A had covering a light bulb
A had covering a light bulb

Shiny Object Syndrome is Destroying Your Creativity

Paul Kiernan

One of the biggest struggles that creative people have to deal with is staying focused on a project. Over time, the creative project you’re working on may feel dull, pointless, and you’ll be tempted to move on to something new, something that sparks your attention all over again. You abandon your current project and throw yourself entirely into the new idea.

One of the biggest struggles that creative people have to deal with is staying focused on a project. Over time, the creative project you’re working on may feel dull, pointless, and you’ll be tempted to move on to something new, something that sparks your attention all over again. You abandon your current project and throw yourself entirely into the new idea.

Then, after some time, the new project feels less special. You start to stray from it, then, hey, this idea looks fresh and exciting, and before you know it, your workshop, your notebooks, and your computer are filled with half-finished projects. Nothing is holding your attention and you’re moving from project to project, idea to idea, with no reason, direction, and worst of all, without completing anything.

Creative artists do not just experience this cycle; it also plagues companies and CEOs. This undiagnosed illness has a name, “Shiny Object Syndrome,” which can ruin you creatively and professionally.

So before you ruin your company or sap your creative drive, let’s take a closer look at this phenomenon. We’ll show you how to recognize it, and more importantly, how to combat it.

Let’s go!

What is Shiny Object Syndrome?

In the shell of a nut, Shiny Object Syndrome happens when someone focuses all their time and attention on what is new and current. This is done at the expense of what has been going on and what has been the focus.

For you creative types, this happens when another artist finds success, and you compare your work to theirs. Suddenly, their work seems like the only relevant work to be doing, and the work you’re currently doing feels cold and dull, pointless and useless. So, merely because of comparison, boredom, or this unfounded thought that there is a timeline to success and you’re suddenly not meeting it, you switch all of your attention and artistic energy into the new idea.

This syndrome also affects businesses when a CEO starts chasing the latest strategy, tactics, or advice circling the industry. They completely abandon the current process that has been working—always looking for something better.

The phenomenon is aptly named because it shows the shallowness of the change. Puppies, babies, and barracuda are all drawn to a shiny object simply because it shines. It is an appearance grabber; there is nothing under the object; it just shines, it’s new, and catches attention. Once the light changes or the object is examined closely, it usually loses its luster and holds the viewer's attention only for a moment until the next shiny thing comes along.

Why it Happens

A Gondolier using a cell phone with his back to the Grande Canal in venice

For creatives, Shiny Object Syndrome happens for a few reasons.

In this modern time of social media and the internet, everything moves at a mind-numbing pace. The New York minute is now 8 seconds; no one knows where the rest of the minute goes. But with the arts, the world is very different. Creation takes time, thought, and results take a back seat to the process.

The problem arises when we compare ourselves to others within the art and in other businesses. We look at a project we’ve been working on for months or maybe even years. We know that creation takes time, but we start looking at others who have finished their projects and have moved on to something new.

That new subtly represents a chance for success. The current project doesn’t hold the shine of new and so; we abandon it. Because we’ve compared the work we’re doing to work that someone else has done.

In creative work and business, the syndrome comes from not trusting the work you’ve been doing, the path you’ve been on that’s working, or having the patience to allow the project to have its full breadth and trusting the instincts that set you on this path. Instead of staying the course and believing in the choices that have been made, we get pulled away by a shiny object. Something inconsequential that has momentary and fleeting appeal.

The bottom line is that Shiny Object Syndrome rears its ugly head when we compare ourselves, our work, and our lives to others. We see the new thing or the new life as better than what we are working on and get restless for results. As a creative, results are not the answer, the process will reveal the best results. Staying focused on the process will keep you interested in your current project and make you less susceptible to Shiny Object Syndrome.

What Does Process Mean?

When discussing the process, we mean the step-by-step moves we make to get to the end. In a creative endeavor, focusing on the process is essential because new things are learned, new ideas are brought to the table, and something is discovered all the time.

Focusing on the process instead of the result allows all the steps to have their time in the sun, and you move on to the next step only when you've fully explored the previous step.

When you allow results to drive, there is a better chance of missing details, ideas, and important information along the way. How we get there is vital to any creative endeavor, and it takes time. This is when a creative is most vulnerable to Shiny Object Syndrome.

After all, a creative endeavor is never really done; it just gets to a point where it has to be released. We could tweak a story, a dance, a painting forever, but a time comes when the work must be given over to the audience, the reader, or the viewer. But, until that time of release, staying in the moment, taking all the steps, and trusting the process are vital to the artist and the creative endeavor.

Trusting the process means staying the course, focusing on your work, and not comparing it to anyone else’s work or success or result.

The same applies to a business; allow the project to have its legs under it, send it out into the world before you abandon it for the new thing that everyone is talking about. You’ve got something going that has been working for some time; why let that go for the shiny new thing?

A Quick Word About Success

A sign on the side of a building reading: You're not lost, You're here.

There is no universal definition for success. There is no template or chart to follow. Success is an individual thing, and the measurement of success is also personal.

You need always to have your definition of success in your head. YOUR success, Again, we fall into the trap of comparison when we talk about success. That doesn't help you when dealing with Shiny Object Syndrome. If you’re working off someone else’s definition or measurement of success, you will never succeed.

You have to define clearly what your idea, definition, or image of success is and keep on the path of achieving YOUR success.

There is no right definition here. If success means tons of money and cars and huge houses, keep that in mind and go after it. If success means being your own boss and having time to do recreational things, go after that.

