Fighting Shiny Object Syndrome

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

It feels great when your friends point out your hypocrisy. Hypothetically speaking, of course.

“How’s the writing going?” That’s the polite (or passive-aggressive?) friend.

“You should write more.” That’s the blunt friend.

But it’s true (hypothetically).

I talked about quitting my job so I could write and build a business. More recently, I wrote about pushing through and doing our work. And here I am doing neither of those things.

Actually, I’m doing too many of those things. I’m writing, but not often enough. I’m building a business — about 17 of them, as a matter of fact. And that’s the problem.

When we try to do too many things at once, we don’t really focus enough on any of them. And everything suffers.

Apparently Shiny Object Syndrome is an Actual Thing

It’s human nature to want the latest and greatest. To chase the shiny new object. Actually, I don’t know that it’s human nature so much as it is marketers and advertisers manipulating our fragile psychological tendencies, but you get the point.

Most of us can relate to wanting the new iPhone or a more expensive car. But this “syndrome” also crosses over to our professional and social lives.

We jump from job to job for the slightest pay raise. We join 9 different professional organizations so we can grow the size of our network. We embrace every new app and “life hack.” Or — and I’m about to throw up in my mouth a little — we “pivot” from one business idea to the next, chasing a “unicorn.”

These things aren’t bad. There’s nothing wrong with continuously trying to improve our lives, businesses, happiness, etc. (In fact, I wrote about that, too.) But if we chase every new idea or opportunity that comes our way — shiny object syndrome — we have a hard time succeeding with any of them.

Our Two Limited Resources

When it comes to our work, we have two resources that come in limited supply: cognitive energy and time.

Time as a resource doesn’t require much explanation. Once an hour has passed, we can’t get it back. It’s gone forever.

But what about cognitive energy? Have you ever felt mentally exhausted? Ever said, “My brain hurts?” That’s because our brain uses energy to perform work, kind of like the muscles in our bodies. The more time we spend on methodical, mentally-demanding tasks, the more energy we use. We drain our limited store of energy, which has to be replenished. [If you want to read all the fun, “sciency” stuff on this, check out Thinking, Fast and Slow.]

Two resources: limited brainpower and limited time. One is renewable, and one is not. And it’s up to us to figure out what to do with them.

The Myth of Multitasking

A funny thing about the brain is that, when it comes to activities requiring our actual attention, “multitasking” is physically impossible.

Ever been on a conference call while surfing the web, reading about the “37 Celebrities Who Don’t Look Like Celebrities” on Buzzfeed? And then had to ask someone to repeat the question because “your voice is breaking up?”

How about texting and walking/driving/talking/doing-literally-anything-else? It’s hard to focus on the sidewalk when we’re trying to find the best Ric Flair .gif to use in a text chain.

In any of these instances, we aren’t giving our undivided attention to multiple things at the same time. What we’re really doing is quickly shifting our attention from one thing to the other. Back and forth. Back and forth. But we’re really only focusing on one thing at a time.

This isn’t always a big deal. If we’re texting and walking, the worst that can happen is we trip over a crack, fall in the street and get hit by a car. But in our professional or social lives, this can have serious ramifications.

The Problem With Dividing Our Focus

In my world, multitasking means working on multiple projects at a time. But again, I’m not working on all those projects at the exact same time. Instead, I’m spending an hour on this, 30 minutes on that, and 2 hours on something else. Every single day.

This type of fractured schedule makes it hard to accomplish anything. Whenever we switch our focus from one project to another, the transition isn’t immediate. It takes a few minutes to reacquaint ourselves with where we are on the new project. And this happens every time we switch our focus.

Now imagine saying “yes” to every shiny new idea. Our list of ongoing projects grows, and our feeble brains convince us we can handle it all:

I love this! Let me add it to the list of things I’m working on. One of these 14 projects is bound to take off. HOCKEY STICK GROWTH!

Except it takes forever to finish any of them, and the finished products are mediocre, at best.

Priorities

This shouldn’t come as an epiphany, but prioritizing and sharpening our focus is critical. I wish I had a playbook or process to follow for how to do this, but I don’t. Everyone’s situation is different, but here are the questions I’m asking myself:

What is the one thing I want to be doing most?

What is the one thing I do best?

What is most critical for my current bottom line?

Do I even know how to accomplish this?

This filters my list down to about three projects, two of which are necessary for my bottom line. That leaves little time for chasing shiny objects. I’ll just add them to my list. And if they’re any good, they’ll still be waiting on me down the road.

P.S. — This is working for me, but I really am curious how you prioritize your work. This applies to 9-5 employees, executives, freelancers, etc. Let me know.

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