A fist lands on your face. You didn’t expect this conflict to escalate to physical aggression. Now you feel a subtle weight bear down over your head as your focus narrows. There’s a somewhat peaceful silence as time slows. A tenacious ringing brings you back to the present moment. Within an instant your mental state has shifted and your priorities with it.
This is a crude example. But the change in awareness after physical danger is very acute. Whether a conflict with someone or a broken bone, in an instant, your sense of reality morphs. Nowadays, it is more common to experience this through financial, relationships, or work-related demands. Today, we will explore this dark place, and in the coming articles we will see just how to leverage this opportunity for high performance.
Necessity is the single biggest driver for change. Tunneling is a metaphore I’ll use to refer to being in a state of high necessity. When you’re “in the tunnel”, there is an attention-demanding situation before you that you’re emotionally invested in. Many of us constantly live in the tunnel, overworking our adrenals and leaving us in a state of burnout. But this isn’t necessarily a bad place to be. In fact, it is a wonderful way to promote rapid learning and high performance. The trick is to be able to enter or exist the tunnel on demand by leveraging some self-awareness.
“Tunneling” is very similar to a fight or flight state. Being in the tunnel has a specific neurochemical signature as well. Norepinephrine is a noteworthy one which shows up in states of flow and high concentration.
I believe neurochemistry is the main driver of all human behavior and experience. To “hack” life then, is all about leveraging it to promote an optimal mental state appropriate for your objective. This is true whether you need the adrenaline to push through the struggles of an impeding dealine or to relax and reflect. There’s a distinct neurological state associated with the optimal performance of everything. Tunneling is just one way to stimulate a particular mental state.
In this article, we will explore the tunnel. We will see what behaviors are common while in it, what you can do to leverage it for rapid learning and high performance, and we’ll learn cues that suggest you or someone around you is currently in the tunnel.
This information can be used to provide rapid onboarding of a new employee. It can help minimize how long it takes you to learn or adapt to change or a new job. What will follow can be helpful in any situation where one must reorient quickly and effectively.
The Structure of The Article
The remainder of this topic will follow this structure. It will be broken into multiple parts.
- Part 1 – Welcome to the Tunnel
- What It Feels Like to Be in the Tunnel
- Benefits of Being in the Tunnel
- How to Leave the Tunnel
- Part 2 – Effective Tunneling
- The Basics of Effective Tunneling
- Part 3 – Personal Reflections and Takeaways
- Integrating This All With My Past Experience
The purpose behind this article is to promote an effective mindset for taking Effective Action. To realize the struggles we face are less a result of our “biological age” or “genetic limitations” and more a result of things we have FULL influence over. But recognizing this is subtle and tricky. The thoughts are slippery. they too easily fall out of focus. My writing aims to shed light on the leverage points from which we can influence.
Disclaimer: I personally find being in the tunnel thrilling. This state brings me a lot of focus. This may differ for everyone and there is an adaptation curve to getting used to it. Find what works for you. This proved to be a very fast way for me to pick up responsibilities in a new role at work.
I will present the points above by sharing my experience in taking over Developer Lead (“Dev Lead”) responsibilities on a product during the last month of my previous job. A Developer Lead is a role on a software product team that is responsible for knowing the ins and outs of the product being developed (like WordPress or Facebook, for example). They understand the vision behind new features and have detailed knowledge on a particular aspect of the product. Dev Leads are often involved in meetings with other teams who have questions regarding the aspect of the product you specialize in.
Developer Leads are responsible for a specific aspect of a software product (like the visual editor on WordPress, for example). They serve as a knowledge expert. Additionally, they provide developers with details on features to implement and help troubleshoot bugs. Dev Leads also are responsible for deploying the code behind the software from isolated development environments, to testing environments, and finally to the Production environment (which is what the end-user, like you and I on WordPress, would interact with).
I took over this role out of necessity from the previous lead going on maternity leave. The baby came early and I was thrown in during the middle of a big release with many moving parts. Such an experience inevitably has a lot of high priority tasks to be done. I was 100% in the tunnel for the first week! What follows is me sharing the lessons I’ve learned during this time.
What It Feels Like to Be in the Tunnel
Like many mental states, you won’t easily know you’re “in the tunnel”. Awareness has to be built over time, deliberately.
Below are cues I’ve found useful in recognizing that I am tunneling, for better or worse. They can also be used to recognize if someone else is in a similar high-demand state.
- You have knee-jerk responses that “brush-off” someone asking questions. Often done because too much is on your plate already.
- E.g. Someone asks you your thoughts on some work they did that isn’t relevant to you. Your response lacks depth and is abstract.
- You instantly categorized tasks by their priority. Tasks with irrelevant deadlines are kicked down the road until absolutely needed.
- E.g. Household maintenance chores such as vacuuming or maintaining cleanliness fails.
- Quality of your work suffers. You make a lot of assumptions, look for shortcuts, and lean on others.
