The 3 Ways My Ideas Die

The 3 Ways My Ideas Die

Written by Neil Hughes

Topics: Productivity

It’s Newbie Month here on Puttylike! During the month of April, we’re publishing articles about the thrills and challenges of exploring new things. 

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Sometimes I grow tired of the constant hum of random failure. Most of my dreams end up as flops. I’m sure I’m not alone in this—most multipods struggle with the guilt of not finishing from time to time.

It might be unambitious, but occasionally I think it would be nice to fail more predictably, so I’ve been searching for patterns in how my ideas fizzle out. What’s different when I persevere, and when I don’t?

Instead of mentally filing all my unsuccessful ideas under “failure,” I’ve realized it’s useful to break them down by when in the process the plan was abandoned.

Failure Reason One: I Never Start

Almost every idea I ever have… never even gets born. Writing a musical? I think I might have talked about it once or twice. Taking dance lessons? I’ve never so much as spoken the thought aloud.

Sometimes I feel guilty that so many ideas go untouched, but perhaps it’s for the best. A generous interpretation would be that I’m filtering for the projects I’m most passionate about. Revealed preference theory suggests that if I don’t care enough to take action, then I never cared about it as much as I imagined.

And this is okay. We don’t have to follow through on every idea that passes through our minds, or even on every idea we actually like. Passions fluctuate, and perhaps I’ll be sufficiently drawn back to a dream someday.

Of course, lack of passion explains why most ideas never get off the ground, but there are infinite reasons why it’s hard to take the initial action on a project. Again, it helps to break down more specifically than “I can’t get started.”

How to Overcome the Failure to Start

If you can’t seem to just begin, here are some ideas that might help:

  • Write about (or imagine, or tell someone) why you’re excited to do something. Whether it’s “I’ll get fitter,” “I’ll have built my own furniture,” “I’ll have my own podcast,” “I’ll have my dream job,” that initial surge of motivation is helpful to overcome inertia.
  • List everything that is blocking you from starting, and then work through the list one-by-one. Can you dissolve, circumvent, or pass over each block? If you’re not sure WHAT is blocking you, list anything that conceivably could be, no matter how silly.
  • Don’t just focus on the negative. List all the advantages, skills and experience you have in attempting this.
  • Attempt the smallest possible version of what you want to achieve. Do a 2-minute workout. Write 10 words. Update a single section of your resume. Apply for one job.

Failure Reason Two: The Initial Struggle

Starting is hard enough, but after starting is honestly my least favourite part. Now I have to actually DO something—yikes.

Periodically I get back into fitness… usually after months (or years!) of accumulated guilt for neglecting my physical side. Each time the first few workouts feel like a trip through actual hell. My lungs ache, my muscles complain, and it seems impossible to survive to the end.

Similarly, the early stages of any new project, phase or job are the most frightening. We have to discover a mountain of new concepts to learn, and develop a whole new framework to fit them together. This happens a lot—as multipods, we’re always leaping from one domain to another and having to build new frameworks. This is even true within the same domain: learning to write a nonfiction book is different from learning to write a fiction book is different from learning to write a graphic novel is different from… and on and on and on…

During these early phases, my biggest problem is self-doubt. I feel inferior to everybody who’s ever already done what I’m attempting. Often my projects get strangled by this fear as I nervously nibble at the edges but never quite manage to get deep enough to build confidence that I can do it.

How to Get Past the Initial Struggle

If you’re struggling with the overwhelm of a new project, try these:

  • Remember and renew your initial motivation.
  • Remind yourself this is a temporary phase. Given enough work you will learn everything you need.
  • Think of your past successes. Don’t write them off as “but that was doing x and now I’m attempting y”—you proved you can learn everything you need to achieve something difficult.
  • Break down all the skills and knowledge you need into ever-smaller chunks and reward yourself for picking up each chunk.
  • Work doesn’t have to be perfect! Don’t compare yourself to people who’ve been doing this for decades—compare only to your own work from last week (or month or year).
  • Give yourself permission to quit if you need to.

Failure Reason Three: The Slow Drift Into The Void

Eventually, we adapt. In the case of physical activity, our body literally adapts: those workouts that seemed death-defying become a matter of simple routine. In other domains, new concepts which once seemed incomprehensible become obvious, and we start combining them together as we produce ever-better work.

Unfortunately, we now require commitment. This is a dangerous phase, as the initial rush of passion has drained, and the goal is often far away. For example, writing a book is a tedious plod of putting words down (and, usually, immediately deleting them) again and again and again—often without reward.

This slow plateau is deathly but incredibly important, as this is where all the real work is done. Assuming we started this project with an end goal, it’s crucial to constantly renew motivation during this phase.

How to Stay Committed

If you’re struggling to stay committed:

  • Boredom is the enemy—you no longer have the frightening thrill of grappling with new concepts. Find ways to keep it interesting. Watch videos while you workout. Dance after every 100 words. Call a friend after working for an hour.
  • Be gentle: allow yourself space to recuperate and recharge.
  • Be harsh: get someone to be your drill sergeant and scream “WRITE SOME WORDS / RUN SOME MILES, SOLDIER” until you do it.
  • Focus on the end goal—how good will it feel to finish?
  • Focus on intermediate goals—what’s the next milestone? Enjoy your improvement—remember how impossible everything seemed when you began? How impressed would past you be if they could see you now?
  • There will be hard days, when everything feels impossible again and you feel like you’ve regressed. You haven’t. It’s just an ebb day.
  • Make progress an automatic habit, so it becomes hard to imagine a day where you don’t work out / study / practice / write.

