High Performance When You’re on the Hook – Effective Tunneling

There's chaos that you must navigate.

Welcome back to the tunnel! Last time, we got familiar with the “tunnel” metaphor. I introduced how learning can be amplified while in the tunnel. Now we will explore effective tunneling and how you can get the most out of this powerful psychological state.

The Basics of Effective Tunneling

So we’ve seen that being in the tunnel is not necessarily a bad thing. It can promote the focus and neurochemicals necessary for high performance. Let’s now consider how to tunnel effectively to maximize the benefits and minimize the consequences.

Here are the concepts we will explore:

  • Speed of Triage
  • Limiting Overhead in the Tunnel
  • Remaining Level Headed
  • Lean-In Mentality
  • Trust
  • Honor Your Hat
  • Commit

Before we begin, keep the following in mind.

Moderation is key. Just like how acute inflammation is vital after a workout or injury to signal the body to send nutrients via the blood to aid in recovery but yet chronic inflammation is debilitating. Effective tunneling is about getting in and getting out. Hit the workout hard, and then hit the recovery just as intently. Exhaustion and struggle is a given. Beware of the tendency to avoid it. Honor the struggle.

The best workout for you right now is the one you’re not doing. In other words, novelty is the most effective stimulus you can give yourself. If you’re someone who lives in the tunnel already by the nature of unpaid bills, medical problems, or broken relationship, then the overhead in your tunnel is too great to try and leverage this psychological state. You need to first get your life in order.

What you need most in order to continue to grow is that which you are least accustomed to. Hence the importance of exploration.

Just as what is trash to one may be treasure to another, what is needed for effective tunneling to one may be completely different than another. The key is to explore and learn your triggers.

With that, let’s begin exploring my experience. May it serve as a starting point.

Speed of Triage

Triage is a word common in the medical field. In a medical context, it means to quickly assess a patient for urgency of care. If they can be saved but need acte don quickly, they get flagged as high prioirty. This concept applies nicely to addressing problems in the tunnel.

The product I was responsible for as a Developer Lead had bugs that came up during testing. My ability to ensure a high quality product makes it to Production in a timely manner was strongly dependent on how effectively I could determine what needed immediate focus and what didn’t. Bugs usually pop up in quick succession. These are like mini fires. I had to apply organization to make the system of many appear fewer.

That’s a big idea. The more organized you are, the quicker you can determine what “buckets” to put the fires in as they emerge. As soon as you can categorize the problem, your brain will feel enough satisfaction to not dwell on the problem. Just writing it down or placing a reminder in an appropriate location to trigger the necessary thoughts later is enough. This feeling of satisfaction is important to put to rest a worry and clear your mind to think on more immediate items. Those with OCD tend to lack this “satisfaction” feeling, which is closely related to a signal of completion for a task to the brain. OCD patients don’t get this signal until they complete a task perfectly or after some repetition.

Organization is about pattern matching. You build this skill with experience and familiarity. As you progress, you’ll be able to quickly break a problem up into its basic properties. At this time, the appropriate category becomes obvious. This requires high concentration and no “meta-thoughts”.

So, fires can come up and you can quickly filter the noise. You build this skill through experience and high commitment/focus.

While the speed at which you can filter the noise is vital, you also need to know when slowing down is appropriate. For example, I may need to do some research into a technical detail about the application I am responsible for so a developer can get unblocked. If I were to scan the results of an online search, I need to quickly determine what link is worth my time pursuing. Then, once I find something that has potential, I need to slow down and apply patience to ensure I take the time to understand the information.

Alternatively, I may be sifting through new emails for what’s relevant to me. Once I come across something important to the project I am on (e.g. a question from a stake holder or another team), I need to remove clutter and distraction from my environment so I can give the information the attention it deserves. Build the skill of speeding up and then slowing down on demand, with minimal residue.

While I was in the tunnel, I noticed that once I found something worth my time reading, it was easier to limit overhead (anxieties and meta-thoughts). There was less “should I do this”. I was able to commit and trust the process more easily. There was no time to second guess. I had to trust the thin-slice I made when deciding to read further into this information was accurate.

While engaging, I felt timeless. Nothing else mattered; there was a subtle feeling of “this is my life now”. From this, I learned that effective reading or “learning” doesn’t have anything special to it. There’s no magic. Learning often happens without you knowing, such as a path taken during a walk. Just have interest and a strong need or desire to understand. This taught me that I can stop searching for “perfect”, because such a conquest only distracts.

Personally, I’ve found rushing amplifies psychologically added pain. I am more tense and fragile to distraction, always on edge, irritable. When I take a breath and relax into the moment, the struggles are still there, but they hold a weaker grip over me.

