Act on Inspiration Before It Runs Away

Photo by Jason Hickey under CC BY 2.0 license

Inspiration is an amazing feeling. It appears in many forms. It arrives without warning, sometimes subtly, other times like a storm. And it can leave just as quickly.

But don’t get ideas confused with inspiration. An idea is a thought related to an action. It doesn’t make you (or make you want to) do anything. Inspiration, on the other hand, is the motivation to want to execute an idea.

Once you create an idea, the idea is always there, while inspiration to act on the idea is fleeting, or may never exist at all.

It’s time to start capturing inspiration and using it to get stuff done.

Recognize Inspiration

You can’t do anything with inspiration if you don’t recognize that you are inspired. Learn what it feels like. Know when you are truly inspired. And learn when a feeling is what I like to call a drunken promise versus authentic inspiration.

For me, inspiration comes in many forms. I can get it from a podcast. I’ll find it at the end of a moving movie. Or maybe a friend of mine offered a perspective I had never considered.

It’s not about recognizing the form or cause of inspiration. It’s its effect that will help you identify it. For me, that typically means I’m thinking about the inspiring thing a lot. But my thoughts about the idea are coupled with general happiness, versus stress, which can take over my thoughts but leaves me anxious, angry, and unhappy.

Act! Right now!

When you recognize inspiration, act on it! It’s going to go away, and you can’t be sure when, so you better act now.

This doesn’t have to only be artistic ideas, either. It could be the motivation to clean your house. Your favorite TV show is on, but you just got motivated to clean your house? Go clean the house. Watch TV when you’re not inspired.

Measure Ideas

While acting fast is important, you also want to be sure that what you’re acting on is worthwhile. You need a system for measuring the value of your ideas.

This means something very different to different people. I’ll give you a few examples.

  • If I get inspired to write a song, I’ll probably just go do it. It only takes me an hour or two and even if it sucks, it was good practice.
  • If I’m inspired to write a short story, I usually let the idea sit in my brain for a night or two. After sleep, if I still feel inspired and I think the idea is a good one, I’m much more likely to start writing.
  • When I start to think about making a new web application, it gets much more complicated. I have to be much more stringent about how long it will take to build and what it’s potential impact is (along with several other factors).

Don’t be afraid to let inspiration fall away when it doesn’t make sense to follow it (when the value isn’t there). But don’t be so stringent about measuring value that you never actually act on your inspiration.

Execute with Discipline

Inspiration will disappear. So, you also have to know when to listen to your change in inspiration and when to ignore it.

If you just started a project and the inspiration is gone, maybe you should kill it and walk away. If you’re almost done, ignore the loss of inspiration and just finish the project. If you’re in the middle? I don’t know. That’s a decision you have to make.

Using the three examples from the previous section:

  • If I haven’t finished a song and I think it’s stupid, I’ll probably throw it away and forget about it. But if I like the music and hate the words, maybe I’ll just work on new words. Or maybe I’ll store the music away in memory for future lyrical inspiration.
  • My stories change a lot when I start to write them. If they go in a direction that’s not entertaining to me, I’m not going to have fun with it. And it’s difficult for me to recover and think about the story differently. I usually throw these in the trash unless I’m far enough along that it makes sense to consider a different direction.
  • If I lose inspiration for an app and it’s not quite done yet, that’s tough. I’ve probably spent a good amount of time on it and it’s hard to throw it away. The nice thing is it’s easy to keep. So I usually just stop working on it and hope the inspiration returns. On the other hand, if it’s a three-month project and I’ve already spent eight weeks on it, I’ll probably ignore the inspiration and just finish it.

Projects Are Allowed to Die

For a long time, I started projects and didn’t finish them. I don’t like being that guy. It’s disheartening, and it comes with the appearance of being incapable of completing tasks. If you find this happening to you, you need to do a better job of fighting back against fleeting inspiration. Perhaps you need to measure you ideas better so you don’t chase those that will lose energy so quickly. Or maybe you just need to suck it up and finish a project even if you don’t like it.

While you need to be able to finish projects, you should never fear throwing one away. People may say, “Don’t just throw that away. Look how much time you’ve spent!”

That’s bullshit.

Never evaluate your future on sunk costs.

Find your value in the process and what you may have learned from completing the portions of the projects you completed. And use that knowledge and experience to make the next project even better.

But seriously, make sure you finish some of your projects.


This article was originally published for my (now retired) blog, The Polymath Lab, on June 01, 2015.


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