How to have ideas – guidance for engineers and other humans

When I’m asked, you know, at a cocktail party or some other social setting, ‘what exactly do you do’ I say ‘I train engineers to be more creative’. This is a great statement to use because: it feels good to say; it is reasonably close to the truth; and it is short enough to enable my interlocutors to decide quickly if they want to engage further or keep their distance.

For the people that stick around the next question is usually, ‘well how do you do that then’, and I explain I run two courses, ‘how to have ideas’ and ‘how to have better ideas’, the first being a pre-requisite to the second.

This is again only approximatinately true (my course content is usually based on what the learners say they want to cover rather than following a strict syllabus, and the course titles aren’t always as catchy as I’d like) but it keeps the conversation moving.

After further dialogue, I am asked if I have got this all written down somewhere, and this is when I usually get embarrassed, and have to say, ‘no’, because it is all in my head. But not anymore, because now I can point them to the post you are reading, my first attempt to commit an overview of this material to writing.

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Use these 5 apps to create distraction-free time.

Fire Extinguishers by Claudio González is available under CC-BY-2.0
Fire Extinguishers by Claudio González is available under CC-BY-2.0

We need distraction-free time to make progress on our creative projects. At the same time, we rely on online networks and information to nourish our ideas. The trouble is, spending time online is rarely distraction-free. So, is it possible to get the best of both worlds?

The short answer is yes. In this post I share the strategies that I have adopted to maintain distraction-free time while working online. These include five apps that I regularly use to manage what information I see and when.

This post follows on from my previous post 9 ways to build creativity in your organisation, focusing on steps that individuals can take to manage their own creativity. Expect more from me on this theme in coming posts.


There are four principles that underpin my approach:

1 – Know your mode

In his book ‘Getting Things Done‘, David Allen tells readers not confuse time when you are processing actions with time when you are completing an action. The same is true for working online. Be clear about whether you are meant to be processing emails/tweets etc, completing an action or, importantly,  spending time reading.

2- Avoid the inbox

Enter the inbox, get all the information you need out of there, and then leave. If you return when you are in the middle of something else, don’t be surprised if you get distracted.

3- Reduce the back-and-forth

Just because we can respond instantly, doesn’t mean we have to. Instant responses lead to communication inflation, and erode time to ourselves.

4- Remove notifications

Until the last 100 or so years, toothache must have been the bain of adults lives – always nagging, never leaving us in peace. Today, in the age of modern dentistry, what nags us instead, what disrupts our peace, are social media notifications. If we set regular times to look at our various feeds, we don’t need notifications.

5 apps

I am being generous with the definition of ‘apps’, here to mean both ‘app-lications’ and ‘app-roaches’.

1 – Task management – use Bullet Journal

The first app isn’t an app at all, it’s an instead-of-an-app. For years I’ve been playing around with lots of different apps for managing tasks. My favourites are OnmiFocus and Trello. The trouble with even the best of these tools is that they allow you to create never-ending lists of tasks that you could never get done.

Bullet Journal is different. It is no more than a set of rules for using a paper notebook to manage your tasks. It’s simple, and it works. Each day you write down the tasks you need to complete. At the end of the day, you either forward incomplete tasks to the next day, by physically writing them out again, or your forward it to a page for the week or even month ahead, again physically writing down the tasks. It works because every time you re-write something you end up saying to yourself, ‘come on, am I actually going to do this?’

I’ve been using it for four months now and I’m hooked. Here’s a great intro video for using Bullet Journal.

2 – Information storage and online workspace – Evernote

Evernote is a great tool for storing information and for working online. Here’s how I use it to minimise distractions.

  1. As I am processing emails, if I find something that I need to refer to later for a particular project, I forward it to Evernote (which you can do straight from your email), adding meta tags in the subject line so that Evernote can file it for me.
  2. When I am working on a project, I can then look through the notes filed in Evernote that have that project tagged. It’s a great way to get to the information without being distracted by something new in the inbox.
  3. I do all first drafts of longer emails in Evernote – I can even send them from Evernote without having to go back into my inbox.

One really neat feature of Evernote is that as you use it more and more, it starts to recognise when something you are writing is similar to a previous note – this has the added bonus of making connections that I hadn’t otherwise seen.

