by Natalia Sánchez Querubín.
The TEDx Network is built around ideas that are worth spreading. Ideas are a pretty awesome thing and it is easy to fall in love with them. However, to craft them into tangible results is a very different story. Behind every idea “worth spreading” there is a team of people that had not only the capacity to come up with a wonderful set of thoughts, but also to organize themselves and execute those ideas as a project. This is the non-romantic side of creativity. However, it can be equally fascinating. Then, TEDx in reality is not just about ideas, but also about ideas that have actually happened. And there is a big difference between these two things, since it is in the road between desire and execution where most creative initiatives find themselves in that place where blogs (with no more than two entries), business plans (that never got to be applied) and web domains (bought but never developed) go to die.
How to fill the gap between thought and action has been a recurrent theme for researchers that like Scott Belsky*, a specialist in project management, explore the work processes behind creative people. Over the years Belsky has compiled a repertoire of practices that can potentially improve productivity without compromising flexibility and openness; instead highlighting them as fundamental qualities for the execution stage of a project. As such organization and creativity become two key elements in making ideas happen. Belsky’s literature shines for its directness and applicability in the sea of motivational crap-literature that flows the business section of bookstores.
Personally, I manage to accomplish a number of the ideas I come up with. I consider myself an action-oriented person that can usually deliver results. However, from the collection of things that I have not manage to accomplish (including short stories, art works and random personal projects) there is one “simple” idea that since, well, forever I have failed to bring into being: having an organized room. I can easily spend half a day looking for a the link I know I wrote in a paper that I left somewhere on my desk or for my keys or the jacket I want to wear. My room has been in a state of crisis for as long as I can remember. This is not a banal problem. On the contrary: it affects my mental state, my processes (I work from home most of the times) and the people around me. I either tried to justify, with certain sense of pride, my ability to exist among such chaos or instead felt shame and experienced short periods of organization just to fall back into the usual mess. For anyone who has lived with me or come over for a visit, they know my room as the land of never ending chaos.
Not long ago the need to improve my productivity (and the imminent danger of being murder by the people that I shared my personal space with) forced me to change my organization habits. Since nothing else had succeeded before, I decided to take a different approach and attempt to put my room together using some of Belsky’s ideas. In other words, to approach the organization of my room as a concrete project that required basic management strategies. Now, even if this story of my room is not, in itself, all that relevant, it becomes an excuse to discuss the principles that have allowed it—and myself—to move forward and which definitely are worth sharing. So, lets dive in.
Principle 1: Capture actions. Scott Belsky’s strongest argument is that for an idea to potentially be accomplished it must first and most of all be broken down into concrete actions. Approaching the idea of an “organize room” as a complete whole –in the same way as writing down in my agenda things such as “make portfolio”, “organize party”, “write first chapter” or “conquer the world”— made no sense. In my case the abstract idea of organization had to be translated into a list of tasks such as: make the bed, store all dirty clothes in laundry basket, store clean clothes in the closet, etc. Anything that could not be phrased with a verb became secondary to the execution stage. It is only by means of thinking in actions, instead of abstract results, that the overall objective of a project becomes comprehensible.
Principle 2. Customize your work processes. After capturing the specific actions that composed a project—as Belsky points out—it is important to develop customized work structures. In other words, knowing what “you have to do” is not enough. It becomes necessary to think of ways that will make you do the things you already know need to be done. For example, it was no surprise that I had to store clean clothes after wearing them in the closet…. however the floor was still covered by clothes, dirty things lived under the bed and (sight) the laundry basket looked like a volcano of socks and shirts. What was preventing me from accomplishing such a simple thing? Key discovery: I hate folding clothes. And years of failing a it have just recently made me realize that my mistake had been trying to replicate the way I think organized people function. Folding will never work for me. I had wasted energy and time repeating it, instead of using my capacities, tendencies and the infrastructure of my space to find a more personalized way to do it.
