What is shiny object syndrome?
Shiny object syndrome (SOS) is the tendency to follow an idea or trend without first weighing its potential and as a result, get distracted from your current pursuit. But shiny object syndrome is not an inherently bad attribute.
While it is important to focus on completing what you've started, it is also just as important to make time to explore and try new "shiny objects".
You just had the most brilliant idea and you think it’s now or never that you start working on it. So you hit the gas, and drive full speed into it. Not a few months in and you realize the idea wasn’t as brilliant in practice as it was in your head.
But wait, what happened? Shiny object syndrome, my friend. Shiny object syndrome is what happened.
First, let’s get this straight – we’ve all been there irrespective of the field we belong to. We see a shiny object and chase it without thinking it through.
I’ve waited over four years for news on Sabaa Tahir’s novel, An Ember In The Ashes, turning into a movie. But it seems entertainment giants saw the bestseller novel as a shiny object, and instantly claimed that’d make a movie adaption without first thinking through the idea.
GoPro’s expansion into the drone market despite them being a leader in cameras is another classic shiny object syndrome example that hasn’t quite panned out.
This begs the question though – how can you tell if you’re suffering from shiny object symptoms? Let’s look at that in this piece. We’ll also dig into this condition’s effects and how you can get rid of shiny object syndrome in 6 easy steps.
Let’s get this straight first – shiny object syndrome isn’t a medical ‘syndrome’ as such. It’s a name given to a condition that’s pretty common among several entrepreneurs and creatives.
Payman Taei, the Founder of Visme, a DIY design tool opines the syndrome often occurs due to three reasons:
These are all solid reasons. Our research at F4S highlights shiny object syndrome also comes from high initiation – a strength that’s inherent among entrepreneurs, leaders and creative types.
Successful entrepreneurs have high initiation – that is, they take ideas and run with them. Rather than miss opportunities, or wait around for others to start, they start putting the wheels in motion.
However, if the motivation to initiate has reached gargantuan proportions, it can often manifest as a lack of focus – something critical in completing the important tasks required when getting a venture off and racing.
But that’s not all.
SOS’s roots also go into another psychological construct – impulsivity or tendency to act on whim with little to no forethought.
While impulsivity is among the major forces behind entrepreneurial success and artistic genius, it comes with a catch. You can quickly lose control or, like we’re talking about, get distracted by yet another bright object before you’ve made any real progress.
Luckily, self-diagnosis here isn’t rocket science. Run through the following 3-symptom checklist:
You're mindlessly jumping from one project to another, assuming each presents a bigger, better option for you than the previous
This rabbit life was my standard when I started out as a freelance writer. I couldn’t decide on my niche so I jumped from health science to nutrition to tech – all within six months.
This symptom is courtesy of Ryan Law. He discloses, “In the past, I’ve carried around this shapeless, ambiguous guilt that there was something bigger, better, and more exciting for me to work on, just around the corner.”
Unused plugins, incomplete courses, and as Ryan, suggests – dozens of unused domains, Trello boards and Notion projects full of half-finished thoughts.
You may even start feeling overwhelmed and stressed out by how many projects you are in the middle of, without getting any of the dopamine-boosting effects of having completed any of them.
Did you check off one or all three of these pointers? Great. Let’s get you sorted. But before that, let’s understand the magnitude of the situation.
When I pursue a bright object without considering consequences, what it would take to drive it through to the end, or how the project aligns with my overarching life goals, I almost always hit a dead end. And, this happens way more quickly than I’d like to admit.
But that’s only one of SOS’ natural effects. The ‘new’ idea sucks time, attention, and other resources. And, since there’s no plan B backing it or what you’d do when you encounter a challenge or two, you call it quits faster than you can peel an orange.
Count this as the leading effect of shiny object syndrome. You can also bet your core value or main goal in life would suffer as you focus your attention and resources elsewhere.
Since shiny object syndrome and FOMO correlate, expect stress, fatigue, and sleep problems on your plate as well – the direct results of the dreaded FOMO.
Side note: you are even more likely to experience shiny object syndrome and FOMO concurrently if you have a high motivation for difference. You can find out if that’s one of your top work motivations and get some expert tips once you take the free F4S assessment.