3 – Online reader – Instapaper

Until I discovered Instapaper, I had basically stopped reading the articles that people were sending me online. This happened as a consequence of being rigourous about not spending more than two minutes processing any email that someone had sent me. If a correspondent had sent me something to read, I would forward it to a folder called ‘browsing’ where it would then languish unread.

And then I discovered Instapaper, an app that you can forward reading informaiton to. When you open the app, all your articles are there but with the formatting stripped away. What’s left is really clear to read.

Since then I usually make at least one time a week when I sit down with a cup of coffee and read my articles for the week on Instapaper. It is really refreshing to spend time reading longer articles from end to end.

If I like what I read, I forward it to Evernote, tagged for appropriate interests. If I want to share it with other people, I forward it to Buffer – see below.

4 – Schedule social media posts using Buffer

I know from looking at the analytics that most of the people that follow me are online at times when I’d rather not be. To get round this I use Buffer to schedule some of my social media posts to maximise the chances that the people I want to see the post do. Buffer allows you to set up daily posting schedules for all your social media channels. You can save time by posting to several channels simulataneously. Buffer will tell you what times your audience members are interacting with your contact, and can adjust your posting schedule to suit.

5 – Clear yesterday’s messages today

This is a great rule of thumb that I only came across recently in the Guardian (thanks Jenny for the recommendation!). I’ve long abandoned the idea of having an empty inbox – as a strategy it takes too much time and I think can actually lead to more email traffic. In this approach, on any given day, you should only aim to deal with yesterday’s emails. You are still responding within 24 hours, which is a reasonable timeframe, but your response has to be carefully written as you have to empower your correspondent to act without hearing from you againfor 24 hours.


My Dad once quoted the following to me (I am hoping he can remember where it came from and can tell us in the comments to this post): getting information from the internet is a bit like trying to take a sip of water from a fire extinguisher.

Yes, we need access to online information and networks for our creative projects – we just need to manage the flow.

Related posts

The Happy Grid: prioritise your action list in a more fulfilling way

The Happy Grid is a technique I devised a few months ago to help me use short and long-term happiness as a guide for daily decision making. Since I’ve been using it, it has had a hugely positive impact on me: I am better at prioritising work that makes me more fulfilled, and hopefully the people I collaborate with get more out of working with me.

In this post I’ll explain how to set up your own Happy Grid. I’ll also go through the four different task types that make up the grid, and what these can tell you about the pressures that influence how you use your time. It’s a long post, but stick with it as I think there’s a lot of useful stuff here.


The story begins at the end of a busy week. I had ticked off all the most important actions on all my major projects. I should have been feeling happy, but I felt quite depressed and that depression extended into the weekend. It was confusing because this was supposed to feel good – to have not sucumbed to distraction and to have done the things on which other people were depending on me.  Yet I didn’t feel any payback for getting to the end of the list.

A few weeks before I had been on holiday. One of the things that I do when I have some time away is write two lists in my journal: the first, a list of goals for the year ahead; the second a list of things I feel happy doing – a list of things that bring happiness in the moment.

I decided to map my ‘done’ list against my lists of goals and things I enjoy doing. The result was very revealing.

The Happy Grid Diagnostic Test

To help you get the most out of reading this post, I suggest you do the following quick diagnostic test right now. Do it quickly on a piece of paper. You can always go back and do it more thoroughly. I am going to ask you to write down four lists.

Current goals

First, write down a list of your current goals. Think of goals on a say a 3- to 6-month horizon. Include in your list the sort of state you want to find yourself in. So for instance one of my goals was to spend more time doing face-to-face teaching. Another is to spend time with people who positively influence my thinking. Neither of these goals are to do with attaining some kind of status. Think broadly. Do you want to spend more time inside or out? Are there things you want to learn?


The second list of of things you don’t want to achieve. Think of these as anti goals. For instance I don’t want to spend more time in front of a computer screen. I don’t really want to get involved with teaching projects where I don’t have influence over the content. I don’t really want to get involved in building a new knowledge management system for the business, even though this is something I’ve done before. Knowing what you don’t want to do is as important as what you do, but is sometimes harder to elucidate.