Keep your definition of success clearly defined, tweak it as you grow older, but never try to match or achieve someone else’s success; you will always be disappointed. You will be super susceptible to Shiny Object Syndrome.

How to Stay On Top of Shiny Object Syndrome

Staying on top of the impulse to go after the next big thing at the expense of what you’re currently working on, what has held your attention and passion for a while, is not easy. Shiny things are pretty, and they hold the promise of wealth, success, recognition, and all that comes with it. But, the shine wipes off rather quickly if you’re jumping from object to object.

Here are a few tips for staying on top of this nefarious syndrome.

Understand Yourself And Your Process

This requires patience, self-examination, and trust. You’ve been doing this for a while; you know you have had success in the past. You have defined what you believe success is, and that ideal still holds. You know how you work. You know you have these moments of self-doubt; you know you lose patience with yourself. You also know how to get around these obstacles because you’ve done it in the past. This is part of your process.

Knowing yourself, understanding how you work and create, and trusting your process will keep you strong and focused. Accepting that you have to have these minor breakdowns before you keep moving forward means you won’t get scared, lose faith, give up and go after the shiny thing that may be the answer. You have the answers, keep asking the questions; that’s the process.

Assess the Shiny Thing's Potential for You

Yup, new ideas and new ways are always coming down the pike. Some of them become wildly successful. This is where you need to take an honest look at the shiny thing and assess whether it is right for you at this time and for what you’re creating.

Will leaving your current project for the shiny thing help you grow and get better as a creative? Will abandoning your current path or goal damage you going forward? Is it worth giving up on what you’ve been working on to pursue this shiny object?

Ask these questions and make an honest assessment of where you are and what you want. Do this in conjunction with the first step, understanding yourself and your process.

Be specific about goals and desires and make an informed choice.

Are Your Goals Based on Comparisons?

When you started this project, you had goals in mind. When the shiny object catches your eye, you need to reexamine those goals. Are they still valid? Do they still ring true and fulfill your passion? If so, then the only reason you’re thinking about leaving those goals behind might be because the shiny object is causing you to compare yourself to someone else.

If your goals are solid and well-considered at the start of the project, then you can go back to them, rethink them and get re-energized about them. If, however, the shiny object looms and you think about grabbing it, you may need to adjust the goals on your current project.

Are your goals going to be fulfilled by the shiny object, or are you abandoning your goals because you’re comparing yourself and your work to someone else?

Keep Your Focus

One of the easiest ways to catch a dose of SOS (Shiny Object Syndrome) is to have too many projects going on at once.

If you have a mountain of projects, all in some state of incompletion, you’re more susceptible to SOS because things feel unfinished, in flux, and you’re looking for an escape.

Take on fewer projects to give more attention to each and complete more projects in a timely manner. A pile of complete projects gives you a feeling of satisfaction, and you’re less likely to stray or look for an escape from all the unfinished work.

Identify Your Accomplishments

You’ve just finished a project; now you’re turning your attention to the next thing. Stop. Breathe and look at what you’ve just done. Take it in, be happy with it, and reward yourself for completing it.

If you just move from project to project, it will eventually feel as if you’ve never completed anything. One will bleed into the other and the other and on and on til you’ll feel as if you never stop working, creating, and that endless feeling will leave you vulnerable to Shiny Object Syndrome.

Actors in plays have an opening night party to separate the rehearsal stage of the project from the performance stage. Both require different skills and views, and it’s good to say goodbye to one aspect of the job before attacking the next. And they have closing night parties to celebrate the completion of the work before they go on to the next thing.

This breaking up, celebrating, and acknowledging the completion of steps helps to avoid burnout, keeps the work fresh, and cuts down on Shiny Object Syndrome. So, recognize the end of a project, take notes, celebrate, and move forward.

Reduce Social Media Time

We have discussed the dangers of comparing yourself to others, working toward their goals instead of your own, trusting your process, and staying true to your definition of success. One of the worst offenders in terms of inciting comparison is social media.

No one’s life is real on social media, and it is very easy to look at all the posts and words about how great people’s lives are and forget that they aren’t posting all the day-to-day nightmares, just the good parts.

It’s easy to get caught up in comparing your life to the “fabulous” lives promoted and pushed on social media. When you’re feeling stalled, and your passion has dropped a bit on your project, looking at social media will open you to Shiny Object Syndrome.

Stay off or seriously limit your time on social media. Don’t allow the false images to get in your head and turn you from your creative path. Don’t buy into the hype, and don’t fall for the shiny objects living there.

Shiny Isn’t Always Best

Dog, tongue hanging out being petted.

Shiny Object Syndrome, always chasing the latest thing, comparing yourself to others, and adopting someone else’s goals are productivity and creative killers.

It’s not easy to avoid, and sometimes, we get caught up in it without even knowing we’re stuck. That’s why it is imperative that you know yourself, know what you want, understand your goals and know what success means to you.

Even when you apply this thinking to business, it is easy to get caught up in fighting the competition. However, if you compete with only yourself, be better each day, push the envelope with each new project, and always focus and do your very best, the outside competition will take care of itself.

Socrates said, “Man know thyself.” It makes sense. If you know yourself, understand yourself and have faith in what you do and how you do it, you are less likely to see the shiny object in the next guy's life and suddenly decide that’s what you want.

Shiny Object Syndrome often sneaks in when you’re at your lowest and takes hold. Be vigilant in fighting off this soul-sucking, life-destroying sickness. Be true to who you are and what you believe, recognize your successes, celebrate them, and remember that there is only one you, unique and cannot be duplicated. Trust yourself.