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Idea Debt (jessicaabel.com)
468 points by cdvonstinkpot on Feb 4, 2016 | hide | past | favorite | 136 comments

This, this is probably the biggest and yet least recognized obstruction for wannapreneurs. I know because I've been there myself for years and have only recently realized what I was doing. I would get really excited about an idea, start working on it, only work on the interesting parts (not on what actually had to come next) and then let it fizzle away as the next wave of emotion came with another idea. I would justify this cycle with the emotion dip itself, if the next step in the process was not interesting or uncomfortable, that I was my reason to leave it. Surely the next idea won't have any of those areas.

The author mentions piles of lore and doing research. For me, research was basically entrepreneurial porn. My mind thought I was getting something that it really wasn't. I thought I was making progress by researching everything but in reality, I was just building piles of lore. A company I'm currently working on, with all this in mind, I've decided to do no extra research beyond what is needed in the moment. Forcing myself to steer clear of the research trap and instead only work on what is going to get me to the next point.

I could go on and on about this topic, it's not talked about nearly enough. It seems like everyone has an idea for a company, app, startup, etc. Us developers sometimes roll our eyes. We think it's their idea that is bad, or that they're just following the startup hype. In reality though, none of that is true, the reason there idea isn't coming to life is because they're simply not doing it.

I don't know if this is just me, but I used to be full of ideas, half finished projects and several projects that I talked myself out of.

Since having children, I no longer have ideas, and rarely work on anything than paid contract work.

Has anyone else experienced this? I feel void of ideas.

Not exactly congruent experience here, but something similar has manifested itself for me in "number of f*cks given, zero".

Though I attribute this less to having a kid and more to just not being able to drum up the exuberance for the endless stream of wheel-reinvention that seems to be commonplace in tech right now. I can still get interested in novel or sufficiently esoteric things, but the endless parade of random javascript UI frameworks, dashboards as a service, fitbits for dogs, and all-new-way-to-send-dick-pics chat platform just isn't very compelling.

It often seems like today's marketplace is one of "me too" ideas. "Me too" ideas are boring. Like hearing a really fascinating story at a dinner party, and then the person next to them tells a worse version of something similar, and then the person next to them tells a still worse version of similar, but slightly different thing, and so on until the conversation reaches you and you realize that the last person talking to you was actually a plain baked-potato, but you didn't notice because the level of intrigue had dropped so low that a butterless, chiveless, baconless potato had stolen the spotlight.

When I was younger the "computer" part of computer science was enough to keep my attention, as I get older I'm finding that the "science" part is what sustains my engagement with the field.

A lot of the excitement in a project comes from learning: "can I do it," "what will happen," etc.

After a certain point in your life, you grow convinced that you've seen it all before, and that has a way of draining you of excitement. Children are a common tipping point because they also make you less selfish. Nobody is asking you to make those projects, so it has to come from within, and if you act only for others, you never get around to it, because there's always another household crisis looming in the distance.

The only way to pull through is to turn it into a habit, instead of relying on your whims alone.

That's an interesting take on it. I'd never perceived that, but you're right (in my case anyway). I have two children under 6 so there is very little 'pause time' until they are in bed asleep, and by that point I'm shattered.

I have experienced exactly this, but it was in combination with also switching from freelance to full-time employment. I used to have a new idea every day back when I was freelancing and didn't have kids. Now I'm lucky if I think of one every couple of months.

I actually think this is due to having less time to just explore the internet, read about interesting things, try out other products, etc. I spent a large amount of time doing that when I was freelancing and although it might seem like a waste of time on the surface, I believe it was what allowed me to connect certain dots about niche opportunities that weren't being exploited that I might not otherwise have noticed.

This jibes with my experience. You need a wide variety of inputs in order to connect the dots and come up with something unique. Time spent taking care of kids (for example) decreased my inputs, resulting in fewer outputs. Until I discovered audio books at least.

Absolutely. I still get cool ideas. It's a constant. But I don't often devote time to them, and fill most of my time in front of a computer on contract work. It's a frustrating thing for me, somewhat, when I hear and read of this obsession and expectation among developers (at least here on HN) to be working outside of work on side projects, as if that really shows you're something great as a developer.

My teenage sons are my primary project. Work is the side project.

I find that having ideas and inspiration requires time where you are not actively doing anything, time that I used to call "being bored" when I was a kid, but now have come to realise that it is much more than that.

Having kids takes that time away by default, so you have to take it back yourself and of course it's always a trade-off.

For me the trade-off is: be active with the kids and house and life and push through all the time. In this case I'm pretty much wasted by the time they go to bed and can only sustain imgur or netflix for a bit before I go to sleep. The other option is to realise that it's better for everyone if I get some time for myself as well, so I take it. Some evenings I don't spend time with the kids for example and don't do anything much else either. In this case the next day I'm full of ideas and excited to try new stuff and I see that everyone around me is also better off due to this.

So, for me the lesson has been - learn to take time for yourself. Simply because in the long run it's better for everyone, both you and the people around you.

Somewhat but not exactly. I have 3 children at home. I still get plenty of ideas, sometimes I even do research or hack up a quick rails scaffold to see how it might start. I just no longer spend nights & weekends banging it out until I get to the half-finished stage.

