If you’ve ever seen a small child chase after toys, only to quickly lose interest and drop them as another new object captures the attention, you’ve seen shiny object syndrome in action.
As adults, our attention has a bit more sticking power, but that doesn’t mean we’re no longer susceptible to distractions of novelty. ‘New’ is interesting, exciting, and might offer you the next big thing.
No one wants to miss out on exciting opportunities and it’s important to stay abreast of news and updates in certain domains, but chasing the novelty is often a case of the grass always looking greener on the other side.
Shiny object syndrome can become a serious problem if you’re never spending long enough on certain goals to achieve them, and find it challenging to maintain focus and commitment on your long-term objectives.
Why Is Shiny Object Syndrome A Problem?
Shiny Object Syndrome can affect anyone.
- You might be an entrepreneur who hops about different ideas but doesn’t build a successful business.
- You might be a musician, writer, or artist who constantly starts a new project before finishing the last one.
- You might be a student who signs up for courses only to abandon them prematurely when a new one comes along.
The tendency to get distracted is a feature of human nature, and as a result shiny object syndrome likely affects all of us at some point in time, though some might struggle with it more consistently than others.
It’s likely that creative and inventive people struggle more, as their curious nature and drive for new ideas pull them towards all sorts of new information and experiences.
It’s also a safe bet that modern technology has only made this more of an issue—plugging into our devices, scanning social feeds, going down rabbit holes, and checking notifications, all offer plentiful opportunities for new thoughts and ideas—and distractions.
One big driving factor is the fear of missing out (FOMO). The world is full of trends and news and things to do, it’s too easy to get caught up in trying not to miss anything that you fail to really achieve anything meaningful.
The result ends up with us feeling frustrated with a lack of progress on our real goals, disappointed when we feel no sense of achievement, a frazzled mind that can’t focus for long, and a lot of wasted time and energy.
How Do You Overcome It?
Whether shiny object syndrome plagues you every day, or only pops up on occasion, having a few methods to combat it is essential for anybody hoping to achieve long-term goals. Here are 10 tips to help you on your way:
1. Set Clear Goals
Clarity is your ally. You’ll struggle to stay on task if you haven’t properly decided on what the endpoint is, or if your goals are too fuzzy and ill-defined.
It’s essential to take time to decide on what you want to achieve. As you do, try to make them SMART goals:
- Specific and well-defined
- Measurable, so you know when you’ve succeeded
- Achievable and realistic, so you don’t end up stuck and frustrated
- Relevant to your greater aspirations and desires in life
- Time-bound, set to deadlines that help push you towards the finish line
These goals will be your guiding light, and they should take precedence over other fleeting desires.
2. Evaluate and Reject Often
With your goals set and a roadmap in place, any sudden urge to switch to a different activity can be better assessed before diving in—does it align with your goals? Is it worth the time and energy investment?
There are opportunity costs to everything we do—doing one thing means rejecting an infinite number of others. Jumping off-task is to make your long-term goals the price of the shiny new object.
Investing your time and energy purposely inevitably means saying ‘no’ to other interesting things, and you should be saying ‘no’ early and often. If you want to maintain momentum and flow, a firm ‘no’ needs to occur almost instantaneously.
3. Keep A Bucket for ‘Future Possibilities’
You don’t want to be overly rigid and reject literally every possibility and opportunity that comes your way, of course. Sometimes a flash of insight or new idea is worth the distraction caused—as many scientists and inventors can attest.
It can help to have somewhere you can put these ideas—or articles, projects, questions, and so forth—to look back on and evaluate at a future time.
It might be a notepad to jot things down on, an app like Evernote or Notion, or a bookmark folder. Just don’t rely on your memory, that’s generally too fallible and you’ll be annoyed with yourself when you realise you’ve forgotten that brilliant idea.
There will probably be times when a new insight is simply overwhelming, compelling you to focus and act on it without delay—that’s ok! It just shouldn’t be the norm, if it’s happening all the time you need to raise the bar.
4. Time-Box New Ideas
It’s no good to start collecting ideas and curiosities in your notepad or app if you never actually go back to examine them in detail.
While you should be spending the majority of your time on the long-term goals and the roadmap you set to achieve them, you can also allocate specific time slots for exploring those new ideas and projects.
By setting aside time for them you won’t feel so bad ignoring them when they first appear as ‘shiny new objects,’ you know they will get their moment in the spotlight.
You’ll also likely find that many ideas don’t seem as good later on as they did when they first struck—you spot flaws or inadequacies that weren’t initially apparent. This will just go to show that you were right not to stop what you were doing at the time.
5. Set a Routine
When you need to work on your main goals, a well-honed routine can be a powerful ally, making focus and attention more habitual and easier to accomplish.
