I just finished reading Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely, and wow – such a fantastic read.
His research has so many implications for personal development, and scientifically validates many concepts that I once thought were bogus (affirmations being one such concept). However, because Ariely spends much of his time focusing on how his research can be applied to social issues, it can be easy to miss how powerful his research is for sparking positive change at the individual level.
For any books containing inspiring ideas that aren’t written as methodically as Predictably Irrational, it can be even harder to extract the wisdom. It used to frustrate me how often I’d find myself motivated to act by something inspiring, only to see that desire to act fizzle out within a matter of hours. After years of seeing this happen time and again, I finally developed a system that helps me capture that inspiration and turn it into something I can act on when the time is right.
It’s a pretty simple formula:
- Act when ready
However, it’s not that simple. Allow me to explain how this framework works its magic.
I find it strange that more people don’t write down inspiring ideas from books and blog posts. I’m just speaking for myself here, but it’s very rare that I hear/read something interesting and am immediately inspired to take action. It’s even more rare for me to actually be in a place to take action on the spot – inspiration will usually hit me on the bus, in the shower, or while I’m busy with something else.
I find it much easier to assume that an idea with great potential won’t be actionable right away, and to create systems that work around this idea. Generally, I’ll find an idea interesting and recognize its potential for inspiration in the future, so I’ll capture it somewhere and review periodically to see if that inspiration hits me.
I used to do all of my capture on Evernote, but I find it easier to jot thing down in a notebook. Here are some notes from Predictably Irrational:
In the event I’m caught without my notebook, I’ll email myself from my iPhone with the idea and either add it to the notebook later (just to keep all ideas in one place), or move the idea straight into the validation stage, which I’ll discuss next.
The key is to capture any and all ideas that you feel have potential for inspiring positive action in the future.
This step is the one that most often goes ignored. I define validation as the translation of an inspiring idea into a project with concrete action steps.
For example, let’s say you found this particular quote inspiring:
“Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.”
You’re inspired to start creating things that people would enjoy. Now what? How can you take this inspiration and validate that it’s an idea you can apply to your life? What kind of project would you undertake based on this idea? Perhaps you’ll sign up for a painting class. Perhaps you’ll start writing on that blog you started a few years ago and have since forgotten. The possibilities are numerous, but you must choose one to start (lest you suffer from the dreaded analysis paralysis). Once you find a project you deem suitable, define the steps you will take to tackle this project. For example:
1) Do a Google search for some painting classes in my area. Take note of the three most interesting ones.
2) Find out the cost of each class and decide on the one I want to pursue
3) Sign up for the class
None of these steps are too difficult, right? That’s the point of breaking your project down into smaller steps. If you told yourself, “I’ll start taking painting classes,” and then left it at that, it’s very easy to procrastinate because you’re conjuring up the planning, cost and commitment all at once. Translating ideas into projects, and then breaking those projects down into smaller steps makes it so much easier to go from inspiration to achievement.
Here’s an example of how I use Trello to track such projects. I had an urge to create a Meetup group after moving to San Francisco. So rather than let it sit in my mind as a non-actionable idea, I broke it down into concrete action steps, as you can see below.
Act when ready
It’s fairly obvious that you should take action on your brand new project. But don’t even think about doing so until you’re confident that you can see it through to completion. Why? Because when you get too busy with your other commitments, your progress will stall, you’ll push this new project to the wayside, and eventually let the project die. It’s much harder to resurrect a half-accomplished project, rather than start fresh when the time is right.
At the same time, one could argue that there never a truly ideal time to start a project. So don’t wait until you’re 100% ready – that day may never come. Wait until you’re about 80% ready. In other words, be ready to take action, but apply some common sense before diving head first into a new project.
If you have looming deadlines at work and a vacation planned next month, might it be wiser to start your new project after all of that is water under the bridge? If you become inspired to learn the guitar, but you’re in the middle of learning to play piano, it’s probably wise that you capture that inspiration for later. In these kinds of situations, it’s wise to hold onto the articles, resources and quotes that inspired you in the first place. As I’ve mentioned before, I recommend Trello as a fantastic, free tool that can help you manage all of your inspired projects.
My personal Trello account has one unyielding rule for making sure I’m always ready and able to finish the projects I start: Never have more than three active projects at one time (i.e. no more than three Trello tasks in the “In Progress” category).
This simple rule has done wonders for keeping me focused on the projects I start. And it also makes me critically analyze any and all projects I consider starting, because once I start, I now feel bound to see it through to the end. There’s nothing wrong with abandoning ship if you realize a project is no longer valuable to you, but the goal here is to recognize that before you start working on it. In the words of Seth Godin: “If you can’t make it through the Dip, don’t start.”
What are you waiting for?
You come across inspiring ideas more often than you think. Some of the inspiring ideas that you’ve since forgotten could’ve been the one to change your life forever. No longer need this happen. Capture this inspiration. Validate it. And act on it when the time is right. If you can do this successfully, even once, you’ll wonder why so many people let inspiration slip through their fingers as often as they do.
Photo credit: cesarharada.com