When Should I Kill My Idea?

Killing an Idea is a disheartening decision to make. Nobody works tirelessly on something they are passionate about in order to kill it later. But putting an end to an Idea happens, and it happens often. We say Idea with a capital “I” because to us, Ideas are proper nouns deserving of capitalization. They are living organisms (until they’re not).

As we see it, there are always three choices to make when you come to a crossroads while pursuing an Idea: continue, pivot, or let go of your Idea. It’s important to note that saying goodbye to an Idea doesn’t mean you won’t revisit it in the future; it just means not right now. How do you know when to take which action? By creating as much clarity as possible so you can make an informed and strategic decision.

Here is a three-step process to follow when you reach the inevitable fork in the road:

Step 1: Create Boundaries

An effective way to create clarity around an Idea is to put boundaries in place. Boundaries are parameters you declare in order to take action and create momentum on an Idea you are working on. Boundaries are essentially guidelines around what you are willing to invest in order to take the next step toward your desired outcome. Each time you take a new step, you’ll want to revisit your boundaries and adjust them according to the next step you want to take.

Let’s say your Idea is to start a blog and the first step you want to take is to create a list of 100 topics. Example boundaries for this step are:

  • Spend 10 minutes per day (no more)
  • Spend no money
  • Work on this after children go to bed

You’ll notice one of the boundaries listed is something you’re not willing to invest. Choosing not to do something counts as a boundary. You want your boundaries to be as clear as possible (clarity is their raison d’être, after all). To create clear boundaries, consider these seven elements:

  1. Desire. Does the Idea line up with your Desire? Do you really want to do it?
  2. Money. How much money are you willing to invest in the next step?
  3. Time. How much time are you willing to devote to take the next step? Are you willing to block out time on your calendar?
  4. Relationships. What relationships are you willing to expose this next step to?
  5. Reputation. Are you willing to invest any social capital on the next step that could change your personal and/or professional reputation?
  6. Opportunity Costs. Are there other opportunities you’re willing to pass on in order to take the next step with this opportunity?
  7. Creative Control. Does this opportunity allow you to stay authentic to who you seek to be?

Once you complete your list of 100 blog topics, it’s time to identify the next step you want to take and revisit and adjust each of the boundaries you put in place.

Step 2: Assess

Continuing with the same example, you’ve now created your list of 100 topics and have identified that your next step is to write an outline for 25 of them. You adjusted your boundaries to reflect this new step, plus added a couple:

  • Spend 20 minutes per day (no more)
  • Spend no money
  • Work on this after children go to bed
  • Only dive into topics in line with my personal beliefs
  • Identify no more than two people per blog post I could quote as experts

Now, as you’re working away on these outlines, you find yourself wanting to work before your children go to bed. Additionally, you want access to relevant resources, which require two online publication subscriptions. You have run into two different boundaries, which means it’s time to assess.

Take your entire list of boundaries, not just the two you’ve run into, and read through each of them carefully. If your boundaries include the seven elements listed above, make sure you feel good about the answers to the questions connected to each boundary. Notice if you hesitate to answer any of the questions. This could be a sign that you need to make a change.

Step 3: Continue, pivot, or kill your Idea

After assessing your boundaries, you decide that working a few minutes here and there while your kids are awake is okay. Additionally, the subscription fees are minimal and you aren’t concerned with changing your monetary contribution. You want to continue working on this Idea, so you adjust your boundaries by working in a small budget and revising the line about working while your children are awake. You keep trucking away. Your boundaries now look like this:

  • Spend 20 minutes per day (no more)
  • Spend $50 maximum
  • Work on this after children go to bed
  • Only dive into topics in line with my personal beliefs
  • Identify no more than two people per blog post I could quote as experts

You soon realize that most of the topics you’ve outlined would be difficult to write about but easy to explain in conversation. You decide creating a podcast makes more sense than a blog, so you decide to pivot from one medium to the next. Instagram did something like this. It was supposed to be a social check-in app with gaming features called Burbn. But during beta testing, users engaged most with the photo-sharing features so they pivoted into what it is today — a $100 billion company. Pivoting, when done thoughtfully, is a strategic move that can result in enormous success.

So you decide pursue a podcast. You adjust your boundaries accordingly, but soon you’re spending a lot more money and time than you originally wanted when you came up with the blog Idea, and your content isn’t as compelling as you had hoped. After reading through your boundaries again, you realize that hosting a weekly podcast isn’t in line with your desire and doesn’t feel authentic to you.

You begin to lose faith and question everything you’ve done.

Not every app is an Instagram under cover, not every blog turns into Brain Pickings, and not every podcast turns into Radiolab. The painful truth is that some Ideas need to be put to rest in order to create room for other Ideas. Your Idea is one of them, so you make the difficult decision to kill it. This is okay! You are allowed to change your mind. We’ll say it again: you’re allowed to change your mind. If you need more convincing, Austin Kleon’s new book, Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad has a whole chapter on it.

You followed the process (created boundaries, assessed, and made a decision), meaning killing your Idea was a thoughtful and intentional action.

If you kill an Idea, congratulations. It means you had clear enough boundaries in place to identify that something must change. You listened to your gut. You’re so closely tied to your desire that you would be willing to kill an Idea because it wasn’t in alignment with what you want. While disappointing, this is good news. You paid attention and acted accordingly.

More Ideas will come. Don’t lose faith.

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Do this: Do you know how to assess against your boundaries? If not, they aren’t clear enough. Take a moment to create guidelines around an Idea or project you’re working on so you can explore freely, knowing you will examine your progress or lack thereof as soon as you run into a boundary.

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