And productivity? It takes a hit too. All thanks to your tendency to continue on with an endeavor (read: shiny object) after you’ve invested your time, money, or any other resource in it. Technically, researchers call this tendency sunk cost fallacy.
Not to forget, if you’re at the leadership helm, your streak of racing behind bright objects can cause stress to your employees. You say your primary target is ‘A’ one day, but the next you throw a booming speech around how the team needs to set its eye on target ‘B’ as their main goal.
In fact, such trade-off between goals is a leading cause of workplace stress according to 41% of employees.
Aren’t these way too many negative effects? If you’re already wondering how to overcome shiny object syndrome, you’re on the right path. Let’s discuss that next.
Fortunately, there’s a solution to this wild goose chase. But before we dive into the ways you can fight shiny object syndrome, let’s be clear about a few things first.
As a creative, leader or entrepreneur, it’s only natural you feel like your mind is flooded with ideas that beg to be launched. That’s the high initiation within you that’s hard at work.
But you need to understand more about yourself. Ideally, a combination of initiation, reflection, patience, and commitment is great.
Reflection means you pause and think through before you take action and initiation means you’ve what it takes to an idea and execute it. But execution is not all. Do you have what it takes to see the project/idea through to the end? That’s where commitment comes into the picture.
Plus, you need some amount of patience to achieve your goals. You don’t want to overthink everything while failing to act, but here are a few scenarios where patience comes in handy:
Many initiatives take time to incubate – like in marketing, for example. Changing tactics or abandoning the plan midway will completely kill chances of any long-term benefits. So, be aware of this.
Sure almost every trend looks legit when it first hits the spotlight. But not every plan is worth pursuing for your business.
This is where it is crucial for you to understand your personal and professional goals, along with your unique work motivations so you can easily identify if a new opportunity is a good fit for you and something you can actually commit to for a significant period of time.
Acknowledge and understand that you’re not immune to FOMO and that you might be chasing a shiny object just because “everyone else is doing it! I should too!”
Payman adds to this, “you see others around you succeed. Social influencers and start-up founders are quick to make social updates on how their idea gained popularity. In short, you hear so much about their success that you feel a sense of pressure (or motivation) that you can do X, Y, and Z too.”
There’s a general consensus in the biz community that chasing an idea such as hyper-growth can lead you right into the shiny object syndrome den. LinkedIn’s CEO, Jeff Weiner, opines that companies that deviate from their core value proposition often end up pressurized.
Weiner explains, “They draw resources away from the core [your unique selling point or main goal] too quickly in pursuit of the next bright shiny object.”
But then you need to draw your resources back from the shining plan to the core in response to market competition. Not only does that hurt your market position, but you end up stressed and whipsawed.
When an idea first steps through your brain’s front door, don’t welcome it with open arms. Instead, stare it down with suspicion at first – have a cuppa with the idea and scan it top to bottom before deciding if you should sit with it for dinner.
Some prefer to call this ‘sleeping on the idea’ or giving yourself some ‘thinking’ time. The fact is any idea that sticks with you post the 24-hour think period is usually worth considering further.
Go on to shift the plan to paper from your mind, but before that answer some questions honestly.
Asking the right questions can help you analyze a shiny object before you take the ball and start running with it.
Ryan Law advises, “identify which projects are the highest leverage. Which will earn the most money, or create the greatest sense of satisfaction, or most improve your career? Answer that question, and you’ll reveal the handful of projects that are worth [it].”
Other questions you can ask yourself:
Make sure you understand the breadth of the work that’ll go into this new shiny object before committing to it. And define completion beforehand. “Many projects trail off into obscurity because we never take the time to define exactly what completion looks like,” in Ryan’s words.
If you run a team, you can also let your teammates have a crack at the idea. Then go back and reanalyze – what does everyone think? Is everyone on board with the idea? Draw up a trusty pros and cons list to visualize the idea’s worth and decide accordingly.
Revisit your goal board. If you don’t have one, I suggest you start with making one so things are out in the open for you to see how the shiny object fits into your big picture.
