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How do I cope with "idea overflow"?

My constant stream of new ideas is preventing me from realizing old ideas.

Specifically, I recently started two big projects. I started from scratch and had to learn a lot to be able to realize them. The problem is: the more I learn, the more new ideas I get and, and the harder it becomes to focus.

It's not just a question of distraction. Sometimes the new ideas improve the old ones. But then before I realize an improvement, a new idea comes to mind.

I've tried the Lean method, but the problem is that implementation is always too slow. New ideas arise and slow the progress of my project. I've also tried not to start on anything new before finishing old tasks. This, too, hasn't worked.

Any suggestions on how to cope with this "idea overflow"?

EDIT (based on the answers/comments):

  • concerning the nature of the new ideas: it can be both, improvements of existing ideas (not only minor) and completely new and independent ideas coming as result of learning/investigating of the previous ones
  • concerning the "good enough / not good anymore" principle: I agree with that but what to do if the "old" idea is not bad (or still under investigation of its usefulness) and the new one looks also very promissing (or need further investigation)?

Example: I am creating an international community website for one specific niche market (idea A) --> during the work, I discover another similar niche with a great potential (idea B) --> in the meantime lean method: after discussion with early users of "idea A" ideas (C + D) to improve A --> in parallel, discussions with friend about completely different topic: idea to create an algorithm to calculate probability of sport events results (idea E) --> ... and so one...

And it's like this almost every day.

I have read some books ("Toilet Paper Entrepreneur" / "Choose Yourself!" / ...) that advice becoming an "idea machine".

But frankly, when it is too much (and it's unconscious) it can be quite frustrating and handicapping...

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If you start working on idea A, and then get idea B, only switch to B if A is not "good enough" anymore. Not perfect, but you will at least get some stuff done :) – GrizzLy Sep 23 '13 at 14:04
Thanks for this question. I am realizing this a problem for me too. – Stephan Schielke Sep 24 '13 at 7:40
It is the main problem of my life. – Leaf Feb 14 '15 at 14:11

15 Answers 15

up vote 25 down vote accepted

As Gruber said in his answer, Agile methodologies will suite well for you. If you decide to adopt Scrum for yourself, the key thing to remember is that no planning should be done during an iteration. This means that at the beginning of an iteration you'll plan what you'll be doing for the next 2 or 3 weeks (the iteration length can be adjusted to your needs, but usually 2-3 weeks works best), and then you shouldn't change any of your tasks, which includes not implementing anything new that wasn't planned beforehand.

Once an idea comes to you, write it down somewhere and try to forget about it. The idea might seem brilliant at the moment (or at least better than your current task), but it might not seem so good some time later. Give your ideas time to settle, then come back to them and try to assess them again with a fresh look (probably at the beginning of an iteration when you need to plan the next few weeks).

From my own experience, I worked in a small software company which suffered a lot because of such idea overflow. We had new tasks before we had completed the previous ones, so eventually nothing was getting done. We had a bunch of incomplete stuff that wasn't working properly. But after we adopted Scrum and followed the key rule (which in our case was the same as I recommend to you: don't change the plans during an iteration), the situation improved significantly and we were surprised at how much we managed to accomplish.

And one more thing that I think could be helpful. Always assume that your new idea is a bad one. Don't rush to implement it, take your time. This combined with Scrum could really work for you.

Update: From your edit I think it's fair to assume that your focus is more toward making new ideas rather than working on a current one. If that is so, the real problem is to stay focused on the current task. I suggest you break your working hours into two parts: when you actually work on your current task and when you think of new ideas. You could try to see what sequence of the two works best for you (for example, work on a task for 6 hours and then spend 2 hours on the ideas, or have 2 hours for ideas in the middle of the day).

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Thanks for your update. Very interesting - I think you expressed it well. When it's written, it seams more obvious that I am interested more on coception than on execution. Your proposition for splitting working hours sounds great. For the moment, it's not possible because I am still also a full-time employee and I am working on my projects during the nights (I sleep in average 4h). But hopefully I will be able to leave my employee status soon. And then, I will take into account your idea of split hours. – DataSmarter Sep 24 '13 at 10:34
Glad I was helpful. And I envy you for sleeping so little and still having many ideas ))) – superM Sep 24 '13 at 11:25
+1 for writing down ideas. – Kramii Sep 24 '13 at 13:21
Ideas are not generally worth anything. Execution and market fit is what matters, and the most (only) scarce resource in the world is (your) human lifetime. I agree: keep a backlog, and then finish the top priority on the backlog. Only when that is finished, pick the next top priority to worth on. – Jon Watte Jan 25 '14 at 23:22

Idea overflow? Or Idea Processing Bottleneck?

