The Problem With Ideas

If you've thought of working for yourself, you've probably entertained a whole bunch of ideas. Have you spent a lot of time imagining what it will be like when you create your first product? All the adulation you’ll receive when you write your first book? Have you finished those projects?

When your day job is serving clients, the ideas for products can come faster than you do them. Instead, you dream about bringing your own idea to fruition rather than actually making progress on them. Daydreaming becomes a favorite pastime. You can fall prey to this when you work for someone else — and when you have your own business. You may think that if you just worked for yourself you’d have plenty of time to create more products.

Working for someone else isn’t the real culprit.

I spent years dreaming of what it would be like to create. I spent more time dreaming of creating than actually creating. I had an evernote folder overflowing with ideas. Piles of scraps of paper full of beautiful sentences. A discarded half-complete app. I was busy with clients. I put their work first.

But there was a hidden cause at work.

Too many ideas. 

Last year it came to a head. A sampling of the ideas I entertained:

  • Love on a Tweet: a place where couples who met on Twitter could share their story
  • A Bellissima Life: a site for Gen X women
  • Digital magic 8 ball with quotes from the matrix, rappers and Shakespeare
  • Short story about a game show where you could change lives 
  • Essay about the color white
  • Books for people who want to take control of their career 

I’m not actually joking.

I began 2015 fantasizing about all those ideas. I made halting progress on some. But these half-finished dreams laid strewn around my digital work space, haunting me. I went to bed every night feeling like a failure, the ideas climbing the walls of my dreams.   

The idea overload hangover was awful. 

An idea hoarder by nature, I carried them with me for years. I recently learned the term for it: idea debt. The term was coined by Kazu Kibuishi, a graphic novel author and illustrator, and spread by Jessica Abel. In a nutshell, idea debt is:

Too many ideas, not enough doing.

Being paralyzed into inaction isn't the only side effect of idea debt. Aside from not accomplishing, working on too many diverse tasks taxes the brain. The problem is context switching, which is akin to that of multitasking. Research shows multitasking can reduce your productivity by as much as 40%.

Multitasking isn't just about trying to do two things at once. Performing two or more tasks in rapid succession without finishing the first one also forces you to context switch. So even if you’re doing the same sort task, say writing or creating code, you’re still interrupted as you switch between ideas.

For instance in my case, writing an experimental essay about the color white requires assembling disparate concepts together. Even the language I used was different from that of my business guides. My brain stuttered every time. Ultimately, I found context switching between my ideas to be too much, even in my writing.

Last May, I declared idea bankruptcy. I stopped pursuing all those daydreams. I broke up with all my ideas except the last one, which became Bet On Yourself. I cashed in all my other idea chips and went all in. My theme of year, gave me the boost I needed.

The difference has been remarkable. 

In 8 months I wrote a guide, have outlines for three more guides and published a piece on a well-respected creative business publication. I’m writing articles weekly and at work on my next guide to be published soon.

Last night, and every night this week, I slept soundly. 

Letting go of my idea debt was the best decision I made last year. 

My guess is that at least some of you are held back by too many ideas and not enough action. Some of you are probably waiting to start until you’re working for yourself. This is not good. There’s never really a good day to start a business, increasing the likelihood that your idea will gather several inches of dust before you’re forced to begin. And, building an app, writing a book or making a library of tools takes time — far more than you think. We haven’t even talked about building an audience, the oft-forgotten step in product creation. Does this sound familiar?

Stop waiting.

Stop taxing your brain with too many ideas. Just because you have an idea doesn't mean you have to pursue it. Get comfortable knowing you're going to have far more ideas than you can pursue. Write them down. Get them out of your head. Stop carrying them around with you like an overloaded pack mule. Reduce your idea debt.

Pick just one to pursue.

(yes, just one)

Start with the one that never seems to let go of you. Or maybe you pick the easy one. Perhaps it's your most original idea. The idea doesn't matter. Really, it doesn't. Just start. Drop the rest and make progress on that one idea so this time next year you don’t look back with regret.

You don'thave to go at a blistering pace. Consistent focus and progress is your aim. You may not become the next unicorn or even make a bunch of money. What you gain is far more important. You'll learn more by doing, creating a more permanent shift in the way you think, which is useful for future projects. Focusing on creating rather than on the idea of creating also brings confidence. Starting — and finishing a project breeds a sense of accomplishment, persuading you to make more things. It's the best kind of feedback loop.

I get it. If you carry idea debt, asking you to declare idea bankruptcy is tough. It’s anxiety producing to put all your digital eggs in one basket, letting the rest roll around in the brain of someone else.

It’s scary.

It’s risky.

It’s worth it.