The Definitive Guide to Avoiding the Idea Trap: Steer Clear of The Danger In Possibility

Ever hear someone say, “I’ve got an idea for this awesome app”? How about, “You know, I got an idea for this business that could be interesting”?

I hear stuff like that — all the time.

Not only do I hear it from people I speak to, but I also hear it inside my own brain. Do you?

Sometimes, I blame this on the fact that I live in Nicaragua. Because we lack so much our third world country, traveling abroad always means peeling my eyes for “opportunities” and “ideas” for businesses that I could potentially try at home.

Why reinvent the wheel, right?


I can’t tell you how many people have told me:

“I have so many ideas! I’m still trying to figure out what to do with them.”

The key word in that sentence is the word “still,” and it’s starting to make me hate ideas and the “idea trap.”

I’ll tell you why.

What’s so bad about ideas?

I know you think ideas are romantic and beautiful — the media has made sure of that. It’s long been romanticizing ideas, making them the coolest thing since sliced bread — as if ideas alone will buy you loaves of bread, too.

So much of that is fake.

Maybe it started when people started making billions of dollars out of their garages, like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, or Mark Zuckerberg did. It really started sticking when over-simplified iPhone apps were bought out for billions, too, like Instagram was.

This doesn’t just happen in the tech world, either. The author of Harry Potter is routinely celebrated for coming up with the idea of a wizarding world. Scientists the world over are recognized for coming up with ideas that solve huge problems.

Ideas are thrown around to and fro, but chocking it all up to ideas is too simple.

Ideas are only as strong as the execution you give them.

All of the entrepreneurs I mentioned above put in so much work — coding, writing, solving — before they made the big bucks. It wasn’t the idea that made it big, but the work behind it.

But the idea is important, right?

Ideas can’t be all bad… Can they?

I’ll give you this much:

Ideas without actions are nothing, but actions without ideas are just a big mess.

All of the big successes I mentioned above counted on both strong ideas and strong actions. Without either element, everything would’ve fallen through, and they wouldn’t be the household names we recognize them as today.

I’ve had my fair share of ideas in the past. Some I’ve acted on whole-heartedly. Others, not so much. The ideas I pursued head-on are now “successes” — like this blog. The ideas I flirted with and then left out to dry are in Idea Heaven.

And I still have so many ideas that I would love to act on, but I know they’ll never see the light of day. I’m sure you have lots of ideas, too. Like me, maybe you’ve even journaled about them and asked your friends what they think.

But you know what?

Ideas beg to be transformed into something more. 

So, let’s talk about transforming them…

Tt’s up to us to make ideas into more than just ideas. It’s up to us to break free of the “idea trap.” Let’s walk through what we can do.

So, what do we do with ideas?

They come to us in waves — sometimes not at all, sometimes too many at once.

They come to us in the shower or on a long run.

They come to us strong and brave or weak and fearful.

Ideas seem to pop up when you least suspect it and in a myriad of ways. It happens to me most when I’m reading a fiction book or working out.

But ideas are slippery little suckers. We never know when to expect them, how to deal with them, and when to act on them. 

So, what are we to do?

In the book The Anatomy of Inspiration, Rosamund E. M. Harding writes about what to do with the ideas that pop into our heads. A few methods she describes are exactly what have worked for me in the past.

I’ll share them with you step-by-step.

Step 1: Record the idea that comes to you

In her book, Harding notes this as the first step:

“The ideas occurring when in the glow of inspiration are briefly noted down.”

I agree with this 100%.

Whether you’re on a run or in the shower, the first thing you must do is capture the ideas before it gets away — because I promise that ideas love to get away. That’s why I constantly log ideas as notes in my phone or on my computer.

Whatever you do, create a system.

For example, whenever an idea comes to me, I open my note-taking app to capture it, even just a fragment. (On my Mac, I use nvALT. On my iPhone, I use Byword.) Whenever I go to write notes, all of my ideas are there waiting for me.

Step 2: Choose the right idea

So, you’ve started capturing the ideas you get in the shower or at work, and you’re starting to accumulate so many ideas. Piles and piles of them. Business ideas, writing ideas, travel ideas, outfit ideas… Once you start paying closer attention to those ideas, they start coming at you rapid-fire, don’t they?

You’re now drowning in ideas.

Ideas give us what to create, but how do you choose the right one (especially when you have so many)?

This is the precise problem most people have, and it’s the question the big successes have learned to answer correctly.

First off, let’s define good ideas and bad ideas.

Good ideas further your personal and professional goals.
Bad ideas don’t.

Pretty simple, right? Sure, it’s simple to people who are clear on their goals, but it’s horrendously vague to those that aren’t.

If you aren’t clear on your goals, this is where you need to take a moment to figure that out. What fits my life won’t fit yours, and it’s important to be clear on what you’re aiming for first.

Go read this article, and then come back. I’ll wait.

