Jul 082011

Focus – Beware Shiny Object Syndrome (SOS)

I was out cycling with one of my sons this morning, when it occurred to me that pretty much everyone suffers from what I like to call Shiny Object Syndrome, or “SOS” for short – the “syndrome” that causes one to be easily distracted by “shiny objects” and lose focus on key tasks at hand.

My son and I now go three times per week for a two and a half hour cycle, run and sometimes swim in the ocean. It’s great exercise and it’s been a great bonding experience for us – today, even more so, which will eventually get us to the SOS business (and otherwise) lesson learned today.

It started out as any other Sweaty Saturday, which is the name we’ve given to our two and a half hour treks, regardless of which day they occur. We got moving at around 6:45am, did five miles riding close to the house, and then crossed over the main road to get access to the beach. We then rode a bunch of miles on the beach because today, fortunately, the sand was hard enough to do so.

It was soon thereafter that the first SOS “light bulb moment” arrived, even though I didn’t recognize it as such at the time. My son and I had just finished discussing that, since I always take the lead on the trail through the woods, I should probably carry a stick with me to knock down the spider nests, so the spiders wouldn’t end up on my face and bite me. I explained to him that it would be nice to take that approach, but the problem was that the trail was kind of tricky and technical and it would be tough to navigate with only one hand on the handlebars. So, I decided to just take my chances. Then, just as we entered the woods, having ridden maybe fifteen feet in on the trail, I turned around after making a comment to my son and right in front of me was a huge spider web, with a colorful spider about the width of my fist staring me in the face. I was moving about ten miles per hour and I broke the nest with my face and immediately turned to see if the spider was still hanging in what remained of the nest. It was! Thank goodness. So, after getting the web off my face and helmet, we decided that was enough of the trail for this summer season, as the spiders will keep getting larger until the fall, and I don’t want to have a heart attack when a huge one ends up on my face.

So we decided to take the circuitous route to our next destination, which is a nearby area with manmade exercise equipment on a circuit around a large lake. There, we ran, cycled and did a variety of other exercises. As is often the case with my son, who is the artistic one in our family, he was very distracted by pretty much everything, particularly the large variety of birds. The custom is that from a hundred feet or so behind me, I hear, “Dad, did you see that swan?” or “Dad, did you see how amazing the colors were on that duck?” The next sound is me yelling back, “Yes, son, now come on, we’re working out, not on a leisurely stroll.” It was during one of those interactions today that the Shiny Object Syndrome concept came to me, as I got increasingly frustrated with waiting for my son as he was distracted by one thing after another.

That said, I love the fact that he is so into nature and that he has such an eye for, well, pretty much everything. However, what I am trying to teach him is that there is a time for everything. As important as it is to be observant and to enjoy your surroundings, it is also very important to be focused and maintain concentration on the task at hand. I know that I and many entrepreneurs that I know struggle with this issue all the time. We have interests in a wide range of subjects and pursuits, we see opportunities everywhere we look, and we all suffer from Shiny Object Syndrome. There is a big difference with the successful entrepreneurs I know though: they have learned how to compartmentalize. They create windows of time and spaces for themselves to suffer “short attention span theater,” to their hearts’ content, in settings where there are few consequences. The rest of the time, in their business and personal lives, they are careful to focus and maximize their efforts on the particular task at hand, whatever it may be. When they’re working on key tasks, they are very deliberate to minimize distractions and remain very focused on getting the results they seek.

So, here’s the incident that really drove the SOS issue home for me today. After we finished our lake circuit and we were on the way back home, we had to pass through an old access road that has been converted to a bike path. The path is quite straight and runs for a few miles next to another lake. It’s nicely surfaced, so you can really “fly” on it. Today though, as we arrived to the path and were ready to get going fast, my son was still distracted and now he was also tired. As I turned, distracted once again by his distraction, to ask him what in the world was going on with him today, we were going about twelve miles per hour or so. Since I was turned to him, I did not notice that emerging from the left side of the path, was a large dark-colored snake with a distinct pattern on its back. It was a venomous cottonmouth (“water moccasin”) as it turns out. My front tire missed it by out six inches and it went rapidly between my son’s bike and mine. Thank goodness, once again, I got away with not paying attention, with suffering yet another bout of “Shiny Object Syndrome,” for if the cottonmouth had become tangled in my wheel, pedals, or those of my son’s bike, then flown upward, it could have been pretty ugly.