I have never had as many ideas as after I had kids (and got married)

Children alone brings in a lot of first hand experience and perspectives which have manifested in lots of ideas around products, services etc. both for kids and their parents.

But also bigger areas.

But I think it boils down to priorities.

i don't have kids, and so have no first hand knowledge here. most of my second-hand anecdotal experience is that people have kids, and they often still have ideas, but no time to really implement them.

i did have one coworker at my old job who said that the limited free time he got once he had kids motivated him to be more productive, and actually made him better at getting side projects done. probably the exception, and he was a pretty motivated and focused guy anyway, as far as i could tell.

I don't think it is a void of ideas, but more of a way of your brain saying this isn't worth it so lets forget about it.

Since my kid was born, every idea I have goes through a process of 'will it make money'->'how much'->'how long will it take'->'what is the actual $ amount per hour it requires' and if it falls lower than a very big number, I just ignore (and usually racionalize it as not worth it) and go play with my kid.

My 20/20 hindsight only remembers the great ideas that I never got around to chasing. (In 1991 - going long tech in Tel Aviv, in 1996 voice recognition for mobile...) As I've gotten older, the ideas come less frequently, perhaps because I've learned so many ways to dismiss them.

I think kids change our ambitions too. We care more about them than more broadly changing the world.

But when THAT idea strikes, I know I'll chase it.

I too have done this for years! I'm still not a damn entrepreneur and make no money aside from my day job. I think I finally realized what I have to do to get off this vicious cycle.

Build a habit of working everyday on one project. It's cool to get excited about a new project, but unless I change my daily routine to fit in time to work on said project, nothing will ever get created.

Successful companies and projects aren't created on fleeting enthusiasm.

You're on your way! Consider looking up Stanford Professor Tina Seelig, she's the only researcher I know of that remotely talks about this. Check out some of her talks and blog posts.

She has written a few books:


...and has a blog:


...and here are some video lectures:


...any recommendations on the books?

I really still need to read her books, I've more just listened to some of her lectures and interviews. I first read an article she wrote for a 99U book though that I would recommend: http://amzn.com/B00CLVF2P4

This talk covers the concept of doing "deep work" very well in my opinion

Would you say, you got a dopamine kick out of it and suddenly lost interest after?

Can't help to wonder how oddly the pattern is to something else.

Though I still think it stems from the inability to make a decision. That's what I would say is the core. The dopamine kick as just medicine so you won't feel like shit all the time. Some amateur science here.

Suddenly? No, it was more when it came to part of the project that was no longer interesting or was out of my comfort zone. I was dropped an entire app design simply because I didn't want to talk to potential customers :(. I'm learning though.

Actually suddenly is wrong, it sorta revelation that you dropped it sneaks up on you, but it does happen instantly. At least here.

This is why I moved a huge portion of my TODO list into an IDEAS list. This is an outliner document (Org-mode) that contains notes on lots of different ideas.

So why didn't I just delete those items? Because writing down that stuff helps me not to think about it the whole day if I don't want to.

The IDEAS list grows and grows, but that's okay. I don't feel obliged to implement any of these ideas. Whenever I recall an idea, I go to that document, add some notes, and that's it. No deep research, no domain buying, no name searching. Just writing or extending on what comes to my mind, and roughly structuring it.

From time to time it happens that I do want to implement one of these ideas. And in that case I have some nice, simple spec to start from.

As a side note, I started to do that after I read "Writing, Briefly" from Paul Graham (http://paulgraham.com/writing44.html), which contains the following great advice:

    when you finish, leave yourself something easy to start with;
    accumulate notes for topics you plan to cover at the bottom of the file;
    don't feel obliged to cover any of them;
These points are applicable far outside the scope of writing. In that sense, my IDEAS list is the clearly separated "bottom" of my TODO list that contains the "accumulated notes".

As a final note, this concept seems to be somehow related to the Not-To-Do list that some people advocate.

I also use the `IDEA` tag in addition to `TODO` and `FIXME`. My definitions:

* IDEA: This is neat and could be helpful, but is probably okay if it never gets done.

* TODO: Not doing this has some measurable ill effect. Maybe maintainability or constraining scale.

* FIXME: This is a temporary work-around while finishing a feature. It should never be shipped.

Within our startup, there's a separate Slack channel called "Crazy ideas" and a separate column in Trello for things that are ideas rather than plans.

I had to laugh out loud because I have the exact same files (IDEAS and TODO, both uppercase) sitting in each of my projects as well as my homedir. On a more serious note, I can relate to a lot of the points the article makes about accumulating idea debt. I'm not sure yet whether it is holding me back, since I now have this huge list of things I might want to do, or whether it's giving me the opportunity to make a note of something and move on with daily business for the time being.

Similar here... I had one large (master) TODO file and one large IDEAS file and I would move tasks from TODO file on my daily TODO list. The IDEAS file grown to more then 50 pages and I rarely read it... :-)

Nowdays I moved to paper so NSA can not read my ideas and tasks anymore. For TODOs I use one paper sheet per project/subject and carry all these 10-12 sheets in a folder. Then I move the tasks on my daily TODO list in Moleskine... For IDEAS: I draw/sketch/write them on paper and store them in archive folder (just in case I need it)... :-)

> For IDEAS: I draw/sketch/write them on paper and store them in archive folder (just in case I need it)

I don't think that paper is a good medium for that. Often I'm not sure if I had written about this or a similar idea yet, so full text search is very handy here. Also, I'm sometimes changing ideas, which is also not so good on paper (unless you use pencil & rubber instead of a pen).