Where possible, you should work to a predictable schedule for a set amount of time, to condition your mind for focused work. Setting an expectation and building a groove that your brain can settle into.
It helps to use tools like a planner for organising your days, and a timer to help increase productivity and maintain concentration, making it more likely you’ll enter a flow state.
The less you leave up to chance the better—if you rely on the whims of emotion and the ebb and flow of energy levels, it’ll be all too easy to find excuses, to sit around waiting for inspiration and motivation to strike, all the while getting distracted by other passive activities that don’t help.
6. Declutter and Unplug
When you settle into work, the environment matters—it can help you focus and get things done, or it can be a recipe for distraction.
Get rid of everything that isn’t required for your current goal or task, so that only what you need is in front of you. This goes for both the physical and digital environments.
Get rid of all the paper, pens, and other things that you don’t need and will just get in the way—an exception is plants which can help calm and focus the mind. Try to find somewhere with natural light, and designate a workspace that you keep separate from your personal life.
Disable notifications on your phone and block irrelevant websites on your browser. Close all the tabs and block the apps that might distract you. Consider a pair of noise-cancelling headphones with binaural beats or white noise to aid focus.
7. Practice Mindfulness
While the previous point is about decluttering the external environment, mindfulness could be said to be decluttering the internal environment.
The idea is fairly simple: focus non-judgementally on the present moment. In practice, however, this is quite difficult. If you sit and try to keep your attention on your breath, many random thoughts will intrude.
The point of being ‘non-judgemental’ is important—you shouldn’t get frustrated and annoyed by the fact you can’t keep those intrusive thoughts away, you are to simply notice them and gently bring your attention back to your breath.
Make a regular practice of this and you’ll find the thoughts intrude less often. You’ll effectively get better at paying attention, a skill that will serve you well in many domains besides meditation.
8. Review and Reflect
It can help boost your confidence and motivation levels to stop and reflect on what you have accomplished so far, and to celebrate certain achievements.
If you feel like you’re not getting anywhere, like you’re going around in circles or failing to make any legitimate progress towards your goals, then any new and interesting thing is more likely to grab your attention.
For this reason it is helpful to break big goals down into smaller chunks, and to reward yourself for reaching these little objectives. But it might be the case that the path you’re on really isn’t the way to go, and forcing the issue will only lead to greater disappointment.
Stopping to reflect on your progress gives you a chance to critically examine whether you are still heading in the direction you want to go, or if a subtle shift in direction (or a dramatic one) is what’s in order—in which case a little shiny object syndrome can be a helpful aid in exploring new possibilities.
9. Get Some Help
Other people can play a valuable part in your journey, helping to keep you on track and work through different problems and struggles. It’s much more difficult to go off-task when you have another pair of eyes to think about.
Simply sharing your goals and deadlines with others can add enough pressure to be more productive, this can be kicked up another notch by committing to pay a fine or other form of punishment should you fail.
Another option is to find a mentor or mastermind group, who have experience within the particular domain you are working in and can offer tailored advice and feedback, or even work with you towards your goals.
10. Embrace Boredom
It’s nearly inevitable that you’ll face uninteresting tasks or activities—if everything you do is fun and interesting you are one of a lucky few, but then it’s unlikely you would suffer from shiny object syndrome as those less fortunate souls where boredom is more familiar.
The problem with boredom is it’s uncomfortable, and to resolve these feelings we often turn to mental stimulation in the form of social media, entertainment, or anything to distract us. It doesn’t even need to be a shiny object, any object will do.
You’ll get much more done if you can deal with boredom when it strikes. In fact, you won’t only be more productive—as odd as it might sound boredom is linked to creativity, mind wandering is a prominent source of those majestic flashes of insight.
How can you get comfortable with boredom? Practicing mindfulness will help, you can try to reframe activities by focusing on different elements or thinking up unique challenges, or simply find some pleasure in a pleasant daydream.
Staying On Task
Novelty-seeking is a part of being human, we are inherently curious and find enjoyment in learning new things, solving problems, and being creative. We need to ensure we are getting healthy doses of this in life.
But it can also be a little like sugar—we evolved a taste for it when it was a scarce resource, but the abundance of it today creates serious health problems.
Novelty-seeking has a similar problem, there are nearly unlimited possibilities for where to direct your attention, from sources of entertainment to education, and everything in between. Shiny object syndrome is the sweet tooth of the mind, always looking for something tasty.
We need to know when indulging in novelty is the right thing to do, and when we should be focusing on other more pressing tasks and goals. We need persistence and willpower to help us achieve great things, and the tools laid out here should help you do just that.