man sitting at a desk with difficulty focusing as pop ups appear around him

Shiny Objects and the Flight of Pelicans

I admit it, I have a behavioral problem. It isn’t rare, but until recently, I didn’t have a name for it, when someone called it “Shiny Object Syndrome,” which seemed like such a perfect name, I decided to adopt it.

Unfortunately, once realizing there was a name for the behavior, I began pointing out the behavior to other people … primarily to my better half. That short-lived habit ended when a shiny object came whizzing past my head after I mentioned it one too many times.

Watch out for flying shiny objects

So, what is shiny object syndrome?” Simply stated, it is the inability to focus on one thing very long, not because you can’t, but because you won’t. For example, suppose I am writing an article for blood-cancer.com and a notification pops up on my phone that my daughter texted me a picture of my granddaughter (the shiny object). I immediately go to that text while losing my concentration on the article. I recoup and go back to the article, then my Ring doorbell camera sends me its very recognizable sound notification that it sees something. Guess what I do?

Researching my multiple myeloma

My example may be extreme, so I’ll apply it to a situation familiar to all of us, the time right after diagnosis. Personally, when I was first diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2017, I immediately researched the disease to find out as much as I could as fast as I could. What I didn’t realize was how complicated and individualized the condition was. I would start looking at one aspect of it, see something else that interested me (a shiny object), and go down a rabbit hole. Many more rabbit holes would follow.

Instead of sticking to one subject and understanding it as completely as possible, I jumped around, discovering many shiny objects. I found a lot of information about a lot of things associated with multiple myeloma, but only touched on understanding any of it. I was so good about chasing shiny objects that I even found out a lot of useful information unrelated to multiple myeloma.

Looking for a cure

Fortunately, many "myeloma 101" education programs have come into being since I was diagnosed. Programs like these help tremendously, but they will help you but not cure you if you have the syndrome. It takes an effort on your part.

That begs the question of is there a total cure for shiny object syndrome? Not really. We are human. Our minds aren't built to maintain complete focus. There are ways of minimizing it.

  • For one, turn your phone and email notifications off. They are non-productive in so many ways.
  • Second, when you do a search, stay on the subject. Don’t click on something that looks shiny but is unrelated to your primary search.
  • Third, utilize programs like Healthtree University, MMRF, Patient Power, Health Union, WEGO, etc. The key is focusing on one aspect until you understand it, then move on.

Stay away from shiny objects. This advice can apply to almost everything in life.

A dance with the ocean

So, what does this have to do with the flight of pelicans?

I don’t know how many of you have had the pleasure of watching a flock (pod) of pelicans fly over the ocean looking for their next meal, but it is a thing of beauty. The first time I saw it was last summer. I was mesmerized. I didn’t realize at the time it would give me an analogy to explain focus. This past weekend at a beach in North Carolina, I saw it again, and something clicked.

The ocean wasn’t calm. The waves were six to eight feet high, so there was a decent distance between the crest and the bottom of the waves.

As the pelicans flew over the ocean looking for their meal, they had to navigate these waves. Their focus was on food. As the pelicans flew, the waves would rise and fall, yet the pod of pelicans numbering at least fifty would also rise and fall with the waves, staying the same distance above the water, as if some invisible force were holding them there. It was an incredible sight.

The pelicans can focus

They had one focus. Food. The waves had no impact on them. It was a dance between the waves and the pelicans, with the pelicans taking the lead. The waves and the wind, the shiny objects in their world, didn’t impact them. The pelicans would have nosedived into the waves if they had been distracted. If you can find a YouTube film showing what I’m describing here, please watch it.

Pelicans trump shiny objects

People with chronic illness have so many issues pulling their focus away. Things like chronic pain, Facebook posts, and information from many sources keep them jumping from one subject to another when they often just need to get through one day or one subject at a time.

It’s not that these other things are unimportant, so describing them as shiny objects may not be appropriate, but they can take away from our focus away at the wrong times.

I know now that when I  need to focus on something, no matter what it is, I will remind myself to remember the flight of pelicans when chasing shiny objects. I can always get to them when I need to.

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