This seems similar to the idea of a spark file?


edit Also do you have anything written down about using org-mode for todos and ideas?

> This seems similar to the idea of a spark file?

Indeed! The concept of a "spark file" describes exactly what I'm doing.

> Also do you have anything written down about using org-mode for todos and ideas?

This is pretty basic Org-mode usage. My To-Do list is just nested headings, each with a TODO or DONE marker (Shift+Left, Shift+Right). My IDEAS list doesn't even have those markers, it is just nested headings and nested lists. The only "advanced thing" that I do is moving items via Mod+Up and Mod+Down. This is very handy, as that moves the whole subtree up and down. And I'm using the "Tab" key for folding and unfolding subtrees.

Org-mode offers much more than what I'm using here. I'm not yet a power-user of Org-mode. For example, the "agenda view" might simplify a lot of what I'm doing (not for IDEAS, but for TODO, meetings, etc). But I didn't find the time to dig deeper into Org-mode yet.

I would highly recommend learning some of agenda mode. I originally started with only using the tree editing features. But one of the coolest features is the agenda mode and the fact that you can create custom views which pull in all the details you want. Here is the view I use all the time:

  (setq org-agenda-custom-commands
      '(("w" "Agenda and Next todos"
         ((agenda "" ((org-agenda-ndays 1))) ;show anything scheduled for today including habits
          (todo "NEXT|IN PROGRESS"
                ((org-agenda-overriding-header "Working On"))) ;things that I am currently working on
          (todo "TODO"
                ((org-agenda-overriding-header "Check Todo's"))) ;Todo items to check on periodically
          (todo "WAITING"
                ((org-agenda-overriding-header "Waiting On"))))))) ;things I am blocking on

I would add that setting up some captures[1] helps a lot. That way you can easily add notes or tasks while working on other things.

[1]: http://orgmode.org/manual/Capture.html

What editor are you using?

EDIT: Nevermind: http://orgmode.org/

Hah, I've done this for years! I'm glad it has a name now. I call mine "halfbakery.txt", but it's not very catchy.

The "Where Good Ideas Come From in 4 Minutes" video in that link is good.

I do the exactly the same. It's a similar principle to kanban/agile, where you have a pool of potential work to do (in your case your ideas list), but you only pull in a fixed amount to work on at any one time (in your case to your TODO list). Otherwise I find I tend to get overwhelmed by my evergrowing todo list and never get anything done. Of course it's key to periodically review the ideas list, but this can just be done whenever your todo list is empty.

Moved towards a similar approach. Now I finally have time to start a new project. Now the next step is: how to improve and structure the process of picking an idea. Any tips?

I've written out an idea I had that helped me. Perhaps it might help you too - http://flyinthecoop.com/deciding-your-best-entrepreneurial-p...

Great reminder to cull the backlog of my personal todo list!

This is one of the reasons we put together "Finish Up Weekend" - http://fuweekend.com/

It's a hackathon weekend when you're not allowed to start anything new. You are only allowed to bring things to finish. It's not strictly coding, we've had lawyers, screenwriters, artists, authors, and sewing projects completed. The positive peer pressure is great.

When you finish something, you get to ring a bell so we can celebrate briefly.. and then get back to work.

And there are no prizes, just the satisfaction of getting things done.

Love the idea! Don't see any upcoming dates, though :(.

Do you guys do anything in Chicago?

Not yet but we're looking to spread the model.

Drop me an email and I'm happy to chat details. :)

Montreal plans? I'd love to help set it up here.

Email me. :)

I'll be in Montreal in a few weeks for Confoo and would love to chat over a beer or coffee.

Another vote for NYC. I've got 10 ideas that I just can't finish. Would love to spend a weekend on 1 of them, just for the sake of learning how to finish.

I love this idea. Do it in nyc sometime, please.

Thinking of this as 'debt' doesn't seem quite right to me. It's not like someone's going to come and break your kneecaps some day if you don't act on these ideas. You don't owe these ideas to anyone, and you don't have to 'pay them back'. Calling this debt is like calling the hours while we sleep and are not being paid 'income debt', or calling our front lawn 'food debt' because we haven't planted a garden there. How dare we!

I'm as guilty as anyone of amassing ideas and half-baked projects in various files and/or boxes of junk around the house, but I don't think of them as debt. They're all opportunities. Some are good, some are bad, and some have been missed, but they're not debt. I happen to think that some of them have the potential to make me a lot of money should I choose to implement them, but there are no guarantees. There is nobody out there saying, "Here's a check for $20M if you implement that idea right there, and you get to keep half."

'Follow your dreams'...'Do what you love and the money will follow'...'Nothing ventured, nothing gained' these are phrases that all sound great from the other side of success, but when you have a normal life with a family and a mortgage, the decision to pursue your opportunities is not as cut and dried. Having to weigh the consequences of not earning a paycheck to pursue one of these opportunities against food on the table or missing a mortgage payment, or even just not spending those evening free-time hours with your kids changes the equation substantially.

