The Cure for Shiny Object Syndrome

Most entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs can identify plenty of business opportunities which they feel are worth pursuing.

And most of us are very good at starting projects. We get a new idea for a product, service or business strategy and we become very enthused by the prospects of implementing it and seeing it succeed.

The Problem

stop and think

But, somewhere along the way a strange thing happens, usually with an assist from a skillful if not ethical marketer.

The new idea begins to lose its luster and it doesn’t look as promising anymore.

In fact, other ideas start presenting themselves and by comparison they seem far more attractive and more likely to succeed than the idea we initially thought was such a great opportunity.

You know what happens next, don’t you? Self-doubt sets in and you become pessimistic about the likelihood of succeeding with your initial idea.

As your enthusiasm for the project begins to wane the inner dialogue begins:

  • “This isn’t going to work”
  • I shouldn’t have even started this
  • “People aren’t going to like it”
  • I really didn’t think this through well enough
  • “I should spend my time working on something else”
  • “Why doesn’t anything ever work out for me?”

As our confidence dwindles, our motivation to keep working dwindles right along with it and before long we’re only working on the project occasionally – if at all.

The Solution

In this article we’re going to try to answer that last question above about why things don’t work out, and we’re going to explore why so many of our projects end up in the never-to-be-completed bin.

They say the best way to learn something is to try to teach it, and believe me this article is very “self-instructive.”

I am in the process of reading the book referenced below, and it has been revelatory for me. It truly has been a “light goes on” “forehead slapping” experience. I hope that it will be the same for you.

The Emotional Cycle of Change (ECOC)

The scenario described above is not unique to you or to me, although we may at times feel that we are somehow personally inadequate because of our inability to stay focused on a project long enough to complete it.

The problem is, in fact, one that has been well documented in the scientific literature. Psychologists Don Kelly and Daryl Conner have described this all too common phenomenon in their paper entitled “The Emotional Cycle of Change.”

Kelly and Connor identified five stages of emotional experience which we all must pass through as we attempt to make a change of any kind, whether it’s something to do with our businesses, our relationships, or our personal habits like diet and exercise.

The five stages are:

  1. Uninformed Optimism
  2. Informed Pessimism
  3. Valley of Despair
  4. Informed Optimism
  5. Success & Fulfillment

I first learned about the ECOC while reading a book entitled The 12 Week Year: Get More Done In 12 Weeks Than Others Do In 12 Months by Brian P. Moran and Michael Lennington, which I recommend. It is worth your time to read as a guide to project management generally. The ECOC discussion is just one small part of the overall book.

I credit Moran and Lennington for the information contained here about the ECOC, including this graphic which I created based upon a similar graphic presented in their book.


As you can see, the time axis moves from left to right, and your emotional state is represented by the vertical axis, with optimistic emotional states being toward the top above the horizontal line and pessimistic emotional states being closer to the bottom below the horizontal line.

We all start a project at Phase I with a high level of optimism about our prospects for success. It’s very exciting and we usually can’t wait to get started. This feeling of exuberance is addictive and helps explain, in part, why we so readily return to Phase I again and again.

The problem is, our optimism is what psychologists Kelly and Connor labeled “uninformed optimism.” That is, our exuberance is often not based upon a thorough analysis of everything that is going to be required to bring the project to successful completion. Ignorance is bliss as they say.

Anyway, the bliss doesn’t last. As we begin to become more informed about all the steps that are going to be necessary to bring the desired change about – whether that’s producing a product or service, changing our diets, exercising more, or whatever – our emotional states begin to decline.

We are entering Phase II, Informed Pessimism. Suddenly, the benefits of completing the project don’t seem as likely or as appealing, and more and more negative aspects of what’s necessary to complete the project occupy our thoughts.

Welcome To the Valley of Despair

It doesn’t take long to descend from Phase II to Phase III, what Moran/Lennington refer to as “the Valley of Despair.” No explanation is needed. We’ve all been there.

So, can you see why so many digital entrepreneurs, or entrepreneurs in general for that matter, struggle mightily with staying focused and bringing concepts to completion?

As we enter Phases II and III we are very susceptible to discouragement, followed by project abandonment.

It’s so common that we even have our own term for it: shiny object syndrome. We start one project after another and quickly descend from Uninformed Optimism to Informed Pessimism to the Valley of Despair.

While in the Valley of Despair, another shiny object invariably appears on our radar and let’s be honest: it’s more fun (albeit temporary) to return to Phase I – Uniformed Optimism – than it is to remain in the Valley of Despair and exercise the discipline required of us to find a way to complete the original project and succeed.

I hope you’re beginning, as I did, to see both the problem and the solution. Now that you are aware of the ECOC and how it can (and does) trap you in an endless loop of uncompleted projects, you will be able to recognize it for what it is.

First, you will try to minimize the “uninformed” part of Uninformed Optimism by thoroughly analyzing each prospective project before committing to it.

Next, as you begin each carefully vetted new project you will anticipate that you are going to transition through the five stages of emotional experience.

As you enter Phase II and Phase III you will not be caught off-guard. You’ll be prepared and you will know that if you persevere Phases IV and V are on the horizon.

Each phase gives way to the next and as you pass out of Phase III you enter Phase IV – Informed Optimism – and move ever closer to project completion.

One by one the obstacles to success are eliminated and by just keeping your shoulder to the wheel, Phase V – Success and Fulfillment – awaits.

Knowledge Is Power

Here’s what I suggest:

  • Memorize the ECOC!
  • Tape it on your wall!
  • Do whatever it takes to keep it in your consciousness!

That way, the next time you are tempted to abandon a project prior to completion and chase another squirrel (a/k/a shiny object), you will immediately recognize that you are in Phase II or III, and you will be armed with the knowledge that if you go chasing after that squirrel you’re condemning yourself to return to Phase I only to repeat the self-defeating cycle indefinitely.

The choice is simple: enter the Valley of Despair once and work your way through it, or take up permanent residence in the Valley, with only brief vacations to be spent in the land of Uninformed Optimism!

It’s up to each of us my friend. Hope this has helped.