Why “good ideas” never happen & why you can’t avoid difficult decisions

Published by Nela Dunato on in Business, Mindset, Productivity, Tips for creatives

I gave a talk at a few conferences titled: “End Design Revision Hell” (watch the video recording). My talk is aimed for my colleagues – graphic and web designers – who struggle handling their client process and have to deal with delays and unlimited revisions.

My talk proposes some solutions to this problem, but few people will actually go so far as to implement them. (If even one person does, my mission is done.)

I know exactly why people won’t bother to implement those solutions.

Since I only have a limited time to discuss the main talk topic, I decided to write about this self-sabotaging habit here on my blog, in hopes that maybe some curious conference attendees will stumble upon it.

And of course, because this topic is relevant to anyone, designer or not, business owner or not.

Why “good ideas” never happen & why you can't avoid difficult decisions

The fundamental requirement of success

There are many skills a person needs in order to achieve success at something. One of the skills that I want to focus on right now, or not so much a skill as a mindset, is the capacity for change.

If you want to achieve any kind of success at anything, you need to be willing to change.

The change I’m talking about is not what people typically think about when they consider changing as a person:

  • I’m not talking about becoming more likable.
  • Not talking about needing to be more like your peers.
  • Not talking about adopting any specific characteristic that people around you expect you to.

The changes you need to make are usually not even on the radar for most people in your life. If they haven’t achieved what you want to achieve, they likely don’t have the qualities you need, and they couldn’t point to these qualities if they were dangling right in front of their noses.

When you change as a person, people who have known you for a while might notice a difference, but it might be difficult for them to digest just how deep that change goes, and why it’s good for you.

They might interpret a positive change – one that has helped you become the kind of person you are proud to be, and achieve the goals you’ve wanted – as a negative one.

When I quit going out and drinking heavily every weekend in favor of spending more time making art and doing other creative hobbies, some of my friends have told me: “You’ve changed. You used to be more fun.”
Those people didn’t even care whether I was happier making art on a Friday night, or getting up earlier on a Sunday morning with a clear head, able to take on any creative challenge. They didn’t bother to ask why I decided to go out and drink less. They just figured I was more fun to be around when I was up for all kinds of shenanigans until the early morning. They weren’t interested in my life, really – they were interested in me making their weekend more eventful.

People like that aren’t your friends, and their opinion has no bearing on your life. They don’t care about your well-being. If you make your life revolve around feeding their superficial needs, this will prevent you from creating the life you want to have.

You weren’t born with all the habits and beliefs that will help you achieve what you want. We were all born as defenseless babies that needed to learn how to talk, walk upright, and keep our pee in for long enough. Some might say that a lot of our behavior is inborn, but feral children that grow up separated from the human society can’t learn that on their own – only the people who have successfully learned these skills can support you in learning them yourself.

Your ability to change your mindset and your behaviors is the key to achieving what you want. If you keep doing the “same old”, most things in your life will remain about the same.

Becoming a good creative professional requires change as well

We were raised for the better part of our lives to become factory workers. The first change we need to go through is to get out of the student mindset. This mindset causes people to only pay attention to information they’re force fed, and to look up to authorities for answers. Instead, reverting back to the way children naturally learn would be far more useful: explore your surroundings, observe what others do, imitate until you get the hang of it, and push your own boundaries.

The second big shift is that from an employee into a business owner. This one is quite popular on blogs these days, so I’ll just give an example of how this has worked in my business.

As an employee, I had no idea how to sell my work, because I didn’t have to – I was surrounded by a team of people who did all the things I wasn’t qualified to do. As a freelancer, I got pushed into many roles that have at first felt quite uncomfortable: sales, marketing, operations, admin, tech support… I had to learn the true value of my work (why would people even need high quality design services, apart from “looking nice”), so that I could communicate it to potential clients and sell with confidence.

As an employee, I never had to pitch my services – work would just come to my desk by the truckload. As a business owner, I realized that if I wanted access to the opportunities I really wanted, sometimes this meant I need to apply to get someone to notice me. I didn’t have a track record of workshops, and people weren’t lining up to hire me for speaking, so I started applying to institutions and events where my skills would be appreciated.

(For more details and examples, read my post The ways I’ve changed in 2 years of freelancing.)

These changes are huge and happen through a series of baby steps. Every day, there are thousands of little decisions we can make that will support our budding business owner mindset, or derail it.

Creative entrepreneurs are on the personal growth fast track, because if we don’t keep adapting to the ever changing conditions, back to that office job it is. (There’s nothing quite like the threat of going back to a day job to kick us into high gear!)

These changes can be on a personal level: how you communicate with others and express your needs, how you maintain health and energy, how you use your leisure time, how you deal with disappointments

They can also be very practical:

“Good ideas” won’t get you far (or anywhere, really)

Good ideas are cheap – you hear a dozen new ideas every morning before breakfast as you’re scrolling through your newsfeed. They don’t change you. They don’t turn you into a better person.