Your mind is a great place to have ideas, not to store them (as said by David Allen, author of "Getting Things Done"):

I suggest you write those ideas down in a place you trust. And then move on. Build into your routine a time to review those ideas (weekly? monthly? quarterly?).

A trusting place can be a notebook, a private blog, a computer, ... It is better to stick to fewer places and simple tools. The faster an idea is out, the faster you can resume what you were doing before the interruption.

Putting ideas in writing will also give you the opportunity to take some distance, to "sleep over it". You will maybe discover relation between ideas, uncover patterns, and build specific expertise.

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Idea Processing Bottleneck - it indeed sounds right in my situation. I am blocked by the processing/implementation. Perhaps I should try to find someone to help me with the implementation and thus accelerate that part - and move quicker to the next. – DataSmarter Sep 25 '13 at 7:28
Excellent advice! I did the same when read Getting Things Done, and this method helped me A LOT freeing up my mind! – kissgyorgy Jan 25 '14 at 20:27
+1 for GTD. I store ideas for projects there and am relieved because they are safe for now. After some time I review the ideas and notice: They were not so good after all, so I combine them, merge them into others or just kill them off. – 0x6d64 Jan 26 '14 at 13:48

Agile methodologies (such as Scrum) recognise that we cannot know what will happen in the future, and accomodate for this fact by allowing users to periodically review their backlog of things to do. Whenever you come up with a new idea --- great, add it to your backlog. Then pick it up for implementation at the next review if you think it's an idea that's good enough. That means something else may have to go.

Generally, you should never select a task and stick to it indefinitely, because the world and your insights change rapidly. Having many ideas is essentially a good thing, provided you record them in your backlog and don't let them overwhelm you by keeping them in your mind.

If you believe that you've found something much better to work with, regard the job you've already done on an obsolete task as a sunk cost. The key thing is to try to assess the net present value of each option, and go for the highest one.

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@ Gruber: Thanks for your answer. You say: "Generally, you should never select a task and stick to it indefinitely, because the world and your insights change rapidly." but my problem is in fact the contrary. I am continuously changing/improving the idea that it doesn't give me the time to realize it. It is not about having a 100% perfect product - I know the 80%/20% theory. It's more a general problem: I just can't stop the idea flow and can't stick to one idea during the time necessary to realize it... Each time I discover something interesting, I can't avoid going deeper and lose focus. – DataSmarter Sep 23 '13 at 13:28
@DataSmarter: Are you wasting your time on ideas concerning minor details? Prioritize your major ideas and apply the 80-20 rule. – Gruber Sep 23 '13 at 16:07

I too generate a ton of ideas- most bad. I wake up in the middle of the night with random ideas. I always write them down but for me it doesn't matter where. Just putting them somewhere gets them out of my head. If I don't write them down then they are always distractingly dancing around the back of my head chanting, "don't forget me!" So I have ideas in old emails, notebooks by my bed, Evernote and most often in a private blog.

To keep myself from chasing new ideas I just ask myself, "would I pay somebody else to do this?" If you would pay somebody else to do it, great, pursue it. Still have too more ideas worth pursuing than time to pursue them- then starting paying somebody to do it. As long as you were honest in your assessment of value it will be money well spent and will offer a return. Methodologies and systems are great but I find my own checkbook to be the greatest (and most honest) filter for idea value.

You could also give your ideas away. Some people are great with ideas, some horrible. Often the people who aren't creative or outside-the-box thinkers are excellent drones (not meant in a bad way). Give them the idea and let them work on it. Heck, even let them have all credit for it. If they can get it done and it adds to the sum of the project you are working on it will still benefit you. Best to see the idea come to fruition regardless of the person getting credit for it.

And don't forget about personal time value. If you are spending time on a project you would not pay somebody else to do, you are valuing their time more than your own. Is some minor (but stubborn) tweak to an auxiliary feature really worth a week of your life? All of our life clocks keep ticking down- don't waste your time.

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One of the things that you should keep in mind that ideas, when they come, are the highest level and as a result they sound extremely attractive. It's when you start digging deep into the idea with market research, competitive analysis, implementation challenges, time and resources, etc. you'd come to a conclusion more often than not, that it's not that great or original idea after all. Remember - Devil's in the detail.

