Self-started projects: invest as much as you can, as early as you can

27 December, 2012

“Think about it really hard, then forget about it”

—Don Draper, Mad Men

This oft-quoted soundbite may well be the essence of the creative process. Great ideas do not come whilst sitting at a desk for eight hours a day but whilst taking a shower or immediately before falling asleep. It’s the methodology of the ‘creative soak’: just as dishes are easier to clean when they’ve been sitting overnight in the sink, a project is much easier to tackle when it’s been mulled over by the subconscious mind for a few days. It’s about engaging as much of your brain as possible to the task at hand, so that even your down-time becomes potential brainstorming territory.

Yet when it comes to self-started projects, lacking the driving forces of external deadlines or budget, it’s not enough to just ‘think hard’ about something. It’s important to invest assets to offset the inevitable decay of enthusiasm and flow of ideas over time. Existing commitments will often come first and increase the decay rate of your idea. To ensure that you stay enthusiastic and on track it’s important to raise the stakes as quickly as possible.

There are several ways to do this. The first and most obvious form of capital is time. Time is arguably the most valuable commodity at your disposal and is how we judge the worth of most things in life - especially in a professional sense. The sooner you start pouring time into a project, the sooner it will attain a valuable status in your life. In other words, you’re much less likely to let your killer idea slide to the bottom of the pile if you’ve already logged a few days of your time against it.

Money is another form of investment, and one which has a universal value. It’s not always as appropriate to spend money on an idea as it is to spend time, but if there are physical things needed to progress the idea, get them early on. A domain name is an obvious example.

Another asset is reputation. Start talking about your idea, telling friends and colleagues. If you’re enthused about something then people will ask you about it the next time they see you - “how’s that project going?”. If your response is always that you’ve “been too busy” then you’re damaging your own reputation, so this should give you further incentive to knuckle down.

What you should be aiming for by investing these assets is to assign value to your idea so that you come to care about it. Get your idea to the point where, by not working on it, you feel guilty and it nags at you.

Of course, it’s important to remember that you do not have unlimited assets. Just as you wouldn’t bet all your chips on every hand you’re dealt in poker, don’t start throwing time, money and reps at every idea that pops into your head. There is no metric for measuring the viability of ideas, but the chances are you will know when you hit upon something good. When that idea comes, write it down and immediately start allocating resources to invest in it. Over time you will get better at recognising where you will get a good ROI.