When Great Ideas Become Lead Weights

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Here are five ways to help preserve the life and growth of a good idea when circumstances mean we can’t follow it up right now, ways to stop it becoming just another weighty addition on a “to do” list.

Great ideas and creative inspiration can come with little warning. There you are, minding your own business, and suddenly an idea strikes: the creative process is flowing, you ride along with it for a little while, start fleshing out extensions and connections and growing the idea. But often we aren’t able to set aside enough time or attention right at that moment to ‘complete’ all the details and nuances of the idea right then and there. We set it aside temporarily, intending to return to it later — and then, sometimes, we find ourselves still trying to implement the idea weeks or months or even years later.

Over time, what was once a sparkling ember of possibility can become a cold, dark lump that we carry around with us, either literally or metaphorically. Maybe it lives in an actual notebook; many academics, authors and entrepreneurs have collected stacks of paper notebooks over the years. It might get stored electronically on a phone or computer. Or perhaps it just sits in the back of the mind, awaiting its turn while other matters occupy us. Whatever the medium, the end result is similar: the idea goes dormant, becoming a “to do”, an awaiting task to go back and recapture that creative process and flesh it all out again.

Unfortunately, that task of recapturing the creative process can become more and more difficult as time goes on. When it’s forming, an idea is like a growing crystal, one with a huge surface area where new structures are created and new connections are made. But when it’s rattled around in the mind with too many other things for too long, even if only as a vague awareness of something we jotted down in a notebook or on a computing device, it can get ground down until it’s shiny and smooth, like a marble. (Alternatively, I think of the round lead weights, or ‘sinkers’, that I used to attach to a fishing line when I was a child, before we all realised that throwing pieces of lead into lakes wasn’t a good idea.) The original nugget might still be very recognisable, clearly visible and solid and beautiful even, but it lacks those all-important edges and faces that allow it to accrete new additions to itself and grow.

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This can happen to anyone, with any kind of idea, from the grandest plan for a groundbreaking novel to the most straightforward strategy for reorganising the garage. Some of us are still lugging around marble-ideas from years ago, still unimplemented, still awaiting their turn! Inoculating yourself against the problem probably is impossible, but here are a few thoughts on ways to shift the odds in your favour.

Capture it!
Jot the idea down, including as many of the extensions and connections floating around with it as you can manage, however potentially irrelevant or pointless they might seem. This isn’t the place for a concise, polished, focused “to do”; rather, it’s a whole messy and disorganised “brain dump” of an idea; irrelevancies can be pruned away in the future. An entirely unedited snapshot like this can help later on to create a new creative flow that is informed by the one you had the first time, offering a glimpse at the living nature of the idea and preventing it from shrivelling into a wrinkly raisin of an idea.
Let it go.
With a snapshot safely preserved, go ahead and let the idea drift away as far as it may from your attention, releasing yourself from the obligation to carry it with you, rattling around within your awareness. But — and this is a big but — combine this with a routine of some kind to go back periodically and review what you’ve captured and saved. The reviewing process needn’t be particularly thorough or time consuming; even a cursory glance can provide an opportunity to pick up a saved idea again. You can have faith that the idea won’t be lost when you let it go.
Make space.
Making some mental space to just “be” and to allow creativity to start to flow again — or, sometimes, not to flow at all — can help make the process of creativity feel more like a close friend and frequent visitor who drops around for a casual chat all the time and less like a long lost relative who must be hugged and squeezed and fussed over whenever they appear. Accepting that sometimes, the creative juices aren’t going to flow anyway, regardless of how much space we make, reinforces the sense that we’re just “being”, not forcing or grasping at anything.
Be confident.
Have confidence that however difficult the creative process might seem at any given point in time, you will create again. It’s not like you’re limited to only a certain number of ideas per lifetime, and then you run out. Struggling to recover one of those saved snapshots and generate new thought processes akin to those that once surrounded it? No problem: it happens! But that idea came from your mind in the first place; what better environment could there be to welcome it back to active growth? Like Arnie in a Terminator film: it will be back!
Cut yourself some slack.
Not every great idea needs to be followed up according to some particular timeline; not every great idea needs to be followed up at all. Some you may even reject later after reassessing their greatness, maybe because your views have shifted, your experience has deepened, or external factors have changed the context in which the idea would be implemented. That’s OK.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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