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My version of "idea discipline" involves: 1) limiting the number of active projects; 2) rewarding the completion of projects with new ideas; and 3) avoiding stagnation with regular triage.

The problem is that coming up with new ideas is way more fun than seeing the old ones through. To deal with this I have four folders on my drive: Defunct, Ideas, Workbench, and Complete.

New ideas go to the Idea pile (I use plain text files for this). Workbench has the projects I am working on now, and should not contain more than three projects (your bandwidth may vary). Moving stuff from Ideas to Workbench is a pleasure and a privilege, but it requires I clear space on the workbench (by actually finishing things or by killing off stagnated projects).

I evaluate the Workbench projects daily. Completed projects go to Complete. A lack of progress on a project for some months puts it danger of being moved back to Ideas or to Defunct. About once a month I "cull" the Ideas folder to deprecate second-rate ideas to Defunct as well.

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Here is another suggestion - first, as others have said, write down the ideas as they come, to offload them from your brain. A tool like Evernote also enables tagging of the ideas for easy retrieval later.

If a particular idea re-emerges at another time and/or in another context, then perhaps there is something to the idea that should be looked into, as it might reflect a genuine opportunity/need-gap. It is my experience that truly good ideas tend to be "sticky"...they emerge again.

As a backup, as others have mentioned, in case particular ideas don't re-emerge for whatever reason, scan the list of ideas from time to time to see which ones might still be appealing. It is not unusual for most ideas that appear good initially, to have blocking issues, typically execution/resource/fit/strategy related, when looked into more deeply.

So I would continue to work on the project as planned, write down the ideas as they come, and if an idea re-emerges during the project, investigate it and implement it if it looks promising. Otherwise, look for ideas in the list when you have time to implement something new, and see which ideas may be worth spending effort on. This way ideas will not be a distraction, but a means of systematic improvement.

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Apply the Lean Startup concept to your work.

As Gruber and superM said in their answers, you should probably employ an Agile methodology to develop your product. Remember though: While Agile can provide the flexibility necessary to adapt to feedback, it won't necessarily help with your "idea overflow" problem.

A flood of good ideas requires idea verification. First, accept that an idea is just an idea - it turns into a real thing when you produce it. And even if you do, it doesn't mean the idea was the right choice. You need to define metrics for verification and be disciplined enough to focus on verifying ideas one at a time.

  1. Write down every idea and keep them in one list.
  2. Prioritize your idea list. No need to prioritize everything; pick the top idea that you think will significantly improve your product.
  3. Before starting implementation, define its metric that can be used to verify that this idea truly improves your product.
  4. Do it in the lean way -- go about implementing this idea is the most effortless way possible.
  5. After the implementation, verify.
  6. If it works, keep it in the product, and go back to step 2. If not, throw it away, and back to step 2.

Turn your ideas into hypotheses with this method, and verify them. Don't believ any hypothesis until you can prove it is true. Work on each idea one by one with little effort you don't feel bad if it crashes and burns.

An example: say you think a "Sign in with Twitter" functionality will raise your product's active users. Add a not-functional button labeled "Sign in with Twitter" and count the number of clicks. Define your metric (clicks), and set a bar for success, perhaps 10k clicks per week. If the feature achieves that level of engagement, implement it. If not, remove it from your product.

The analogy can be extended to ideation and implementation outside of software development work. And it probably should.

Here's a helpful book: Running Lean

In summary, try Lean Startup concepts for idea verification, and Agile methodologies for idea implementation.

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Thanks for your answer. My concern is not really the idea verifiaction (that I succeed to handle quite well) + implementation (unfortunately always slower than what I would like). The problem is more "psychologic": how to handle/slow down the neverending flow of ideas. I know that I can't implement everything and that all the ideas are not great. The issue is that I can't prevent myself to generate ideas even at the moment I don't need them (hope it doesn't sound too weird :-) Eg. when investigating for something, I am systematically attracted by new things and generating new ideas. – DataSmarter Sep 25 '13 at 7:25

I like the list from The Cult of Done Manifesto

In short, the Manifesto consists of:

  1. There are three states of being. Not knowing, action and completion.
  2. Accept that everything is a draft. It helps to get it done.
  3. There is no editing stage.
  4. Pretending you know what you're doing is almost the same as knowing what you are doing, so just accept that you know what you're doing even if you don't and do it.
  5. Banish procrastination. If you wait more than a week to get an idea done, abandon it.
  6. The point of being done is not to finish but to get other things done.
  7. Once you're done you can throw it away.
  8. Laugh at perfection. It's boring and keeps you from being done.
  9. People without dirty hands are wrong. Doing something makes you right.
  10. Failure counts as done. So do mistakes.
  11. Destruction is a variant of done.
  12. If you have an idea and publish it on the internet, that counts as a ghost of done.
  13. Done is the engine of more.
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I would highly recommend creating a "Spark File" to keep track of your ideas. Its basically a list of your hunches or ideas in a chronological order. Thats it.