I think the idea is that some people experience them as debt they owe themselves. If you've never felt that way, I can see why this would not make sense to you. (No sarcasm or harshness intended; I mean that straight.) Some of us had to come to this conclusion by a harder route. For myself, I still learned it fairly early, but I do remember learning it. My natural inclination was to finish everything.

As I type that, it occurs to me for the first time that I grew up in an environment where that was explicitly said to me sometimes. Even to this day, my now-retired father can be heard angsting about the projects he has not finished, and he tried his well-meaning best to pass that on to me. Perhaps this stems from the problems of leaving the physical projects he primarily works on half-done; a half-done remodeling is an ugly thing. A half-done car restoration takes up a lot of space and gets worse over time if you don't work on it as it basically rots. But creative projects have different rules. I've got at most a few hundred kilobytes of old programs lying in my sentimental directory... who cares? Who even knows? It's so tiny I tend to even forget it exists.

I can see that - I've got ideas I've spent money and time on and I kind of think I owe myself a finished thing which has failed to materialize.

> 'Follow your dreams'...'Do what you love and the money will follow'...'Nothing ventured, nothing gained' these are phrases that all sound great from the other side of success, but when you have a normal life with a family and a mortgage, the decision to pursue your opportunities is not as cut and dried. Having to weigh the consequences of not earning a paycheck to pursue one of these opportunities against food on the table or missing a mortgage payment, or even just not spending those evening free-time hours with your kids changes the equation substantially.

It's so refreshing to see someone else on the other side of start-up culture. I enjoy my current position including the people that I work with, but deep down, I would love nothing more than the option to do nothing all day if I wish. That always triggers the influx of, "Start your own business!" comments followed by, "Tons of people just quit, bootstrap and succeed!"

They ignore all of the failures. They ignore all of the people who ruined their family stability, who lost assets, or who gave up weeks/months/years of family time to chase a dream that didn't pan out. I'm not some curmudgeon who believes that chasing dreams is for suckers; I feel like it's very reasonable to want to set yourself up for continued stability (much like a 3-6 month emergency fund) if you're gambling your family's financial and mental well-being on your dream.

>'Follow your dreams'...'Do what you love and the money will follow'...'Nothing ventured, nothing gained' these are phrases that all sound great from the other side of success, but when you have a normal life with a family and a mortgage, the decision to pursue your opportunities is not as cut and dried.

I agree with your point but I don't think that "taking entrepreneurial risks" is the emphasis of the author.

Instead, her theme seems to be more similar to these soundbites:

- he talks a big game but doesn't follow through with anything

- he has grandiose ideas but doesn't take any action

- he's stuck on "analysis paralysis"

Those ideas can be applied to other goals besides business execution. Goals like programming an ambitious open-source Facebook clone, learning ten foreign languages, climbing Mt Everest, etc.


It's debt for the same reason that when you keep borrowing money, things just pile up and you feel overwhelmed. While no one will repo my car for not following through on an idea, it also means that the things in my "want to do" list grows and it becomes apparent that I'm stressing myself over what to do, which to do, when to do, etc. It's the same as taking on too much monetary debt; you feel overwhelmed and your limited resource starts to spread thinner and thinner. Same with idea debt; your time (resource) is spread thinner and thinner.

While 'debt' might be inaccurate, keeping lots of ideas in head definitely cripples you in my experience. They force you to always consider them as an option every time something new comes up and that quickly leads to decision fatigue.

In the meantime 'idea investment' is spot on.

It's debt in that we pay interest on it. Resources that could be spent on the here and now instead go to maintaining the idea that's not getting paid off.

But as jerf said, it doesn't have to be that way. It's just an idea file, not debt, unless you pay interest on it. If it saps your emotional, mental, or physical energy, then it's debt. And that may depend on your personality, not just on having "that kind of thing" laying around.

Oh, sure. I have a zillion ideas. Most, I ignore. Some, I pay interest. This article prompted me to finally stop paying interest on The Tragedy of Obi-Wan Kenobi - admitting I'll never get around to writing and producing it. It'd be lots of fun - a retelling of Star Wars as a revenge story, with Obi-Wan Kenobi as the ruthless villain (nothing actually changes except perspective), done as a comedy musical that also explores my personal history and the relationship of art, artist, and audience (with questions of ownership addressed).

Great idea. Not gonna do it. So I should stop doing any work on it.

I love my idea debt. Not only are they a connection to my younger self, but old ideas are a rich ore to be mined for new ideas. Some of my best current ideas are old ideas that have been tweaked by experience or external change so they are now relevant. Keep working on your ideas, but make sure you are actually turning some of them into reality.

> Some of my best current ideas are old ideas that have been tweaked by experience or external change so they are now relevant.

I can't find the reference right now but it reminds me from a scheme from Feynman.

He would keep a few ideas he's very familiar with in mind. Then every time he would be exposed to a new concept, he would consider each of his "core" ideas in light of this new concept.

Yes! He was building a single model to describe reality.

I find it amazing how many of the ideas from my vault exist in some form or other in the real world now.

I love the phrase "if you're the only one with an idea, it's probably a bad idea" :)

There's something to be said about "idea space".

most ideas hold little variance, and other people will have them. But some ideas can hold so much variance that no, nobody else in the world will even think about it.

This could be shortened to "if you have an idea then it is probably a bad idea" since most ideas are bad.

