💥 Rules For Tools with Pixar, Hans Zimmer, and J. J. Abrams

Welcome to the Action Digest, where inspiration meets implementation.

Today’s edition will equip you with the following insights:

  • 💻 J. J. Abrams takes us behind the scenes on what he uses to go from blank page to blockbuster.

  • ✏️ John Steinbeck’s idiosyncratic writing process highlights a lesson on achieving creative flow.

  • 🔦 Pixar’s tooling philosophy reveals how history’s greatest innovators have equipped themselves for success.

P.s., you can check out editions 1-14 here in case you missed them, including insights such as the playbook that Coco Chanel used to rewrite the world of fashion and go from orphan to multi-millionaire, winning creative strategies from Stanford designers, and the motivational memos that turned around a failing soup company.

Seriously, there are some gems you’ll appreciate in these earlier editions. ;-)

1. You Rise To The Quality Of Your Tools

J. J. Abrams was once asked how he gets from the “initial ether” of the blank page to a fully realized story for the big screen.

His mind travelled back to a moment during a TED talk he gave many years prior: “I was talking about my, at the time, Powerbook.” For those 90s or 00s kids that don’t remember, the Macintosh Powerbook was once Apple’s top of the range laptop. “I said I have this device, this tool,” J. J. continued, “that I use to write—and because of what it feels like, I literally ask myself, ‘what do I have to write that is worthy of this laptop?’”

The audience laughed at this point although J. J. insists he was being serious. “It’s like putting on a tie. It’s like ‘OK I’m going to work now.’ When I go to work on that [laptop]—it says to me anything is possible, it says to me this is a tool that will be a bridge between that ‘what if’ and the final product. And that is a priceless thing to have.” 

J. J. has observed over the course of his career that the tools he uses to create have a meaningful effect on what he creates. “It’s almost like when you buy a pen that you love, and when you have the right pen, it actually helps you, because it’s a weirdly inspirational thing and you feel like… you rise to it, somehow.

The tools we choose can inspire and elevate our creative output, setting a standard that challenges us to produce work worthy of their quality.

2. Minimize Any Friction That Disrupts Your Creative Flow

John Steinbeck’s beloved American classics sold over 20 million copies worldwide and won him a Nobel Prize.

Echoing J. J. Abrams, Steinbeck was meticulous about the pencils he used to write with, and once said that “the pure luxury of long beautiful pencils charges me with energy and invention.” 

But Steinbeck took this one step further with his idiosyncratic writing process. Each day, before he sat down to write, Steinbeck would sharpen two dozen pencils and then lay them out upon his desk. Once he started writing, he would use each pencil for only a few lines. As soon as the nib began to dull, he would switch to a new pencil. Once all of his pencils were dulled, he would resharpen a batch, and resume writing.

Steinbeck felt that constant sharpening would interrupt his writing flow. By having 24 sharpened pencils at the ready, he protected his creative flow from disruption. He even swore by dark-colored pencils in order to reduce distraction. “My father despised yellow pencils,” Steinbeck’s son, Thom, remembered. The perfect pencil “would be black. The whole thing. Top to bottom.”

Everything that comes into contact with our creative process—from our workspace, to the tools we choose, to the processes we rely on—should conspire to minimize any friction that detracts from our creative flow.


3. Find The Tool Frontier, Then Expand It

In their book Creativity Inc, Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace reveal the secrets of Pixar’s enduring success. 

One of the company’s guiding principles is that “Art challenges technology,” and “technology inspires art.” This principle, as Ed and Amy write, “articulates our philosophy of integration. When everything is functioning as it should be, art and technology play off each other and spur each other to new heights.” 

The pair point to an example during the making of The Incredibles. The production’s director Brad Bird “was frustrated by the imprecision—and thus the inefficiency—of giving feedback to animators verbally. If you were talking about how to draw a better scene, for example, didn’t it make sense to sketch out your thoughts? Wouldn’t that be more efficient?” 

