What’s the biggest goal on your to-do list? Is it a cross-country move to your dream city? Opening a business? Starting your own blog?
Now, consider: Why haven’t you checked it off your list yet?
As Jessica Abel, a cartoonist and author, explains, it’s because it’s become part of your Idea Debt. And as we all know, debt can be hard to pay off. Writes Abel (emphasis hers):
Idea Debt is when you spend too much time picturing what a project is going to be like, too much time thinking about how awesome it will be to have this thing done and in the world, too much time imagining how cool you will look, how in demand you’ll be, how much money you’ll make. And way too little time actually making the thing.
It’s the screenplay idea you’ve had for 10 years, the podcast you’re always brainstorming but never executing, the novel you keep promising to sit down and write, yet never find time for. Despite all of the conversations you’ve had about your Idea, the to-do lists you’ve made and the tutorials you’ve viewed, you still haven’t gotten anywhere. Abel’s point—one we could all take—is that it’s time to pay off the debt and move on.
Abel says she first encountered the term Idea Debt while interviewing Kazu Kibuishi, a graphic novel author and illustrator. Kibuishi relates it to his time snowboarding: He would build up a big jump in his head, scared to take it, only to be slightly let down when he finally did. The experience never lived up to the hype. “And so one thing I learned is to just hit the jump or just pass it. Just do it in the moment. Or not at all,” said Kibuishi. “And so you can move on and wait for the next time.”
It reminds me of a similar productivity tip I’ve written about: OHIO, or Only Handle It Once. When you need to do something—from the mundane, like answering an email, to the more exciting, like writing your memoir—the best course of action is always to just do it. As soon as you think of the idea, as soon as the email lands in your inbox—just take care of it, then and there. Then it won’t be weighing on your mind.
Idea Debt takes this one step further: You’re not just putting off answering an email for a few weeks, you’re putting your dreams on hold indefinitely. How many of us have put off taking dance lessons because we don’t want to look silly, or don’t try living in a new city because we’re scared? What about launching the newsletter we keep telling friends about, or finally sending in our manuscript?
Abel relates it to perfectionism — we have such high expectations for projects, we want to give them our all, but that often comes at the expense of actually producing anything, of actually living our lives. Instead of acting, we imagine what it would be like if we did act. In other words, the perfect is the enemy of the good. As this piece says, there’s a time to dream and a time to do. It’s time to do.
“Avoiding Idea Debt is about acting before you think too much and get overwhelmed by how hard, and how important your project feels,” writes Abel.
And as much as it’s about jumping, it’s also about skipping the jumps you haven’t taken. Jumps you’ve outgrown. Abel writes:
What happens when you carry Idea Debt for too long, and your life moves on, is that your idea hangs on like an albatross. You can’t move on to new, exciting, more mature work, because you promised yourself you’d finish this thing.
Ask yourself: Are the ideas taking up space in your head the ideas of today, or an earlier you? Do they still excite you? Will they help you become the person you want to be, or are they just sitting there because you’ve never cleaned them out? Allowing yourself to move on frees you from that Idea Debt so you can take on new initiatives and goals.
So that’s the choice: Do it now, or let it go and make room for new ideas. Don’t let your Idea Debt keep compounding.