People seemed to take it as if I was bragging about how many good ideas I have had (parent comment 2 levels up). In reality what I find amazing is that most of my ideas were terrible, solutions looking for a problem, and I'm glad I didn't pursue them.

This happens to many people. You encounter a problem or inefficiency and think up of some software or hardware that would make it better.


Self-regulation of goal setting: turning free fantasies about the future into binding goals.

Oettingen G1, Pak H, Schnetter K.

Abstract: Fantasy realization theory states that when people contrast their fantasies about a desired future with reflections on present reality, a necessity to act is induced that leads to the activation and use of relevant expectations. Strong goal commitment arises in light of favorable expectations, and weak goal commitment arises in light of unfavorable expectations. To the contrary, when people only fantasize about a desired future or only reflect on present reality, expectancy-independent moderate goal commitment emerges. Four experiments pertaining to various life domains supported these hypotheses. Strength of goal commitment was assessed in cognitive (e.g., making plans), affective (e.g., felt attachment), and behavioral terms (e.g., effort expenditure, quality of performance). Implications for theories on goal setting and goal striving are discussed.

too academic, didnt read: To act, also think about now instead of only dreaming what could be.

I read somewhere that fantasizing about new features, off spins, optimizations, marketing tactics and etc would release enough dopamine that you'd eventually lose interest as the real deal wouldn't do better. I'll see if I can find it.

But what you posted is interesting and seems to be a perfect fit here and my project app/game graveyard. Someone actually said that I'm not building, im playing with borrowed Lego, pretty much sums it up. I think it boils down to analysis paralysis, that's the root cause. Any anxiety, any doubt, lack of focus, and procrastination stems from that. At least arrived at after really digging.

While a lot of people have tons of ideas that they can only execute on a few of them, there's quite a few people have the talent to make things that don't have the deluge of ideas invading their mind every day.

I think the idea people should be a little less protective of their ideas, especially the ones they know will never get made, and flesh them out just enough so others can run with it, and then put it out there somewhere.

I know there's a couple sites based on this concept, but maybe it could be something where ideas could get upvoted and the more visible ones might get people on board.

I don't know, sometimes I think that's what people are trying to do when they make a project open-source sometimes.

But yeah, there's a bunch of junk I come up with that aren't bad ideas, but I'll never realistically invest the time to get them done, especially considering all my other projects.

It's called crowdsourcing and I haven't seen it really work because ideas are a dime a dozen. Create. Don't think about it.

As a programmer, I have skills to build basically anything, but I don't have any ideas for what to build. If someone gave me an idea that would really capture my imagination, I would really appreciate it.

("Yet Another Ad Network" doesn't capture my imagination)

The issue is that the ideas aren't just something that can be transmitted in a sentence.

I run a business. I've had ideas, and implemented them. I have ideas for future stuff.

In both cases, the ideas are hard to separate from me. I know the market, I know the users, I know what I can create, I know enough relevant tech.

I could give the ideas to another domain expert, and they could probably implement them. Though they'd have their own take on things. That would change things. Some for the good, some for the better.

Obviously, you can get ideas from external sources. But they'll be more powerful if they're based on your own experience or readings, so that you can bring everything to bear.

I could give you all my ideas but you'd say they're impossible and even if you liked them you'd never complete them anyway.

To be creative, you have to just create. Just find something small and work on that if you need a place to start.

One of my favorite projects was a (not illegal) archival site building off a private p2p tracker php app and writing a custom software that would automatically download and virus scan any uploaded torrents, and then approve the listing with the virus scan results.

If anything fishy had ever popped up, the plan was to remove it later. My partner and I were really the only ones who uploaded anything tho :P

Why would someone give you their good ideas for free? This is what happens when engineers repeat the falsehood that "ideas are worthless". Well, engineering without an idea is also worthless.

> Why would someone give you their good ideas for free? That is exactly what a comment above suggested

Steven King has said something that I've come to support, that note/list-keeping is a great way to let bad ideas survive. He claims that a really good idea will survive in your head on its own, and a bad idea will die. And that by writing down every idea, you are polluting your landscape of possibilities by immortalizing ideas that are better left forgotten.

I would disagree with Steven King here. Once you write down ideas, it allows you to reconsider them later in a different light, a difference context. I believe that is extremely valuable because it is crucial to analyze an idea from various perspectives before embarking on implementing it. Embarking on an idea not well thought out can be extremely expensive.

Yep, definitely. The process of writing anything out (ideas, emotions, plans) lets you separate out the roles of describing the idea vs criticising it. Trying to evaluate them in your head requires you to do both simultaneously.

Kevin Kelly, when the creative director at Wired, said something similar about choosing which stories to write about. He would never write a story himself until a topic had been passed up by too many writers that it began to frustrate him.

This is a great strategy when you're working with the unknowns of creativity and artfulness. When you're trying to make a technology product, I argue, the situational context is so different that no such logic can really apply.

Additionally, it is important to keep in mind how many bad ideas become well-funded enterprises. Sometimes an idea is carried out just as an opportunity to arrive at a better idea.

My ideas directory is so full of trash that it's pointless to list it... I don't think putting stuff there is a drag to me.

Anyway, I've had plenty of cases where I take notice of my original idea, and weeks later with a more worked-out solution in my head, I look at the notes and realize that my original idea was indeed much better than what I had on my head.

I like this! Do you have a reference?

