Getting Yourself Out of the Tunnel


I’ve been thinking about scarcity. Like me, you may have heard the term scarcity mindset without realizing that this isn’t just an airy-fairy term. There’s some fantastic psychological research behind scarcity and how it impacts people. Most of the focus has been on poverty and loneliness—two of the truly big rocks in the field. Today, we’re also going to talk about time and hunger.

I’m currently in what researchers Eldar Shafir and Sendhil Mullainathan would refer to as “the tunnel.” I’m preoccupied with scarcity. The result is that my ability to process other things is diminished. That’s ok—as long as I can come out of that tunnel when it’s time.

An example of what that feels like is provided by Shafir. He would ask you to memorize an 8 digit sequence and then go about your business. 90386753. Got that number? It’s important, ok? Remember it at all costs. But know that the act of doing so has impaired your ability to take in any other details—however relevant to your life.

I’m reminded of an experiment on luck by Richard Wiseman—another psychology professor. He gave lucky people (you can read about how they determined that here) a newspaper and asked them to count the number of photos inside. Unlucky people took about two minutes to tally them up. Lucky people took seconds. This was mostly because of a large message that read, “Stop counting. There are 43 photographs in this newspaper.” Cool, right? Now, what’s that number again?

You can see how trying to remember 90386753 (if you were indeed trying) impacted your comprehension of the above paragraph—something that I would describe as A Very Interesting Thing. You can also imagine how having something extra—like nine digits—soaking up bandwidth would functionally decrease your luck. Fortune does not, as it turns out, favour the laden mind.

Numbers aren’t the issue. Not literally. The majority of people I speak with who struggle with health and fitness instead complain about a lack of time. Their problem is compounded when they enter the tunnel of a true scarcity mentality. Like the poor, they perpetually discount the future for short-term gains.

People who are lacking in financial resources find it very hard to think about anything but money. Or at least spend a lot of their attention on financial juggling. People who are lacking in time do the same. This is why Shafir and Mullainathan compare scarcity to staying up all night. Your ability to process real-time data is diminished. Interestingly, I recently heard (yes) another psychology professor, Greg Walton speak about this in a different way.

Walton’s research is on the psychological processes that lead to social problems. Unsurprisingly, he thinks a lot about stereotypes. He has pointed out that managing the stereotypes of other people also introduces a layer of cognitive load. This is most conspicuous when people are really pushing the edges of their abilities. If you are a member of a group that is stereotypically thought of as being bad at X and you are performing X, you have an extra layer of challenge. The effort to suppress the thoughts about that stereotype takes up cognitive resources and makes it harder for you to perform well on that task. You can see how there are parallels between this struggle and scarcity. I’m going to suggest that the self-limiting stories that you may have about yourself also fits here. All are examples of increased cognitive load.

Walton also reminded me about something I really hate—people feeling out of place in a gym setting. He describes it as “a fear that maybe people like you don’t belong in that environment. That confirmation in your mind then changes how you act in that setting. You start to think that you don’t belong. You’re less likely to do things in that environment that engage with it and would help support your belonging.”

Alarms, buzzers, and airhorns

In an NPR interview, Mullainathan says, “Picture that you have someone from 25,000 years ago—who’s basically a hunter-gatherer—who might need to do a variety of things…When they get hungry, the evolutionary system wants to have an alarm that says, ‘Hey, really focus on getting food into the system,’ and that is the basic scarcity instinct. We’re hungry. And then this voice starts going off in your head saying, “We’re hungry. Have I mentioned we’re hungry? We’re hungry!” and it just keeps on calling out to you.”

Scarcity draws a necessary focus but is often overactive—working its way into things that are not truly survival-based. When that alarm is going off, it’s difficult to concentrate on anything else. So, responding to it is the only way to silence it. However, in doing so, we often accumulate debt. An example might be feeling perpetually time-strapped. When a spare moment comes up, the feeling is that you need to grab onto it for some kind of rest. Actions that might impact the future seem unattainably long, so we ignore them. Little do we realize that the two time periods—now and later—have been distorted as if we were looking into funhouse mirrors. Now seems shorter than it is and later seems far longer. So, we spend what feel like very limited resources on a short break. And on it goes.

So, you’re saying that scarcity is bad?

I’m saying that scarcity is bad. However, I also think that identifying it is liberating. Once you know that scarcity is impacting your thoughts and performance, you can begin to create antidotes to it.

Shafir and Mullainathan have three big pieces of advice:

  • Avoid tunnel vision
  • Keep important things in your life from invading everything else
  • Be present

Great advice. But pretty abstract. So, I’m going to give you a few more practical tips.

Schedule it

If it’s important, put it in your calendar. Things will want to intrude. Taking a moment to breathe and compare priorities will help. Locking down that schedule and making it consistent will help even more. The ultimate goal is for people to say, “Oh, {{ subscriber.first_name }} is at pottery class on Wednesday evenings and you interrupt that at great peril.

At Bang Fitness the accountability of scheduled appointments seemed like basic service stuff to me. However, it has been repeatedly brought up as hugely important by our members. Being accountable to someone else AND for something important AND doing it in a highly consistent way will force you out of the tunnel.

Plan more

This isn’t another calendar invite. Instead, it’s a reminder of the power of the five-minute action. When you are feeling time-strapped, ask yourself what you could do within the next five minutes to move forward. Yes, it may indeed be scheduling. It may also be planning, or a micro-workout as I described last week (email me if you’re a new a subscriber and would like that one).

Observe what’s happening

I’ve come to think of presence as more about curiosity than anything else. Observe what’s happening without interaction. Observe your own mental state. Investigate how you feel—and why. This practice makes it easier to step out of the tunnel because you first have to know that you’re in the middle of the thing. This only happens when you are in the habit of observing.

Imagine a more abundant future

I’m not suggesting that you fully dose on The Secret. Rather, ask yourself what it would feel like to have slightly more of whatever you feel deficient in. Roll that around on your tongue for a while. See what that feels like. Sketch it out in as much detail as possible. This simple exercise will increase your ability to find luck—wherever it may be lurking.

Interrupt your own patterns

I’m a fan of messages from the future. Today, I experimented with a new approach; I sent myself a postcard with a note about how I’d like to show up over the weeks to come. Best $2.66 I’ve spent all week. It took about two minutes.

Want to send yourself a postcard? Here’s the service I used: MyPostCard.com

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