You back? … Great. Let’s get back to work.

Now, that we’re all clear on our personal and professional goals, our ideas will be easier to sort through. I’ll walk you through how I rate my own ideas:

  1. Will this idea be fun to work on?
  2. Will this idea make me feel valuable to people?
  3. Will implementing this idea take money I don’t have or want to spend?
  4. Will it make the kind of money I need to enjoy my life?
  5. Will it allow me the freedom to spend time with friends, family, reading, etc?

The questions you use may be different (depending on your goals), but I recommend questioning different aspects of your idea to make sure it’s a good fit.

For example, I used those questions to guide me in choosing my next project, which is a tool to grant freelancers more peace in their work. I know from experience that freelancing isn’t always easy, and I want to help freelancers all over the world solve the issues I’ve faced. (I’ll tell you more about that project soon, promise!)

When you go through your ideas to choose which ones to pursue, it’s important to be hyper-aware of what YOU want out of it — not necessarily what “convention” says you should aim for.

So, you’ve gone from no ideas to drowning in ideas to choosing a few that you’d like to act on — but what’s next?

Step 3: Act on the right idea

Oh, the holy grail of execution… This is where things get a little difficult. No matter what people say, your precious idea isn’t the most valuable asset you have. The value lies in what you do next.

Figuring that out boils down to this:

The idea is your rock, so how far will your slingshot throw it?

Let’s figure it out — together.

In her book, Harding describes a few ways to work on ideas:

“The subject is worked upon immediately, the thinker being wholly absorbed by it to the exclusion for the time being of everything else. The subject is set aside to develop and is then worked upon after an interval of time has elapsed.”

I find that this is one of the most difficult things for us to do because, well, we have so many shiny objects luring us in all the time! Our smartphones are beeping, our Facebook chat is dinging, and that number on your inbox is growing every few minutes.

How can we just put everything away and work on an idea — without working on anything else at the same time?

The time for multi-tasking has passed. Dive deep into your idea, ignoring everything else.

Note: It’s okay if you’re not as good at focusing as you’d like. Technology can help you out on this one.

For example, I use the “StayFocusd” extension on Google Chrome to block out websites that kill my productivity. From 8AM to 5PM on Monday to Friday, I’m only allowed to check these “productivity killer” websites (like Facebook) for 10 minutes. After that, I’m blocked out and have no choice but to get to work.

So, once you’ve put in the time and you’re you’re satisfied with your progress or you’ve hit a wall, put the work aside for a while. Maybe a few hours. Maybe a few days. Whatever it takes to give your work some time to settle.

This is especially useful when an idea feels overwhelming.

I recently ran into a problem with my new project and spent hours hitting my head against the keyboard trying to solve it. When I hit my frustration limit, I took some time out to have lunch with a friend. When I got back to my desk, the problem was solved within five minutes.

Breaks, I love thee.

That obviously isn’t a scientific approach, but it works for me over and over again.

And speaking about science… I find it funny that research shows the more you talk about your ideas, the less likely you are to make them happen — as if merely talking about doing something is enough satisfaction, and you stop there.

Truth be told, I don’t really trust that kind of research because it’s vague and doesn’t necessarily apply to your life, so I have a better approach: look back on your experiences, notice the patterns, and learn from them. If you’ve ever abandoned an idea while working on it, I’d take a moment to analyze why.

Easy, right?

On top of that, here are a few more “bonus” tips on making sure you take the right actions to slingshot your ideas to success:

  • Ask your friends and family what they think. Their opinions and suggestions aren’t the law, but being open to constant feedback is a huge skill to have.
  • Put out a few experiments to see how your audience reacts to your idea. If the reaction is strong, looks like you’ve got a winner. If not, is it time to tweak?
  • Revisit your goals from time to time. As you build out your idea, is it still helping your further the goals you initially set for yourself? Don’t let things spin out of control…

There’s so much more I could write about ideas, but this post is long enough as it is!

What ideas are brewing?

I started out telling you that ideas aren’t all that cool, and I’m starting to hate them. While that’s still true, I hope you realize that I do love good ideas that are well-executed. Who doesn’t love a good idea brought to life?

It’s what the Steve Jobs and J.K. Rowling’s of the world did for us, and we’ve enjoyed their hard work, right?

Now, it’s our turn to do the ideating and creating.

It’s our turn to steer clear of the “idea trap” and make sure we take solid action toward turning them into something real, something tangible, something valuable to people.

I know from experience that it can be daunting, so I leave you with a few words from Mario Andretti:

“Don’t look at the wall. Your car goes where your eyes go.”

I’d love to hear what you’re working on and what your thoughts are on ideas in general:

Are you looking for worthwhile ideas or drowning in them? What concerns you about choosing a few ideas to pursue? What are you most excited to be working on lately?

Can’t wait to hear from you.

Wishing you awesomeness from Managua!

— Marcella