I tried googling King and failed to find him saying that but came across this quote

“Let's get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn't to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.”

This is pretty stark contrast to James Altucher's "idea machine" concept. That's where you push yourself to come up with 10 ideas daily in order to build your "idea muscle" concept. Some days he'd come up with 10 ideas for one specific person or business.

It seems a bit odd, but the guy did make millions repeatedly (after squandering 100% of his wealth, repeatedly).

I think they can be reconciled.

Idea debt is over-valuing existing ideas. You just have a few dozen plans that you keep going over and not acting on.

Coming up with a bunch of ideas would make that harder. You would have thousands and thousands if you kept them, so you just discard them while still improving the skill of having good ideas for when it counts.

I like this line of thought. If you are an idea machine, you're actually a lot less likely to be tied to any one idea and ride it down to the bitter end. Instead, you'd realize that most ideas aren't that great and it would take a higher and higher bar to impress yourself.

Maybe the dangerous thing is when ideas are in a state where maybe they're plans but you're uncertain and instead of executing on them or deciding not to you just let them accumulate and sap your attention.

Somewhat anecdotally...

At work, our team isn't the biggest bunch of sports fans so our shoot-the-sh1t talk is primarily fantasy start-up ideas.

We bounce the ideas off each other, critique them, laugh. Just in the last week;

I want to create a VR game that's sync'd to your music and you hook up your exercise machine to to move through the game. (inspired by a DIY post here on HN)

My boss has moved on from a device that will shut down every device in the house for family dinner onto some Medical thing he's 'working on' with a colleague.

It's all good fun, creative & social.

Having ideas is easy, but actually doing something with them is different story. Ok there is minor difference between a good idea and a bad idea, but going from getting a good-enough idea to actually doing something about it, and following the project through to completion, is the hard part.



IMHO the problem is talking. When you talk about your idea you receive big part of gratification for almost no effort.

I fully agree. I've seen this happen with my younger self countless times. I would get excited about an idea, tell someone all about it, and then suddenly feel less motivated to work on it. Anything I'm serious about, I try not to talk about anymore as a result.

> "If… you have 'binders of lore' and no book... you’re living with serious Idea Debt."

Moving from a daydream to some actual artefacts the first step _away_ from Idea Debt, not further into it. In technical terms, this could be writing a script instead of building an application or creating a spec and some documentation before writing some code. I'd argue that this is where you start to flesh-out and make real your idea.

Binders of "lore" would be an amazing resource to have at hand when you actually do come to writing your book. Surely this isn't a waste of time but it's where the idea ruminates, develops and matures. If anything, it improves the quality of an idea and can help make that idea a reality.

Inventory is waste. It is one of the most insidious kinds of waste since it feels productive generating it. In reality it is waste.

It being waste doesn't mean you dont need it - that's how waste builds up: you create stuff in case, or you save things in case, or you build an extra large buffer just in case. It's all done with good intentions. If one of your goals in life is to be effective you need to work to eliminate as much inventory as possible, same as the other types of waste.

Overproduction, Inventory and Overprocessing are the three most insidious types of waste - they seem like good things.

Why not gold plate the thing? Just add these few features in case you need them. Why not make a few extra just in case, why not save that thing that you may need later or maybe you will finish at some point.

The other types of waste are more clearly negative.

Creative people over-produce ideas because that's what being creative means.

The problem isn't having too many ideas - it's not finishing any of them, ever. At some point you have to spend enough time on at least one project to get it out into the world.

That always means work that can be boring and feel like a chore, even if the project is the most exciting thing to happen since the invention of fire.

The difference between professionals and amateurs is that professionals have a balanced tolerance for that part of the process, and understand that you have to do at least some of the boring stuff to finish.

Amateur dabblers have none at all. When they get bored they move on, so they never finish anything. (In extreme cases they never truly start.)

Sure, inventory is waste. You need to store it, protect it and organize it. Maybe you never even end up using all of it.

The thing is that without inventory, you can't build anything. Manufacturers optimize their supply chains to keep minimal inventory and reliably acquire the supplies they need just before they run out.

...but the creative supply chain is not reliable. You need a lot of inventory because good ideas might not arrive right before you need them. Fortunately, a binder full of notes is a lot easier to manage than manufactured parts for thousands of cars.

I agree. It's a very thought-provoking piece, but I think the problem with the analogy is highlighted when the debt is transformed into an investment. Debts don't turn into investments. Assets turn into investments.

Building "binders of lore", while usually important, is actually much easier than actually writing the final product, and it's really not analogous to a spec (that would be your detailed outline). Background material is fun and feels productive, but can easily lead you around your goal rather than toward it. Maybe you operate differently, but as someone with a tendency to build worlds rather than plots, that part made perfect sense to me.

Yes, I'd say "binders of lore" are a rather good approach to a book.

While they would be far away from a video game or something...

509 Bandwidth Limit Exceeded, here's a mirror: http://web.archive.org/web/20160204103028/http://jessicaabel...

One of the most damaging pieces of information I ever applied to my life was the idea that not finishing thigh things was bad or undesirable. You know why? Because the result of internalising that wasn't that I finished more things, but rather that I started fewer. I no longer got even the learning I previously did from the start of a project and the research involved etc.

To this day I am still struggling to return to where I constantly started projects all over the place only to leave them unfinished. It was so, so much better that way.