Its helpful because -

This is because most good ideas (whether they're ideas for narrative structure, a particular twist in the argument, or a broader topic) come into our minds as hunches: small fragments of a larger idea, hints and intimations. Many of these ideas sit around for months or years before they coalesce into something useful, often by colliding with another hunch.

Its particularly useful when you have flash of an idea and have an irresistable urge to get onto it. You might think its the best thing in the world, but usually its not. This file will help you overcome this urge because you can write it down, forget about it while you get back doing whatever you were doing and come back to it later. I would highly recommend going through the link and trying it out.

As others have mentioned, keep working on your original idea for the duration of your sprint (following agile methodology).

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I like to keep things simple. The best method Ive found for starting (and finishing) projects is to use a combination of deferment and planning.

Like you, I also suffer from idea overload. The thing is, over time I've realized that most ideas seem exciting in the present, but loose interest over time.

To combat this phenomenon, I always write down my ideas, but I never immediately act on a new idea. I let it sit for a long time.

Every month I'll go through my list and weed out old ideas that now seem uninteresting to me.

The second part of my system is planning. I only allow myself to work on a small number of projects per year and I always plan them in advance.

I like to work in three month cycles, so four times per year I'll go through my list and pick out the most promising ideas. Like I said earlier, these are never new ideas—they're always ideas I've kept around because I still find them promising. Those ideas will make up my project schedule for that cycle.

It does take some discipline to stick to the plan, but I always keep in mind that a good idea will stick around and I can always work on it the next cycle.

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Welcome to the club!

I've recently blogged about very same topic: Creativity is EVIL

(I cannot remember a single scenario when something I did was appreciated)

(quite the opposite: people in professional jobs don't like being surprised)

enter image description here

My (firsthand) advice would be:

1) Set up a goal for 150 years. So whatever path you follow now, you'll eventually get there.

2) Spread the word about your ideas, set up a public wiki:

3) Use hyper-tools that exponentially boost productivity (recently everyone I know is using »strikingly«)

4) Find someone to talk to - very basic validation

Hope that helps!

(and if you are reading this feel free to drop me a line)

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I face similar and have gained benefit from the perspectives of two people specifically: James Altucher and Chase Jarvis.

James Altucher believes that idea formation is a process that we need to acknowledge and even goes so far to say that it is a good thing: we need to become an idea machine. He recommends forcing yourself to write down ideas every day. Keep a record of them and you won't lose them. But also by forcing yourself to have this routine, you use up a lot of that idea energy and it stops getting in the way of doing things.

Chase Jarvis also has an interesting viewpoint. He did an interview recently with Ramit Sethi, where he said basically the ideas come all day during the heat of battle. You can't stop them. But synthesis happens during the quiet times. So he "bookends" his day for quiet time. In the morning, he refuses to read email because that is "other people's shit". So he focuses on his own work and ideas and family in the morning. He also focuses on family and his own projects in the evening. In this way, he structures his day to avoid the constant barrage of wants and needs from people other than his family and his own projects.

Give these ideas a try, and see if you gain some control over the "idea machine".

Thanks for sharing your experience, and good luck!

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Hmm. Psychoanalytics? Are those never ending ideas just a way to avoid something else? Or escape something? Why? Or, why do you want to stop generating ideas? Do they bother you? Why?

You can go on.. and on.

"Why" is a good tool, though somewhat dangerous. You may find what you didn't want to find.. and why you didn't want it.

IMO.. ideas are a good thing. They prove you're alive.

The rest is about taking them (or yourself) seriously or not that much, and try alternatives.

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I use tools like mind mapping and Evernote to capture all the ideas so I can get out of my head.

But when it comes down to what to work on, I have a clear vision and establish the priorities each week. I don't drop the project that I am working on to chase new ones because the project I am nearly finished will earn me money sooner than any new one.

Since the idea is now out of my head and in a mind map or Evernote, I can focus.

When I complete a project, then I can review my notes and decide which one to work on next.

If you truly can't focus because of all of the ideas, you likely need to work with a coach on a weekly basis.

"Captain Time" Garland Coulson

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