Enjoy doing

The third list to write down is a list of things you enjoy doing.. Think of things that make you go into a state of ‘flow’ when you do them, when time just flies by because you are enjoying yourself, but equally which keep you challenged. Think of things that you get a buzz out of because you enjoy doing them. My list includes things like teaching and coaching, writing new teaching material. But it also includes travelling by train, cycling, spending time with family and friends, spending time outside.

Drag list

The fourth list to write down is things that you don’t enjoy. These are things that feel like a drag. For me that list includes small-scale management of projects. This is something that I don’t enjoy and recognise that there are other people who do this much better than me. It also includes the opposites to the things I enjoy doing – so I don’t enjoy being inside all the time, I don’t enjoy being alone for too long.
You are now ready to create your own Happy Grid.

The four types of tasks

I reasoned that the tasks on my to-do list fitted into one of four categories, which I labelled and described as follows:

  • Type-1 tasks – Tasks that are goal-aligned and enjoyable. These are things we should prioritise because they feel good to do, and because they are contributing to a goal.
  • Type-2 tasks – Tasks that are not goal aligned, but nevertheless enjoyable. It feels good to do them but it doesn’t help us reach one of our goals.
  • Type-3 tasks – Tasks that are goal-aligned but unenjoyable. We generally need to do them for long-term happiness but doing so doesn’t feel good.
  • Type-4 tasks – Tasks that are neither goal-aligned nor enjoyable. Doing these doesn’t feel good in the short- nor the long-term.

Creating your Happy Grid

Create a 2×2 grid and label the four quadrants as follows.
Type 1     Type 2
Type 3     Type 4

Now, go through each entry in your current to-do list, and write it down in the quadrant of the grid to which it corresponds.

When I categorised and wrote down my list of completed tasks for the previous week, I found that the majority of what I had got done were Type 4 tasks: tasks that are neither enjoyable nor contribute towards longer-term aims, with a smattering of Type 3s and Type 2s. Revealingly I didn’t have anything written down in the Type 1 quadrant, the one that feel good to do and contribute towards some positive goal.

I felt I had landed upon a key prioritisation tool for the week ahead.

Understanding the four tasks categories

Clearly we don’t have the luxury of only doing Type-1 things. But categorising things in this way can at least help us be more aware of the nature of the list of tasks before us, and can help us make more fulfilling choices about what we do. And beyond being simply aware, we can actively make decisions to help us spend more time doing things that we enjoy.

Let’s explore each of these categories in turn.

Type-1 tasks – goal-aligned, enjoyable tasks

In an ideal world, we’d spend the majority of our time doing these sorts of tasks. Half the trouble is simply knowing what these goal-aligned, enjoyable tasks are. The aim of the happy grid is to help us identify the sorts of things we enjoy doing and that are goal-aligned, and to make sure we are spending at least some of everyday doing things that are likely to make us happy.

By regularly repeating the diagnostic exercise described at the start of this post, you can start to recognise  Type-1 tasks. Identifying and writing down type-1 tasks is the first step to making sure you spend more time doing what makes you happy. The second step is managing and steadily reducing the time you spend doing Type-2, Type-3 and Type-4 tasks.

Type-2 tasks – non-goal-aligned, enjoyable tasks

Type-2 tasks are enjoyable in the moment but don’t necessarily contribute to what you want to achieve long-term. The worst Type-2s are tasks that you enjoy doing but that lead you towards anti-goals, the things you really don’t want to be achieving.

Browsing the web, flicking through social media and sharpening your pot of colouring pencils generally fall into this category. Another word for this type of Type-2 task is procrastination. For procrastination Type-2s, you would be better off doing something from your Type-1 list. If you set up your Type-1 list appropriately, you will always have something more enjoyable to do. But also falling into this category without being procrastination are Type-2 tasks that you might enjoy doing in their own right, but that doing too often will steer you off course from the goals you do want to be aiming towards.

To give a personal example, I enjoy developing concepts for online learning tools, but it would be a non-goal to build a career in which I end up having to spend more time in front of a computer. On the contrary, my goal is to spend more time doing more face-to-face teaching and to minimise screen time, and so spending time developing proposals for online learning tools, while enjoyable in the moment, is not necessarily getting me any closer to where I want to be.

This is a very common scenario in the workplace. The organisations that we work for tend to reward us for doing things that help the organisation meet its aims. Less enlightened organisations do it by fiduciary means; more enlightened organisations might try to align individual goals with organisational goals, but in practice this is hard, and in reality tasks get allocated on the basis of best person for the job, rather than best job for the person.

