Ideas come at a cost: of attention, energy, and potentially ego. The cost of our ideas isn’t always equal to their potential value however, so it’s important that we build systems for ourselves that allow us to easily (and efficiently) identify worthwhile ideas.
Spending your time on less-than-worthwhile ideas can leave you not only without something to show for your efforts, but also drained of energy.
On the face of the issue, ideas cost attention, which is in high demand from the countless prompts, pings, and vibrations we encounter every day. According to research done at Michigan State University: all it takes is three seconds to lose that valuable focus of attention. The buzz of a vibrating phone, the laugh of a stranger in a cafe, or the brief whiff of a familiar scent, are all enough to break our attention at any given moment. Getting that attention back is difficult.
The sporadic spark of an idea, too, can shift our attention from one train of thought to another, at a whim.
Of course, the real reason ideas are so costly (and the reason our attention on any given thought or idea is so valuable) is in relation to time.
If we dedicate any amount of time on a particular idea, that’s time that could be spent elsewhere: on more creative ideas, more valuable thoughts, or exploring new inputs for additional ideas. This is all too-familiar for the veteran artist or poet: the seemingly never-ending battle of when to abandon idea in hopes of discovering a better one, as opposed to pushing forward in hopes of developing the idea into something that can be successful.
So what do we do? How can we ensure we’re spending our time and attention on the right ideas?
One solution I’ve found is through building personal systems for recognizing when ideas are valuable or not. Once you know your own system, you can use multipliers to determine whether they’re effective or not. That sentiment can sound a lot like gibberish, I know, so let’s explore a real-world situation where this might come into play.
In my own work, I utilize a system where I am consistently reminded of what it is I’m trying to do. From a macro perspective level. A metaphorical 400ft view above my working desk at all times.
To remind myself of my efforts I use a system to keep this focus top-of-mind. Maybe it’s a sticky note I put on my computer screen, a blurb in colossal text on a whiteboard in my office, or even a reminder I set on my phone to go off every 30 minutes or so. As long as I have a way to consistently re-align myself with what I should be doing that day (or week, or month, etc.), I trust my time and attention will be well spent. Even bad ideas can lead to better, productive ones, if I have a mission to compare them against.
Additionally, I always – always – have something on me to write with. A notebook or my iPhone. Having these types of tools handy allows me to capture ideas as they spark, then forget them. I don’t have to worry about whether or not I’ll remember an idea, and I don’t have to let myself get carried away by them, I have them recorded safely for future reference.
If you want to create a shortcut for recognizing worthwhile ideas, make it easier on yourself by developing a system for focusing (and freeing) your mind.
Read this next: Why good ideas sometimes fail