6 Ways Your Brain Tries To Kill Your Ideas And How To Fight Them

These common excuses for stalled creativity hit close to home, but at their core, they're pretty weak.

I have a lot of ideas in my head. And for the most part, that’s where they used to stay.

In my head. Where other people couldn’t see them, interact with them or build upon them. Where they were safe and untested and uncriticized. All mine.

Sure, I’ve created some. Some might say I’ve created plenty. But that’s only because they can’t see what I’m not creating. For example, this very post sat dormant for at least a month while I pondered, waited and nitpicked at it.

Because the riskiest, most dangerous and potentially most interesting ideas are the easiest to hold back. I would pin them down like butterflies on a mat, like art at a museum. They were in spreadsheets, in notebooks, on scrap paper around my desk.

And while it might feel creative to think of these ideas, they were dying a lonely death when I wasn’t doing anything with them. They didn’t get their chance to add anything to the world. To affect someone. To spark something.

I lost out, too, with this arrangement. I didn’t push myself to think deeper and harder. I lost out on the feedback or insight or even criticism of others. I missed the chance to discover uncharted territory within myself. I stopped before I could start.

It wasn’t the best life I could give my ideas—or myself.

So I decided to change. To find a way forward, I cataloged all the things that had ever stopped me from creating so I could shoot them down, one-by-one. It turned out to be a helpful exercise, so I thought I’d share. Do any of these reasons for not creating something sound familiar to you?

1. Because the ideas aren’t finished

The No. 1 thing that keeps me from creating is that the idea doesn’t feel complete yet. It lacks something, or I need more examples, or I’m not sure if it’s clear.

A former editor of mine called these “glimmers”—a little spark of an idea, not fully formed but on the cusp of being something. Sometimes you need to let a glimmer sit for a while before it becomes a fully formed idea. Sometimes you can smush it together with a few other glimmers to make something.

The main thing is that idea glimmers need nurturing, which can be hard to do. When ideas are still developing, they can feel embarrassingly incomplete or tough to explain to others. What if my little glimmer is misunderstood or turns out to be nothing at all?

How to fix it: It may seem counterintuitive, but I’ve learned that this is the time to talk about ideas most, so they can grow from a glimmer to a real idea. You can even post it on social media to give it a quick test. So what if the idea might fail? I’ll be able to get feedback right away and know whether to keep thinking on my glimmer or let it go.

2. Because it’s too hard

Although I’ve been writing most of my life, it never exactly comes easy to me. Occasionally the words flow, but more often it feels like a struggle to pull them out of me.

And sometimes I don’t want a struggle. Sometimes I want to lay around and watch Orange Is The New Black.

As the incomparable wit Dorothy Parker put it, “I hate writing. I love having written.”

How to fix it: The best fix I’ve discovered here is simply to start. Start somewhere, anywhere. As soon as I put down an outline, a headline, or even one sentence of the piece, the rest begins to flow much more easily. You can also do this with a timing structure. Close down all the distractions and force yourself to focus on just 20 minutes (or whatever time period feels right to you) of writing and no more. The bite-sized task can jumpstart your focus for the bigger project.

3. Because I’m focusing too much on other people’s stuff

I’ve always loved reading. And there’s really never been a better time to be a passionate reader. I get great stuff all day every day from my Twitter stream, my gazillion RSS feeds and the newsletters in my inbox, plus there’s the Sunday Times (yup, I still get a printed paper), everything I haven’t quite gotten to yet on Pocket and the many books on my Kindle.

Nothing makes me happier than spending time reading great stuff.

But if I’m not careful, it can also paralyze me into thinking all the good ideas are taken and all that needs to be said already has been. It’s kind of like a specific, content marketing version of Imposter Syndrome.

How to fix it: There’s always going to be space for reading, curating and cheering on others’ work. But there should also be a space for building on it and creating stuff of one’s own. Each of us has something to say, and we have the responsibility and privilege of adding to the discourse. It’s up to us to find and nurture the right balance and feel inspired by—not intimidated by-–the work that others do. After all, everything is a remix.

4. Because I’m too busy with other work

Even as I type those words I realize what a flimsy excuse they are. Sure, I have lots to do at work and at home. We all do. But you always make time for what’s important to you, one way or another. I could wake up earlier or stay up later. I could cut out all TV. We all have the same number of hours in the day—it’s up to us to use them the best way we can to achieve our goals.