I consider myself a very productive person ... But I just removed about 30 years of work from my todo-list, after reading this article.

I'm guilty of this, but I can't stop. What I do now is focus more more on "micro-ideas" which I can finish start to end in a day/weekend/week. Consequentially, these ideas are much harder to come by

      ||                                                 |
      ||                                                 |
      ||                                                 |
 Idea | |                                                |
 Debt | \                                                |
      |  \                                               |
      |   \                                              |
      |    \                                             |
      |     `.                                           |
      |      `b                                          |
      |        \                                         |
      |         `.                                       |
      |           ' _                                    |
      |              "o                                  |
      |                `..                               |
      |                   `-.                            |
      |                      `-.._                       |
      |                           `--..                  |
      |                                `'"---............|
      |                                                  |
                     Technical Debt

The less you plan and think about an idea, the more technical debt you will accumulate.

Related: "Brain Crack" by Ze Frank


I used to have ideas on a to-do list, but it was torturing me (especially as it takes a few orders of magnitude to come up with an idea, however elaborate, than to do it; and doing it is also a reality check - some things seam clever until you start doing it and meeting contradictions).

Now it is a separate list, entitled "n-th-priority-tasks-tml.md". And I try to keep no regret for not doing things.

For doing, as cheap as it may sound "just do it". As I heard from one writer "Imperfect books have one advantage: they exist". (At least for me perfectionism is the prime reason for delaying such projects.)

And one advice from a friend of mine, when I was delaying (for 2 years) writing a quantum game (http://quantumgame.io, coming this March!): "the only thing you lack is sitting on your ass and writing code". She was right.

Also, one of my write ups:

"If you have a great project, do moonlight. Don’t wait for better times, because they won’t come. Maybe you overstate the need of money, institutional support or social confirmation?" from http://crastina.se/theres-no-projects-like-side-projects

> Now it is a separate list, entitled "n-th-priority-tasks-tml.md". And I try to keep no regret for not doing things.

It's interesting to read that I'm not the only one doing this. See also my comment: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=11032799

I chose the name "ideas" instead of "n-th-priority-tasks" to clearly distinguish this list from actual tasks. Because they aren't. None of those entries deserves to be named "task", until one starts to get serious about them and creates a prototype. And this will happen only to a tiny fraction of those entries.

The title may be misleading (actually, I remember it is "n-th-priority-things.md"). I've just checked its heading (I keep this file always open) and it's "n-th prority ideas".

I read your comment before posting my own. :)

When it comes to their length and (what is more important) being specified, it varies a lot. From a blog post I have in mind and can write in a few hours, to things that make take months or years.

I was thinking about making it public, but:

- most of them are idiosyncratic and a few words stands for a long idea,

- I am afraid of self-censorship (is it good enough for the public? doesn't it sound offensive?).

When it comes to tasks-ideas separation, it reminds me of http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive/phd073010s.gif (I used to have to do bullets which were there for years - and they were causing so much pain).

I have a directory. Every idea is either on a file, or a subdir that holds whatever work I've done on it. That subdir may hold a TODO list, scoped on that idea - if I ever work on that idea again, I'll probably start by reviewing the TODO.

I don't intend to work on 90% of what's there anymore, it's not a TODO list. It's just a set of info that I may use someday later. I don't even know what's in there.

Good point. This is also what I do with projects that have some (partial) implementation. Local TODO/IDEAS files are a very good thing.

However, most ideas didn't come to live (and probably never will), and I prefer to have those in a single file instead creating a separate file or directory for each topic. The reason is that some ideas are vague, and sometime I split or merge them.

I've got a 'Current Task' text file, in which I write down everything I need or want to do that I'd expect I'd forget otherwise, prioritized by how soon and/or how urgently the thing needs to be done (Thank you, David Allen [0]). For example, the top of the file right now is my agenda for a meeting that's about to happen. Once the meeting's done, the agenda will go in a logbook file, and any action items will take the agenda's place.

I have colossal idea debt, as measured by the size of the CurrentTask file. Scrolling past the most urgent items, I've got everything in there from ~ 'change that code' to 'Read 'To Kill a Mockingbird'' to a list of writing prompts that have moldered there for years.

The nice thing, though, is that the file forms an external inventory of my plans, intents, and ideas. Putting them in there lets me focus on what needs to be done now, while removing the fear of forgetting later. I'll periodically purge, moving the things that no longer matter into the logbook.

[0]'Getting Things Done', David Allen

Reading 'To Kill a Mockingbird' is totally worth it. And doesn't take very long...

The majority of this thread's comments relate personal experiences, so I might as well contribute mine as well. Nearly a decade ago I started work on a project. For eight years progress consisted of taking notes and daydreaming. I was going to write a book that would make me famous. Over the years the dream-ideas progressed from a paper book, to an iPod book, to a HTML5 book. The daydreams always kept up with the available technology. Finally, two years ago, I suddenly started working on the thing. It is a travelogue, written for Android. The difficulties of implementation were unexpected and surprising. And now that it's approaching completeness a new set of unexpected problems arise. I'd assumed that simply writing a book would be enough to sell it; but apparently a lot of marketing is required. Daydreaming has benefits, but it costs time.

