You can do anything, but not everything - David Allen
Flow, or "being in the zone", is one of the best feelings in the world. No one can tell you how to reach it, but anyone can instantly pull you out of it. It is frail.
Flow is not exclusive to individuals. Companies, teams, and even products can be in a flow state. This is when intense focus allows for exceptional work to happen and for outsized outcomes to be delivered. If you’ve worked with a great team for long enough then you know what I’m talking about.
Shiny object syndrome – our tendency to constantly chase new ideas – is the enemy of flow. It kills focus and stops exceptional work from being fully realized. It is nothing less than deadly.
By the end of this article you’ll be equipped to resist the shiny object syndrome.
Success is Simple.
Success is simple. It requires exactly two abilities:
Setting the right goals
Meeting those goals
Doing this consistently and repeatedly over the long haul will get you anywhere. I said simple, not easy!
Here’s a seemingly dumb insight: Once your goals are set, the only thing you need to do is meet them.
As long as you can stay on track to meeting your goals, you don’t need to improve your plans, you don’t need to try something new, you don’t need to be doing the most optimal thing. Once your goals are set, put your head down and execute. Don’t look up, right, or left, just execute as hard as you possibly can and allow flow to kick in.
Once your true and only commitment is to “just” meet your goals, your brain will stop wandering off and will become much more useful. It will change from:
Are we doing everything perfectly? -> Are we on track to meet our goals?
Can we do anything better? -> Is anything standing in our way to meeting our goals?
Here’s a cool new idea -> Here’s how we stay focused on our goals
A brain that only cares about meeting a concrete goal will stop coming up with random ideas that only inhibit your success. It is resistant to the shiny object syndrome.
The Crazy Idea Window
But when is it time to come up with new ideas and change your plan? That time is the crazy idea window: when planning or when falling behind.
Planning happens immediately after goal setting. Planning is a unique time to consider every crazy idea in the world and then come up with a focused plan to reach your goals. Once you start executing on said plan, the crazy idea window closes.
The crazy idea window will open again in your next planning season or when you start falling behind.
Falling behind refers to falling behind in respect to meeting your goals. When this happens you absolutely shouldn’t just amend your plan with new ideas. This is guaranteed to make everything worse. What you ought to do is stop, diagnose the problem, and only then come up with new ways to fix the problem. Just like a mechanic.
As long as what you’re doing is good enough to meet your goals it is not the time to come up with new things. The crazy idea window is shut. Keep your head down and allow flow to emerge.
But I Want Better Results!
Great. The desire for more is essential and I’m not suggesting killing it altogether. I’m suggesting that you start doing it the right way.
There are 3 distinct ways to improve your results: boosting execution, iterating, and chasing the new. Let’s take an example from a product team.
Boosting execution - say that users often fail to use what you build. You may fix that by implementing an efficient UX testing process
Iterating - say that half of your users don’t use your biggest killer feature. You may fix that by making that feature incredibly easy to find and use
Chasing the new - say that users have told you about a problem that you are currently not solving for them. You can try to address that by building something new
Shiny object syndrome happens when we put too much emphasis on the last category and ignore the first two. We think that doing something new is the only way to improve. It sure is the most exciting one, but it’s almost always the worst of the 3.
And while all 3 categories are valid, it is imperative to get the frequencies right.
Constantly boosting execution - execution is how you do things, it is the foundation. It must be constantly improved to become as strong as possible
Frequently iterating - iteration is about improving your core, what you already have. Your core must be great and it will only become great through frequent iteration
Sparsely chasing the new - new is distracting and dangerous. Just wait until the crazy idea window opens next
Obsess about your execution, frequently iterate on your core, and sparsely chase the new. We can even give this a name – the improvement/frequency rule.
Shiny object syndrome is a terrible outcome of a good intention. The intention is to improve and succeed, but the outcome is distraction, frustration, and failure.
Healing starts by understanding how success works. It is the result of a very simple process repeated over time:
Setting the right goals
Meeting those goals
The insight is that once your goals are set, the only thing you need to do is meet them. As long as you’re on track to meeting your goals there is no need to improve your plans, you don’t need to be optimizing everything, and you don’t need to try something new.
The time to consider new ideas is the crazy idea window:
Immediately after goal setting, when planning how you’ll meet your goals
Immediately when you notice that you’re falling behind your goals
Apart from these two times, new ideas will patiently wait for when the crazy idea window opens next.
Finally, you probably still want to improve your outcomes even when the window is closed. This can be achieved by focusing on execution and iteration. You must be:
Constantly boosting execution
Frequently iterating on your core
Sparsely chasing the new
But. No matter how disciplined you are, that day will come when an idea will take over your mind and keep you up at night. When that day comes you must throw all my advice out the window and go build the damn thing.
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