Limiting Overhead in the Tunnel

The key to effective tunneling is controlling what fires are in the tunnel with you at any one time. This does not work well if you have too many unrelated things in the tunnel at once. The tunnel should only contain that which is important. For example, if you have a stomach ache, relationship problems, or your basement just flooded, you will have a much harder time being productive at work. There are too many unrelated things in the tunnel demanding attention. This is anxiety.

Hence, it’s important for your life to be in order as much as possible before taking on a high-stakes challenge. Poverty, a broken home, and other unfortunate life-circumstances hinder one’s ability to learn and effectively problem solve. However, there is a lot that can be said about having such a strong purpose for your work that it can withstand even the loudest noise. You can compensate for unfortunate life-circumstances by having a powerful purpose and a strong ability to “forget” unrelated hardships while working on something else. In other words: focus.

Remaining Level Headed

On a similar note to limiting overhead in the tunnel is the importance of staying level headed.

When in the tunnel, I found that I tried new things less and stayed in my comfort zone more. I had to take shortcuts where I could. There was a strong demand for remaining high level. I couldn’t afford to second guess or doubt myself. This helped to simplify the information coming in.

During my experience, I also learned the importance of NOT reacting and staying level headed. Meaning to remain calm when fires come up, such as a new bug. I did this by giving the situation a “blank stare”, this comes with a a “sitting back”, relaxed feeling. This gives me the space to then respond with awareness first before reacting.

I had less meta-thoughts when in the tunnel, less “checks” (reflecting on my mental processes in real time to see if I’m out of line). Thus I found, for example, me sitting far closer to the computer screen than usual (I normally sit several feet back to avoid strain on my eyes). I was making long-term sacrifices for the short-term.

This illustrates the level of focus that is available when in the tunnel. The stakes are so high that you can’t afford to think long-term. This is no place to be at chronically, but if visit periodically, you will reap a big boost in concentration. I found myself being less distracted, less in my head, and less checking “am I doing this right?” (i.e. self doubt).

Lean-In Mentality

I found having a “Lean-In” mentality to be one of most effective ways to stimulate the benefits of tunneling on demand.

This means to lean in to the discomfort, as opposed to trying to avoid the struggle. The first few times will feel like a trust fall, as if there’s an empty void beneath you. But, with experience, you’ll learn that you can stimulate a second wind during fatigue and go far further than you though. This is the power of a simple shift in perspective. The Lean-In mindset removes unnecessary psychological pain and resistance.

When I bias towards action and lean-in to the struggle, I find I can go much further than I would otherwise. I can stimulate a second-wind. The phenomenon of a runner pushing through a “wall” in their running that leads to a renewed sense of energy is exactly an illustration the lean-in mentality.

A helpful cue I use is to lean-in is to approach the discomfort or pain with a sense of curiosity. This feels like a non-judgement, thoughtless, blank-stare. My mind is clear of thoughts, I am in a state of awareness. The best daily practice I’ve found to train this muscle is to take 5 minute cold-showers, while aiming to be as “mindless” as possible, no thoughts in past or future, no concerns, only a deep trust in “this can’t hurt me” (not even those words explicitly, just an intuitive understanding in the form of relaxation). I simply stand there and take it. This trained, over and over, is what builds toughness. Everyone wants to be tough, but you can’t get tough without doing tough things.

Trust

Related to the Lean-In mentality is trusting your intuition. When you doubt yourself you experience a mental halt. This clogs up the thinking process and is a short step away from anxious looping thought patterns. It’s as if the software running our consciousness ran in to an infinite loop once awareness passed a tipping point.

I have a tendency to exhaustively prove everything I come across. The necessity of being in the tunnel alleviated this. I wasn’t constantly monitoring my mental processes when answering questions about our application to ensure every word I stated was factual. This led to speech that was far more abstract but I noticed it didn’t cause nearly as much mental strain as my previous approach. I also found it easier to get into a state of flow, leaving myself impressed with the explanation or solution I just threw together without applying much effort. I was far more present, because once in the tunnel, I can’t afford not to be.

Trust should also be applied to the system, processes, and standards you have in place. Trust the system and follow the system. You need this system in place before entering the tunnel. The idea is to abstract or automated as much overhead as possible. The daily tasks of opening up an application on your computer, logging in, creating tasks/bugs to assign out, knowing where to go to contact a needed resource, etc. should all be auto-pilot activities. Tunneling is far less effective when you have to constantly think about the details.

Have a system in place Understand the process, trust/honor the process. Set, trust, and follow standards. They are your best friend when it comes to filtering out the noise so you can keep the tunnel clean of overhead.

