The Shiny Toy Syndrome: When We Chase Novelty at Work

You’re at your desk, ready to write an article. A quick mind map might help organize your thoughts, so you start scribbling in your notebook. But then, a nagging thought arises: isn’t there a better tool out there? Before you know it, you’re searching for alternatives and watching tutorials. Hours slip by, and your article is still just an idea.

The shiny toy syndrome is characterized by getting an intense but temporary sense of satisfaction from using a new tool before moving onto something else. This desire to use the latest and supposedly greatest is often irrespective of the practical need for it.

This applies equally to tangible and intangible toys: many entrepreneurs suffer from this constant need to build something new, and developers often try new languages just because they’re more recent and therefore more exciting.

In fact, once you start looking, you’ll notice the shiny toy syndrome is everywhere. New technologies are being adopted everyday just because they’re perceived as innovative. Freelancers have to battle random requests from clients who want to include buzzworthy features. Companies invest in new training without considering first whether they are fit for purpose.

Symptoms of the shiny toy syndrome

It’s natural to be attracted to new things. It’s actually hardwired into the brain to appreciate and seek out novelty: research shows that being exposed to novel experiences activates the release of dopamine in the central nervous system. But when it becomes a consistent habit in the way you work or run a business, it can be extremely damaging.

To cure the condition, you first need to notice the symptoms. Here are some of the signs of shiny toy syndrome you should pay attention to:

  • You have switched a particular piece of software or service provider in your business several times in the past year
  • You pick a new language every time you start to code a new project
  • You spend more time adding new features to your product than improving the existing ones or growing the customer base
  • You have launched and abandoned many side projects in the past year, without giving them the time to grow
  • You want to build products with emerging technologies (AI, AR, VR, blockchain) just because they’re new and innovative
  • You have bought and started many online courses but never managed to finish one

None of these alone constitute a strong indication that you suffer from shiny toy syndrome, but several of these signs combined mean that you should probably be careful about how the constant switching and newness-driven choices may be hurting your long-term performance.

How to deal with the shiny toy syndrome

Not only is it a potentially expensive habit, but the shiny toy syndrome can cause unnecessary stress and confusion. When the tools keep on changing and people’s energy is drained from constantly having to relearn basic tasks, this can hurt the team’s performance but also work relationships.

Luckily, there are a few things you can do to develop self-awareness and combat the shiny toy syndrome.

  1. Implement a cooling-off period. When you feel tempted by a new tool or technology, implement a mandatory cooling-off period. Give yourself a few days or even weeks to ponder the decision. This can help reduce impulse purchases or changes based purely on the novelty factor.
  2. Ask yourself why. Before implementing a new feature or technology into your product, take a moment to ask yourself why. Is it because it will be beneficial to the users, or because you find it exciting? Does it actually make sense from a business perspective?
  3. Consider the switching costs. Each decision comes with consequences. What would be the return on investment of switching tools? What other priorities will have to wait while you focus on implementing a new feature? Use second-level thinking to imagine all the effects your decisions will have on the business before committing to it.
  4. Use a decision matrix. The DECIDE framework can help you evaluate potential new tools objectively. You will define the problem, establish the criteria, and consider the alternatives before you can identify the best alternative. And sometimes the best alternative is to stick to your current solution!
  5. Reflect on the decision. Whether it’s by discussing the impact of the new tool with friends and colleagues or writing your reflections as part of your metacognitive practice, make sure to review the shiny new toys you’ve been experimenting with and assess whether they’re still fit for purpose.

The idea is not to limit your curiosity – just to channel it in a way that’s most supportive of your creativity and creativity. If trying new tools gives you lots of joy, you can turn that curiosity into an actual project to share your experience with others (this is why we started the Tools for Thought interview series at Ness Labs). You can always also have one long-term project and several smaller side projects which you’re free to abandon whenever they don’t feel fun anymore.

The key here is intentionality. Whenever you want to try a new tool or start to a new project, question your motivations, explore second-order consequences, and make sure to reflect on the impact so you can keep on learning and growing.

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