How Entrepreneurs Can Resist Shiny-Object Syndrome

Founders are ideas people -- but can be easily distracted by too many ideas. Resist the urge.
How Entrepreneurs Can Resist Shiny-Object Syndrome
Image credit: Andrea Ucini
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This story appears in the July 2017 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Have you ever worked with someone who is full of big ideas and constantly hops from one project to the next? If so, you’ve likely encountered a case of what psychologists call shiny-object syndrome. This is when someone is so distracted by the world around them that they’re forever drawn toward new ideas, people and stimuli.

Related: 10 Tips to Turn Your Brain Into an Idea Factory

You likely know these people. Maybe you’re even one of them. Entrepreneurs are especially prone to shiny-object syndrome. After all, we have a lot on our plates, we love new people, we’re always on the hunt for the next big idea. But this is where we can get into trouble. Psychology researcher Sabine Kastner discovered that the more stimuli the brain is exposed to, the harder time it has focusing on a single task, which makes us more impulsive. That’s because when we are overwhelmed, the limbic system in our brain drives us to do what feels right, not necessarily what is right. And that compels us to embrace new ideas we haven’t fully thought through.

Organizational-change researchers John Conbere and Alla Heorhiadi found that leaders who struggle with shiny-object syndrome cost their companies hundreds of thousands of dollars in time, resources and productivity. The truth is, most shiny ideas simply aren’t worth pursuing. Their value isn’t clear. And when those ideas are delegated to employees, they can lower morale and lead to procrastination, because employees don’t really know what to do with them, either, and are frustrated by constantly changing plans. Fortunately, for sufferers of shiny-object syndrome, there are ways to cope:

Related: The Simplest Test of Whether Your Business Idea Is Good or Bad

Schedule new-idea time 

If you are regularly tempted by new ideas, set aside a block of time every week to address them all at once. Create a separate folder in your inbox for them. Keep a new-idea notebook in which you write them down all week. But dive into these ideas fully only during your new-idea time. This way, the heat of the moment will have cooled and you can objectively evaluate all new ideas during one dedicated session.

Enlist a dream killer

If you are a dreamer, you need a dream killer -- someone who is honestly skeptical, refreshingly direct and very good at finding the potential downfalls of a new idea.

Having a dream killer present for new-idea time can be extremely effective for those constantly chasing shiny objects. Ask your dream killer to poke holes in your new idea, ask hard questions and look for any weaknesses. If an idea survives, it might be worth pursuing.

Strengthen your focus

Avoiding shiny-object syndrome starts with having a predictable work environment and schedule. Psychologists have discovered that the more decisions we make throughout the day, the less willpower we have. This is known as “ego depletion” and is why you’re more likely to act impulsively -- such as telling your team to move forward on a crazy, last minute project -- during busy periods, when your attention is being pulled in several directions.

Related: 4 Ways Creativity Is Killing Your Viable Business Ideas

An easy way to lessen ego depletion is to make your work environment and schedule as predictable as possible. The fewer decisions you make, the more effective they will be. Consider standardizing your daily schedule so you have fewer immediate choices, and set aside scheduled blocks of time for creating, writing, emailing or making phone calls, to avoid bouncing between a number of tasks. New ideas can create sparks in a growing business, but too many can cause a fire. Make sure your ideas provide strength, not destruction. All that glitters is not gold.

Edition: July 2017

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