Action & Momentum, Creative Joy, Entrepreneurship, Writing

Too Many Ideas? How to Decide What to Focus on First.

July 22, 2015

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about overcoming analysis paralysis and today I’m following up with another decision-based post: what to do when you have too many ideas and don’t know which one to choose.

I love coming up with new ideas—so many, that executing them all is impossible. Over the last few years, I’ve started to become more discerning about which ideas I see through, which ideas I save for later, and which I trash entirely.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 are going to 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 picking something and getting on with it. Done is better than perfect and these things are usually a small part of a larger body of work anyway.

1. Get everything down on paper

It’s really hard to make a good decision 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 down every single to-do, nagging thought, idea, or potential project you can think of.

The first time you do this, it will take some time and might feel a bit like pulling teeth, but it is so worth it. That paper becomes your “second brain,” (so yeah: don’t lose it) meaning you don’t have to store all that information in your head anymore and can free up your mind to focus on more important decisions. It 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 suggest sorting 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 as well. So if you’re currently writing your first book or starting a brand new business, this might not be the best time to start serious training for a triathlon as well. Those commitments are going to 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 for a business or another kind of long-term project, it’s going to need to align with all your values. If there is a conflict of values, that is going to 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 can be 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. Research your ideas properly & 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

This is especially useful if you’re running a business. What idea can you realise in the shortest amount of time? Not only is this helpful from a business perspective but it’s also psychologically helpful.

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

When I did some research on 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 hash it with someone who can help you get unstuck, let’s talk! Check out my coaching page for more info on how we can connect.

Further reading

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 

P.S. You can do anything but not everything.

Image: Alejandro Escamilla

Too Many Ideas- How to Decide What to Focus on First. For more articles on reconnecting with your creative joy and doing your most courageous and important work, visit www.hannahbraime.com

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  • Sieb July 29, 2015 at 7:29 pm

    Too many ideas… definitely something I’m struggling with! I really liked both point 5s, those are definitely the things I’ll focus on when I am once again paralyzed with too may possible routes to take 🙂 great post!

    • Hannah August 26, 2015 at 4:34 pm

      Thanks Sieb! People who are drawn to creative work are by their nature “ideas people” so you’re definitely not alone in struggling with this!

  • Angie Green July 29, 2015 at 7:34 pm

    This is such a great post. I ALWAYS have more ideas than time or energy to do them.

    I especially like #3 – even though I have a list of things I “should” do, focusing on my values really eliminates many of those ideas (or just puts them on the Someday/Maybe list), so I can truly do those few things that matter to me. Thanks!

    • Hannah August 26, 2015 at 4:34 pm

      Glad to hear it Angie! Thanks for stopping by 🙂

  • Sarah Thomas Abbatiello July 29, 2015 at 10:06 pm

    This is the story of my life. I’ve found the best way to handle this is to follow the low-hanging fruit path because once I get going I’ll knock through the idea list pretty fast…or figure out if an idea isn’t going to work out. Also, I’ve noticed that the longer I put off starting an idea the less likely I am to enjoy it. Usually those ideas that make you want to work immediately are the ones worth pursuing. Using that threshold can help narrow down the focus too.