Running out of ideas

When I started this blog, I had more post ideas than I knew what to do with. It seemed like everything I encountered, everything I thought about, could become the topic for a post. I loved the feeling that I was starting to develop the eye of a writer for interesting facets of the world we live in. I started keeping a list of my ideas for future blog posts, a place where half-formed ideas could wait until the right time to be fleshed out. Habits of Variety, Soak the nut, and Optimization Metrics are all examples of ideas I put in storage that eventually turned into posts I’m really happy about.

But I noticed a side effect of my list of ideas getting longer: I’ve stopped adding to it. Maybe I have a new idea from time to time, but I feel like every week is a struggle to decide which old thing on my list to write about. I miss the exciting feeling that any thought that crosses my mind could become this week’s post.

Here are my hypotheses for why this might be happening:

1. I’m just running out of ideas.

Some of my topics, like Don’t hold back or Why we experience regret, were things I was thinking about long before I started blogging regularly: only a few, like The quest for a dresser or What can I say? Nothing, were reacting to recent events. Maybe most of what I’ve been writing has been gradually exhausting a finite supply of ideas I’ve had for a long time, and when they run out I won’t be able to keep up my once-a-week pace.

2. I have some kind of internal sense of having enough ideas already.

Maybe it’s just that looking at a long list of ideas every week makes me not want to add more: perhaps I feel unconsciously as though once my list gets longer than I can see all at once, there’s no point in trying to add more to it.

3. I’m looking to my list for ideas instead of thinking them up fresh.

Perhaps the change is only one of habit: instead of thinking throughout the week about what I might write on, my routine has become to pull up the list when Wednesday gets closer and see what old topic I might drag out.

4. I’m imagining it!

Perhaps I’m actually coming up with ideas at the same rate as ever, but with so many old and new choices every week the difficulty I’m sensing is that of narrowing down the possibilities to just one post. Since everything on my list seems equally old, I only feel like I’m trawling my old ideas but I’m actually using new ones frequently.

So how can I know what’s really going on? Well, these different hypotheses would mean different things for how my idea-to-post process goes: For example, hypotheses 1, 2, and 3 would imply that most of my ideas were logged long before they became posts, while hypothesis 4 suggests that there are more posts based on recent ideas than I’m aware of. If I got rid of my list and started over, hypotheses 1 and 4 suggest that I’d find it equally difficult or slightly harder to decide what to write about each week, while hypothesis 2 suggests that that would actually stimulate new ideas. According to hypothesis 3, the lack of past ideas would initially make it difficult to come up with post topics, but once I break the “look to the list” habit I’d notice an increase in spontaneous ideas.

So here’s my plan for the new year: I’m archiving my old list of ideas, and starting a new one. Each topic will get a start date for when I add it to the list, and when it becomes a post I will add an end date and move it to a “completed topics” section instead of just deleting it. That way I can keep track of how frequently I have new ideas, and how long it takes them to become posts, which should give me a sense of which hypotheses are false and which are closer to the truth.

Have you ever had the sense that your well of inspiration runs dry after a while? What do you do to keep it full or get it going again?


8 thoughts on “Running out of ideas

  1. My experience is that a list of isolated ideas quickly feels too long unless you start trying to connect them together.
    Your blog ideas certainly have deep, underlying themes which link them. You could try to identify those, perhaps?
    Whatever you do, it should remain play, not work!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good idea—I do feel as though there are some deep themes into which I’ve only just begun to wade. I haven’t reflected that in my list of post ideas though, and maybe paying attention to the larger framework would help me fill in the gaps.

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  2. I can relate to this feeling quite a lot. I think you might just be experiencing something inherent to the process of mastery. What I mean is that I think there are inherently two things we can enjoy: Things that are novel to us and things that we are good at. It feels good to be good at something. But there is quite a gap between something being novel and being really good at it. For me it is just a matter of powering through that hump. It does help me to think of the fact how much I’ll enjoy it once I’ve become really good at it. Maybe this is what you’re also experiencing?

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    1. That is a really good point. I get a lot of encouragement from that Ira Glass quotation on how much work you have to do before your output meets even your own standards of goodness. I am definitely looking forward to blogging being fun because I’m good at it, not just because I’m new to it!

      I do notice that I find it easier to have this attitude about skills I’ve started learning recently (like drawing, cooking, or writing for a public audience) than about skills I feel like I should already have perfected by now (like math): I have to keep reminding myself that the math I still find too difficult to understand need not be permanently beyond me if I keep working at it, and that even if the research I’m producing right now isn’t what I consider great, the way to change that is just to keep on producing what I can.

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  3. If you figure out, in the course of this quest, how to solve the larger problem: obsessing over the details of how you write to the point where you can’t write, please let me know how. I can’t tell you the guilt trips and crazy trains that have taken me on detours from just sitting down and getting writing done. I think this list business is simply your Owen-specific preoccupation.

    I find lists problematic more because I am rarely able to make myself sit down and write the topic I planned to be a good one for the week. I usually just end up staring at topics until I happen to think of them again organically. You are more methodical, though, so this approach makes sense.

    Daniel’s probably most right, however. Try to enjoy what you can of the long slog to when it’s easier and more fun.

    Also Merry Christmas!

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  4. Careful not to let yourself be guilted into doing topics just because they’ve been on the list for a long time. Not a productive road, in my experience.

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    1. Merry Christmas to you too! Thanks for the encouragement. It’s nice to know having writing problems is normal and doesn’t mean I’m unsuited to even this low level of commitment.

      It sounded like you were a little worried that I feel ruled by my list—don’t worry! It’s not a schedule: I don’t usually make a plan for what I post more than a couple days ahead of time, and I’m fine with leaving ideas on the shelf indefinitely if the time doesn’t feel right. No, the list is just there because I thought it would be a resource when it comes to posting-time, so that I don’t have to think “I know I had an idea a few days ago—what was it?” I also like the way my listed ideas mingle and reform over time, so sometimes it’s nice to just leave one there and see what happens to it.

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