I’m not sure how many more SOS close calls I need before taking the focus message to heart, but I don’t think it will be many. 🙂 Set aside time to let your mind wander, but when it counts, make sure you are focused and not distracted or tempted by all the shiny objects we have in our world these days. I will try to do the same, though I know from experience that it will not be easy!

I look forward to your comments.

Paul Morin

  • I can relate 😉 Relating this to business (and running) is easy for me as well. Staying focused on important tasks only work if you give yourself time to focus and time to not focus on important things. There is a time for everything. For me, in order to focus and/or finish and/or start a task, the best thing to do is make a to do list. Once it’s written down, there is no way around it. I post my marathon training schedule on the fridge. Not only do I hold myself accountable, and focused, my family gets involved as well. They can read what I will be running and when and they know what I’ll be focused on. I love the analysis with S.O.S. Great blog post, Paul!

  • Fred Kane

    Not only is the SOS part real, but distracted children LOL? I think there should be a name for that also. Try teaching golf to a 4 year old, my oldest was the same way, it was fun to watch but interesting to try and wrangle. Thanks for bringing me back and reminding me how fun and how interesting it really was. And I do hate spiders and snakes also. I don’t understand how Motorcyclists deal with the whole getting blasted by critters in the face deal, but that’s just me I guess.
    Nice relating it all back to staying focused too.

  • Thanks, Fred. I agree — there should be a specific name for the kids version of SOS. Some would say ADHD, but I’m not sure whether that captures all the connotations we’re getting at here. I can imagine trying to teach a four year old golf; I have not done it with mine, but I remember being a four year old trying learn golf (or 5 year old) — it’s one of my earliest memories — and my impatience led me to hit my Dad in the head with the club as he was trying to show me how to swing. 🙂 Just one clarification — in the story I outlined above, we were on bicycles, not motorcycles. The penalty for SOS on motorcycles is even higher I think. 🙂 Thanks again for your comments. Paul

  • Hah! I am sure SOS runs in the family. Sorry, you probably caught it from me. I just finished an internet marketing video where you had to write down all the time and money you spent on various internet marketing courses, videos, software, etc. and it was staggering. You need a certain amount of trial and error, but after that you just need to choose your vehicle and get on with it! I am proud of being a “renaissance” thinker (kind of like the son you are talking about), but that doesn’t always get you where you want to go. Thanks for an thought provoking post.

  • Thanks, Laur. Agreed, SOS is not exactly foreign to our family. I don’t really see it as a negative, as long as you are aware of it and keep it under control. Now that my “renaissance thinker” is old enough and into cycling, I’m looking forward to sending him your way to work at your bike shop. Please don’t go easy on him and please keep him focused. 🙂

  • Sherrie Koretke

    Hi Paul,
    I like how you related your story to a common dilemma we seem to have in many aspects of our lives. I have a shiny metal button that says “Focus” right in front of my computer to remind me to not to get distracted by all the other shiny objects.

  • Hi Sherrie, thanks for your comments. That’s a great idea — I need to get one of those shiny buttons to remind me not to be distracted by other shiny objects! If it says “Focus,” all the better! Paul

  • Hi Paul,
    Love your SOS post, brilliant label for the many distractions coming, creeping, slithering and flying into our lives each day. I have a guest post on focus at Lori Gosselin’s place Life, for Instance and mentioned you in a comment. I hope this is ok with you.
    Thanks for your thoughts, I enjoy them each week and look forward to it!

  • Thanks, Barbara! Much appreciated. I like your description of how all these shiny objects find their way into our path each day. 🙂