Making Ideas Actionable

Woman sitting at a desk with a comupter screen in front of her writing in a notebook.

How do you enable your own growth?

When I read books, I mark them up, often writing entire paragraphs of ideas as they come up (even if they’re not tied to the book). It’s one reason why I don’t read books digitally. I like the flow of pen on paper; the way I write all over margins and even the hardcover.

When it came time to do some book pruning a few years ago, my husband kept insisting I look at all “my” books. I pushed back saying, “Just flip through it; if I made notes, keep it. If there are no notes, let it go.”

When I go to conferences, I take notes during each of the sessions. Sometimes I jot down key phrases, other times a nugget of research or things to follow-up on.

When I go to most meetings, I bring a 3×5 notecard and pen with me. This keeps me from checking my phone and possibly losing myself in some distraction/text/email instead of staying on topic.

A few weeks ago, I finally took the time to review my last three months of notes. And that is when they started making sense to me.

It’s not that they weren’t making sense before or because I hadn’t captured the idea in the moment. It’s that, in reviewing them later on, I was able to identify how to make the idea actionable.

Sense (or sense-making) is the specific process by which people give meaning to new inputs and experiences. I personally make sense by deciding what to act on.

It’s why, when I go back through notes and ask, “How will I act on this?” that I decide the note’s relevance. It’s why the days after reviewing notes will be a flurry of communications; sharing an idea or asking for their input.

My notes take all kinds of forms. I might write a note to flag something so a colleague and I can process it together. Or I could be noting a research citation in my Scribner file so I can track it for future writing. Sometimes, I’m marking an idea to discuss with my husband, whose perspective often helps clarify my own take.

It’s also why, at the bottom of the articles on this blog, there’s the next/do/act/now icon.

Or, I should say, most blog pieces have that. My goal is to be more consistent about this.

I’m not deciding what action you’ll take but offering a prompt, so you can choose to act.

The other day, I was preparing for a speaking engagement and identified three ways to act on an idea:

  • What can you do about it on Monday?
  • What can you do about next month?
  • How would you measure success if you were to integrate the idea into your workflow?

And that made me wonder: Is that a new way to make things actionable? To think Monday/Month/Metric? I’m going to give it a try for a while and see.

What say you? How do you make sense of new ideas and make them actionable? Can you share your process so we can all learn different approaches?

Monday: Identify one way to make learning more intentional
Month: Make a weekly habit of that one thing by doing a review of experiences (Say, on Sunday night)
Metric: Are you making regular time to reflect & digest what you’ve already “learned”?

4 Replies

  1. I too, write in books, bring 3×5 cards to talks, and take lots of notes at presentations, with To Do boxes for follow-up items. I’ve found I have to transfer them to a ‘home’ pretty quickly, or they end up in a pile that never gets reviewed, and the idea or action gets lost. For me, my calendar is my ‘home’, where ideas can be entered as All Day Appointments at the top of the day’s column, and later scheduled as they fit into my day. If I know I can’t do it for a week out or a month out, I put it on the calendar that far out, and don’t have it in my field of consideration until then. Some ideas don’t survive the test of time and get deleted, but at least they had a chance of consideration by at least making it onto my calendar.

    1. that’s great, idea, Stuart, thanks for adding.

      One little trick I have is to review notes and write a “b” with a box around it for blogging idea, and “c/a” for consulting advice, “tw” for Twitter spark. It helps me id actions faster than before. and also super doable on planes/trains/etc.

      I know most of us struggle with this which is why I wanted to offer a spark to operationalize how we might move from “insight” and “inspiration” to letting that light shining within us.

  2. Love your approach (I don’t discard books yet). I use a combination of marginalia, notebook, cards and Evernote: the most resonating stuff I digitalize to pdf and archive in Evernote with a pre-defined idea tag, along with the content-specific others. From time to time I do try to link them more closely in networks of notes, indexed on an index one, regarding themes, sources, projects, and the like. The main thing is the tagging process: from it everything can be found with specificity (I avoid the general search feature) weaved at better times and gain incremental depth and quality as needed, such as creating workflows and scripts for writing and projects (also inspired by David Allen’s GTD).

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