I spent 10 years “writing” a TV show about Silicon Valley. I spent hundreds of hours talking about it, collecting ideas in a giant Evernote file, brainstorming the soundtrack — but not much time writing it. Because every time I thought I had a handle on it, I thought of a better version. Over the years, I adapted my unwritten pilot into an unwritten book, movie, web series and comic strip. I chased every idea at once, until the project loomed grand and unwieldy in my head. I was building up a mountain of idea debt.
Photo by Jacob Bøtter
Idea debt is the pile of ideas you keep revisiting but never finish, or even never begin. It can be a book, an app, a business, any project that grows in your mind but not in reality. It feels much more impressive than the projects you’re actually carrying out, with all their disappointments and compromises. As screenwriter Craig Mazin says, “The most exciting script in the world is the one you’re about to write. The least exciting script is the one you’re on page 80 of.” So that idea debt metastasises, threatening to hold up the real projects, or halt them so long that they too become idea debt.
Like financial debt, a little well-managed idea debt is healthy. It’s good to mull over ideas, to file them for later, to give yourself more creative options than you use. But sometimes you need to pay that debt down. Luckily you’re your own debtor, so you have plenty of options.
Make it now
Take one of your big ideas. How small can you make it? What’s the minimum viable product? Shrink it until you can polish off in a day, then go do it. It shouldn’t be perfect, or even good, just done. Next time you dream about the big beautiful proper version of that idea, think instead of your real finished version, and how superior it is to the big version, because it exists.
In his 2006 video Brain Crack, Ze Frank imagined his unused ideas “on a beautiful platter with glitter and rose petals”. To avoid getting addicted to his brain crack, Frank said, “When I get an idea, even a bad one, I try to get it out into the world as fast as possible.”
Brain Crack was an episode of “The Show”, Frank’s daily vlog full of quick-and-dirty songs, speeches and segments. Cranking out his ideas led Frank to a successful career in short-form video; in 2012 he became president of BuzzFeed Motion Pictures.
Put it in your current project
Writer Ryan North gets a lot of ideas, and he doesn’t have time for them all; among other things, he’s busy writing three strips a week of his webcomic Dinosaur Comics. The problem solves itself, he tells me: “I have often times come up with an idea that’s a lot of work, and then I have T-Rex describe the idea in a comic (usually, hopefully with a punchline) as a way to scratch that itch.”
North cites Kurt Vonnegut, who used up stray ideas by giving them to his recurring character, fictional novelist Kilgore Trout. Vonnegut said that through Trout, “I suppose I’ve now summarised 50 novels I will never have to write, and spared people the reading of them.”
The greatest thing about this trick is that you can always expand on the idea later. One Dinosaur Comics strip, a sci-fi take on the fable of King Midas, became the comic book series The Midas Flesh. A strip about a machine that accurately predicts anyone’s cause of death inspired two story anthologies, Machine of Death and This Is How You Die.
Hand it over
One upside of idea debt’s perverse appeal is that the idea can seem so good, so worthy, that you just want someone to make it happen, whether or not that someone is you. So give your ideas away to a good home.
The easiest method is to tweet out (or blog or Instagram) your idea. If it’s really that good, someone else will try it. Or take it to a forum dedicated to swapping free ideas: The ancient and whimsical Halfbakery, or the subreddits /r/Lightbulb, /r/CrazyIdeas, /r/SomebodyMakeThis, /r/highdeas, /r/AppIdeas or /r/Startup_Ideas.
There’s just one big rule for this method: You really have to give it away. That means you don’t sell it, rent it, or remain involved in any way.
No one will pay you anyway. Novelist Neil Gaiman says people come up to every author with the same offer (which he always politely rejects): “They will tell you the Idea (the hard bit), you write it down and turn it into a novel (the easy bit), the two of you can split the money fifty-fifty.” Business ideas are similarly unsellable. As investor Tim Berry says, “The way real people with real ideas get value from them is by building a company to implement those ideas.” Unless the Patent Office will let you register it, it’s worthless. So don’t hand your idea to an expert like you’re whispering into a university grad’s ear, “One word: Plastics.” Just get it out there, and if the experts want it, they will find it.
I recently dumped an old story idea (a modern-day Romeo & Juliet told like a fictionalised Planet Money episode) into a Twitter thread. I was surprised how quickly I ran out of thoughts on what had seemed, in my head, like a rich and developed project. I was also surprised when someone who actually does run a fiction podcast emailed me for permission to write the story. (I gave it freely, of course. It’s not my idea any more!) Even without that response, it was satisfying enough to get a few faves and replies.
Don’t worry about saddling someone else with your idea debt; it isn’t zero-sum. Once you hand your idea over, you’ll feel the pressure slip away. But its new owner will never feel the same obligation; it’s impossible to obsess over someone else’s idea as much as you obsess over your own.
Dump it out
After all the above, what’s left over might look good. But most of it will just never get done. That’s fine! Ideas might feel like pets or children, but they’re not; it’s healthy to abandon most of them. And if your gigantic idea file (pop-science writer Steven Johnson calls it a Spark File) doesn’t load you down, leave it be. But if it does, or you just want to clear your head, then take cartoonist and author Jessica Abel’s advice and dump it all out.
You’re probably dreading the thought of just deleting all your old ideas. So instead, make a grand gesture: Publish them. All at once. You can talk a little about each one, or you can just paste the raw file. This is the Spark File’s counterpart, the Bonfire.
Writer and consultant John Sexton published all his never-finished ideas in one massive Medium post, The Pile of Old Ideas — Volume 1. It’s a fascinating cascade of ideas: “Your brain is the ultimate VR device,” “The enemies of comedy,” “A taxonomy of farts.” It’s a shame Sexton couldn’t complete any of these. But more ideas will always come.
Inspired by Sexton, Boing Boing editor Rob Beschizza published two dozen unfinished video games in Killing my unfinished game dev projects. They’re fun ideas: A puzzle game based on DNA editing; a simulation of Lenin’s final days; a cow-clicker game about blogging; a Qbert MMO. “Ideas are cheap,” Beschizza wrote. “If you want one, take it. I’ll cheer from a safe distance!”
There’s a thrill and a pleasure to this approach. This is your magnum opus! The abandoned ideas are the new idea! Still, you need to get this done in a day or two. Don’t do what I did, imagining a metaproject that contains all my abandoned ideas going forward, and then abandoning that idea. Meta-idea debt carries a high interest rate.
Make a plan
You’re not going to get rid of all your ideas. Some are worth holding onto, worth doing. But now that you’ve stripped away everything else, you need to get started. You need to make a plan.
Lifehacker has, of course, plenty of help for you. Here’s how to complete a coding project; here’s how to start a side business; here’s how to finish a project. Choose a planning system: Getting Things Done, a Bullet Journal, Agile development. Choose goals, make a to-do list, and set deadlines.
A couple of years ago, I decided to buckle down and finish my Silicon Valley pilot. I set a schedule, I worked on it daily, and I ended up writing two pilots. I set them aside, came back to them a month later and… they were OK, but not that great, and not worth fixing.
I was free. For decades I’d dreamed this would be my very best project, and now I’d finally tested that theory. Even though I’d disproved it, I considered this a success: It cleared that part of my mind. I archived the pilots and the giant Evernote file. And I moved onto making my next project — for real.