Because all feelings and emotions are experienced as waves (there are peaks and troughs), riding that wave is key to remaining in flow. Self-doubt and too much internal focus while performing causes excessive rumination, destroying presence, and thus performance.

Effective Tunneling requires trust

When studying how to improve a race car’s performance, you deck it out with gadgets that add weight and thus slow it down. This is a necessary trade off.

Like quantum physics, when you observe something, you inadvertently disrupt it. But observation is key for improvement. Once race day comes, you remove the unnecessary weight and trust in the lessons learned during training.

Consider a witty remark, the thought/action/language comes before the awareness does. Therefore, trying to impose awareness prematurely will cause you to choke and overthink. The focus is too internal and thus excessive rumination easily follows. When performing, don’t focus on the technique. Trust the training. Focus on the environment and the task at hand.

Honor Your Hat

A role is like wearing a hat. It comes with a set of properties for the character you are playing. As a Developer Lead, my responsibilities required I focus more on the business-side of things and the higher-level objectives. There is a larger emphasis on communication and knowing tools, contacts, and processes. I was a point of integration between teams and projects. As a Developer, my responsibilities were more on the implementation details of transcribing the solution into working, clean, and efficient code.

Honoring your hat is about knowing what the properties of your current role are, the responsibilities, and removing the noise or residue from other hats. You may need to switch between hats multiple times. As a Dev Lead I occasionally had to go back to writing code. Flexibility is key here. I had to get good at flushing out my tunnel so I can start with a blank slate when I switch hats. This was necessary for effective tunneling.

I bias to taking “Extreme Ownership”. My mentality is “if I am the problem, I am the solution”. Having this approach for the past 5 years has caused strange rippling effects in my life. For example, I stubbornly avoid seeking help when I am stuck on something. I beat away at it until I figure it out myself. If something breaks, I instinctively think I’m responsible.

Furthermore, I have an insatiable itch that builds when someone requests help and everyone else is silent. My urge to be “that person” that volunteers worked against me when I had a lot of other high priority items. Being a “yes man” was a poor strategy. When wearing the Dev Lead hat, I need to mobilize my discipline to keep “aces in their places”.

I value this extreme sense of independence and having it wrapped in my identity makes this bias that much harder to break. I frequently find myself genuinely surprised by how I view the world vastly different than others as a result of this. The typical interpretations or comfort with ambiguity that others show doesn’t come naturally to me. I want to exhaust an idea down to its core and make clear every step along the way. Indeed, I want to do what ACTUALLY gets results, not hand-wavy abstract talk. I think my writing is the clearest representation of this bias, I struggle to state an idea and leave it up for interpretation. I want to ensure what I aim to communicate is communicated. The consequence is being long-winded.

This mentality is great for building discipline. I’d even say it is one of the most effective approaches to life one can take. But, as a Developer Lead, there is just so much information to keep track of and so many pieces at play. Being a Dev Lead is HARD with the mentality of “everything is my fault” and “I’m responsible for it all”. Team-based hats call for TEAM WORK. This is another property of the “Developer Lead” hat. I learned that in large, complex systems, problems will arise, don’t take it personally!

The tunnel is no time Extreme Ownership. Instead, it demands a “whatever it takes” mentality. This approach minimizes meta-thinking and self-doubt, it drives attention and heightens focus. But there are nuances here that I am still learning.

Commit

Commitment is a slippery idea. It’s like a cliche or the word “God”. One can hear it and think they understand but in reality have just substituted their own meaning for the word. This causes the original intent to not be communicated, making the overall communication less effective.

Commitment is slippery because the feeling is so subtle. Furthermore, if you try to then observe it, it dissolves. To truly be committed is to be so absorbed that you forget about the concept entirely. It’s like something that can’t be accurately described, but you know it when you see it.

Only one who devotes himself to a cause with his whole strength and soul can be a true master. For this reason mastery demands all of a person

Albert Einstein

In other words: Excellence demands all of oneself. This illustrates what I mean by commitment. It’s an unwavering focus paired with unmistakable presence.

The most fool-proof hack I’ve found to promoting commitment is to sacrifice.

Applied to tunneling effectively, this means to sacrifice early on in the tunnel. Take initial risks early. For this to work it has to be genuine risks, you should feel on edge and a bit scared. Because of the inherent risk in sacrifice, focus is honed, the exact kind of focus that comes when in the tunnel. In this way, taking risks is a great way to promote flow and thus stimulate “tunneling” neurochemistry.

