The Burden of Having Too Many Ideas

An Aside in the Series on Managing Procrastination

Author: Christopher Matthew Cavanaugh

Wouldn't it be great to have an endless supply of incredible ideas? Ask anyone and they will say "Yes! That would be amazing!" But what would it be like to be extremely creative? One has to be a different kind of person to continually have ideas. After all, it is not the norm, so surely there are downsides.

It turns out it can be quite a handicap.

Why?— Have you ever seen a person in public frantically recording ideas in a notebook, oblivious to people, time and surroundings? How about someone who draws and sketches incessantly for fear of losing a vision? Imagine a person who does this everywhere—at work, at the gym, at school, at home... — everywhere.

I was that person for a long time. Sometimes I am still that person. Only now I know when it is allowable or necessary.

The truth is that having an abundance of ideas can have heavy consequences. My close family and friends could probably find examples when my writing behavior was inexplicable or excessive. The assumption that frequent ideation is a gift conceals the reality that for many it must be a burden. Creativity can lead to dysfunction. I know it firsthand.

New ideas have special power in our conscious experience. When we have them they are hard to shake off—they capture our interest and demand our attention. We can become absorbed in daydreams at the wrong time and place, when attention desperately needs to be applied to other tasks. Inability to effectively manage ideas can lead to unusual activities; some beneficial, some not. People who are abundant appear manic, even if that is not the correct interpretation (although sometimes it is), and are liable to face social disapproval. New ideas can be a chaotic synthesis of disparate information, making them hard to communicate to others. The desire to be understood leads to obsessively analyzing and making sense of them in formats others can understand, like art and writing. Depending on how hyper-creativity manifests, it can be a real impediment.

I'm lucky that I appear relatively normal when it happens to me (I think). I just look incredibly absorbed, but I do not receive negative reactions. Although in coffee houses, I have looked up after an hour in a trance to see people staring, wondering what I was doing. I get interest sometimes, but rarely negativity. I doubt it is the same experience for everyone; some must be less fortunate. When I "let-loose" in private, and am completely alone, I would probably be a disturbing sight for others to behold. In a few demanding situations at work that required rapid brainstorming, I went into complete creative mode openly—but I find it creates a fear reaction. In other words merely being oneself completely can cause social isolation.

Here are some pains of the experience of superabundance:

In my early 20s, I would carry a notebook and try to write every idea I had down. I found this extremely difficult, and I ended up interrupting my work frequently to scratch out streams of consciousness. In college I was chronically distracted by mental interruptions—I valued my own ideas I was having more than my assignments. All my required reading aroused more ideas, and prompted me to pursue additional personal reading. There were times when ideas came so quickly that I could not write them fast enough before they were lost. One cannot hold onto 7 or 8 ideas at a time and record them as new ones spring up. Some must be left behind.

Instead of learning to abandon surplus ideas, I began to experiment with new methods of recording them. I began learning shorthand and purchased a voice recorder. I considered using American sign language while signing and speaking into a video camera. Fortunately I abandoned that idea. The only method that was nearly fast enough was typing and voice recording simultaneously, but it was time consuming to combine the information, and this strategy cannot be used while driving a car.

The suggestion to carry a notebook to write down ideas is not for everyone—at least not without caveats! Some people need instructions about what not to do, and are dangers to themselves with a notepad!

Eventually I saw the futility and took more realistic actions. Below are some tips that may be helpful for anyone experiencing excess ideas. This is an extreme case, but it should help for other problems surrounding the experience of having new ideas as well:

It is possible to be too creative. It is possible to be confused about how to make use of one's creativity, and to be without guidance on how to manage. I hope the above points provide some relief. It is painful to feel golden ideas fade into nothingness, but it isn't as bad as you think. It is necessary. Creativity can be a source of potential, but it can also be potential destroying if it is not controlled. You must value action over daydreaming!

Remember—if you are highly creative, you do have a real gift. You will always have great options about things to do—you simply need to choose. You will never be short of exciting things to do, but don't lose out on the excitement by not committing to anything! Let go of some ideas so that you can live out the others!