How to prioritize your ideas for best results

Last week I wrote about how I ensure, or at least try to ensure, that I do not lose my best ideas. (When I speak of ideas in this context, I am speaking of ideas for projects, not abstract ideas, like, “Wow! That eclipse the other night was funky!”). As I mentioned, I get a lot of ideas for projects. And sometimes it is difficult to remember them all, so I try to either write them down as they occur, or record them on my voice app on my phone. One of the consequences of capturing all, or at least most, of my ideas is that I end up with far more than I can work on at any given time. I also come up with some that are just too far out there to seriously consider, at lesat in the near term. So I need a way to prioritize my ideas; that is, to decide which projects to work on first, and which ones to get rid of altogether.

Assuming you also have a lot of ideas for projects, so many that you cannot work on all of them, then you may face similar challenges. This post will give you one method for prioritizing your ideas. Because my background, or at least part of it, is in project management, this approach is broadly based on the same methods that businesses use to decide which projects to implement, and which ones to shelve.

Which ideas to keep?

The first step in prioritizing a list of ideas is to decide which ones are worth pursuing at all, or which ones to keep. To do this, I suggest starting with a quick sanity check. Look at your list of ideas and decide which ones are actually important or interesting, what the outcome or consequence of actually completing the project may be, and what effort may be required to complete the project. In other words, ask yourself:

Is this project worth doing at all; is it realistic in concept?
What would I gain from completing this project?
Can I realistically expend the energy and resources to accomplish this project?

After going through your initial list of potential projects, and asking these questions, you will probably find that many of your ideas get put at the back of the list because they are either not as interesting or realistic as they seemed to be at the time of inspiration, they don’t really provide enough benefit to make them worth pursuing, or you simply don’t have or cannot put forth the time, energy, or resources to get them done.

This does not necessarily mean that you get rid of all of the ideas that don’t pass this first test. Some you will decide are too far out there to actually work on… ever; these you will discard. Others you may decide are interesting, and may yield a benefit, but you simply don’t have the time and resources to work on them; these you will most likely store away and take another look when you are better able to accomplish them. And the remaining ideas will be the ones that pass the test, and are worthy and capable of being accomplished in the relatively near future; these are the ones that you will then prioritize.

Prioritizing your ideas

Once you have short-listed the ideas that you are able to work on in the relatively near future, you will likely need to decide the order in which you will complete them. For this, you may want to use the well-formed outcome.

While it may seem like a lot of work to complete well-formed outcomes on all of your short-listed ideas, doing so is a must, and may save you a lot of grief and wasted effort in the long run.

The purpose of completing the well-formed outcome is to understand your idea better, to reflect on why you want to pursue the project, what will completing the project require of you, and what the outcome of the project will be. All of these are important in deciding which projects you will work on and in what order.

In fact, you may notice that these are the same types of questions we asked when deciding which projects to keep. The difference here is that the well-formed outcome forces you to really reflect on, and write down, the answers to these questions. Doing so should help you prioritize which ideas to work on first, and which ones to work on later.

A few tips

If you are like me, it may be difficult to discard an idea… even if it seems impossible to accomplish. I just get too attached to my ideas to kill them, sometimes. The problem is that if you try to work on too many ideas at once, you may not complete any of them, or you may not do as good of a job as you could on the ones you do complete. You may also find that by working on too many projects you start to earn the resentment of your friends and family.

There is a way to deal with this and still keep your sanity, and your personal relationships, alive. When you are prioritizing your ideas, try and do so with the idea that you will only work on a couple at any given time. This means that instead of working on all of your great ideas that have made the short list (which could still be a hundred great ideas), you will take the top 2 or 3.

You may also want to decide how much time you will spend on projects each week, and then use that to decide how many of your ideas you will work on at any given time. The idea here is to maintain a balance between all of your commitments. Again, by completing well-formed outcomes on all of your top ideas you should get a realistic view of what the consequences are of working on each project.

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