Controlling Overwhelming Inspiration

For those of us with too many ideas, coming up with creative projects isn’t the problem, organization is. You can be the most tidy person on Earth, but when you have too many thoughts in your head organizing them can still be quite the daunting task. Thankfully for us we don’t have to be left to just our own devices; that’s where mind mapping tools comes in.

If you don’t know, mind mapping is exactly what it sounds like. It’s the process of putting down all of your ideas into a graphical form that’s easier to navigate than your brain might be. The goal isn’t to just throw your thoughts onto a piece of paper how ever they just come out though, the end goal should be to have a legible diagram of multiple thoughts or ideas that shows the relation and scale of each while still presenting a whole body of thought. Below is an example of a mind map taken from Mind-Mapping.co.uk.

Mind Map Example

Courtesy of Mind-Mapping.co.uk

Mind maps aren’t a new thing by any means, but they are a good thing, especially for those of us who are organizationally-impaired. The general rule is to start with a generic, or more broad idea, then branch off of it with more and more specific ideas. This isn’t a law by any means, though. If you think another way will work for your current idea or thought process, go with it. Just remember that you have to be able to read your map later so don’t go so abstract and over board with it that when you look at it a week later it looks like an M. C. Escher painting or anything.

I don’t make mind maps very often, personally. I’m too sloppy when it comes to making large ones, but I do make simple, two or three level ones in my notes a lot. However, I’ve always wanted to get better at making full scale mind maps, and recently I found an online app that makes mind mapping one step easier.

Bubbl is a free, web-based brainstorming and mind mapping application that anyone can pick up and use almost instantly. I urge anyone who needs to get something out of their head onto something more tangible to give Bubbl a try.

 

Pro tip: This same mapping process is how designers layout a wire frame for websites. Give it a try!

Need to finish up that half finished project that’s been sitting on your desk for 3 weeks, or finish  building that shelf in your garage your wife keeps yelling at you about? Make yourself an ultimatum; create a deadline for the project or else.

Any one who knows me well would laugh in my face if I told them I was writing a post on the importance of scheduling a deadline. I can’t make a schedule to save my life, but that doesn’t mean I don’t understand the importance of it. Leigh Jasheway-Bryant over at WritersDigest.com sums it up pretty nicely.

“Too much time often exacerbates confusion and indecisiveness, especially when you’re faced with too many ideas. I’ve taught five-minute writing exercises in my classes for years and found they produce highly creative writing. Bete has similar advice: ‘Reduce the amount of time you have to write because less time means less wasted time on unproductive ideas.'” – Leigh Jasheway-Bryant, ‘9 Ways to Overcome Too Many Ideas Syndrome’

For those of us with inspiration overload, deadlines work even better. People who have trouble coming up with ideas for a project hate the deadline because they may need more time to come up with something, where as people who have too many ideas hate deadlines because we can’t choose which one we want to do or think will work, but that is also our hidden strong point. When are backs are against the wall and we have a deadline approaching, we can quickly drop all of the sub-par and outlandish ideas we have and quickly go with the one that works.

Parkinson’s Law

Another way to look at it is through Parkinson’s Law which states, “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” I didn’t get it at first either, it’s okay. Chris Campbell of ParticleTree explains:

“Basically, when you have a task at hand you will create enough work to fill up the amount of time that is allotted to that task. If you have too much time, you’ll somehow find more work to fill that time, whether it be through additional features or just plain procrastination.” – Chris Cambell, ‘The Importance of Deadlines’

Think of it this way, if you have a project to complete but no time limit on it, the work required to finish that project expands to an indefinite amount. Once you put a deadline on said project, however, the work required to finish it expands only to that time allotted. The closer to the deadline you get the less procrastination you will have and, in the case of over inspirations, the less time you’ll spend decided which ideas you should go with.

How?

