of the time and in hindsight it is rarely true except for the work of pure genius. For the rest of us, inspiration may be a finicky mistress but why not give it the rough material she can work off from or decide to scrap in favour of better ideas should they arrive at the stroke of midnight. Give yourself time by starting as early as you can. Work out what’s truly stopping you and name it. Once you do, you will know exactly what you need to do and start there. Aim to start and trust that with time and your natural skills put to good use you will do a great job!
For more ideas on developing productive skills check out my recent book: Get Productive