Ideas can be paralyzing, and it seems like the more ideas we get, the less likely we are to pick one and act on it.
When the paradox of choice kicks in, some of us opt for postponing the choice, others choose one idea and feel guilty about the ones they left behind, and many stay stuck in square zero trying to make the “right decision”.
It doesn’t have to be that hard!
After being stuck in square zero several times, I came up with a quick formula that made my affair with ideas short and sweet. I basically have a list of 9 questions that often rule out all ideas except one or two that I start working on, without feeling stuck or guilty. Here they are:
Which one excites you the most?
I believe that self discipline is a myth. If I can’t get excited about something, I can’t motivate myself to do it. I’d rather spend my time working on things that excite me. And when I work on an exciting idea, I want to work on it all the time. I literally have to force myself to leave it for few hours to go to bed, and can’t wait to wake up to work on it again. On the other hand, if I am trying to discipline myself to work on something I don’t like, half of the energy is already wasted in self discipline. Not much left for creativity and execution. It’s a high friction process that I try to avoid altogether by choosing the most exciting idea.
Which one can you do something about right now?
Pick an idea you already know how to execute, rather than one that requires you to learn something new in order to get it up and running. By the time you learn what you want, chances are you’ll be out of steam. Don’t waste your time learning a better design tool or a new programming language. The ones you already know will be more valuable. You can always migrate to that better tool or language later on. But what you really need at this step is momentum, which usually comes through doing, not learning.
Which one can you get feedback about sooner?
Executing is one thing, and getting results is a totally different beast. I have a friend who’s been working hard on his startup idea for the past 14 months.He’s executing alright, but he hasn’t launched yet. Getting results soon and iterating fast will dramatically accelerate your path from idea to product. If an idea seems big and complex, spend sometime stripping it off to its core. What are the first 2-3 features you can get feedback from users about, and that will tell you if it’s a good idea or not?
Which one can you launch with the least outside help?
I love working with people, but I know that finding the right people (cofounders, freelancers,…) takes a lot of time. As a smart entrepreneur, your goal is to find a way to hack your idea to find out if it works, without many external dependencies. If you don’t know how to code, prototype it using tools you already know, test it, then hire coders to create the actual product. If an idea relies on live data, ask yourself: can it be tested with fake static data? If it requires building a back-end and a large database, find out if you can use existing platforms or APIs to hack it together. Some ideas will be easier than others in that regard.
Which one solves your own pain points?
I love working on ideas that are born out of my own frustration. It seems like becoming an expert nagger about something has the potential of pushing me out of my comfort zone and qualifies me to find a solution for it. James Dyson became frustrated with his vacuum cleaner and built a multi-billion dollar business out of it. 37Signals became frustrated with complex project management tools and built Basecamp. Next time you’re frustrated about something, it might be your billion dollar opportunity.
Which one aligns the most with your purpose?
I know this sound a bit new-age, but there is some truth to it. As you consider different ideas, you’ll find that some of them resonate more with you than others. If you’re in tune with your body, you might even feel some positive physical reactions to ones more than others. Michael Wiese, a famous screenwriter, once said that good stories affect the organs of his body in various ways, and really good ones stimulate more than one organ. A really good idea grabs your guts, tightens your throat, and makes your heart race and your lungs pump.
When an idea aligns with your purpose, it feels effortless to execute. You hit beginner’s luck, and you find unexpected help showing by your doorstop.
You don’t really need to know what your purpose is. I believe such feat is futile. The right idea will make you feel that you’re working on something bigger than yourself, and even your own desire to help others.
And remember, not because you can make it means you should do it. Works for babies as well as ideas.
Which one you’d like to work on for the next 10 years?
The magic pill of overnight success, instant wealth and early acquisition has almost become the status quo of entrepreneurship (an oxymoron, given that entrepreneurs aim to defy the status quo). It works for some people, but not for most of us. That’s why I’d rather pick an idea that would become part of my life for the next few decades, than one that I can’t wait to exchange for few million dollars and some vanity mentions on startup blogs.
When interviewed by Jason Calacanis, Matt Mullenweg, the founder of WordPress, was asked why he turned down a $300M acquisition. His reply was both simple and inspiring: “Because I’d be spending a lot of time and money trying to find out something as exciting to work on every day”.
If you enjoy working on your business and product every day, why would you want to give it up? And the ironic thing is that this is when you’ll be getting crazy acquisition offers!
Which one is likely to remain significant years from now?
Don’t pick ideas that are based on passing trends or changing customer behavior. Instead, pick ones that solve a problem that is likely to remain relevant, or become more significant, few years from now. Why? because it will provide you some guarantee that people will still be looking for your solution 10 years from now, and that helps you focus your energy on building long term solutions rather than quick fixes.
Which one you don’t mind killing?
If you’re too attached to your ideas, chances are they will prevent you from making objective moves, and you will prevent them from growing and evolving. To me, an idea is a good excuse to go out and talk to customers. It’s like good mantra that you no longer need when you enter the next stage in your meditation. For your business to succeed, your customers, and their problems, must matter A LOT MORE than your ideas.
Hemingway was famous for saying “Kill your darlings”. I believe that’s a healthy thing to do from time to time.
So what if you run the formula and you still have a draw between a couple of ideas? Then pick one of them and don’t look back. After all, it’s not the path we choose that matters the most, it’s how we choose to walk it that puts us in touch with our true selves, and helps us change the world around us. And great accomplishments usually start with small and simple ideas that are honored and cared for.