So you’ve decided to set a deadline for yourself, but how do you set a realistic goal? Well that’s where you have to do some subjective thinking. Greekpreneur.com makes a good point here: first of all, how big or work intensive is your project? And secondly, what kind of worker are you, honestly? Give yourself the time you need, but not necessarily the time you want. Remember the goal here is to actually get the job done and to not procrastinate. If you give your self too much time, the work you need to do won’t fill up all that allotted space and it will be filled with more procrastination, according to Mr. Parkinson, but giving yourself too little time will just prove to be more stressful than not and you may miss your deadline. So you have to be very honest with yourself and choose what’s best for you and your project.

If the deadlines you are setting for yourself are for more than just your personal projects and you are a bit more worried of the implications of failure, you might want to turn your deadlines into what Sabrina from Greekpreneur.com calls “soft limits.”

“At those times it would be great if the deadline wasn’t actually a deadline at all but something more like a soft limit, a recommended time by which to return the work if at all possible. A kind of “best offer” that the client would accept on a “more-or-less” basis.” –Sabrina, ‘Turn Hard Deadlines into Soft Limits’

A soft limit consists of three steps. First and foremost, let the other party involved know that you’re creating a less the solid deadline right off the bat, or as soon as possible. This is to ensure that everyone is on the same page and no misunderstandings could come about later. Secondly, create your personal deadline earlier than the soft limit. Sabrina suggests 10% earlier, but depending on the project and time constraints this could change. And lastly, deliver your work as you go. ‘Turn in’ completed portions of the work prior to the actual deadline. This gives you a reason to work more early on in the process while also softening the end crunch time.

Anything else?

Now go do it! Personally, this is the step that has been stopping me on my own projects. Getting over the sea of distractions and climbing the mountain of effort is always the toughest part, but only the first few steps. As long as you have the creativity to fuel you, every other step just becomes progressively easier.

Works Cited and References:

1. Jasheway-Bryant, L. A. (2008, March 13). 9 Ways to Overcome Too Many Ideas Syndrome. Retrieved from 
 http://www.writersdigest.com/writing-articles/by-writing-goal/write-first-chapter-get-started/ 
 too-many-ideas-syndrome 

2. Sabrina. (2011, October 27). Turn Hard Deadlines into Soft Limits. Retrieved from 
 http://www.geekpreneur.com/turn-hard-deadlines-into-soft-limits 

3. Sabrina. (2011, October 27). Turn Hard Deadlines into Soft Limits. Retrieved from 
 http://www.geekpreneur.com/turn-hard-deadlines-into-soft-limits 

4. Dolon, M. (n.d.). How to Set Deadlines and Keep Them. Retrieved from http://devgrow.com/ 
 how-to-set-deadlines-and-keep-them/ 

5. Perel, D. (2008, December 9). 10 Benefits of Setting Deadlines . Retrieved from
 http://www.from-the-couch.com/post.cfm/title/10-benefits-of-setting-deadlines

Looking for a good way to organize all of your ideas? I found an article recently by Mike Vardy over at Life Hack that give a great approach to organizing All those project ideas rolling around your head.

In the article, Vardy points out the problem that I’ve brought up in several of my posts that having too many ideas isn’t a bad thing and it seems ridiculous to say that it’s even a problem, but it is when you have too many ideas that distract you from actually doing any of them.

“There’s nothing wrong with having too many ideas. But what you do with them is far more important than just having them. It’s like having a lot of money but not doing anything with it. Sometimes there are just too many options. Choice is good, but too much choice can cause paralysis. If you find that you are an “idea machine” that breaks down once the ideas are supposed to turn into something tangible, there are some things you can do to give yourself a tune-up.” – Mike Vardy, ‘What To Do When You Have Too Many Ideas’

He makes a good analogy here, if your “idea machine” keeps breaking down once you need to do something with an idea, you might need a good tune-up. Vardy’s tune-up consists of a rather simple 4 step process that you can do weekly to keep your ideas moving rather than stagnating. I’ve adapted them here in my own words and understanding.