How to fix it: What I discovered about feeling too busy for writing is that this is generally a symptom of needing to readjust my priorities to make sure creating doesn’t fall too far down the list. The things that have worked the best for me so far are to block out time in my schedule for creative work. I can write on the weekends, or in the morning before I check my email. If it turns out I’m really and truly too busy to execute an idea, I can always give it away to someone who has time to take it on. Because in the end, it’s more about the idea than it is about me.

5. Because I get distracted

From the time I decided to write this until the time I finished it, I did the following: Walked the dog, ate breakfast, thought about searching Amazon for a new rug, checked Twitter, read two articles. And that’s me on a really focused day. Distractions are always going to be present—that’s the world we live in.

How to fix it: I’ve been experimenting with a lot of different ideas to help me here. The best solutions so far keep me focused by creating artificial pressure: setting a timer that goes off every 30 minutes, creating a deadline (either real or self-imposed), working until the power runs out on my laptop. I also try to realize the difference between productive distraction (walking the dog often leads to new ideas or “writing in my head”) and non-productive distraction, like idly checking Facebook and Twitter.

6. Because I’m afraid

Now we get to the big one—the real reason that underlies all these others. The biggest reason my ideas used to live only in my mind instead of out in the world is that I was afraid they might not be good enough, unique enough or novel enough.

In essence: I’d rather abandon an idea, bury it forever, than have it potentially fail on me.

Possibly an understandable instinct, but a misguided one for sure–especially when you think of it like this:

Execution is what makes things happen–not pristine, flawless ideas.

Not to mention, if I thought about everything in my life the way I used to think about ideas, I’d be missing out on some pretty amazing experiences. Risk is what makes life interesting.

Luckily, Buffer’s culture creates an incredibly safe space for ideas and thoughts from every team member. Here, I’ve learned to share early and often and to offer and receive feedback with a positive spirit. It has made all the difference. You can do the same by finding a group of peers or a mentor with whom you can practice growing more comfortable sharing around.

How to fix it: I still haven’t entirely cracked the code on this one, but writing this post is a beginning. Here’s what I’m trying right now:

  • Doing other creative things: My house, at the moment, is littered with construction paper from an art experiment gone awry. That’s OK! Part of my new strategy is spending more creative time, even if there’s no direct result to it just yet.
  • Sharing more with others: In the past I would have been petrified to push publish on this post. This time around, I let my husband (himself a seemingly fearless creator) look at it right away. Feels much better!
  • Creating more meditative time: On bike rides, dog walks and quiet moments alone, I’m letting my mind wander more freely. No headphones, no logistical work thinking. Just wandering. A habit of meditation has made this possible, I think.
  • Allowing myself to be vulnerable: I’ll probably be working on this one the rest of my life—it doesn’t come easy to me. But sharing more with others, asking for help when I need it and being more open to feedback from others are the skills I’m working on right now to become more vulnerable.

Getting comfortable with sharing ideas—both my good and not-so-good ones—isn’t something that happened overnight. It’s a daily practice that I’m still working on and probably will be for some time. I’ve learned that the comfort zone is a nice place to visit, but being uncomfortable is where things really get exciting.

I wonder, are there more former or current “idea hoarders” like me out there?

If so, I hope this post might help you, too. Do any of these “reasons why not” resonate with you? How do you fight back against them? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

This article originally appeared in Buffer and is reprinted with permission.

[Image: everything possible via Shutterstock]

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44 Comments

  • This is a great post. A lot of wisdom here that's always floated around but you gelled it together nicely. It should probably be pinned to every wall – even at the most creative companies. because in the day-to-day grind, anyone can miss these big roadblocks, no matter how good they are.

  • davidkrieger57

    Great article. Many of us struggle to push ourselves outside our comfort zone. William Shed wrote that , "A ship is safe in harbor, but that's not what ships are for."

    Thanks for the morning inspiration.

  • Fantastic post! Imposter Syndrome, love it. Another person's contribution can always grow and improve on an idea. Thomas Edison wasn't the only one playing around with electric currents.

  • Irene Mitchell

    I have found that when I compare myself to others that somebody will come up short. Of course it's usually me! I am working on being more aware of that and it has helped. Thanks for sharing this!