Edit: Having mentioned marketing; here is video screen cap of the book: https://youtu.be/yX4JTS-eIqQ

I know this feeling, and it's what's held up most of my own projects. Heck, most of my one off articles too, I must have hundreds or thousands of drafts on my WordPress blog, most of which never end up going anywhere.

So why is this the case? Well, a few reasons really. One is because I have an awkward tendency to never, ever be happy with something simple. Ever. So the idea ends up getting more and more complicated, and I end up giving up after realising that even a team of about 200 people with a multi billion dollar budget couldn't successfully pull it off in a reasonable timeframe. Add a touch of perfectionism, and well, you can probably guess how many of my actual projects have even been started.

Most of the rest usually end halfway through after the fun part is over.

But maybe I'll finally try and get some stuff done this year. Like, not starting anything new until the things I was planning to work on/have already been working on are completion.

The post was a very nice read and hit a personal chord for me. I'm that guy that hoards domain names for all these amazing project idea's. I've started to organize projects into Trello boards, most important ones get their own project board and details start to get hashed out.

The funny thing is that I've flat out closed many boards, because I've lost interest or the idea doesn't seem to solve the problem any longer. That's OK. I think it lets me distill down the best ones for true idea investments. As long as it's full-filling and you learn something along the way, then why not?

Sadly, I have been a vicitm of idea debt. As a young developer I had a grande vision of starting an online network of websites. I spent a solid month planning them all out, designing the logos and everything. Needless to say, when I showed the work to my boss he was less than impressed that I put off client work to plan our company's world domination.

I still have all the logos :) https://www.dropbox.com/s/7uxj41grx7s79mg/all-logos.jpg?dl=0

I've had this vision for a revolutionary system when I was 12. I think about it every single day. Yet, my only accomplishment is thousands of pages of notes and ideas about possible use cases for this system. I haven't wrote a single line of code. I tried blogging about it, but I can't decide where to start. You can find glimpse of the idea in some of my HN/Reddit posts/comments, but that's about it.

This have never felt satisfied or truly happy since. I don't know what to do next.

I glanced briefly over your posts and it seems that you're dealing with a complex system. The trouble with those is that you can't just break it down to a simple prototype, because by simplifying it you lose exactly the properties you're interested in.

Actually building it, requires a solution to a couple of hard problems, which themselve pull in even more. So the longer you work on it, the slower you make any progress and the easier it is to get lost just by the sheer range of ways to tackle it.

However, somehow those complex ones are just way more interesting for myself, I pick them every time over "the simple things", but the result is, that I too can't show any visible progress, because it's not done yet and no simple prototype can show/imitate the system as a whole. If you ever discover a sound methodology for these kinds of problem, please tell me about it.

Have you read The Lean Startup? That can help.

Also, TSTTCPW (the simplest thing that could possibly work). Pry a little piece of it loose. Don't think too much about which piece. Build the simplest possible version of that little piece. "Simplest" can be a tremendous challenge in itself, because scope creep and gold-plating are so easy. Part of the work will be decoupling your little piece from the rest of it. But make something that works!

Thousands of pages of documentation must be how Hell feels like for engineers ;)

I'd start by reducing it. Either generalize or make it less ambitious (whatever fits better your idea).

I'd set up a wiki to bring the notes and ideas in order.

The concept is probably related to something you could call 'recursive idea debt' or 'recursive learning debt' in tech - when you come up with an exciting idea, and because you have no constraints you start thinking about this great new technology you would learn for that project and use. And then you would find 3 other interesting technologies or concepts related to that which you would want to learn more about. And so on.

Definitely been hit with this. On the flip side, I usually learn something new and useful out of it.

I'm an "early" programmer, so there's a ton I don't know. When I start breaking an idea I get to things like "oh, how do I have this running in the background while the user is still doing something?" That got me into Rails background workers, the Sidekiq and Foreman gems, etc. All were super useful for me to know about, and concepts that I knew existed in a vague sense, but hadn't actually gotten to yet.

That said, these totally take me down a rabbit hole, and are ultimately counterproductive towards the core idea if they are distracting enough.

You might want to learn something from J. C. R. Licklider:



I wonder how this works for somebody like Elon Musk. Does he have idea debt?

Probably has tons of idea debt but he is also very single minded in what he wants to achieve so it's probably easier for him to discard ideas and only do the ones no-one else can do that will go some way towards saving humanity.

I don't see the difference between this and procrastination - there doesn't seem to be a great deal of new insight here.

procrastination is delay in doing things you don't particularly want to do but still understand are obligations. Delaying doing homework/office work/yard work.

idea debt is: the struggle with creative sunk costs. Thinking in circles about something you are interested in while accomplishing no really progress in making your idea a tangible thing.

Damn, those Forest Lords sound suspiciously like Malazan Book of the Fallen ;D

site is down

This has happened to many so many times. The other situation I've had is that even when I start working on my next idea, I start getting distracted by a ton of new ones.

Yup same here. It's hard to make decision on what to stick with and finish.

I think the more I work on my idea the worse it sounds compared to the others. But, I've decided to finish the product one way or the other.




For those of you who suffer from this, don't worry! It works out in the end, and it's just part of growing up. Reading random blog posts isn't going to solve your problem with motivation. Smoke a joint and cut yourself some slack.

It's much easier to think about things than to make them, so this is really the normal state of affairs. Not sure you can avoid it completely

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