As Peter Drucker points out in his book, ‘How to manage oneself’, it is up to us as individuals to tell managers what work we do well and how we do it best, and not up to our managers to guess.

By definition, Type-2 tasks are enjoyable, and so on any particular day, doing lots of Type-2 tasks isn’t a problem. But over time, time spent on Type-2s is at the expense of time on Type-1 tasks. So how should we reduce the Type 2s?

Minimising the Type-2 tasks

For the procrastination Type-2s there are lots of options for reducing distraction, which I will cover in another post. As for the more structured work-based Type-2 tasks you can:
• Avoid taking them on in the first place. Before you take on a new task, look at where it will go on your Happy Grid. If it’s a type 2, consider politely turning it down.
• Try delegating – after all, just because a task doesn’t align to one of your goals, it might align to someone else’s.
• Try to find a way to recast the task so that it does align to one of your goals.

Type-3 tasks – goal-aligned, unenjoyable tasks

If you don’t get Type-3 tasks done then you won’t meet your goals. But the chances are you are unlikely to do Type-3 tasks because, by definition, you don’t enjoy doing them.

Here you have two options: either delegate the task, or set up a regular routine that ensures you get them done reliably and in as short a time as possible in order to liberate your time for Type-1 tasks. A personal example of such a routine is that time I set aside each week to deal with expenses. I don’t enjoy it, I need to do it, and I do it the same time on Wednesdays without fail. Then the rest of the week I don’t have to think about it.

It is important to be disciplined about carrying out the routine so that you be confident the rest of the time that these Type-3 tasks can wait until the next time you carry out your routine.

Type-4 tasks – non-goal-aligned, unenjoyable tasks

These are the tasks that we want to minimise. We don’t enjoy doing them and they aren’t getting us any closer to any of our goals. As I discovered, a week full of Type-4 tasks is an unhappy week.

As well as not making us feel good, Type-4 tasks come with an opportunity cost: they are preventing us doing any of the other 3 types of task, all of which would make us happier, not least of all, Type-1 tasks. We should make it our business to try and reduce as far as possible the Type-4 tasks on our list.

Minimising the Type-4 tasks

We can start the Type-4 purge using the techniques we used for Type-3s and Type-2, in decreasing order of preference:

  • Avoid taking them on in the first place – once we know what counts as Type-4, we can spot it before we say yes.
  • Try delegating – as above, there may be someone else for whom the task is more enjoyable or for whom the task is more goal-aligned.
  • Set up a strict routine for getting this type of task done quickly. See the notes above for Type-3 tasks. If you take this approach, experiment with running the routine as infrequently as possible so you don’t let the time spent doing it creep up too much.
  • Just don’t do the task and see what happens. It is very easy to think that a task is important when we are caught up in the moment, but given some distance and time, some tasks can just go away. Either someone else does them, or, because it isn’t done, alternative options open up. You may well end up being thought of as unreliable, but better that than being reliable at doing something you don’t want to.

If having worked through the above options, and you decide you can’t’ simply not do the task, then it is time to start asking some serious questions about the sort of activities that you do. But saying that is not so gloomy as this process gives you a constructive way to talk about what it is you do want to do.

Prioritisation using the Happy Grid

Setting up your first Happy Grid should be revealing in itself. But it is also meant to be a decision-making tool. Having distributed your tasks into the grid, what should you do first?

For grown-ups, I don’t think the get-your-homework-done-before-you-go-out-to-play approach counts any more because there are so many factors influencing us to get things done to meet other people’s aims. You need to start prioritising your own goals. So I would recommend starting the day with either a Type-1 or Type-3 task. Let the happiness that you derive from getting that thing done first then set the tone for the day ahead.

Reflective use of the Happy Grid

I am finding that the more times I use the grid, the better I am getting at understanding my own motivations and goals, and the more adept I am becoming at making sure I am not getting lumbered with things that I don’t enjoy doing.

I believe being more aware of these things is better for everyone. As Peter Drucker says, we are much more likely to perform well doing work that we enjoy and that we are motivated to do. More philosophically, Seneca said ‘Life is long if you know how to use it’. It is up to us to positively decide how to use our time in a way that will make us happy.