A Checklist Manifesto For One

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2018-06-01 12:00:00 No comments

Writer's Advice: Too Many Ideas To Finish? - Steven Savage

At Fanime someone asked me a simple question: “What do I do when I have too many ideas and can’t finish any.”

Steve enumerates a few strategies, courtesy of his Agile methodology work, but at bottom they amount to triage. Force yourself to choose what comes first, start at the top of that list, and stick with it.

The way I've always liked to frame this question is, list all the things you have some inclination to work on, and then ask yourself: Which of these is the thing I would want to wake up to every single day for the next however many weeks, months, or even years? What do you really want to spend your time with, even when it doesn't seem to be going anywhere?

I haven't blogged about this much lately, but one of the things I've been working on intermittently is a project called Aki, a programming language and compiler. I approach it as a giant discipline-enforcing and logic-puzzle exercise. It's taught me a lot about how to take what wound seem to be an impossibly huge problem and break it down into many, many individual steps, some of which don't take more than thirty minutes at a stretch to make happen. I like such a puzzle in the back of my mind, something I can turn over and over when I'm sitting stopped at a red light or what have you. My writing projects still come first, though; they're always at the top of the list. Aki is #2 at best.

There, too, with my writing, I have something of a dilemma of triage. At any one time I may be juggling a dozen or so potential ideas for a full-length work, so I have to take action to whittle it down. And again, the criterion I keep coming back to is, "What do I want to spent my time doing every single day until it's finished?" Sometimes there's no way to know this except by sitting down with something for a little bit and seeing whether or not it's worth staying with, but the more you can teach yourself to make a decision and stick with it, the less time you'll spend puttering back and forth.

Something you learn in time, and something that can be hard to accept, is how not all ideas are going to be worth developing at once. It took some trial and error for me to discover how to sense that a particular idea I had was a good one, but that I couldn't do justice to it where I was — maybe because I had some other, more pressing project that was eating more of my attention and time; but maybe also because I just hadn't honed my chops enough to tackle something of that kind.

Sometimes the hardest discipline to gain, but also the most worthwhile, is the ability to say no to yourself constructively. If there's a whole raft of stuff that seems too good for you to turn down, look at why you say yes to it. Set aside time to peer into that. Maybe you'll find that the things you thought were interesting were only things you wanted to brag about having done. I'm always surprised how few people do this kind of introspection at all.

Tags: creativity