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Shiny object syndrome: The downsides of focusing on quick fixes

Last updated

17 April 2024


Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Mary Mikhail

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Shiny object syndrome (SOS) involves over-valuing products and offers and being distracted by new, seemingly exciting opportunities.

It can seem like a good thing because it closely mimics positive characteristics like curiosity, creativity, proactivity, and enthusiasm. However, it can lead you down the garden path and steer you away from pursuits that actually provide value. Many people discover this once it’s already too late.

In this article, you can learn what SOS is, what causes it, what its risks are, and how to combat it.

What is shiny object syndrome?

Shiny object syndrome, also known as magpie syndrome, is the tendency to be easily distracted by new, exciting opportunities or ideas. You might regularly abandon current tasks or goals in pursuit of the latest novelty, resulting in scattered focus and unfinished projects.

It has potentially harmful consequences.

SOS is largely fueled by a combination of

  • Viewing things through rose-tinted glasses

  • Unrealistic expectations

  • Dissatisfaction with current progress

  • An urge to take shortcuts

Shiny object syndrome usually implies an overzealous approach to business matters. It can also affect your personal life. In any capacity, SOS can lead you to ignore subtle red flags and go against your better judgments.

Many entrepreneurs go through a phase of SOS. They view their new business terrain with starry-eyed glasses and see opportunities where there aren’t any.

Like crows and magpies, those with SOS can easily develop a reputation for chasing after each shiny thing that crosses their path. Left unchecked, it can lead to a reputation for

  • “Pie in the sky” thinking

  • Dramatic tendencies

  • Inexperience

  • Lack of business sense

  • Gullibility

It can be hard to remember that “all that glitters is not gold.” If you, like a magpie, have a reputation for hunting for shiny new opportunities, remember that it can be ineffective and outright disastrous.

Here are just a few examples of the consequences of shiny object syndrome:

  • Stock bubbles

  • Overvalued IPOs

  • Using retirement funds for high-risk investments

  • Leveraging credit to make up for poor cash flow

  • Habitually borrowing funds to pay debt

Of course, shiny object/magpie syndrome isn’t just poor financial judgment. It offers a likely explanation for how these circumstances arise and the psychological motives behind them.

Seeing through shiny yet unproven opportunities is the key to sound judgment and success in business and commerce.

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What causes shiny object syndrome?

It’s natural to test the limits of how much value you can derive from just about anything—but in reality, good business decisions often come down to shrewd value judgments that may be less idealistic or impressive.

Ironically, a lack of confidence in the more pragmatic, readily available opportunities is at the heart of SOS. These opportunities may not be as inspiring or attention-grabbing, but they are often the best. Making the most of them leads to better results than you can expect elsewhere.

Often, the “next big thing” comes along after you put hard, painstaking effort into what may seem like the smaller, less impressive aspects of your work. Yet, they all add up over time, creating a major payday for those who both

  1. Put in the daily work, confident that their efforts will build up to a major milestone

  2. Keep their eyes open for opportunities as they arise naturally

Is shiny object syndrome ADHD?

While it certainly shares qualities with attention deficit disorder (ADHD), such as impatience and restlessness, SOS is not a formally recognized clinical diagnosis.

SOS can seem like anything but avoidance and distraction. After all, those chasing the next shiny object exemplify successful traits (at least at first), such as focus, determination, and risk-taking.

It brings up a very important consideration: is a risk ever truly calculated? Even the worst Ponzi schemes and multi-level marketing (MLM) scams often brandish compelling figures and statistics.

The key is to maintain a healthy skepticism, even in the face of lofty (however enticing) promises.

Why is shiny object syndrome a problem?

While it’s true that new technology, RevOps strategies, and alliances can lead to transformative gains, they aren’t the end-all-be-all. The main problems arise when people conflate short-term (or worse, unfounded) gains with long-term success. Shiny object syndrome preys on a person’s insecurity and desperation, driven by a greater desire to win than to learn how to win.

Depending on how influential those with SOS become, the adverse consequences can include any of the following:

  • Poor mental health and well-being

  • Lost time and resources

  • Opportunity costs that outweigh the rewards

  • Inability to learn new value-adding tasks or methods

If a large enough group commits to shiny object syndrome, a “cult of personality” can develop. Followers upregulate these traits, creating an insular culture immune from criticism or alternative evidence, even as they fail to achieve goals.

Is shiny object syndrome always bad?

Being open and eager for the next opportunity is a good thing, yet it has limits. If receptivity and enthusiasm come at the cost of making accurate, data-driven predictions, the object of focus may be a mirage.

It’s important to differentiate between the traits below. The first depends on patience, prudence, skepticism, and an openness to critical feedback. The second is a working definition of shiny object syndrome. 

  1. Openness to novelty and opportunity, rooted in conclusive research and analysis

  2. Disregard for sensible, accurate assessments about your ever-changing objects of focus

What underpins both traits is openness, but it’s a matter of what you are open to. Excitable internal impulses or alternate feedback, doubts, and critical viewpoints?

Do I have shiny object syndrome?

The most telling sign of shiny object syndrome is, ironically, a sense of inaction, even after exerting enormous effort.

In this scenario, someone without shiny object syndrome might take stock, reevaluate their efforts, and adjust their approach. Yet, those with SOS may double down on the same fruitless endeavor, even if the evidence suggests they should change course. Others with SOS change course again and again if they don’t see immediate success. A lack of balance, commitment, and trust in empirical evidence underscores both extremes.

You likely have shiny object syndrome, at least to some extent, if you experience any of the following:

  • “Opportunity hopping,” and with little to show for it

  • Remaining transfixed on a pet strategy or habit, even when you see proof that another tactic is more effective

  • Dissatisfaction with the outcome of juggling multiple endeavors

  • Resistance or denial when confronted with poor measures of success

  • Becoming easily excited about new prospects without knowing much about them

Some people use the pursuit of a goal as a willpower exercise, believing (or even demonstrating) that doing so has value. But what about exercises that leave them chronically unsatisfied?

As Winston Churchill said, “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” But remember that this attitude alone doesn’t make something more valuable.

What causes shiny object syndrome?

Here are some of the theories of what causes shiny object syndrome:

  • Lack of focus and discipline

  • Fear of missing out (FOMO)

  • Inadequate planning and unclear goals

  • Shaky confidence in day-to-day procedures

  • Disorganized use of time

  • Unclear measures of success

  • Inexperience

  • Lack of clear and consistent project feedback

How to overcome shiny object syndrome

You’ll need to spend time getting to grips with and resolving the psychological drivers behind opportunity hopping.

You may need to practice stronger gatekeeping and turn more opportunities down. At first, it might seem like having a dismissive and unenthusiastic attitude. However, you’ll need to go through this phase to rebalance your previous tendency to pursue anything.

Some view SOS as a lack of confidence in their own methodology, projected outward in an attempt to feel progress rather than acknowledge a loss of direction. It’s okay to feel lost from time to time; it’s how you recalibrate your inner compass.

If you think your work habits might resemble those of a smart yet scattered magpie, consider the following exercises as you redefine and forge your new path:

  • Establish, define, and enforce feedback channels.

  • Set realistic but inspiring expectations.

  • Use a project roadmap to clarify your milestones and refocus your efforts.

  • Reevaluate your priorities and create reminders that reinforce your “why.”

  • Plan minor rewards around putting in the bedrock work.

  • Frame smaller efforts in the context of the larger purpose.

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