I got this term from Kazu Kibuishi when I interviewed him for Out on the Wire episode 7: Dark Forest. His name for the concept was new to me, but it solved a huge problem: what to call this struggle with creative sunk costs that I understand all too intimately. Here’s Kazu:
I try not to to look at what I’m going to do as this amazing great grand thing. I’m actually solving problems in the moment, and that’s so much more exciting than than trying to fill years of what I like to call my “idea debt.” That’s when you have this dream of this awesome thing for years. You think, “Oh, I’m going to do this epic adventure. It’s going to be so great.” The truth is, no matter what you do, it will never be as great as it is in your mind, and so you’re really setting yourself up for failure.
I like snowboarding, and I used to like hitting all the jumps. And when I would go down the mountain, I would notice a bunch of young snowboarders who were waiting at the top of the jumps.
They may look like they’re waiting their turn. But in fact that they’re waiting there because they’re afraid to hit that jump. And what they don’t realize is that, over time, they’re getting colder. By the time they actually do it, they’re probably not going to fulfill that dream.
So I learned to just hit the jump or pass it. Do it in the moment, or not at all.
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.
- You tell 15 friends about your screenplay idea, but devote zero time in your week to facing the blank screen.
- You buy a domain name, spend weeks or months researching and reading up on how to build a website, but you don’t actually install WordPress.
- You have a drawer full of half-finished stories and novels and a to-do list item every week that reads, “work on writing.”
- You’ve read 15 free online guides to blogging, built three editorial calendars, have notes on a dozen posts, but you haven’t gone live with your blog.
- You have “binders of lore” and no book.
…you’re living with serious Idea Debt.
If you recognize yourself, you are definitely not alone. There’s nothing crazy about having Idea Debt. It’s the most natural thing to result when you have big creative ideas, but no real plan for working towards making them actually happen.
Dreaming is not the way you get from IDEA to DONE. You need a plan.
But how do you go about planning something as simultaneously amorphous and overwhelming as, “finish and publish my novel”? Especially when you also want to script a comic book, launch an illustration website, learn to code, and film a series of cake-decorating how-to videos…
How do you get from mountains of overwhelming Idea Debt to that golden land of wonderfulness that is Finishing?
Step one: Choose ONE goal.
Sure, pick one goal. Easy for me to say. But when your projects are your creative babies, when you’ve been carrying them all, in backpacks and in slings and on your shoulders and on your hip…sometimes for years on end, how do you make the decision? And why should you have to? All your projects are important to you.
Here’s why you need to make the call, as hard as that is to do.
Imagine you figure out your schedule, and realize you have maybe eight hours a week for creative work outside your day job, if you’re careful. You have eight projects. So you put in one hour on each. Seems logical, right? But really: How deep are you gonna get? How far are you gonna be able to move that needle?
Now, imagine you spend eight hours over the course of a week on one project. You might get a whole chapter drafted in eight hours. Stranger things have happened. And if you’re spending chunks of time all week on the same thing, your brain is going to be working overtime on it. When you’re in the shower: brainstorm. When you’re in the car: things are clicking together. Have your notebook or voice notes app handy. You will have ideas. I guarantee it.
And if you follow this pattern for—depending on the project—between a month and a year or so: the thing is done. Actually done. You did it.
Good lord. Imagine the party you’d throw to celebrate that.
What would it be like to have a big thing completed and in the world? What would that do for your self-esteem? How might it connect you to other people? What kinds of professional opportunities might come up as a result?
…And if in this whole imaginative exercise, you were flitting between thinking of one big thing on your list, and another bigger thing, and then how this third thing ties into your master plan, you got issues, babe. Because here’s the truth:
Too many projects = no projects.
Telling yourself that you’ll just do a bit on this thing and a bit on that, that you’ll fit it in, is a recipe for ending up with nothing finished. When you don’t finish, you end up feeling like you’re not working hard enough, so then you hate yourself a little bit, or maybe a lot. You blame yourself, and you say, I just need to work a little harder. But there is no bottom to this syndrome. There is no point at which you find enough time to do all the things, all at once.
Choose one thing and go all in.
Choose one thing and it’ll set you free.
You can move forward, and finish your creative work…if you choose ONE goal, and march inexorably towards it.
You have a magic wand. You get to choose one idea that’s been sitting on the list, and make it a reality. Which one will it be?