With due respect to Marie Kondo, really, truly decluttering your life is a much bigger process than just identifying the stuff that does or doesn’t spark joy. You can declutter your emotional baggage: Research has shown that letting go of a grudge, for example, can literally make you feel lighter. You can declutter your organizational system, narrowing down your to-do list to just the most important items. And as Nick Douglas recently wrote in Lifehacker, you can declutter the mental space you devote to creative projects by thinking of them in terms of a concept called “idea debt.”
“Idea debt,” he explains, “is the pile of ideas you keep revisiting but never finish, or even never begin. It can be a book, an app, a business, any project that grows in your mind but not in reality.” Idea debt is the Notes app on your phone filled with sentence fragments you refuse to delete. It’s the pitch you keep in your back pocket just in case you ever go on Shark Tank. It’s Kenneth Parcell’s bird internet. And it’s probably dragging you down:
It feels much more impressive than the projects you’re actually carrying out, with all their disappointments and compromises. As screenwriter Craig Mazin says, “The most exciting script in the world is the one you’re about to write. The least exciting script is the one you’re on page 80 of.” So that idea debt metastasizes, threatening to hold up the real projects, or halt them so long that they too become idea debt.
You have two ways to prevent this: You can either bring your idea to fruition, or you can let it go.
Neither of which has to be quite as drastic as it sounds. Say you have a half-baked idea for a novel you’ve been kicking around. Following through on it doesn’t mean you actually have to sit down and crank out the whole thing — as Douglas notes, you may be able to scratch that itch by working parts of it into another, more developed project. Maybe you write your main character into a bit part in something else. If it’s the plot you’re most attached to, maybe you write a condensed version of it as someone’s backstory or dream. Or maybe you get it out into the world in a less labor-intensive way, like turning it into a piece of short fiction.
Letting go of an idea, too, can be more satisfying than just putting it in a metaphorical drawer and willing yourself to forget about it. If you know you’re never going to do anything with it, Douglas argued, why not let it find a home where it stands a chance? Release your idea into the wilds of the internet for someone else to pick up. Or, better yet, do that with all your ideas, one massive unloading of all the things that never made it past the initial brainstorm stage. And if there are any that you truly can’t bear to get rid of — well, if it sparks joy, it’s probably a sign that it’s time to get to work.