Step 1:

Create a ‘Weekly Review’ time in which once a week you review all of your ideas you’re contemplating. When you have an idea through out the week, write it down and save it for your review time; let it simmer. At the same time each week, review all of the ideas you wrote down that week and let them stand next to each other to see how well any of them match up or correlate. Any ideas that have stayed in your Weekly Review for more than four weeks, toss them out until a later date because they obviously aren’t a priority.

This Weekly Review time will help you prioritize your ideas and help stream-line ideas that could work together, or at least be worked on at the same time.

Step 2:

Write out a personal mission statement. This will keep you honest to yourself and stay on goal. If your ideas line up with your mission statement you know it’s something you can prioritize and work with, if any don’t work well or conflict with your mission statement you know it’s not something that you could build well and you probably shouldn’t work on it.

Step 3:

Create an idea bucket. Like step one, when you think of an idea put it into your idea bucket. If you have more than one area of importance in you life, (family, work, personal projects) make a bucket for each. During your Weekly Review look in these buckets and see how many are starting to flesh out and which one have actually been worked on. Any that sit in the bucket too long may be discarded as they aren’t currently a priority to you. Vardy points out that this step is much like the first, and could be used in place of step 1, but that he uses both, “because once the idea has simmered and it’s something that I’m intending on doing, I’ll put the idea in the corresponding bucket and turn it into a project when the timing is right.”

Step 4:

Get real! To really move ahead with your ideas you have to be subjective and realistic in your goals. If you’re a college student, don’t prioritize something as big as a full budget film unless you already have the monetary backing andskills required to do such a thing. Take time every week, or day even, to sit down and look at all of your projects and tasks and subjectively think about them in respects to what you can do and what you have to do. This is the hardest step because there isn’t just a formula to follow, you have to be critically honest with yourself and the things you are passionate about, and no one likes thinking anything but fondly for the passions in their life.

 

I have yet to start following these steps my self because I’ve only just found them, but I’m definitely going to start. I’ll let you know how it goes for me. If you are already doing something like this with your ideas let me know how it’s working out for you.

If you want to read Vardy’s full article you can go read it over at LifeHack.org.

When researching the history of information overload, it’s hard to find any accounts of it prior to modern day, especially used in a problematic sense like it is here.  In fact, it doesn’t even seem to have a history really. Not even Wikipedia has a clue about it! (Seriously, go try it.) Recently however, I found an article on StevenAitchison.co.uk’s blog Change Your Thoughts Change Your Life that made a connection for me which pushed me in a new direction when researching inspiration overload.

“Inspiration overload is like information overload, but when you’re suddenly overwhelmed by outside-the-box thinking, grandiose calls-to-action, cutting-edge entrepreneurial or business philosophies and living principles.” – Dave Ursillo, from Change Your Thoughts Change Your Life

Inspiration overload is a relatively new problem that has come with this age of mass information, and as such, it’s back story seems quite ambiguous. So to find out the history of inspiration overload, we have to examine the spread of mass information; more importantly, information overload.[1]

Dictionary.com defines information overload as, “an overwhelming feeling upon the receipt or collection of an indigestible or incomprehensible amount of information, the feeling of being faced with an amount of data that one has no hope of completely processing.”[2] Though the term itself originated sometime in the 20th century, the idea of information overload has been around seemingly every time information technologies have been invented. Ann Blair, in a 2010 Boston Globe article, makes a good parallel between today’s information overload due to the internet and the 1440’s information overload due to the Gutenberg Press.

