“When it comes to glittering objects, wizards have all the taste and self-control of a deranged magpie”
Sourcery, Terry Pratchett
Ah, the seduction of shiny new things. There you are, three quarters of the way through your latest work in progress, when a new idea for a project slips into your mind, sneakily. You try to ignore it, but it flits about in your mind’s eye, tempting you like a will-o’-the-wisp. Rich with potential, it sparkles with the promise of excitement and novelty. Suddenly, the old work seems leaden and dull. You gaze along the road that will lead you to The End feeling like an ox in harness, dragging a burdensome plough behind you. Oh to be free and unfettered; to soar in the heavens with the hawks.
Shiny new object syndrome is one of the commonest reasons that it is so hard to finish things. The lure of the new project always seems to arrive as work on the current project shifts from imaginative, exploratory creation into patient, diligent labour. Why is it so hard to sustain the industriousness needed to complete one project before starting another? And what can be done to resist the blandishments of novelty?
The psychology of boredom
Boredom is an active process. You have to exert effort to persist with something once the novelty has worn off, because we evolved in an environment in which exploration and discovery could be rewarded by amazing survival benefits. That’s why novelty-seeking is built into the bedrock of our psychology, but as cunning primates we’ve learned that real gain comes from persistent work that lasts long past the point that boredom sets in. Building a shelter can protect you from the environment, but building a village and sustaining relationships with a community of other people over the long term can protect you against an even wider range of random threats and dangers. The shift from nomadic hunting and gathering, to agriculture and settlement has happened in the blink of an eye, from an evolutionary perspective. The value of persistence has been learned against our natural instincts, so it’s inevitable that we would meet psychological resistance when trying to stick with a project through boredom.
The tyranny of the Pareto principle
I’ve written before about the 80/20 rule, in relation to finishing a novel. The idea is that energy and enthusiasm can get you 80% of the way to finished, but then boredom kicks in, the work becomes laborious, and you fall into the trap of thinking you’re basically done so you can probably take your foot of the accelerator for a bit and starting thinking about the next project. And then you lose momentum, the last 20% of the project seems impossibly dull, and you feel you need a quick shot of motivation to get yourself enthusiastic again and so start investing time in the new project. The old one, inevitably, founders.
It becomes a habit
An unfortunate truth about not finishing things is that it becomes a habit. A familiar cycle. We start a project full of eagerness, hit an obstacle, lose motivation, get distracted, and then beat ourselves up for failing again. Repeat this pattern enough times and we start to believe that it is part of our identity. Repetition leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Clearly, we have to do something different if we want a different outcome.
So what can be done? How can we counter the attraction of the new, and ensure we finish the current work in progress? Here are a few ideas:
1) Use the shiny object as a reward.
Novelty is rewarding. It’s fun and stimulating, and that’s why we seek it. So, use that to your advantage. One of the most successful strategies for establishing a healthy habit of sustained work is to reward yourself for meeting targets. A new, exciting project could be just the right kind of reward. Set a rule: I will make a fresh cup of coffee and spend an hour in a sunny nook getting to know my new idea, after I have completed 500 words of my current work. Use the promise of indulging novelty as a motivator to meet your daily targets.
2) Store the idea
Sometimes a new idea can be so seductive, and intrude so aggressively into your mind, that it is impossible to concentrate on the work at hand. You need to exorcise it. So, use a “new idea” notebook as a memory storage device, and scribble down the basics of the idea so that you don’t lose the promise or excitement. Set yourself a time limit, and then brain-dump the idea onto the page out through your hand. Then – while assuring your subconscious that the wonderful idea is now safely stored for future review – get back to the work in progress.
3) Review your goals
As Teika has written before, smart goals can help to focus your mind, direct your energy, and map out your future. Remind yourself of your real ambition. Review where you are, where you want to be, and the plan you have laid out for how to get from here to there. When the siren song of a new idea starts to bewitch you, look at your goals, remind yourself of what you are seeking, and recognize that you are jeopardizing it all if you dive off the deck and swim over to the rocks.
Reminding yourself of how much you have to lose if you give up on your biggest dreams is a very good way of tarnishing the gleam on a tempting new object.
4) Remember that the new becomes old
Finally, the only thing more certain than the thrill of novelty, is its transience. Your current project was shiny and new once, and the new object will be overfamiliar soon enough. Disciplining yourself to delay gratification and concentrate on the present is the best way to realize your dreams. A drawer full of unfinished drafts is no-one’s ambition. Finishing is a skill worth cultivating.