How not to run out of ideas

Last December, I was worrying about the future of this blog. I had a long list of potential post topics, but every week it was a struggle to choose one I liked enough to write about. The meta-blogpost Running out of ideas was round one of my attempt to solve this problem with the scientific method: hypothesizing about the cause of my predicament, and making testable predictions that would distinguish between competing hypotheses. Now it’s time for round two: analyzing the data I’ve collected and drawing conclusions.

Hypotheses:

First, let me remind you of my four guesses at what was causing my blogging struggle:

  1. I started the blog with a finite set of post ideas, and I was finally running out.
  2. When my idea list got long, I was less likely to record new ones.
  3. Every week I was looking to my list to see what to write about, so I had no reason to come up with new ideas.
  4. My feelings were mistaken and I was adding new ideas at the same rate as ever.

To test these hypotheses, I decided to set aside my list of ideas and start a new one, this time recording the date each new idea arrives. And when an idea became a published post, instead of just deleting it from my list I would add the date of publication and move it to a separate list. That way I would be able to keep track of both my changing rate of idea generation and my distribution of posts based on old or new ideas.

Predictions:

Under each hypothesis, I tried to envision what kind of data I would expect:

  1. I will rarely add new ideas to the list, and most of my blog posts will be from old ideas.
  2. I will generate lots of new ideas at first, but as time goes on that number will decrease.
  3. I will generate very few ideas at first, until I break the “look to the list” habit and start coming up with ideas again.
  4. I will experience very little change in rate of idea generation over the course of the experiment.

Now on to what really happened!

Results:

Here’s a histogram of how many ideas I generated each week over the course of the experiment:Screenshot 2017-04-12 09.52.47

This fits Hypothesis 2 best: I was surprised how many new ideas I was recording every week right away, so Hypothesis 1 (no new ideas at all) and Hypothesis 3 (no new ideas at first) were out. At first it looked like Hypothesis 4 (it’s my imagination) might also be in the running—I averaged an idea every couple days for the first ten weeks or so—but at about the two-month mark the well suddenly dried up and I dropped down to about one new idea per week on average. At about that time, I also started struggling again to decide what to write every week, so I don’t think I the feelings I was having last December were unjustified.

That leaves Hypothesis 2: it was the very multitude of ideas on my list undermining my ability to have new ones! In retrospect, I have been observing lately that I’ll feel like I’ve had some new ideas, but when I go to my list to pick one for a blog post, I won’t have logged them. When the list is short, that’s not an option—each new idea is so valuable, it’s much more urgent to write it down right away.

Incidentally, the distribution of wait times between having an idea and turning it into a finished blog post is also pretty interesting:Screenshot 2017-04-12 09.53.03

Half of my blog posts come from ideas I’d had in the previous week, but most of the others had been ruminating for over a month. I like this mixture: some ideas need time to mature or a series of prerequisite blog posts to build up to them, but I also like being able to dash off a short piece on whatever I’ve been thinking about recently. Looks like most of my posts fall neatly into those two categories!

Conclusion:

The evidence suggests that when I feel like I’m having no new ideas, it’s actually because my long list of old ideas is making it feel less necessary to record the new ones. The uncomfortable solution is to archive that old list and start a new one! So that’s what I’m doing again, and will probably keep doing every few months from now on.

See you next week, but who knows what the topic will be!

 

 


4 thoughts on “How not to run out of ideas

  1. I recognize the problem you are having, though I personally usually struggle with the opposite. Ideas are easy, but execution is hard, so I usually get overwhelmed by the possibilities when it’s time to pick one. Possibly the same approach could help me, so I’ll definitely give it a try. I must say that I do admire the rigor with which you analyze these problems, kudos.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m curious to know if it helps! Execution has also been a problem for me—for years I had many ideas floating around for a math blog I had never started—and what has helped with that here is committing to publishing a new post every Wednesday. And even when I start to struggle with what to write, I still have a longish list of ideas; they just don’t seem very appealing. It seems to be only after my most fun-sounding ideas have evaporated to the blog that the pool of potentials gets cold.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. If you do I’d love to know how it goes! You have a nice mixture of philosophical contemplation with “recent happenings” posts (I’m thinking especially of the baking/cooking/drinks series), and I’m curious whether you also have a split between posts that gestate for a while and posts that have a shorter incubation time.

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