Here’s what happens when you’re TOO focused

Michelle was consumed with paying off her debt. When she talked, it was clear that this singular goal had highjacked her mind. She had entered tunnel vision and was quickly losing insight.

In her mind, she was doing everything she could- working multiple jobs and putting all of her earnings into debt repayment. She made no time for others, no time for herself. It was all about paying down the deficit. When I asked about her sense of urgency, she explained¬†that being in debt to her meant entrapment. Being debt free symbolized freedom. She had a clear vision and it’s all that seemed to matter.

What’s wrong with that, you may be asking? What’s wrong with motivation? Striving towards one’s goals? Paying back what is borrowed is admirable. Wouldn’t we all love to be debt free?

Here’s the deal: when the mind is consumed with a problem, there is no room for anything else. You can’t see beyond the tunnel and cognitive capacity is diminished. The mind sounds an alarm. In Michelle’s case, it was “pay attention to the debt – you’re trapped until it’s gone”. The actions she was taking (the jobs, the extra payments, the social isolation) quieted the alarm…temporarily. As soon as she slowed down, the alarm bells became louder.¬†She was unable to focus on anything else.

When I asked how satisfied she was with her efforts, she reported a counter-intuitive outcome. Instead of feeling empowered and satisfied, she was falling apart. She wasn’t sleeping. She wasn’t eating well or exercising. She hadn’t had a date night with her spouse or a kid-focused afternoon with her son in months. Most surprisingly perhaps was her continued mismanagement of money. She was paying all of her debt, sometimes 2 or 3 credit card payments a month, but her scarcity mentality robbed her of the mental capacity to budget, plan ahead, save, and prepare for her on-going, recurrent and novel expenses.

This was leading to, you guessed it, more debt and a more profound sense of entrapment. She was in a tunnel-vision induced, scarcity-thinking spiral. She needed help.

Good thing she knew about integrative health coaching!

As difficult as it was for her to admit, she needed to stop focusing so exclusively on solving her problem. The antidote to her debt consumption was to do something, anything, that was unrelated. She needed to step outside of the tunnel. This was the only way to free up space in her mind for more effective problem solving, action planning, and insight. She needed balance in her life to be successful in her financial goals.

The bottom line is this: When we behave from a place of scarcity and enter tunnel vision, we often don’t realize what we are doing is worsening the problem rather than accomplishing our goal.

This article was based on an inspiring episode of Hidden Brain, one of my favorite podcasts. The diminished capacity for executive function brought on by scarcity thinking is a topic of current research. The notion is based on limited bandwidth. Check it out here.