There’s another handy way – the Warren Buffett way – to go about doing this as well.
Buffett recommends a 3-step exercise. He originally shared it with his pilot, Mike Flint:
As for the remaining 20? Warren suggests you ignore them like the plague. This is your ‘avoid-at-all-costs list.’
Wondering why? It’s to preserve your focus and prevent your brain from skittering around the shiny object land.
When an occasional idea for something new does show up, run it through your approval questionnaire (like the one above) and your top 5 goals list. If it seems worth it, sit with the idea and get to know it some before calling the shots.
This one’s closely relates to revisiting your goals and is a hat tip to Ryan.
Basically, what you’ve got to understand is: “Every single thing you do has an opportunity cost. Time spent on one project is, by necessity, time not spent on something else. That realization encourages a brutal prioritization. You’re busy. Realistically, you can focus on a handful of big projects at any one time, and anything else is actively harming the success of those projects.”
That really clarifies things, doesn’t it? The question now is: how do you prioritize?
Should you go back to the drawing board? Yes, that’s one way. But there’s another one too, ask yourself: “if I died tomorrow, which of these projects would mourn not finishing?”
At first glance it might seem a bit brutal, but it’s an effective shortcut to prioritize important projects in your life. For me, that was having a career in writing. For Ryan Law, it was writing a novel.
What if a shiny object emerges successful from your thinking time, meaning it makes it through your approval questionnaire and even fits in the big picture or top 5 goal lists?
Time to host a launch party? Nope.
Now is the time when you research the idea. When you think through an idea, you put it to roast in your head where you turn corners and see if it has some potential.
But that’s all in your mind. Real value shows up when you research the idea – what place does it have in your market? How will your customers respond to it? How realistically can you expect outcomes? And, study if there’s a way you can make the idea unique to your business – #brainstorming sessions for the win!
What’s more, make sure you’re not chasing the shiny object because everyone else is (Hi! This is your captain FOMO speaking).
Important note: F4S research found that entrepreneur success and spending too much time researching an idea don’t go hand-in-hand. Being quick to act actually correlates with better startup outcomes.
But there is such a thing as too much initiation (especially if you’re not an entrepreneur), and if you’re still reading at this point, it’s probably fair to assume this is something you’re struggling with.
I’ve always been attracted to Instagram for business. It’s the very definition of a shiny object that keeps popping up in my radar – sometimes taking the central spot. And, usually, attempting to grab my attention from the edges.
Heck, I even woke up one night to create a Trello board full of cards with my ideas for the kind of posts I could make on IG! A few days down the line though, I researched the time it takes to create stunning visuals, tactics that work on the social network, and the typical ROI of Instagram for someone in my field.
In the end, I let that Trello board sit there and I’m glad. Because, realistically speaking, the endeavor would have been a waste of time and mental energy for me.
So I let that idea be. I didn’t give in to shiny object syndrome. Turns out, the world hasn’t been ripped apart just because I didn’t follow that one idea!
So, you’re seeing potential value in this new idea. What now? Whenever possible, create a wireframe or MVP (minimal viable product – a small model of the actual version) and test it. If you see results, you can scale the process.
For example, you think it’s a good idea to offer a free course for your audience. So you’re planning to create a free online course on, let’s say, how not to hustle.
The right way to go about doing this is writing a blog post (your MVP) on the topic first. Your post needs to briefly explain ways to slow down. Next, share this with a group of your trusted audience, see how they react, and ask for their feedback.
If the response is positive and they have questions that suggest they would like even more information on the topic, you can start working on the idea further – creating a course that incorporates feedback from your beta group and goes in-depth into the topic.
So you’ve a plan to overcome shiny object syndrome. But how do you block it completely?
Here’s a summary of ideas to get you back on track quickly:
The next time an idea comes barging in through your brain, don’t rush to execute it. Take a breather, weigh the idea, and ask yourself some important questions or see if it fits in your big picture. Creating an MVP can help you further understand the bright object’s worth.
I’ll leave you with the Ron Swanson mantra that Ryan lives by, “Never half ass two things. Whole ass one thing.”
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