motivation productivity

What to do when you have too many ideas

We’ve all been there. We’ll be plugging away at a story, diligently banging out the words. Before we know it, as if getting a glimpse of a shiny toy on the edge of our vision, we’ll be captivated by something new.

  • This story’s fine, I guess, but I’d enjoy writing this other story even more!
  • Wouldn’t it be cool if I wrote a novella about this secondary character?
  • Sure, the antagonist is bad, but what if there was a different villain? While I’m at it, why not change the hero?
  • You know what would make this better? A PREQUEL TRILOGY WITH LASER BUNNIES.
With credit to Alex Norris (

My hard drive is littered with abandoned drafts. Yours might be too.

How can we stop ourselves from falling into the trap of giving up on one story in an attempt to pursue something new? And how can we stop ourselves from doing the same thing with the next story? And the next one? And the one after that?

Having too many ideas might sound like a good problem to have, but it can be paralyzing.

The world is so huge that people are always getting lost in it.

Susan Orlean

Don’t try to finish two competing story ideas if they’re causing you to halt your progress. Either stick with the idea you’ve got, even if the other ideas are enticing, or put your current idea aside and really commit to something new.

Focus intensely on one idea at a time.

If this still sounds troublesome, there are three simple techniques that can help you focus.

Give yourself a due date

Regardless of whether or not you were a great student in school, you were probably motivated enough when receiving an assignment. Some secondary motivations may have included doing good work, having a creative outlook, or impressing the instructor. However, ultimately, you just needed to get it done before it was due, or you’d fail.

For some writers, imposing a due date for themselves can work in the same way.

Choose a reasonable goal and a reasonable deadline. One or two weeks is usually great. If you’re working on a short story, try to finish a draft in that time. Working on a novel? Why not try to finish a chapter. If you already have a draft and are editing, give yourself the same window of time and aim to have your task done by then.

For many people, one or two weeks is short enough that you can’t waste time, but long enough that you can realistically get things done.

If you’re capable of holding yourself accountable, then stick a note on your desk and a reminder in your calendar. If you need some external forces to keep you going (as I do!), ask a friend or a family member to check in on you.

Finish what you start

An important thing to know is that there are very few artists who will suggest that they finish anything without effort. Not only that, many will say that finishing isn’t just hard, it’s a brutal slog. That might not be inspirational, but it’s true.

Real artists ship.

Steve Jobs

You’ve heard the quote. You already know that nothing gets done unless it gets done. Some writing will flow like water. Some will need to be carved from stone.

If writing was easy, everybody would be a writer.

Some people need a kick in the rear end. Maybe a reality check is helpful. For me, when I start to get starry-eyed, focusing on a new story instead of the one I know I should be working on, it takes some tough love to get back on track.

Sometimes you just have to finish what you’re working on. You’ll never have a story to submit if you don’t finish a story. You won’t be able to check sales numbers if you don’t wrap up a first draft.

Now that the hard part’s been said, it’s important to say that you can quit a story. If a story isn’t working for any reason, and you’re sure it’s not the right one for you, then drop it. Put it aside and let it percolate, and return to it once you’ve finished the next thing. Just don’t let yourself fall into the habit of abandoning one project for another. You’ve got to commit to something if you want to finish.

Save other ideas by writing them down

Nothing is worse than the fear of losing a great idea. You might feel as if the only way to save a new idea is to abandon the one that’s in progress.

However, there are other ways to hold on to an idea that feels like gold.

In Getting Things Done, David Allen recommends unloading tasks from your mind and capturing them somewhere external. For example, if you’re tidying the fridge and you realize you’re low on milk, what can you do? You can try to hold on to the thought (oh, and there’s only a few eggs left in the package too–better get some of those!), or you can help yourself and just write it down somewhere. Unloading information from your brain and capturing it somewhere for later stops you from worry and saves you stress.

You can use the same idea with your stories. If you come up with a great idea and you’re in the middle of another work, don’t throw the new idea away. Save the new idea in a document where you can easily find it. By capturing it in an external place, you can let the new story out of your mind, and get back to focusing on the current one.

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