Positive change requires conscious effort. It requires you to think, implement, test and evaluate. And it requires you to make difficult decisions. For example:

  • What type of services you’ll stop doing in the future.
  • What type of client you don’t want to work with, and what to say to them when they ask.
  • What to do with old clients who are holding you back because they’re still paying your newbie rates, and it’s no longer profitable for you.
  • What your new prices are going to be, and will you make a spectacle about it, or raise them without anybody noticing.
  • What your working hours are, and how you’ll confront family members who storm into your home office as you’re trying to focus on work (see my tips on that here).
  • What you’re going to call yourself on your website, LinkedIn profile, author bios and in person (are you a writer, or a copywriter, or a content creation specialist?)
  • What your communication boundaries and payment policies are.
  • What the essential parts of your creative process are, and how you’ll document it.
  • What you’ll do if clients start messing with your process.
  • What online profiles you’ll delete because they’re diminishing your brand (think UpWork, Fiverr, 99designs and similar.)

If you thought freelancing is all about deciding which coffee shop to work at today, and where you’ll submit your next guest post, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but these are not the decisions that should take up the majority of your bandwidth.

The decisions that count – the decisions that make or break your bottom line – are those that directly affect the way you do your creative work, and for whom.

If it isn’t directly tied to your creative process, your positioning, your client relationships, or your finances, then it’s probably not a very important decision, and you could just as well decide either way. Roll a die, flip a coin, ask your dog to pick a piece of paper, it won’t matter that much in the long term. Any of the ways you’re considering has a chance of working out.

Don’t let those tiny, irrelevant decisions take your attention away from what matters. We like those types of decisions because they make us feel like we’re doing something, when in fact we’re avoiding the real work.

The real work won’t disappear no matter how much you’re trying to look the other way. Better do it sooner, rather than later.

If it’s not on your to-do list, it won’t happen

Sometimes I want to scream when I realize how I could have done things differently if only I remembered to take that small step.

I’ve been an avid consumer of blogs, newsletters, ebooks, courses and all that jazz for years. For the entire year before I became a full time freelancer, I’ve been learning about marketing and many other useful topics. The problem was, I was hardly implementing any of it. This continued on for the first 2 years of my freelancing journey.

Then in my third year I realized something revolutionary:

If I want something to change, I better make it a project on my to-do list.

My “to-do list” is actually a combination of Trello and Google calendar, but the tools are irrelevant here. What matters are 2 things:

  1. You’re making a commitment.
  2. You’ve planted the reminder somewhere where you will actually see it.

All those neatly tagged and categorized articles in Evernote are as good as lost to me, since I don’t have the habit of revisiting them. For me, Evernote is a limbo where the “good ideas” go, never to return. (Maybe, just maybe I’ll eventually go through the hundred and fifty posts labeled as “how to ecourses”.)

But when that lightbulb moment struck me one evening, I’ve changed the way I deal with posts that spark that thought “hmmm, I should try that”. Since that day onward, my process looks like this:

  1. I copy the link to the original article and immediately archive it (not saving it to Evernote).
  2. I go to my business management Trello board (on whatever device I’m using at the moment) and create a new task.
  3. I paste the copied link into the task description.

Turning ideas into tasks in Trello
It’s even easier with the Trello mobile app

This way, when I get around to doing that task, the reference post is there. No need to dig anything up or waste time searching, trying to remember what the post was titled, or how I tagged it.

Do all the tasks on the to-do list get done?

No, not all of them.

Sometimes I realize after a while that it doesn’t fit with my strategy, so off it goes.
Sometimes I realize I’ve already solved the problem in a different way.

And other times the tasks sit on my list until I get around to do them for months. I can’t do it all by next week, or even next year (big plans). Priorities change, and I allow myself to change my mind.

The most important thing is that at least I’ve made the first step toward implementing the change. Without that first step, nothing else will follow. By putting it on my to-do list I’ve increased my chances of doing it from zero to at least 10-15% (that’s infinitely times more, mathematically speaking).

Whether you’re using an app, a paper planner, or a wall with post-its as a reminder of your goals and projects, doesn’t matter as much as the fact that the tasks on it bring you closer to your goals.

We don’t change overnight because of a lightbulb moment. We change when we do the thing we didn’t think we could do before.

(Say no. Ask for the sale. Speak on a stage. Wake up at 6. State your price without cringing. Say “This is how I work”. Publish a book. Interview your hero. Make 5 figures in a week.)

Mother nature has equipped you with the ability to change. Your career gives you opportunities to use it every day.

What will you put on your to-do list?

Nela Dunato

About Nela Dunato

Artist, brand designer, teacher, and writer. Author of the book “The Human Centered Brand”. Owner of a boutique branding & design consultancy that helps experienced service-based businesses impress their dream clients.

On this blog I write about art, design, creativity, business, productivity and marketing, and share my creative process and tips. Read more about me...

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