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Shiny Object Syndrome

Shiny object syndrome can affect anyone. And the more you’re trying to do, the more at risk you are.

For as long as she could remember, Rachel had longed to publish a book. She had big plans to start a serious writing practice and finish her book in the next year. Then she received a call from a new, influential friend who invited her to join the Board of a new not-for-profit supporting women entrepreneurs. Rachel thought it was a great cause and agreed. Six months later, the cause is consuming huge chunks of time and her book has yet to be started.

The crime which bankrupts men and states is that of job-work—declining from our main design to serve a turn here or there.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Kevin, a young entrepreneur, was keen to grow his fledgling dream business. He had developed a comprehensive marketing strategy. Full of enthusiasm and passion he was quickly rewarded with increasing sales. Eager to build on his success he continued to read and talk to as many industry insiders as much as he could. He developed more and more projects and pursued them all vigorously.  Everything was important and he was stretched to breaking point. Within a year, Kevin was exhausted, a bouquet of nerves, and making a sliver of progress on dozens of different fronts.

The above are all examples of Shiny Object Syndrome (SOS), a pervasive obstacle faced by many today. It is typified by busy active minds which welcome everything with open arms, which take on everything, get carried away about everything and which are always whole-hearted about it. Right up until the moment of reckoning when the realization hits that we’re trapped in a shiny globe of opportunities, pinging madly from one thing to another with negligible results, far off track down a path we never meant to tread.

It’s a special level of distraction, where the new opportunity is exciting and potentially viable. And we have more opportunities than ever before. As James Clear wrote in a recent newsletter, “Modern society is defined by an excess of opportunity. We have more information, more products, and more options than ever before.” Clear goes on to say, “As a result, curating, filtering, and refining are more important skills than ever before. Those who edit best will find the signal in the noise.” He poses another question for us to ask ourselves: “Am I climbing the right mountain?”

The problem is that from an evolutionary perspective we are hard-wired to be drawn to novel stimuli. This is what helps us to differentiate something new or different in our environment (Dug’s shiny ‘Squirrel!’) while filtering out the old and familiar.  We’re especially tuned to new things that suggest danger or reward. And our joie de vivre mostly derives from paying attention to someone or something that interests you.

However, we often don’t appreciate our own ability to use specific strategies to curate, filter and refine our opportunities to create a truly satisfying life experience. Here are three key defenses against shiny object syndrome

The Power of (Limited) Priorities

Fun facts about the word “Priority”: “The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s,” Greg McKeown writes in Essentialism. “It was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for the next five hundred years. Only in the 1900s did we pluralize the term and start talking about priorities. Illogically, we reasoned that by changing the word we could bend reality.” How can multiple things be “most important”? They can’t. As McKeown states, it’s “illogical” and ultimately futile (you can fight reality, but reality is always going to win).

Having said that, the argument can be made that a well-lived, satisfying life might have a few essential guiding priorities/values, and only a few really matter (e.g. health¾without a body, a mind has nothing to walk around in).

It’s important to take time to really consider what qualifies for the essential few. McKeown suggests considering such questions as “What do I feel deeply inspired by?” “What am I particularly talented at?” and “What meets a significant need in the world?” Other questions might be “What do I need to thrive in the world?” and “What, at this stage of my life, needs tending to most?”

Note that the answer to this last question can and does change over the course of a lifetime.

Write down your answers and from them make a list. The objective is to get absolute clarity about your personal goals, aspirations and values. By definition, these eliminate the nonessential many and ensure that our energies are focused on the activities that are most meaningful to us.

A business needs to curate essentials as well. If everything is important (or a priority) then, as Kevin discovered, nothing is important. Questions similar to the personal questions asked above need to be answered to be crystal clear about what is relevant and what is not. The most important question may be, “How will we know when we have succeeded.”

Once these have been established, it’s time to guard them fiercely with…

Bullet-proof Boundaries

When we say yes to something, we are saying no to almost everything else. When we say no to something, we are only saying no to that one thing.

Tonya Leigh, a well-known life-coach and self-confessed bon vivant has what she describes as a red velvet rope policy. This means, only letting the best in, whether that’s people or opportunities. This means learning how to say no to anything that doesn’t align with the essential priorities/values established above. As Mark Manson writes in The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, “…we need to reject something. Otherwise, we stand for nothing. If nothing is better or more desirable than anything else, then we are empty and our life is meaningless. We are without values and therefore live our lives without any purpose.” Manson goes on to say, “avoiding (saying ‘no’) gives us short term pleasure by making us rudderless and directionless in the long term.”

What trips a lot of people up is conflict and confrontation avoidance by attempting to accept everything equally and make everything cohere and harmonize because saying no might make someone else feel hurt or angry. Astonishingly enough, that fear is typically worse than the actual result of the conversation. No can be a complete sentence, there doesn’t need to be a justification or excuse (which can just drag a discussion out until we feel bullied into saying yes just to stop the noise).

Fear of missing out (FOMO) can also be treacherous. Under these circumstances, consider what, in the long run, will cause the most regret. A useful question is, “A year from now, what will I regret not starting/doing now.”

Pause, Reflect, Then Respond

Although, from an evolutionary standpoint, we are hard-wired to notice, and be attracted to, the new, novel, and unexpected we don’t necessarily have to act on it. We can choose how we spend our time and energy.

“(Some choices) may seem to be inconsequential: focusing on a book or guitar instead of a rerun, a chat instead of an email, an apple instead of a doughnut. Yet the difference between “passing the time” and “time well spent” depends on making smart decisions about what to attend to in matters large and small, then doing so as if your life depended on it. As far as its quality is concerned, it does.” ~ Winnifred Gallagher, Rapt

It helps to at least ask for some time to think about the new opportunity or event. If it serves an essential value you’ve already established, then go forward with it confident in your decision to say no to everything else. And that’s how you bust shiny object syndrome.

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