Squirrel! How to Stop Chasing Shiny Objects and Stay Focused

July 7, 2020

“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.” – Warren Buffet

My swimming success may greatly be attributed to mionalical focus. My days were structured around a single goal: Become the best in the world. I woke up at 3:30 a.m. to be in the water by 4:30. I drank an after-workout shake within 30 minutes of finishing, optimizing recovery. Between morning and afternoon workouts, my day consisted of school, stretching, fueling, and visualizing success. 

Yet, as an entrepreneur, I have found myself lacking this focus. This level of laser-focused effort is frequently replaced with chasing new ideas and shiny objects. Action has been replaced by distraction. I start many projects but finished few.

I’m far from alone. For the last four years, I’ve been working with clients on how to optimize their performance and well-being. Chasing new opportunities (i.e., distractions) and refusing to say “no” is one of my client’s biggest challenges. 

Do you find yourself doing something similar?

Shiny Object Syndrome Defined

Shiny Object Syndrome (SOS) is a disease of distraction and is characterized by a propensity for getting distracted by new ideas and opportunities. Different from ADD/ADHD, SOS occurs when a new idea or opportunity captures your attention and distracts you from your big, long-term goals.

It is not uncommon for highly motivated, ambitious individuals to battle SOS. Their love of taking on new challenges, excitement to “do”, and deep desire for greater success leave them chasing new ideas, products, and opportunities. Those characteristics that make driven individuals successful are also ones that can leave them distracted, unproductive, and ineffective. 

The Diet of Distraction

You’re all in on a new diet and workout regimine. Your friend had amazing results, and you are 100% confident this is the one that’s going to work for you. You clear out your cabinets, replacing “off limit” foods with those that support your future svelte self. You get a workout journal, new sneakers, and a few amazing new outfits – afterall, looking good is half the battle. 

Except that it’s not the half that creates results. A few weeks in, you’re already over this new diet. The work is hard. You’re over broccoli, avocado, and chicken. Who was the idiot who said no carbs was a good idea? 

You know it shouldn’t be this hard. You hop on Instagram – BOOM! Another friend is talking about her amazing diet and workout regime and here’s the key – You can eat anything you want – INCLUDING CARBS! You’re in. This one is the real deal. This is what you’ve always been looking for. You’re ready. 

Replace diet and exercise with new ideas:

  • A writer seeking a new topic for his story
  • An entrepreneur planning a new product or service, despite the fact that the first one is not launched
  • A coach expanding coaching services without having landed a first client

ALERT: My friend, there’s nothing wrong with you.

We chase shiny objects for many reasons. Here are two of the main ones:

Brainstorming is fun and exciting.

For a recent consulting project with a large non-profit organization, I facilitated a planning retreat with the leadership team. We began with brainstorming strategic initiatives, and the energy was electric. Collaboration was high and excitement filled the air as they imagined their future.

Then came the difficult part – narrowing it down to what mattered. From electric and excited to anxious and overwhelmed, team members struggled to say no to all the great ideas they had just generated. Brainstorming is associated with “yes” and freedom. Narrowing down ideas is associated with “no” and limitations. 

We avoid challenging emotions and draining activities

As I said, brainstorming is fun for many, but then comes the hard work of completing initiatives. We face frustrating setbacks, boredom from the monotony, and impatience when we aren’t seeing results fast enough. Instead of facing the uncomfortable emotions and persevering, we chase something new to feel all the “good” emotions again.

Of course, we know that SOS results in lack of productivity, production, and direction. So, what can you do to overcome SOS and accomplish your goals?

4 Steps to saying NO to SOS and YES W.IN.-ning (What’s Important Now)

Assess

Have you ever gone into the grocery store needing a few items but left with 10? The endcap displays of new treats were just too enticing! You forgot to pause and ask – “Do I really need this?” The same thing happens with new projects and opportunities. Overwhelmed with excitement, we forget to slow down and assess if it’s actually worth pursuing. 

Next time you find yourself jumping at anything new and shiny, pause and ask yourself the following questions:

  1. How will this move me towards my goals?
  2. If it does, is there something that will move me towards my goals more efficiently and effectively?
  3. If not, do I have the time, energy resources to pursue this now?
  4. What will I need to sacrifice in order to take on this new initiative? Is it worth it?

After answering these four questions, you should have a clear sense of if the opportunity in front of you is worth pursuing. If yes, go for it! If not, put it aside. Perhaps, the answer is “not yet”, in which case I encourage you to keep those ideas tucked away somewhere. I keep a “Dream Big” list, which is a list of things that do not move me towards my current goals but are still of interest to me.

Just because you say “no” for now doesn’t mean you can’t revisit them later. It’s just “not right now.”

Slow down. Strategize.

As I said, getting swept up in the excitement of a new idea is a surefire way to lose direction and intention. If after assessing an idea you decide to proceed, give yourself permission and time to slow down to strategize how you will plan, execute, and assess your new idea. 

When I have a new idea, I start with sleeping on it. I do not assess it before I give myself at least 48 hours to let it marinate. If after a couple days, it’s still top of mind I proceed. Once I run through the questions listed above, I start to strategize.

Building on the question of how it aligns with my goals, I create a plan for achievement that has specific daily, measurable tasks that progress me towards my short term and long term goals.

Of course, surprises can and will arise and agility is important when pursuing big goals. Nevertheless, you at least need a compass for where you are going.

If you are interested in learning more about goals setting, check out my free goal setting guide.

Commit

This is where it gets tough – the commitment.

You’ve got a plan and now you have to execute. Set a timeline for assessing your progress and results. As I said, one of the biggest challenges to individuals facing SOS is lack of commitment. Results don’t happen fast enough so they give up and chase something new.

Tiny, daily steps taken over the long term lead to big results.

Give yourself time to see results. Be patient and COMMIT.

Embrace the Suck

My friend and fellow Olympic teammate, Katie Hoff, talks about Embracing the Suck. So many young athletes I talk to want to be Olympians. I don’t blame them – it’s cool to grace the cover of magazines, get free swag, and win medals. But, what those athletes forget is there is a lot of pain and unsexy stuff that is required before you get any of those perks. When the alarm goes off at 3:30 a.m. suddenly it’s a little less exciting.

The same is true in business. Results are motivating. But motivation is fleeting. We need discipline and perseverance to go through the hard, monotonous, discouraging, and disappointing moments. We need to embrace the suck and persevere.

It’s your turn. Have you been chasing shiny objects? It’s time to assess, slow down to strategize, commit, and embrace the suck. You can do it, and you will be far more successful and far less stressed as a result.

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