The idea cycle is a great source of both energy and frustration. When an idea pops into your head or blooms from a conversation with a friend or colleague, you get an immediate rush of energy. Related ideas start to flood in and sound something like, "...and, then I could do this, this, and this. That would be awesome." But your attention gets pulled back into the task at hand, the thing already occupying space on your calendar for the day. So, you write your idea down with a little promise to "get back to you, my dear." And then... nothing happens. The idea stays on the paper, but we move on to our other, more pressing tasks.
We don't forget the idea -- but we start to feel frustration and regret for not pursuing it, not devoting the time and attention it needs to grow. We regret ever noticing its potential. We've loved and lost something that never was.
What's the alternative? There are two ways to take control of this maddening idea cycle.
- The first is to develop more reliable systems for following-through.
- The second is to change your relationship with your ideas to something a little less intimate.
Improve your follow-through by not simply writing the idea down, but also taking the first handful of actions you can think of to put that idea in motion. This might sound impractical: Most of us can't stop everything we're doing to pursue an idea that's just popped into our head. But this isn't a complete detour from your "to do" list. It's just setting aside a slice of time--typically less than an hour--to fully capture the thought by answering the basic questions of who, what, where, when, and how. You could email someone who might know more or be interested in helping. Or make a (small) initial purchase of a few supplies or a URL that could be the first building blocks of a new project. Once you've made an investment--no matter how small--you're much more likely to see the idea through.
The second strategy for interrupting the cycle of frustration is to develop a different relationship with your ideas. It's simple: believe that ideas are infinite. Idea generation is like any other muscle: the more you use it, the stronger it gets. In Maya Angelou's words, "You can't use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have." Believing your ideas are infinite decreases your attachment to any particular one. This detachment puts you in control if the emotions you feel when you pursue one while letting a hundred others float away. To further embrace this belief in the infinite, give some of your ideas away for free to others who might be more ready to act on them.
The challenge is deciding when to use which strategy. Which ideas should I follow-through on and which should I let go? I wish there was a crystal ball that would play each out into the future and make the choice between outcomes more obvious. Of course, none of us have that. So instead of coming up with a complicated algorithm, the decision is much more simple.
When an idea for a new venture pops into your head, ask yourself: Does it further my goals? Does it make something I'm doing now easier? Do I have the time right now to take the first couple of steps?
If the answer is no to any of these questions, let it go.
Some ideas will persist. They'll visit you repeatedly and seem unwilling to let go. It's worth paying attention to these and asking yourself periodically if now is the right time to pursue them.
Ideas are both energizing and a source of frustration that can lead to self-doubt. But they're also powerful, and can lead to exciting new projects. Take control of this cycle by using these two strategies in tandem.