What To Do When You Have TOO MANY IDEAS

How do you transform your creative chaos into something manageable? How do you distinguish the diamonds from the pea gravel? How do you know when it’s the right time to nurture an idea, and when it’s better to just leave it fallow?

I struggled with these questions for a long, long time.

When I left corporate publishing, I wanted to do something “different,” but I wasn’t sure what it should be. Here are just a few of the ideas I considered:

  • Should I start a girls’ comics magazine? Or a children’s book company?
  • Should I open a bookstore? Or a tea and rice ball cafe?
  • Should I go back to school and get an MBA? Or maybe an MFA?
  • Should I become a book packager, a literary agent, or an author?
  • Should I switch gears entirely and go into finance?????

I researched all of those questions seriously. In some cases, I wrote business plans or made significant headway on the first phase of the goal.

But I always ended up questioning myself, getting side-tracked by other ideas, and abandoning the original plan.

After a while, the pattern was very apparent to me, and I felt like an abject failure. Why were other people able to take an idea, persist with it, and carry it to fruition? What was wrong with me?

What Was Wrong With Me

In order to figure out why I seemed doomed to Sisyphean idea generation, we have to look at the subtext behind the question, “What should I do when I have too many ideas?”

The phrase “too many” is a negative judgment. The question itself assumes that it is not good to have many ideas, projects, or interests. Without realizing it, I was interpreting my creativity as a liability.

Because I thought there was something wrong with me, I unconsciously struggled against my natural tendencies. Although on the one hand I was creative, on the other hand I was squashing my ability to channel this creativity in productive ways, because I was refusing to see it as an asset.

As the Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön writes,

“When resistance is gone, the demons are gone.”

Once I started changing that habit of asking myself, “What is freakin’ wrong with me?,” and started developing the habit of asking, “What’s going right? What’s making me happy?”….

Everything changed.

Before doing anything else, you’ve got to reframe the question.

Here’s the same question, posed in a compassionate, curious way:

I have lots of ideas. How can I organize them and move forward on them most productively?

Step Number One

The first step is both simple and essential: write your ideas down.

It is critical to get your ideas out of your head. This accomplishes two things: first, it frees your brain from worrying about remembering all your ideas, and gives you a lot more free space in your mental hard drive.

When you have a lot of ideas but you’re keeping them all in your head, without realizing it, your brain is expending a lot of energy trying to keep track of everything. This creates a constant, nebulous feeling of anxiety — definitely not conducive to creative work.

Second, once you have your ideas down on paper, your ideas gain a certain substance. It becomes easier to evaluate which ideas to pursue, and which to discard or hold for later.

I’ll talk more below about how to distinguish between good and not-so-good ideas, but suffice to say for now that the very first step in that process is always to write out each of your ideas as comprehensively as you can, as soon as you can.

Where should you write your ideas?

That’s up to you. It could be Evernote, or Google docs, or a journal, a notebook, or index cards. It doesn’t matter, as long as it’s a system that works for you and you’re consistent about it.

In her book on creativity, the choreographer Twyla Tharp says that she has actual physical boxes for each of her projects. In each box (labeled with the name of a specific project), she puts notes, clippings, artwork, videos, books, or any tangible item related to that project. As Tharp says,

“Before you can think out of the box, you have to start with a box.”

In Tharp’s case, yes, she does have a literal box, but in the metaphorical sense, you need some sort of organizing principles and structure to your idea generation process in order to make it most effective.

Now what? How do you make sense of all those ideas?

Once you have a system for capturing all your ideas, you now need a system for filtering them. In other words, deciding which ideas are keepers, which ideas to explore further, and which ideas to move forward on NOW.

Filter #1 is a stark thought experiment.

Imagine you only had one year left to live. Which ideas or projects would you want to finish in the last year of your life?

This helps put things into perspective. It helps you understand what is absolutely most important to you, what you want to do on behalf of your loved ones, and what you can actually accomplish in the near term. These factors are extremely effective ways to zero in on what to do.

Filter #2 is a prioritization exercise.

I outlined this exercise in my blog post two weeks ago about prioritization. Clearly decide for yourself what your top two to three goals for this year are. Write them down and put them somewhere where you can see them every day — for example, a Post-It on your computer, a note in your wallet, or a page taped above your work table.

Now, when you have an idea and you’re trying to figure out whether to pursue it, ask yourself: “Is this going to get me closer to my two most important goals for this year?”

If not, set it aside for now. This doesn’t mean you have to set it aside forever, of course! But now is not the right time.

Filter #3 involves determining your rationale.

Get to the root cause for each idea. Ask yourself, what’s driving me? Is it something I want to do for myself, or someone I love? If the answer is yes, it’s worth considering.

If it’s something you want to do because you think it’s what “the market” wants, or it’s what you’re “supposed to” do, or because you think it will impress someone… run the other way. It is most definitely not an idea to pursue.

Filter #4 is to create a set of rules for yourself.

This filter helps you counteract “Bright Shiny Object Syndrome.” It’s especially important for big ideas that may cause you to shift gears or lose your focus on your current priorities.

My rules are simple. In fact, there’s only two of them:

  • When I have an idea, I must write it down in my idea notebook.
  • I must let every idea gestate for one week before I take action. If my enthusiasm has waned after one week, that’s a sign. I shouldn’t pursue it, at least not now.

Always be biased to action.

Once you decide which idea is most important for you right now, get started as soon as possible. Make a back-of-the-envelope plan and start working on the very first phase.

Taking action consistently and frequently on your most important ideas and projects is critical, because that momentum will motivate you.

I’ve said this before, but I will keep saying it till the cows come home: being motivated doesn’t cause us to take action. Taking action causes us to get motivated.

If you struggle with feeling consistently motivated, stop worrying about your motivation. Focus on consistently taking action, whether you feel like it or not.

Another reason why you want to take action consistently is because, if you let an important idea lie dormant for too long, it may lose its spark entirely.

Elizabeth Gilbert talks about this in her book Big Magic, where she describes an epic novel she worked on for more than a year. Then there was a family crisis and she had to stop working on it for several years. When she finally got back to the manuscript, she found it was impossible to start writing again.

The fire for the story was completely dead and she couldn’t resurrect it.

Say Thank You to Your Monkey Mind

My final word on “too many ideas” is that you need to be aware of this challenge as a potential sign of resistance.

Our brains deeply resist being pushed outside of our comfort zone. Working on ambitious creative projects always pushes us outside of our comfort zone. One way that the fearful part of our mind can easily sabotage us is by dangling an enticing new idea in front of us.

“Oh!” we think. “THAT’S an interesting idea! That sounds easier and more fun and way more exciting than what I’m currently doing!”

But if you’re prepared, you won’t be derailed. Instead, you’ll thank your brain for its endless inventiveness.

Then you’ll write the idea down in all its glorious detail, look at your calendar, and tell yourself, “OK, I’ll revisit this in a week or so. Now it’s back to the drawing board.”

And get back to the work at hand.