“The literate classes experienced exactly the kind of overload we feel today — suddenly, there were far more books than any single person could master, and no end in sight. Scholars, at first delighted with the new access to information, began to despair. ” – Ann Blair, The Boston Globe

Though the term was not yet used, many scholars and critics of the time expressed their concerns of information overload. Thousands of books were suddenly, very readily available on the market and available to common people who could never absorb the seemingly endless surge of information. Did any artists or likewise passionate people of Gutenberg’s time experience inspirational overload too? Well even if no one did, the information overload that occurred then was soon responsible for the first public libraries, universal bibliographies, and encyclopedias that were distributed more widely than ever before[3]. It is easy to infer that this occurrence was a good deal responsible for the informational world that we now live in, and in part the creation of inspiration overload.

Following this idea that inspiration overload is a off-set spawn from information overload, it’s pertinent to clarify that information overload is not the same as sensory overload as many, including myself prior to this research, would think even though their definitions are similar. Dictionary.com defines sensory overload as, “a condition of receiving too much information or stimulation via visual or audio sources; overstimulation of one or more senses,”[4] but it refers more to the brain’s incapability to deal with the information given by the senses themselves rather than the inability to deal with too much information already received as an abstract idea. Think of it as the difference between laughing from being tickled and laughing from being told a joke, respectively. Though all three overload states occur from being given too much information to deal with, sensory overload deals more on a fundamental level dealing with base senses rather than higher thought.

An article at Infogineering.net points out why this is such a fundamental difference and why it should be separated when discussion information overload.

“Think of the number of light sensors within the eye… Then include the thousands of touch-sensitive areas of the body, and the range of our hearing. But we can still deal with all of this, because the brain has had tens of millions of years of evolution to deal with this.

Compare those tens of millions of years to the few thousand years we’ve been dealing with information such as talking and writing. Our brains are still learning to deal with this, so we can only process a very small amount of it at a time.” – ‘Understanding Information Overload’, Infogineering.net

In short, sensory overload isn’t that big of a problem compared to information overload because our brains evolved using our senses first and in turn has had since our creation to develop, where as language and the sharing of information is still relatively new and is still developing due to the increase in the amount of information sharing that we do today[5]. Information overload is something we as humans are still having to deal with and should be separated from sensory overload which the majority of us never have to deal with. Though the two are at the roots the same problem of not being able to handle information being presented to the brain, the separation needs to occur because of the fundamental, cognitive difference.

I bring up this separation, not simply to clarify however. I bring it up because after researching the history of inspiration overload, I’ve come to a conclusion, or more so a hypothesis.

It can be stated fairly easy that inspiration overload is just a child to information overload. That is to say, not a problem all of its own, but a sub-problem to a larger, more generic one. For this reason, the history of inspiration overload is harder to uncover because it is only experienced by a handful of a population experiencing a more generic problem we call information overload. So following logic, we can say that the true history of inspiration overload is just the history of information overload, and then we could stop there by saying that information overload stems from producing more information as a society than we can obtain as individuals, but I don’t think that it’s fair to cut it off so superficially.

As stated earlier, the literates of the late 1400’s were in the same situation as we are now informationally speaking, (if I may make up a word) but the information overload they experienced eventually settled as they found ways to deal with it as a society. Five hundred years later no one would say that the printing press was detrimental in any way and today people even complain that not enough books are being read because the newer generations undervalue them. Society as a whole, our brains, learned to deal with that extra information to the point that printed literature is now an essential to academia, entertainment, and correspondence.

Following the same trend though, sensory overload shouldn’t be separated as a different clinical problem, but instead should be considered a more basic, fundamental problem derived from the same process of dealing with information. The key here, and also my hypothesis, is that sensory overload comes before inspirational and informational overload historically speaking. Sure it still happens, but usually due to other conditions such as autism or asperger’s[6][7]. But like the article at Infogineering.net says, our brain is very good at dealing with those senses because it has been for as long as we’ve had them. Prehistoric humans were probably much more susceptible to sensory overload than we are. If inspirational overload is the child to information overload, sensory overload is its great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather.

