The Dangerous Truth About Time Scarcity & Tunnel Vision
10 min read
Have you ever been so focused and preoccupied with something else in your brain that you literally can’t think of anything else?
If it was work related, it might be focusing on that upcoming deadline while you’re at home spending time with family.
If it’s money related, it might be thinking of how you’re going to put food on the table the next day.
If it’s time-related, you might be worried about how you’re going to fit everything in, including the big projects you have coming up. This is known as time scarcity.
Maybe you have the problem of feeling like you’re not being productive enough.
If you’ve ever had this experience, there’s a name for it, and by the way – it’s dangerous.
It’s called tunnel vision and it comes from your brain noticing a scarcity of something in your life, and in true survival mode – it tries to protect you by putting you in this tunnel.
What can happen if you have tunnel vision & don’t get out of the tunnel?
You could lose your job, which would be the worst possible scenario since you’re very worried about that deadline.
You could forget to pay your rent because you were so focused on getting the next meal paid for.
Or you could end up failing at all of your projects because you experience time scarcity, where you are so worried about getting them all done.
If you are experiencing any of these so-called scarcity “symptoms” – pay attention!
You need to realize you’re in the tunnel which can cause you to lose the very thing you’re trying to keep: your job, food, accomplishments or life itself.
The problem your brain is trying to solve can literally cause you to fail at solving that problem if you don’t make an effort to consciously realize it’s happening.
Let’s talk about recognizing when you’re in the tunnel, how it can affect you, and how to get out of it.
I recently listened to a podcast from NPR called The Scarcity Trap: Why We Keep Digging When We’re Stuck in A Hole which brought some interesting insights to light. I know some very important people in my life who have had this tunnel mindset, and because you can’t reach someone in a tunnel, I wanted to be able to help someone (anyone) who might have the same issue.
Your brain has a certain amount of bandwidth
If your mind is consumed with thoughts about something, such as scarcity of time, money, food, or failure, your brain will only tunnel in on the lack of that thing.
Your brain starts to take up all of your brain bandwidth in order to try and solve the problem. Your brain will start to focus and “tunnel” in on how to solve the scarcity problem, in your life.
This is not good.
This can cause tunnel vision for you, which isn’t necessarily a good thing.
The NPR podcast says, “The problem is, you can’t see anything outside the tunnel.”
The tunnel causes you to see the most immediate problems as crystal clear, and the problems down the road (such as next week or next month) as very fuzzy.
The underlying problem can become worse with this tunnel vision, because you can’t see the problems coming up next, beyond the tunnel.
Your brain is always trying to find and solve problems, which can exacerbate problems sometimes.
For example, the NPR podcast says that those who are lonely and are concerned with making friends aggravate their problem by acting more socially awkward because they are so worried about making those friends.
How scarcity and tunnel vision can create real problems in your life
When you get this tunnel vision or scarcity mindset – it’s all you can think about. You are constantly worried about not being able to get things done on time, taking too long to do things, fear of missing out pops up, you start missing times with your friends and family, or you aren’t being present when you’re around them.
Say that you’re worried about having enough time to complete everything and are completely overwhelmed with things in your life.
Let’s also say that you feel you need to be productive constantly, otherwise you feel like a failure.
I’m here to tell you right now – you can genuinely cause your own failure by being this way!
Being overworked and exhausted can create a scarcity effect in your life, which can be so intense that your brain can hardly focus on anything else but constantly stay busy and productive.
In fact, on the NPR podcast, there was an interview with a girl named Katie who was very driven and ambitious. She was so driven that she excelled in college and became a resident at a hospital very quickly.
In her new job as a resident, sometimes she would work up to 20 hours per day.
Her own driven and ambition told her that to work these hours and not fail at her job, she needed to be exercising and eating right in order to perform at optimum performance.
Ultimately, this caused the one thing she didn’t want: to fail at her job.
Her brain came up with ways to make the most of the small number of hours she had in the day and ended up exercising constantly, and only eating fruits and vegetables – which sounds healthy, right?
Her brain was so focused on keeping her professional success up at work by “staying healthy” that it started unconsciously eliminating things like relaxation and time with friends.