Suddenly it became evident I had to work around my “folding-phobia”. What could be an alternative to folding clothes? Rolling them up! A new and simple action I felt more comfortable repeating and that was compatible with my tendency of throwing things all together (some things you just cant fight). As a result now my room is a drawer-based instead of shelve-based space. I have baskets and boxes everywhere (more than eleven different containers in a very small room) where my rolled clothes are easy to store. So far it has worked like a charm and it proves that sometimes limitations can be used as an inspiration. Constraints (such as my hate of folding) are usually looked at as “enemies”, when instead they can be approached more productively if seen as friends, or at least, as enemies you want to keep close during the course of a project.
The efficiency of customized work structures helps illustrate how the road from idea to action to accomplishment is built on the balance between flexibility and common sense. Therefore, it is very advisable to stop repeating the same process to solve a problem just because–in theory—that process is supposed to work. This is a common mistake —Belsky reminds his readers and clients—as for example studies show that alarming amounts of time and energy are wasted on tasks such as categorizing notes or on standardized meetings that keep happening every week regardless of whether a team even has a comprehensible reason to gather.
Principle 3: The force of rituals. Performing the captured tasks (make bed, roll clothes, etc) on a daily basis, instead of having fall-backs into chaos, was clearly the biggest challenge of the project. Anyone can clean a room, but to keep it clean during an extended period of time is a very different deal. In order to accomplish constancy it became fundamental to create personal rituals. I created mine by choosing one task from the list I had previously made. This chosen task would be the only one that no matter what, had to be accomplished before the day ended. This can be understood as an adaptation of Belsky’s concept of the Focus Zone. Basically, he suggests to chose the five most important actions of the day and make sure that no matter what they get done . These five tasks are the Focus Zone can be understood as a type of personal ritual.
I chose to build my ritual as follows: “I will not go to sleep until my desk is clear”. This is more realistic and concrete that saying “I will not go to bed until my room is perfectly organized” or something like that. I chose to focus on my desk because usually this is the place were makeup, jewelry, pencils, notes and other stuff accumulates. Easy and concrete, the desk ritual has helped me more with my organization skills than any other system I had tried before. I have made myself organize my desk at 3 AM; it has become something I NEED TO DO and once I’m doing it it becomes easier to keep moving into other tasks.
Finally, as we are currently two people living in the room, I was expecting my progress to be noticed and responded to with similar actions. However this didn’t happen immediately. Why? Simple. My mistake was keeping quite and not communicating what I was doing in a straightforward and transparent way. Instead I was taking the “the martyr approach”: quietly do all the work and “suffer” in hope of recognition. Once I shared my process and my personal principle my partner immediately chose a task for himself: making the bed every morning. Such a valuable thing as accountability is usually obtained by the public and transparent distribution of tasks among a teammates; without someone being specifically responsible for a given action it will most likely not be accomplished. Furthermore, work can easily be done twice if a martyr co-worker fails to share his or her achievements with the rest.
In general, including personal rituals helped guarantee repetition, generate ownership and create a sense of community. Long live team room!
Conclusion. With weeks of a now successfully organized room (which for me is as big of a success as winning a gold medal and some type of other grandiloquent achievement) I can say: thank you Scott Belsky for helping me organize my room. Basic principles proved that when ideas are translated into projects they tend to happen, that personalization in execution is key for surpassing difficulties (including your self) and that crisis and creativity indeed make a good pair. Furthermore, this small success has become contagious to other aspects of my life: my laptop, workflow and kitchen are more organized too. To end, it is important to share the results but also the processes behind them. Maybe someone with a room crisis will find this article useful and hopefully Scott Belsky will find it funny.
*Scott Belsky is Scott is the founder and CEO of Behance, a company that develops products and services for creative industries. Belsky is also the author of the national bestselling book Making Ideas Happen (Portfolio Imprint, Penguin Books, April, 2010).
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