Regardless of my ending hypothesis, which is my own personal speculation, the history of inspiration overload is much more clear to see once coupled with information overload. How we continue to deal with it given this new path to research, however, is up to us. In another 600 years, will this information, and subsequently inspiration, overload be long forgotten in the wake of how we decide to deal with it? I sure hope so. What do you think?

 

 

Works Cited:
1.Ursillo, D. (2011, Fall). Inspiration Overload and the Ever-Important Exhale [Web log post]. Retrieved from Change Your Thoughts Change Your Life: http://www.stevenaitchison.co.uk/blog/ inspiration-overload-and-the-ever-important-exhale/

2.information overload. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/ information+overload

3.Blair, A. (2010, November 28). Information overload, the early years [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://articles.boston.com/2010-11-28/news/29293435_1_information-overload-books-nicholas-carr

4.sensory overload. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/ sensory+overload

5.Understanding Information Overload. (n.d.). Retrieved November 29, 2011, from http://www.infogineering.net/understanding-information-overload.htm

6.Irlen, H. (1998). Autism / Asperger Syndrome & the Irlen Method. Retrieved from Perceptual Development Corp website: http://irlen.com/index.php?id=70

7.Vries, J. D. (2007). Asperger Sensory Overload. Retrieved from http://www.asperger-advice.com/ asperger-sensory-overload.html

Do What You Say

Here’s a little problem I’ve noticed that has been hindering, not only my struggle against over inspiration, but in general time management: doing what you say you are going to do.

Apart from those times when plans just fall through, when the unexpected changes your plans, or when plans are just inherently infeasible, it’s important to do the things you said you would do. It’s just as important to your self as it is to others. In general, everyday life this is important because else people will begin to distrust you or think you’re flaky. In your personal, mental life though, it’s even more important because the moment you begin to fall into that rut of cancelling plans or opting out of things you said you do for yourself, it becomes increasingly harder to not keep “flaking out” and ultimately you will never be able to control those over inspirational times that keep you distracted. It’s imperative to learn how to set things aside, however tempting they may be, to do what you need to do. Like I said in my Hierarchy of Priorities, Once you know what you want in life and where you need to begin heading in your life to achieve it, you have to be willing to temporarily set aside those larger goals to get past where you are. The same principle holds here,  letting go of those immediate temptations is key to achieving an over all wellness.

This is not always as easy as it sounds. I’ve been trying to get out of this rut for a while now and the longer I stay in it, the worse the consequences become. They’ve stopped just affecting my personal work and have now began affecting the work and time of people close to me, and that isn’t acceptable. I don’t have a solution or an easy way of getting over this, but I’m finally able to fully admit that it’s a large detriment in my life. If you have any suggestions that have helped you, let me know… I’m a bit stumped myself.

So I stated in my first post that there isn’t much advice to be found on overcoming inspiration overload save for superficial advice we’ve heard our whole lives like, “time management.” I feel like I should clarify that I am not dismissing this advice, I’m simply stating that it’s not enough. Most every one would agree, or I hope would agree, that time management is important in most things and that other advice like it is equally an important step in organizing your life. I only say it’s superficial in the respect that it’s an easy go-to advice that most people with this problem already turned to before looking for more.

That being said however, don’t think that this kind of advice is something that should be over looked. Time management is the first step you should begin taking when trying to solve your own personal struggle with having too many ideas. More so is the importance of setting your priorities. If this is something that you have neglected however, here’s a simple guide to help you sift through your ideas to find which ones you can dismiss or put off until later, and which ones you should focus on.

Finding Your Hierarchy of Priorities:

1. What are your passions in life?

You are probably a very passionate person if you are experiencing an overwhelming amount of inspiration. Break those passions down into their most basic forms and lump them together in groups. For example, if you’re passionate about painting, design, drawing, cinema, music, instruments, and movie scores, you can probably break it down to a passion in visual and auditory arts. Overwhelming yourself with every singular and specific passion only creates a larger maze to search through in your mind.

