Have you ever been in the position where you want to start something and find yourself paralysed by what to focus on first? Let’s say, for example, you decide you want to make your long-held dream of writing a novel become a reality. But there are so many novels you want to write, choosing that first idea to focus on feels impossible. So you don’t. You’ve been paralysed by too many ideas.
Or you want to create your own website, but where to start? You want to make videos, begin a podcast, have seven ideas for ebooks (and counting), and would like to use all of this to launch your public speaking career. But you have no idea which project to focus on first. So you don’t.
I love coming up with new ideas—so many, that executing them all is impossible. Over the last few years, I’ve become more discerning about which ideas I see through, which ideas I save for later, and which I trash. This is still very a much a work in progress, but along the way, I’ve developed a set of criteria I find helpful for deciding which ideas to focus on first.
N.B. These criteria apply to big ideas: ideas that will take a lot of time to execute. I’m talking about starting a business, writing a book, what career to choose, and so on. For smaller ideas—which blog post to write first, which book to read next, which email topic to pick—I’ve found that the simple answer to inertia is recognising it’s NBD (no big deal), just pick something and get on with it. Done is better than perfect and these things are a small part of a larger body of work. Don’t sweat the small stuff!
1. Get everything down on paper
It’s hard to make good decisions about your ideas while they’re all swirling around in your head. David Allen talks about this in his book Getting Things Done, where he describes a weekly practice called a “core dump.” This involves writing every single to-do, nagging thought, idea, or potential project you can think of.
The first time you do this, it will take time and might feel like pulling teeth, but it is so worth it. That paper becomes your “second brain.” It stores all this information for you, you no longer need to store it in your head, and your mind is free to focus on more important decisions.
Writing everything down also makes it easier to see how these decisions fit into the broader context of your life and everything else you have going on right now too.
2. Divide your life into buckets
A common productivity hack is to visualise the different areas of our lives as “buckets” and sort different ideas into different buckets according to which area of our lives they most impact. Just as it’s a good idea to only focus on one big idea per bucket at a time, I’ve also found it’s most effective to only focus on one bucket at a time.
So if you’re writing your first book or starting a side business, this might not be the best time to begin serious training for a triathlon. Those commitments will be competing for your time, energy and other finite resources and they risk diluting each other.
3. Ask: how does this idea align with my values?
If this idea is a long-term project, it will need to align with all your values. If there is a conflict of values, that will wear you down over time and affect your experience of what it is you’re doing.
What do you want from life? How do you see yourself living in five years time or ten years time? It’s helpful to break life down into different areas, such as family, home, leisure, career, finance, health, and so on. When you evaluate these ideas against your long-term vision for your life overall, does your idea bring you closer to that vision, or is it more of a distraction?
4. Make sure you’re in love with the process, not just the outcome
Look at the reality of pursuing these ideas rather than the ideal and check you’re in love with the process rather than just the outcome. For example, what are the costs going to be? What is the time frame you’re looking at? Find people who have done what you want to do themselves and ask them about their experience.
5. Look for the low-hanging fruit
What idea can you realise in the shortest amount of time? What is the smallest step you can take first that will give you a sense of progress?
Action leads to momentum and momentum leads to action.
Taking out the low-hanging actions first creates a snowball effect: the more action you take, the more motivated you feel to continue taking action.
5. Choose one thing & commit to the first milestone
Researching what other people have to say on this, the single idea that came up again and again was doing one thing at a time. In his book The One Thing, Gary Keller talks about this approach, explaining that we’re more likely to get started and stay started if we focus on just one project at a time rather than spreading our focus around two or three businesses, projects, etc. Decide in advance what the first milestone will be and commit to that point.
Ultimately, choosing which idea to pursue first isn’t as important as the pursuing itself. Ideas are great but they will stay ideas unless you take action.
If you’re in the “Arrrgh, too many ideas!” phase right now and want to create clarity, momentumm and progress, I’d love to help. I support writers and other creatives as they create habits that enable them to make progress with their most important projects and create a body of work that makes them proud. Try a week’s free chat coaching with me using the code HANNAHBRAIMEWEEK.
What to Do When You Have Too Many Ideas (and Not Enough Time) – James Clear
What to Do When You Have Too Many Ideas – Lifehack
Too Many Ideas – TED Conversations