Identify Your Bottleneck

5 minutes, 2 links


Updated July 28, 2022

You’re reading an excerpt of Creative Doing, by Herbert Lui. 75 practical techniques to unlock creative potential in your work, hobby, or next career. Purchase now for instant, lifetime access to the book.

In his 1984 business fable The Goal, Eliyahu M. Goldratt wrote about how any improvements or optimizations made to a single process are an illusion, unless they’re at the bottleneck. This is often the slowest step, or the weakest link. In their book Diaminds: Decoding the Mental Habits of Successful Thinkers, Mihnea Moldoveanu and Roger Martin describe this constraint as a “rate-limiting step,” and illustrate it with the example of the flexion hip joint, which gets in the way of even the fastest sprinter from being even faster.

This idea applies to your own creative process. It’s important to take a critical eye to your work and assess which part of the process is limiting you. If you’re not happy with your results, it’s easy to blame an absence of audiences or an unfavorable algorithm. But both of those are lagging indicators of high potential creative work and the promotional work that activates the potential.

Here’s a list of questions you can ask yourself to see which stage you’re getting stuck in the creative process, at the preparation, incubation, illumination, or verification stages:

  1. If it’s a struggle for you to come up with enough ideas, expand your preparation phase. Find more references and spend time studying them and distinguishing between the ones you like and don’t like, and why. (See Visit the Greats.)

  2. If you find you’re coming up with a lot of ideas, but none are resonating, expand your incubation phase. Give your brain more time to rest and relax. (See Make Idle Time.)

  3. If you find you’re missing breakthroughs, pay more attention. Write each breakthrough down whenever you feel your mind making a connection, whether it’s a small one or a big one. Don’t distinguish or edit what your mind is telling you. (See Write Down 10 Ideas.)

  4. If you find that you don’t have enough time and energy to make acceptable work, redefine what quality means to you at this point in your life. In all likelihood, you have to assess how much time, money, energy, and other resources you have to verify—edit, polish, refine, design—and lower the fidelity and scope you are shipping your ideas with. (See Complete Your Operation in Seconds.)

This last one is what I wrestle with the most. I tend to write pretty quickly, but I find it time consuming to come up with new, relevant ideas and pitch them to publications. This is the step I need to work on.

In order to continue supporting myself and strengthening my pitches, I’ll need to cultivate different sources, ones that spread news or share interesting perspectives faster. I need to focus my efforts into specific areas and use relevant events to speak to that area. I’m considering coming up with a weekly or even daily quota of article ideas that I pitch every day.

Since your situation is specific to you, I’ll suggest a few questions as starting points to get you to take a step back and look at your creative process:

  1. Dive deeper into these phases, especially if you find yourself getting stuck in one specific part. For example, you may find that your brain is out of practice with getting its unfiltered, unedited, incomplete, thoughts out there. You can then start designing your own exercises for this. (See Julia Cameron’s morning pages in Commit to a Size, and the journaling exercise in Stop Obsessing) Nobody else will read this. What’s on your mind? What are you feeling? What is clear and unclear to you?

  2. Think about thinking. Write down and listen to what your mind and body are telling you about a specific constraint. For example, is it expressing a fear of embarrassment? Or a skepticism that what you’re about to do is not worth doing? What emotion are you experiencing? What activities are you occupying yourself with instead of your creative work?

  3. Advise someone else in the same situation. If your friend or peer was approaching you with this problem, what observation would you make about where they were getting stuck? What would you say to them?

  4. Talk to a friend, or to yourself, about this question: Which part is the most painful part of the creative process for you? Why?

Through answering these questions, you can look into the section that you’ve identified, and pay attention the next time you go through the process. What is holding you up? What feels bad? What is your action, or reaction, that blocks you?

Be Obvious

This prompt actually emerged as my own reflection, as I was identifying my bottleneck. For example, I’m fairly practiced at writing ideas down, but I have a difficult time choosing one to start writing. I realized through listening to myself that one of the blocks I face as an author is, “I don’t want to write this, it’s too obvious.” This feeling of a lack of originality is a challenge that I’ve seen other writers face as well.

For me, I came across a few sources of consolation. First off, I saw a tweet from marketer and software engineer Patrick McKenzie assuring the reader, “You radically underestimate both a) how much you know that other people do not and b) the instrumental benefits to you of publishing it.” McKenzie also linked to New Science executive director and blogger Alexey Guzey’s writing about the value of unoriginality, “Because it helps in the process of discovery and in the process of supporting underappreciated ideas.”

I also noticed how a handful of “obvious” ideas other people had made an impact on me and my friends. For me, two examples were author Seth Godin’s “Talker’s Block”—which asks why writer’s block exists when nobody gets talker’s block—and Roy Bahat’s “Forwardable email,” which suggests that readers shouldn’t ask for an email introduction, and instead make a request for someone to forward their email along.

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