2. What can you do/want to do with those passions in your future?

Be realistic but not constricting. When you are Steven Spielberg’s age, what do you see yourself conceivably doing with what you love in life? Don’t limit yourself by insecurities or perceived boundaries at this point because goals have no boundaries as long as you are passionate and willing to work for them.

3. What can you do/want to do with those passions in your near future?

With what you have in your personal repertoire right now, what can you do with these passions and which ones can you do most with? At the point you are in right now, you may not be able to do all that you want in life with all of your passions, but I’m willing to bet that there are a couple that you can start working on if not now, very soon. Don’t be afraid that choosing a music path at this very moment will cut you off from walking a visual arts path in the future. Regardless of your end goal, you have to start somewhere. Finding the path to the end is what life is about, but before you can do anything you have to realize that the paths are many and will open up more the further you travel.

4. What do you need to do to start focusing on your passions more?

If you’re like me, you need to get out of college first. For some this is easy, but for those of us who are too distracted with what you want to do and what you are passionate about it’s very hard to suffer the drones of required classes you have to pass first. If you are already out of college, what point in your life are you currently in and what direction do you need to begin heading to be able to focus more on your passions? This is the toughest part to get over because it means holding off on your dreams for a bit. It means you might have to submit to someone else’s goals before you can continue on to your own. And I don’t want to encourage anyone to just up and drop out of what you are doing, but there have been plenty of people who could suffer demeaning work or dead-end paths no longer and have just dropped out of that race to pursue their own more successfully. The late Steve Jobs dropped out of college and wound up revolutionizing how the world sees computing. But again, those choices are last ditch efforts and can also end poorly if not thought out well. Regardless of where you are in your life path though, at this point you are going to have to take some losses and do what you have to do to make for a better path in the future.

Young Steve Jobs

If only all college drop outs wore suits like that

Once you have these four steps down, the next and hardest part of all is actually doing it. Yes at times suffering through the immediate life can be tough, but if you’re tired of thinking about the great things you want to do, the only thing left is to start doing what you need to to get there. This is where I am. I’m a fifth year senior trying to finish up two majors and quite frankly it sucks, but the more I think about these four steps the better I begin to feel about my position because it puts my current place in life into a bigger whole that defines who I’m going to be… it’s just really hard to stay in that mindset.

As always, please let me know your thoughts about this post. If you feel that there is more to add tell me so. The more we talk about it, the more we’ll both think about it in our every day lives, and the better we will be at controlling the surge of inspirations that disconnect us from what we need to do.

I recently found this TED talks video through a friend of mine who knows that I struggle with my over creativity and inspirations. What I gravitated to the most in the video is the part where she talks about poet Routh Stone about 10 minutes in and the musician Tom Waits at about 12:30. This video has helped me approach my inspirations in a different way that helps me, hopefully it will help you as well. Click the image below to watch the video.

Elizabeth Gilbert on Nurturing Creativity

I love this idea that when these people get their surge of inspiration it’s normally in the most mundane of times, when they aren’t trying to be creative but when they are doing something almost mindless like working in their field or driving a car. This is something that relates to me a lot because the thing that kills my productivity more than anything is if I have to drive home from school. I know that I should be going home to do my work, but when I drive my inspirations always kick in the strongest and by the time I get home I no longer have any interest in the slightest to do my homework because I’m filled with ideas that I feel I must work on less they pass me by “to go find another poet.” After watching this one day, I had a similar rush of inspiration but I was supposed to be writing a paper. But instead of worrying about getting my ideas out before they left, I decided to take the same approach Mr. Wait took in his car and I told myself/my daimon/the wall to slow down and let me do my priorities first, “Can’t you see I’m driving?”

If you find yourself in this same situation, try Mr. Wait’s approach. You don’t have to believe in an existential creative force or a personal daimon for it to work. Do it sarcastically if you wish but try it out and see if it helps, then let me know how it worked for you in the comments below. And for those wondering, yes this video is where I took the name of this blog from.

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