Subscribe to blog updates via email »

Shiny Object Syndrome – Love Your Work, Episode 261

August 05 2021 – 07:30am

shiny object syndrome

Shiny Object Syndrome is an affliction that causes you to be attracted to “shiny objects.” Shiny objects can be whatever is new and trendy in your field. But oftentimes, the shiny objects are simply new ideas you have – other projects you’d rather be working on. In this form, Shiny Object Syndrome will ruin any chance you have of finishing your current project – unless you do something about it.

Listen to the Podcast

Build your 100-word writing habit with my free email course. Click here to sign up »

Two sources of Shiny Object Syndrome

How do you overcome Shiny Object Syndrome? What you need to do is simple: Commit to your current project, ignore the new projects, suck it up, and follow-through. The reality isn’t so simple. Shiny Object Syndrome causes mental distortions that will have you 100% convinced you’re doing the right thing: This old project is a dud. This new project is sure to be a success. To cure Shiny Object Syndrome, we need to know its true sources. That way, we can nip them in the bud, keep Shiny Object Syndrome at bay, and finish projects. There are two main causes of Shiny Object Syndrome:

  1. Naïveté of the novel
  2. Frustration with the existing

We don’t know much about the new project, so we view it with rose-colored glasses. We know a little too much about our current project, so it looks terrible in comparison. This creates a “grass is greener” effect.

Now how do we get in this position in the first place?

1. Naïveté of the novel

As humans, we’re naturally attracted to the novel. That’s how we’ve become such an innovative species. We were not satisfied with the old way of doing things – eating our meat raw and sleeping in the elements – so we’re curious about our neighbor who’s cooking with fire and has built a straw hut.

That explains why we’re attracted to the “shiny objects” in the first place, but there’s more happening in our minds that makes us not only attracted to the shiny object, but that makes us abandon what we have to pursue the unknown.

The Dunning-Kruger effect

A powerful force that makes us hop from one shiny object to another is the Dunning-Kruger effect.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is named after it’s originators, psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger, who found that when we know a good deal about a field, we underestimate our knowledge, but when we little about a field, we overestimate our knowledge.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a favorite of internet “gotcha” culture. People love to point out the Dunning-Kruger effect at work in others, but it does a lot of good to recognize it in ourselves.

When we get a great idea for a new project in a field we know little about, we often think that project will be easier than it actually will be. It seems like a good idea to drop what we’re doing, and move on.

2. Frustration with the existing

This naïveté of the novel colludes with frustration with the existing. In fact, it adds fuel to that frustration. If we start a new project, thinking it’s going to be easy, we’re even more disillusioned when we realize it’s actually hard.

We’ve run up against all the challenges we didn’t think about. We’ve seen the hidden complexity in the current project. As former guest, Tynan has pointed out, when we’re in the middle of a project, we’ve experienced all of the downsides, but none of the upsides, such as revenue or respect from our peers. Meanwhile, we know very little about the new project. It seems fun and easy.

When we started the current project, we said to ourselves, This will be easy. We’ve realized it’s not so easy, but the Dunning-Kruger effect takes over again. We tell ourselves of the new project, Now THIS will be easy! shiny object syndrome Just knowing how the naïveté of the novel and frustration with the existing work together to cause Shiny Object Syndrome isn’t enough to cure it. When you’re in this situation, it seems rational. You can come up with good-sounding reasons why the current project isn’t worth the trouble and the new project has a better chance of succeeding. And we won’t admit we might be fooling ourselves.

Shipping is a skill

I have some good news: Your tendency to come up with new ideas is a good thing. Instead of trying to fight it, Shiny Object Syndrome is much easier to manage if you instead accept it. Accept it will tempt you to switch projects, then change the way you approach projects accordingly.

Remind yourself that shipping is a skill. The mere act of finishing a project, no matter how small, is a skill you should cultivate. If you’ve never picked up a golf club, you would know better than to expect to play like Tiger Woods your first time out. So if you’ve never finished a project, why would you think you could take on a giant one the first time around?

When I started on my own, I had almost zero shipping skills. I had piles of unfinished projects, and nothing to show for them. Fortunately one day, as I contemplated a giant shiny object I was about to take on, I realized I didn’t have what it took to make my vision a reality. I had had enough of my Shiny Object Syndrome, and was ready to put it to an end.

So, I treated even the smallest things as practice in the skill of shipping. I looked up a recipe online, and planned my trip to the grocery store to get the ingredients. It sounds simple, but can you believe I had to go back several times? I planned parties and dates and trips. I treated everything as an opportunity to have a vision, plan how to execute that vision, and ship the project.

The Fortress Fallacy

In The Heart to Start, I introduced The Fortress Fallacy. We tend to have big visions, but those visions outpace our skills. We dream of building a fortress, when we haven’t built a cottage, much less a lean-to.

This isn’t about “breaking your project down” into parts. This is about doing small projects that build skills you can later use in a larger project. Breaking your project down doesn’t build the skill of shipping. Doing small projects does.

Make predictions

A source of fuel for our frustration with the existing is our lack of foresight. We fall for the planning fallacy. The planning fallacy is why the Sydney Opera House took ten extra years and fifteen times the budget – you can see the same in countless construction projects. It’s why the Greeks thought the Trojan War would take four weeks, when it ended up taking ten years – you can see the same in countless military campaigns.

It’s demoralizing to expect something to work out one way, and have it end up another. One way to fix that would be to have things work out the way we expect – but that’s not going to happen. The world is too complex and unpredictable.

The solution is to make predictions. How do you predict the unpredictable? You don’t, really. But there’s a lot of wiggle room between This will definitely happen, and This will definitely not happen.

In episode 245, I introduced the Avocado Challenge. Before you open an avocado, are you 100% sure it’s going to be perfectly ripe? No. In the Avocado Challenge, you make percentage-confidence predictions, such as “I’m 60% confident this avocado is ripe.” You then rate those predictions based upon the outcome.

As you start projects, make predictions. Accept that you’re never 100% sure about anything, so make percentage-confidence predictions. For example, “I am 70% confident I will set up my blog and publish my first post by next Sunday.” After Sunday comes, review your prediction. You can even use a handy free service called Prediction Book to keep track.

This does a couple things. One: It holds you accountable. We tend to approach all projects as if we’re sure we’re going to finish them – and that just ain’t so. Two: It keeps you from beating yourself up. You can’t be certain about the future, but when we don’t finish projects, we feel bad about it. If we feel bad, we learn to associate working on projects with feeling bad. So we’ll start fewer projects. As Roam Research founder Conor White-Sullivan said, “I can not speak highly enough for the practice of starting things before you know you’re going to finish them.”

Don’t fight shiny object syndrome, work with it

In conclusion, the way to cure Shiny Object Syndrome isn’t so much to cure it – it’s to accept that you’re going to have new ideas, and you’re going to fail to finish some projects. If you pick small projects, make predictions about your ability to finish them, and treat shipping as a skill, you can reduce Shiny Object Syndrome, and work with it.

Thank you for having me on your podcasts!

Thank you for having me on your podcast! Thank you to Dolores at Attitudeable for having me on the show. As always, you can find all podcast interviews of me at kadavy.net/interviews/.

Support the show

Put your money where your mind is. Patreon lets you support independent creators like me. Get early access, bonus content, and other perks. Support now on Patreon »

Subscribe to Love Your Work

Overcast Apple Stitcher RSS

Listen to the Podcast

Theme music: Dorena “At Sea”, from the album About Everything And More. By Arrangement with Deep Elm Records. Listen on Spotify »

100-Word Writing Habit is my free email course to help you build a writing habit »

This post is filed under Love Your Work Podcast.