Stay in the Right Gear

Each of these phases brings a different struggle, but until I thought of them this way I didn’t differentiate between them in my mind. When a project enters a new phase, I need to update my strategy to survive the new phase. The techniques that got me started won’t cut it when things get overwhelming, and, in turn, those techniques will need replacing once I hit the plateau, and boredom becomes the main obstacle.

Hopefully, next time I fail to finish a project, it’ll be because I chose to stop, and not because I hadn’t noticed my project had changed gear and I didn’t keep up.

Your Turn

What phases are your current projects in? Do you tend to struggle with one phase more than the others? Do you have tips we missed? Share with the community in the comments.

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Are you itching to explore a certain New Thing?

Got a new project, business idea, career/life direction, or even just an activity or hobby you’re dying to try out? This May, we’re running a month-long challenge in the Puttytribe called Yes You May.

Yes You May is a month to let yourself fail, try new things, be curious and embrace all of YOU! There will be weekly video check-in huddles with your fellow multipotentialites, on-going support in the forum, and even a show and tell at the end of the month. You don’t want to miss this!

To take part in Yes You May, sign up for the Puttytribe waitlist, and join us when we open the doors on April 30 (or if you’re already a Puttytribe member, just show up!):

neil_2017_2Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, computer programming, public speaking and other things from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you found him at enhughesiasm.com, his mental health blog, and on Twitter as @enhughesiasm.

12 Comments

  1. Maryske says:

    Thanks for breaking down my problem in such practical chunks, Neil! I’m going to have to look at all my old and new and constant and fluctuating ideas and see where they went wrong. (You’re right, most of them don’t even survive the first stage and remain *great ideas that I’d love to try out* forever…)

    Meanwhile, thanks for the laughs, too! You’re my favourite writer on this blog! :-) (I just hope I don’t insult Emilie with that…)

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Hahah, I’m sure Emilie won’t mind. (And I certainly don’t, which is the main thing ;)

      Happy it helped – I found the process of writing this article really helpful in breaking it down for myself, too!

  2. Marina says:

    Hi Neil, thanks for sharing both negative and positive sides of having many ideas. After a lifetime (I’m 56) of juggling with lots and lots of ideas and projects that I never started, that I started but never finished, true flops that I started and finished, and those projects that I did finish and was happy about, I can tell you this: I’ve learnt so much on the way! And I believe it sums up to this, for me: I want and need to learn, all the time. I toy with ideas and projects in my mind until I finally decide that I know enough on the matter and can leave them behind. But I’ve learnt lots of things, about the project and about myself, especially what really motivates and inspires me. So focusing on what I want and need is very, very important.

    And you know what? 30 years ago, I started a PhD-thesis (English literature) but never finished because I had a burn-out. Today, I want to take that up again (without the burn-out, though….)! Since science has advanced, I’ve discovered Digital Humanities! My intention is to start with a Master and then to go on with the thesis. I might finish it when I reach 65, who knows? Or maybe not…. but now is the right moment for this, and I’m thrilled at having this unique chance in my life.
    What I wanted to say is that some projects and ideas need time and maturity to be able to develop and flourish. So when I have an ebb day now, I tell myself: “it’s ok, I’ll take this up again when it’s ready and ripe. Perhaps tomorrow, perhaps later on, and that’s just fine. It’s not a failure, and I’m certainly not a failure (hm, sometimes I’m not quite convinced…!). But for the moment, I’ll leave it aside and do something else fun, which is ok too” and that works pretty well for me. You’re so right about being gentle with yourself!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Oh wow, thanks so much for sharing this, Marina! That’s fantastic that you’ve come back to the idea of finishing a PhD – I’m sure with all that you’ve learnt since then it will be much better for it. Keep being gentle and pushing on :D

  3. pat says:

    I loved the “stay committed” paragraph. Thank you Neil for sharing your experience!

  4. Robin Coffman says:

    This article is SO relevant and helpful! Like most people, I tend to judge myself rather than investigate and make a new plan. This started to change after I quit a job that became unfulfilling and toxic. I wanted to become a homesteader, so I began. There is a ton to learn, a ton to do, but we all start ‘somewhere’, don’t we? This summer I will continue to make my strides in this direction. I also wanted to learn basic carpentry, so I began. So far I’ve started a half-wall/bookcase, a banquette bench, and two cabinets, all ongoing. With both ventures, there are those moments of ‘this is too hard’, ‘I can’t do it’, and ‘I don’t know how’. Oh, and also ‘my husband (insert any kind of person or cultural norm) will think I’m nuts/wrong/misguided for doing this’. But also in the mix (which is rather new for me, really), I have reminded myself that indeed I CAN learn anything that is needed, even through the non-perfection and perhaps uncommon ways that things are unfolding. You’ve reflected a lot of this personal process here, and expanded upon it! Thank you!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      I’m happy it resonated with you Robin – I suspected I wasn’t alone with these particular struggles! And yes it’s so easy to judge ourselves instead of calmly recognising what’s going on and adjusting (if appropriate). It sounds like an exciting phase for you and I hope you push on with your projects and find some success – whatever that means for you! Sounds like it’ll be some pretty cool furniture, imperfections and all ;)

  5. Katie says:

    Love this article! Feels like someone knows my brain.

  6. Rocio says:

    Es interesante este articulo por que es realmente como me siento, tengo un montón de ideas que no terminan de despegar, o por que ha pasado tanto que ya no me interesa. Ahora mismo tengo una idea que puede surgir y se que puede funcionar pero aparte de la no decisión, es que también influye bastante el tema económico. Y el miedo al fracaso

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Gracias, Rocio, estoy feliz que se gusta el articulo. Espero que tiena suceso con sus ideas en el futuro! (y lo siento por mi espanol – solo estoy practicando :D)

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