She became stressed, overwhelmed, and malnourished. She skipped paying bills and stopped cleaning her house. As a way to get out of her house, because it was overwhelming, she would get out and exercise more, which increased the downward spiral. She entered the tunnel of scarcity because of her lack of time, and fear of failure at work.
As a doctor, she knew what it took to stay healthy and how important it was to eat properly and get the right amount of sleep.
But the time scarcity tunnel took over and robbed her insight.
NPR says, “it can rob you of your insight. Insight on how your own mind is changing”.
Katie only realized the problem and turned herself in for help when she almost forgot to order insulin for a patient – a major and possibly fatal flaw for her career and the patient. The intrusive and obsessive thoughts were so difficult to deal with that she had to go to a treatment center for help.
At the treatment center, she had to learn to just simply sit.
Just sit! They weren’t allowed to exercise and had to break the obsessive thought cycle of needing to be productive.
As she worked through the thoughts when she was forced to do nothing, she started coming out of the tunnel and was able to get perspective on her life and her choices.
Her realization was that the tunnel forced her to focus so much on succeeding that she forgot the very things that would help her succeed:
spending time with friends and family, relaxing, or simply sitting and watching a movie.
Being the type of person that studies, and then takes action, she had to learn to relax.
She had to teach her brain with conscious decisions that it was okay to take time to just sit and do nothing.
In fact, science says that it’s so important that it’s just as productive as being busy doing something. Forbes has an interesting article here.
Related: This book written by Guy Claxton talks about the hare brain and tortoise mind (affiliate link). Research in cognitive science is now suggesting that patience and confusion (rather than rigor and certainty) are essential to problem-solving and productivity in today’s busy productivity-obsessed world.
Moving and being productive 100% of the time is actually very bad for you, and can harm your success, maybe even worse than if you were to relax in the first place.
Now, Katie has started painting, and she pencils into her schedule to do nothing.
I think this is an important and conscious decision you need to make for yourself.
I also think that a lot of people feel guilty for being unproductive.
Myself included, and it’s something I’ve learned to work on at least once a week is to allow myself to relax and to not feel guilty about it.
You don’t have to feel guilty about this!
As the NPR podcast says, “Katie is now consciously freeing up bandwidth. Something strange has happened as she’s done so. The less consumed she feels about work the better she does at work.”
Katie said, “My brain has increased its capacity four-fold. I’m able to hold so many more things in my consciousness at once and manage them. I’ve seen a really huge improvement in my ability to enjoy being in the company of others, to enjoy occasions and to enjoy my work and do well at work.”
So, learning from Katie’s story, here’s how you can combat this time or money scarcity feeling in your own life:
- Avoid tunnel vision
- Compartmentalize difficult areas of your life, to keep it from contaminating everything else
- Be present and in the moment when you are with friends, family, or at work
- Recognize that you are in the tunnel (is your mind going elsewhere when it should be present?)
- Preserve bandwidth in your mind – which takes conscious effort.
Realize that you are going to break rules at some point
Your conscious efforts will be violated at some point. You will plan to relax, and it won’t happen. You’ll realize you’re out of the moment and that you need to be focused on it.
It’s just going to happen.
Instead of getting angry and upset at yourself, or internally punishing yourself, learn from what us pilots do: create a fault tolerant mindset.
What is Fault Tolerance?
The NPR podcast talks about how we can solve this scarcity mindset or tunnel vision by providing the same solution that we give airline pilots. Since airline pilots are going to make mistakes – human error is inevitable – we have created what we call “fault tolerant cockpits”.
These cockpits allow us to understand that mistakes are going to be made, your bandwidth is taken up – don’t punish yourself for making a mistake, it’s going to happen. Don’t get frustrated or angry at yourself – simply get back to it tomorrow, and work on taking another step towards being better.
Tunnel Vision and Time Scarcity Can Cause Catastrophic Failure
We’ve learned what tunnel vision is, how it creates a scarcity mindset, how to recognize when you’re in the tunnel, and how to help yourself get out of it.
We’ve also talked about being fault tolerant by understanding that mistakes happen, and life goes on.
No need to sweat the small stuff. Focus on being better one little step at a time. Little pebbles crossed turn into big mountains passed. The tortoise always wins, the hare always loses. Be the turtle!
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