In response to this technological limitation, “Brad asked if there was a way that he could draw on top of a projected image—a scene that was in the process of being animated—to communicate to animators the changes he wanted and to do so more effectively.”  

No such tool existed but Pixar’s internal software engineers sprang into action. “The result: the Review Sketch tool, which gives directors a digital stylus to draw directly on top of an image, then saves those sketches and makes them accessible online to anyone who needs to reference them. In the years since its invention, it has become an essential tool, used by all of our directors.” 

Groundbreaking creative works are more often than not made by tools at the technological frontier. But whether it’s Walt Disney making Snow White possible through the invention of a specialized multiplane camera, or Apple paving the way for the iPhone by inventing the touchscreen keyboard, the best creators not only work at the technological frontier, but also use their own ingenuity to expand it. 

Always keep a pulse on the latest tooling innovations and dare to push the boundaries for yourself when you see an unmet opportunity.

4. There Are No Perfect Tools

A 2018 study found that students who used a Virtual Reality app to design a new wearable device (e.g. WHOOP) came up with more innovative product designs and experienced more flow than participants who designed using pencil and paper.

However, a 2021 study found that participants came up with more original ideas for dress designs using a whiteboard compared to participants who designed using VR, because the imprecision of VR made it too difficult to generate intricate designs.

There is no such thing as a perfect tool. 

Each tool has unique constraints which makes it better suited for certain jobs over others. It is essential to maintain a lifelong experimental mindset toward the tools we use in order to achieve optimal results. 


At least once per month, or at a time interval that feels appropriate, engage in one of the following:

  • Embrace Discovery: Try a completely new tool relevant to your field.

  • Dig Deeper: Learn something new about an old tool—uncover new ways of using it or explore more advanced techniques.

  • Seek wisdom: Research the tools used by thought leaders and experts in your field and study how they utilize them.

Always be mindful of how your tools of choice shape what you create.

5. Most Notebooks Are A Graveyard For Ideas

Our tools don’t just influence what we create, they influence how we think and how we behave. 

If you’re asked to create a business plan inside of a notebook with line-ruled pages, you are subtly being influenced to write out your plan in between the lines of the page using language. 

If, however, you’re given a large scrapbook, you might fill the large unmarked pages with charts and visuals. 

The Action Method system was designed with the influential power of layout in mind. 

But rather than nudging you toward either language or doodles, the Action Method nudges you toward the most vital trait for making ideas happen: working with a bias toward action. 

Many notebooks are where brilliant ideas go to die because they are never converted into action steps and so they never get implemented. 

But by working in the presence of the Action Column, a much greater percentage of your best ideas get converted into action steps, which means more of them actually get implemented. 

And when it comes to the success or failure of a project, that makes all the difference. 

“Gone are the days where I walk out of a meeting with long notes and no clear understanding what I need to do. These notebooks keep me on track.”

Tina Roth Eisenberg, founder and designer

6. Use ** *** **** ** * ***** ***

While modern technology can facilitate new possibilities, sometimes the most groundbreaking results emerge from…

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We’ll leave you with this…

In J. J. Abrams’s original 2007 TED talk, he expressed excitement at how technology was democratizing filmmaking:

“The stuff I was lucky and begging for to get when I was a kid is now ubiquitous. There’s an amazing sense of opportunity. When I think of the filmmakers out there now who would have been silenced, who have been silenced in the past, it’s a very exciting thing.

I used to say in classes, in lectures, and stuff, to someone who wants to write: go write, it’s free, you don’t need permission to write. But now I can say: go make your movie. There’s nothing stopping you from going out there and getting the technology. You can at least get stuff off the shelf that is as good as what’s being used by the quote unquote legit people.

No community is best served when only the elite have control. And I feel like this is an amazing opportunity to see what else is out there.” 

Those words resonate stronger than ever today.

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