Signaling SOS: Help, I’m Drowning in Schoolwork

by Jessica Ostrow Michel, Teachers College, Columbia University

Shiny Object Syndrome is the tendency to get distracted by new and exciting thoughts and ideas that prevent moving forward with your main task.  I can always recognize this syndrome’s presence.  Suddenly, I feel like a kid in a candy shop, excited about new possibilities, none of which are related to my current project.  Sound familiar?

According to Katie Shive’s (2015) Inside Higher Ed’s article on combating Shiny Object Syndrome, “in graduate school it is extremely important to know when you are putting your time toward professional activities that are directly beneficial to your dissertation progress versus activities that are interesting or fun but do not contribute to moving you forward.” Although passion and inquisitiveness stimulate graduate school progress, they can also detract from main tasks, like completing your dissertation.  I have certainly fallen victim to Shiny Object Syndrome throughout my doctoral career, getting involved with new “shiny” projects while my dissertation falls to the wayside.  Although this has been an ongoing battle, now, nearing the end of graduate school, I feel that (despite being overly passionate about projects and always wanting to be involved with the next thing) I have finally made progress in balancing my time.  Below, I offer some tips that have kept me from signaling SOS or falling victim to Shiny Object Syndrome.  I hope they will be useful for you, too!

Know your priorities

Before any strategies of the subsequent strategies can be effective, it is vital to take time to reflect and identify your priorities (they change all the time, right?).  For me, my current academic priorities are my dissertation and my research assistantship.  Factoring in other activities and commitments around these two anchors of my doctoral life has helped me see which “shiny objects” I should accept, and which I should decline.  Knowing my priorities efficiently points out which shiny objects are worth pursuing.

Keep a running list of research ideas

Throughout my doctoral career, I’ve often been sidetracked by new research ideas.  Although committed to my dissertation topic, I can easily get excited about new topics.  So, instead of letting these unrelated research project ideas distract me from my dissertation, I have begun a running list of ideas in a Word document on my computer.  Every time I have a new idea, I jot it down in this list.  This strategy has been a lifesaver—and it’s a comfort to know that I have a place where all of my ideas are saved, eliminating the need to immediately act on them.  Instead, I can focus on my priorities, secure that the list will always be there.

Allot specific time to email correspondences

During my doctoral career, I’ve had times where felt I was drowning in emails.  Emails from professors.  Emails from classmates.  Emails from supervisors.  Emails that only required a short and simple response.  Emails that were burning—how could this person move on without my response?!  They are waiting for me! I was distracted from my own work by constantly responding to any and all emails.  Indeed, I felt like I was “wasting” half the day by responding, itself an upward battle because, even with these efforts, my inbox still remained full. It took me far too long to realize that I was being consumed by it.  At this point, I made a decision.  One hour a day only would be devoted to emails—usually, toward the end of the afternoon.  This not only liberated me from checking and responding throughout the day, but allowed me to stay fully focused on my current task, absent “respond-at-once” anxiety.

Remove distractions

Inherent in the definition of Shiny Object Syndrome is distraction.  I have fought back by setting up a special workspace with little to no opportunities for any recreation.  This means going to my favorite cubicle in the computer lab with a vow of No Internet Surfing.  On this computer, I am in the zone!  Finding this hallowed space has been key for my productivity, helping me to stick to, focus on, and progress on one project at a time.

Take a break

With so much going on in graduate school, it often feels counterproductive to take a break.  Yet, I have learned that giving my mind a rest from immediate project(s) is sometimes the best thing I can do.  This has been especially helpful with those times I feel “stuck,” overwhelmed, or just in need of fresh eyes to view a problem.  Another daily discipline is to do two things just for me.  First, putting work aside for the gym has been a healthy benefit.  Second, sitting down to a proper dinner with my partner (rather than a rushed on-the-go meal) allows me to talk it all out with a sympathetic listener.  Another kind of break has also been useful—taking a full week off from writing!  Hear me out: I know this sounds daunting, but it really helps. Revisiting a project after time away provides incredible clarity and insight.  Bonus: these “breaks” help me enjoy the doctoral process just a bit more, too. J

Say no

Disclosure: this one has been the most difficult for me.  But it is also the most important.

I have learned (the hard way) that if you are always chasing the next shiny thing, you’ll never finish what you started.  For example, it is difficult for me to say no to a colleague in need, because I genuinely want to help.  The greatest strategy in overcoming my “no” phobia has been assertiveness—simply and directly saying no instead of meekly beating around the bush.  While this was hard at first, being direct and sticking up for myself, has freed me to focus on my own needs without getting distracted.

You do you

You do you—this has become my motto.  It means committing to the right decision for you, and owning that decision.  There is no one “right” way to navigate Shiny Object Syndrome—but whatever you do, make sure it feels comfortable.  And own those decisions!

Finding personal balance during the doctoral career is a universal challenge for students. I hope that some of these tips will serve as a springboard to finding your own balance and productivity—and prevent you from signaling a desperate SOS! Please comment below with some tips that have helped you —we are in this together, and I hope this can be the beginning of a supportive dialogue about strategies for overcoming Shiny Object Syndrome throughout the doctoral journey!



Shrive, K. (2015, February 12). Combating Shiny Object Syndrome [Blog post].  Retrieved from


Jessica Ostrow Michel is a doctoral candidate, research assistant, and part-time instructor in the Higher and Postsecondary Education program at Teachers College, Columbia University.  Her research interests include assessment of college environmental and sustainability education, college education quality, and college teaching and learning.


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