Idea Garbage Collection

Recently I’ve spoken to a lot of people who’ve said something like “I’ve always wanted to try and make comedy sketches”, or “there’s part of me that wants to be an actor”, or “I’ve got these ideas for a children’s book that one day I’ll make”. I think there’s good reason why you should act on these sooner rather than later that most people don’t talk about.

When you get an idea like this, you’re usually pretty buzzed about it. You imagine it enacted in all its glory, and it seems like it could be really great — like it could be something you’d be really proud of. It’s so exciting in fact, that often the act of actually imagining it is itself a big endorphin hit.

An idea like this is so intriguing and exciting to think about that it can subconsciously become a tempting alternative to staying focussed on what you’re doing in the real world, very much in the same way as if you have an acute family problem, then you have a high likelihood of switching your focus from what you should be doing to ruminating the problem, all without you actively deciding to.

And the problem is made worse the more ideas you have queued up. When you have multiple cool ideas you wish were real, then you have many of these potential endorphin hits scattered around your head, and if your focus deviates for so much as a second from what you are doing, then your brain has a proportionally higher probability of stumbling across one of them. So having many ideas sitting there biases your thought processes towards breaking focus even more.

And so having these ideas sticking around tempts your mind into wandering more, and given that research shows that a perpetually wandering mind is not a healthy one, then the implication is that having these ideas sitting around for the long term is not good for you.

There are two solutions to this. The first is to shut down any ideas you have before you can get excited about them, which is obviously incredibly boring. Don’t do this.

The second is that when you have an idea, you should act on it fast instead of letting it sit around. The reason you should do this is that acting on your ideas kind of has the effect of garbage collecting them: it converts them from possible unknown gem of future excitement into concrete experience which is confirmed exciting or unexciting. That does three positive things:

  1. It clears the idea out of memory so there aren’t these rewards for daydreaming randomly dotted around your mind
  2. It removes the probabilistic element from the equation. Part of the intrigue of a daring and far out idea is that it might just work. Before you’ve properly investigated the idea, there’s this chance that it could be the realisation of your wildest dreams. And this alone creates a slot-machine-like mindset where you become captivated by the uncapped potential of the situation. It’s the same addictive distracting thought process that leads people to check their Coinbase accounts multiple times a day. When you execute on an idea, you get a concrete result which replaces that distracting uncertainty
  3. It creates lived experiences, which are better to have sticking around in your head than ideas are. Lived experiences are factual occurrences and not speculation, so they are obviously more true than ideas are, and therefore way more useful foundations for shaping your future ideas and thoughts. Also, they are more comforting in retrospect, and the fabric of real memories, which tend to grow more positive over time, whereas unexecuted ideas tend to grow more stale and tend towards regret for what could have been.

So the result of converting this pile of exciting ideas into a set of concrete experiences is that you’re likely to live more in the moment, and have a more accurate and happy picture of the world.

This is one reason, probably quite an important reason, that you should act on your ideas soon after you have them. To reduce the number of what-ifs that pull your attention away from the moment you’re in right now.

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