Shiny Object Syndrome

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Reading time: 5 minutes

I have to make a confession. It’s part of my 5 step program. Here it goes:

My name is Bogdan and I’m suffering from Shiny Object Syndrome

That was step one: admit you have a problem.

Now you’re probably wondering what exactly this syndrome is and if you might be suffering from it too. How did I guess? Takes one to know one. So let’s find out.

  • Do you have more than 4 open tabs in your browser?
  • Do you have more than 3 projects started and not yet finished?
  • Do you currently feel the urge to skip ahead or switch to a different page?

If you’ve answered any of these questions with YES, there’s a good chance you might be a victim of Shiny Object Syndrome.

But fear not, my dear sufferer. I have a 5 step plan to cure us both. As with any disease, we first need to understand where it all began.

Why can’t I stay focused on one thing?

It wasn’t always like this. A few years ago, during med school, I could stay glued to my chair for half a day while studying biophysics or biochemistry. Yes, yes, I know. For most of you, this sounds like a twisted version of hell, in which Satan is a fat librarian.

But the point is: I was able to focus all my attention on one thing. All day, every day (for about a week during exam periods). And I’m sure there was a time when you could pull off a similar feat.

Whether training for a competition, working on a project, or practicing a skill — the idea is the same. You could put in hours of uninterrupted, highly focused effort. The kind of effort that yields the best results in any field.

So what happened?

Two things: Life and the Internet.

How Life sometimes gets in the way

During school and all the way through university, life was pretty simple. I didn’t say it was easy. Just simple.

You had clear goals (get good grades, pass exams, etc.) and clear ways of achieving those goals (study hard, show up for the test, don’t get caught cheating). Maybe you had a part-time job. Or two. Those also came with clear instructions.

But once you enter the labor market everything changes. Now you’re never quite sure what steps will help you climb the career ladder. There’s no curriculum to follow. And you never know what extra skill will give you an edge.

Is it learning to code? Maybe. Should you improve your communication skills? Sure wouldn’t hurt. Or should you take that week-long specialization course?

Homer Simpson thinking

This leads us to the second cause of our problem.

The Internet: fountain of knowledge or curse in disguise?

We’re immensely lucky to be living in this day and age. Just think about it.

You have instant access to all human knowledge through a device you carry in your pocket. Just half a century ago this was unimaginable.

And that is the problem.

Our brains aren’t used to such loads of information. For millennia we have lived and thrived with knowledge limited to a few hundred books (if you were lucky enough to know how to read).

Then suddenly we’re hit by a torrent of pings, alerts, and notifications. New books are now being released every day. And it’s not just books. It’s blog posts, and online courses, and simulations, and encyclopedias, and so much more. All accessible anytime, anywhere, at the tap of a finger.

You can guess what this does to our attention span.

Why we have the attention span of a squirrel

Combine the instant access to knowledge with not knowing what knowledge may be most useful to possess and you get this:

my attention span GIF

Now that we’ve defined the problem and identified it’s two main roots, it’s time to finally fix it.

But before we do that, let me just quickly check one more thing on YouTube… Just kidding. Here’s the plan:

How to increase your attention span and cure Shiny Object Syndrome

1. Identify the problem. We did this in the beginning of the post. Just admit it to someone or write it down. You’re suffering from Shiny Object Syndrome.

2. Stop being a donkey. Imagine a situation in which a donkey is equally hungry and thirsty. The donkey is then placed precisely midway between a stack of hay and a bucket of water. Unable to decide if it should first eat or drink, it dies of both hunger and thirst. The donkey can’t make a rational decision between the hay and the water. Don’t be a donkey! Make a decision and stick with it. You will have time to focus on the other interesting things once you’re done with the first one.

3. Realize that you have enough time. This was especially hard for me to accept since I never feel I have enough time to do everything I would like. But the truth is, I do. We all do. We just need to think on a bigger time scale. Sure, you may not have time this weekend, but I’m certain you will find time until next year. Or in the next 2 years. Try to see things in perspective, not just in the moment. Whenever I struggle with this, I think of this quote:

Most people overestimate what they can do in a year and they underestimate what they can do in two or three decades — Tony Robbins

4. Set priorities. I’ve said it before: in life, you can become anything, but not everything. So take a moment and decide what’s important. What task will bring you the most benefits? What would have the biggest impact on all the other things? Focus on that and leave the rest for later.

5. Make a list. Keeping mental track of all the stuff you want to do is hard. Believe me, it’s no fun. At one point you start forgetting things or mixing them up. That’s why you should create a list of all the things you want to get to, with pointers to the relevant resources. This can be an Evernote doc, a bookmarks folder, or just a notepad you keep in your pvvocket. Every time something grabs your attention, just make a note of it and move on with your day. You can review these notes at the end of the month and decide what to focus on next.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Time to regain control over our attention

Is this plan perfect? Hardly.

I still have 57 articles saved in my Pocket app, 4 new skills I want to learn, and 131 books on my reading list. But I have zero stress.

I know what I need to focus on right now.

I know that the other things won’t run away. I keep them neatly organized, hidden from my current focus, but ready to pick one after I’m done with the current task.

And, most importantly, I’m confident I will get to them at one point. That point doesn’t have to be now.

Accept this and you will be amazed at how many things you can accomplish.

Always play the long game. It’s the only one that counts.

Patience is the companion of wisdom — Saint Augustine

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