  • Irene Mitchell

    Thank you for sharing this! I can relate to just about all of it. I was given insight to the problem of thinking there were better ideas out there than mine. I was heavily into comparing myself. It's the qui ckest way, for me to kill an idea. I was told by an old friend that when you compare yourself to others, somebody has to come up short! Of course it was usually me! I am more conscious of doing that and have gotten better. Like you I think it will be a life long process. Thanks again!

  • max.brettler

    I loved this article! As a recent college graduate who's about to enter the world of "advertising," I feel like I have so many great ideas, but am not sure where to express them, or to whom? When you have a great idea, perhaps one that you don't have the technical skills to build (say a website, or a house, etc.), how do you present it to someone in hopes of it actually becoming a reality? Thanks!

  • Helen Vanderberg

    The reason I like your comment so much is I have tried multiple times to do the website thing and it never takes---taken classes, jobbed it out to an "expert" losing $15 k in the process. doing a "Simple, EZ Dunce-style" method. Conclusion: some brick walls you run up against are truly made of concrete. Its the Universe saying: Give it up and do what's so easy for you, you could do it in your sleep. THEN and only then, expand your comfort zone. First things first.

  • Rasha Darawsheh

    this is so well written and well expressed , i like that you not only mention the problem but provide ways to overcome it ..thank you for a beautiful article .

  • Harri Well

    I'm a serial entrepreneur and Im always made fun of but one of my ideas is now a booming business so I just keep going with my 300 ideas that fill my head daily and try to laugh with the naysayers that aren't trying ANYthing new.

  • Sebastian Cajamarca

    Some time I feel afraid to share ideas, but I've discovered that with the hunch of ideas come come better ones. I think the most important thing is to have a great team, in one that you can rely de idea so it can be executed.

    I wonder if there is a place where you can share your ideas freely so every one can improved it, if some one want to build up I'm up for the challegen.

    Thanks a lot for the great tips, I think many people struggle with similar challenge to creat great ideas.

  • praveen.baratam

    Excellent post Ms. Seiter! In fact this issue and dilemma haunted me for several years. In fact, I wrote a similar article - 10 Fallacies about Ideas - http://goo.gl/c8ttFF - on our project blog a while back.

    Couple of years back I realized that I am consciously denying myself and the world the best of me by holding back my ideas. I then ventured out with whatever small or big ideas that cross my mind and realized that none of the online spaces are conducive enough for ideas and the ensuing conversations.

    Blogs, social networks, forums - I've tried posting ideas everywhere but I didn't get what I hoped for. Ideally our ideas should meet other ideas from people interested in similar concepts and then these hunches should combine to form more useful ones. In the end, everything is a remix :-)

    I then took it on me to create a space online to share, discuss and discover ideas. A place where ideas can meet, mate and evolve!

    Our experiment - http://www.talkonomy.com/

  • djordan

    I am reminded of Bertrand Russell's advice in How I Write, Portraits from Memory 
(Simon and Schuster, New York, 1956), 210–214: “Having, by a time of very intense concentration, planted the problem in my subconsciousness, it would germinate underground until, suddenly, the solution emerged with blinding clarity, so that it only remained to write down what had appeared as if in a revelation.”

    Doug Jordan

  • Great article, thanks! I had an interesting experience recently: I injured my back and was stuck in bed for a week. Instead of indulging in Netflix marathons, I found myself just thinking. As a working Mom, this free thinking time was heavenly. Ever since then I have been flooded with ideas. Your article reminded me of the importance of not ignoring them. My brain is my greatest asset, but also my worst enemy at times :)

  • Courtney Seiter

    Wow, what a cool finding from your downtime! Seems like you really made the most of it! :)

  • Timothy James Wasilkus

    It was the first reading of the day, and I found the article interesting and personally relevant. Moving out of your comfort zone is the core difficulty, and you would do well to learn how to “steel” yourself against those critics and naysayers who will passionately pick apart your offerings. If this morning finds you preparing for work, consider yourself blessed if you happen to work for a company that welcomes new ideas and gives you the resources to pursue them. As an “older” member of the work force, I have had the misfortune of being supervised by managers who regarded new ideas as efforts to make them look inept. Nevertheless, don’t let that fear stem your creativity. Life is more that your job, and the time may come when all the ideas scribbled on scraps of paper and heaps of post-it notes will pay off grandly.