You now have skin in the game. This boosts commitment and wraps your sense of identity up in the act itself. Now you’re answering the demand of mastery. This tells your brain you are serious, the situation before you can’t be ignored and a solution must be found. This naturally builds purpose, a feeling that what you do matters.

For example, as a Dev Lead, when I came across bugs or had questions that may expose my lack of understanding, I leaned-in to the discomfort of airing this to others. Even know unrelated bugs to our current activities will mean more work for me and potential distraction, but making this sacrifice shaped my identity as being someone who is committed to the mission.

As you voluntarily sacrifice, you’ll find you can engage with less effort. I have found that I begin to form a stronger opinion about the material I am working with. When a team member posted a question that anyone else could of answered, I chose to answer it myself. This 5 minute engagement made the task under discussion easier to remember during a meeting the next day. I also found that I formed an opinion on the matter. Questions, comments, suggestions, etc. all began to flood in. Effortlessly, I made connections to other problems the team was facing. I added on to my tree of knowledge and learning was amplified. In simple terms: Get close to the problem.

Even if I didn’t understand the original question or objective fully, just typing out a response helped piece things together. I was already committed to responding, now I just didn’t want to sound silly in front of coworkers. The motivation to understand what the issue was about boosted my ability to focus and think deeply on what the actual problem was, like a second wind. Apply this in your own life by being a regular participant in forums for a subject you’re learning. As long as you have integrity and moderately high standards for posing quality questions and responses, learning will feel easier and more enjoyable.

Commitment through sacrifice is VITAL sooner rather than later. The Lean-In mindset helps combat the greatest enemy to effective action, comfort. When the urge to do something you know you should do arises, the memory or longing for comfort may come with it. This can be tempting to lean-out and seep into that familiar, reassuring feeling. After just a split second, the desire for action dwindles away. This fleeting feeling is caused from the principle of Diminishing Intent. The longer you delay in action, the less likely that action will be taken.

The concept of momentum is at play here. If I were to come across a bug while working in the application at my job and brush it under the rug pretending I didn’t see it, I’d have set the stage for future, ineffective, action. The second time brushing a bug under the rug will be easier, and the cycle continues. This is known as the One-Second Decision. They are vital to recognize and master. I talk about this in depth in my article on The Ultimate Guide to Challenge.

The point is, upon entering the tunnel and right before, look for initial sacrifices and risks you can take that reinforce the desired identity for the work at hand. This is a small investment at the optimal point in time to make which will lead to the most bang for your buck. This promotes the right neurochemistry for effective tunneling.

The commitment I gained from these initial identity builders, such as reaching out to team-members when in doubt instead of taking more time and trying to solve it myself, helped develop my connection to the business objectives. I even retained more information, despite being in a high-stakes, “fight/flight” situation. This is likely the result of the neurochemicals promoting focus and interest.

As I leaned-in to my experience of being in the tunnel, I began being able to pattern-match. I built context that allowed me to better answer developer questions during code reviews. I was able to answer high level questions about deployments, priorities, and ordering of tasks. These are all things that I would not have developed as effectively if I hesitated even for a moment.

Summary

Effective Tunneling is about knowing what to focus on and when. Once the thin-slice is made, you can simplify the problem and remove the overhead from the tunnel. Struggles will inevitably come up. You manage them by training your ability to quickly gain perspective on the silliness of the situation so you can remain level-headed and gain space between stimulus and response.

The rest comes down to putting in the work. Effort is required, leaning in without the expectation for a crutch or a helping hand primes your mind to be all in. Reward the effort process. This promotes a growth-mindset that paves the way for long-term progress. Reduce psychologically added pain and resistance by riding the waves of the sensations you feel, whether they are good or bad. See life as a journey and the sensations as not all-consuming, but an experience that will pass.

Recognize the boundaries between focus-areas within the tunnel. Be able to organize the tunnel so that as many things are independently connected as possible so you can simplify the problem and thus reduce how much is in your tunnel at once. Decide on only the next step that needs taken. Remember: Organization makes a system of many appear fewer.

That’s how I’ve found to effectively navigate the tunnel! The most effective perspective may be hidden, but it can be found through exploration and curiosity. Once obtained, problems that previously seemed impossible begin to reduce in intimidation. Next time I’ll share what this all meant to me as it relates to my personal experiences.


Featured image by PhtoVision on Pixabay.

One thought on “High Performance When You’re on the Hook – Effective Tunneling

  1. Absolutely brilliant. It amazes me every time. I never would think about it this way but it’s what I’ve been doing, the tunneling is such a great metaphor! The way you explain things opens my mind to the clearer picture of how to stay “focused”.

    Always a good read for a night cap, thank you!

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