- E.g. Review of someone else’s work (e.g. code review) is rushed.
- Short-term sacrifices or trade-offs are made for the sake of time.
- E.g. Posture, proximity to computer screen, or other health habits you tend to follow (e.g. exercise or maintenance tasks) slide off.
- Previous habits of clarity are lost. There’s an added level of difficulty to precisely recall what you’ve said.
- E.g. Using insider lingo and abbreviations with people you usually are more verbose to, such as technical vocab to non-technical people).
- I am very stubborn about being verbose and over communicating. I aim to avoid misunderstandings and ensure I communicate exactly what I intended. On multiple occasions, while in the tunnel, I’ve noticed this slipping. My habitual technical terms found their way in conversing with non-technical audiences.
- Find yourself looking for distraction or constantly checking entry points for fires (e.g. notifications of new tasks or emails).
- E.g. Eyeing notification icons on your team’s chat application to see if you got a new message that may be higher priority.
- You frequently find yourself overwhelmed, wondering how there’s enough time for everything. You are irritable, aggressive and “on-edge”.
- I’ve found that tolerance for this overwhelm and ambiguity can be developed. Know what your tolerance is and at times, push it.
- Regularly taking the comfortable, familiar, or easy route. You stop voluntarily challenging yourself or trying something new. You fear change.
- Dodging responsibility. You avoid using decisive language that puts you in the hot seat (e.g. “I will do this … by ….”)
- E.g. You give an answer to a question posed to you. But you quickly throw the ball back in the asker’s court, such as “<vague answer>, but if I’m wrong, please let me know”.
What Can You Do With This
You have neurochemistry that resembles being in the tunnel with the more of these that applies to you. This is a very stressful state. Exercise is a stressor as well. The key is not to avoid the stressor, but to optimally leverage it to make you better. Moderation. Life is not black and white. No single extreme should be lived in long-term.
None of this is necessarily bad. It is necessary to promote the sort of focus that blinders can bring. The issue comes when these occur chronically or for items that they shouldn’t. If you have a big deadline to meet at work, for peak performance at that work, you need to limit other overhead in the tunnel from messes at home, issues in relationships, financial problems, etc.
This illustrates the importance of getting on top of things and maintaining that organization.
If you’re already in the tunnel for finances, health, relationships, AND work. Then it’t important to consider what you’re willing to sacrifice to make structured slack-time to begin coming up with a plan.
This may mean spending that hour watching TV now listing out what items are in your tunnel, identifying them based on the cues listed above. Then listing what needs done in each of those categories (this doesn’t need be exhaustive, i.e. a simple “next step” is powerful), and to then decide which ONE thing you’ll address first. Looking for quick wins can be useful to build momentum and begin giving yourself breathing room.
The idea of “slack-time” is important. This isn’t idle time, it is structured time devoted to building an attack-plan to ensure future tunneling adventures are as productive as possible by keeping them clear of clutter. We will explore this more shortly.
Benefits of Being in the Tunnel
Tunneling puts blinders on you.
Blinders can limit creativity and cause you to be oblivious to the bigger picture (e.g. your health).
But blinders are great at improving focus.
The Tunnel has the nutrients for growth.
Here are some benefits of being in the tunnel:
- Rapid Learning
- Rapid Connection to Mission
Rapid learning results from urgency, focus, demand for rapid simplifying, purpose, and a trust in one’s intuition/decisions.
When dealing with many fires at once as a Developer Lead, I found the sense of urgency to greatly enhance my concentration. On the few things I was immersed in, I retained the details very well. The necessity for completion triggers a lot of productive psychological shifts.
The demand for simplifying was extremely high. As a result, I found myself able to filter through noise and break down complex situations. I was acting on intuition and had far less “meta thinking” (thinking about the action, e.g. “am I doing this right?”, instead of taking the action). There wasn’t time to doubt. I found myself instinctively not lingering on problems as much or as easily. My attention residue was minimal.
As a developer, I wasn’t connected to the business-vision that strongly. But once I was a Developer Lead with strong necessity for understanding the bigger picture, I rapidly learned the business objects (including the user view of our application). This taught me that in order to learn the high-level aspects of the business the strongest, being in a position that promotes them is key. Such a position may be a “Business System Analyst” who is responsible for testing the product and understanding how the user will interact with it. A Developer role is encouraged to be myopic. They just need to solve the problem for a given feature, the BSAs are responsible for formulating the problem statements and filtering out the higher-level details.
The principles I found to be at play during this process were the following.
There was a demand that I sacrifice depth for “good enough”. I tend to go deep into a particular topic, exploring the extremes of it before backing off onto the next aspect. As a Dev Lead, I had to let go of this itch. A “depth-first” approach can be very useful in learning the details of a subject you’re already proficient in. But it can demand too much time and mental resources while in the tunnel. If you focus too heavily on one fire, the other fires will easily overtake.
The high stakes situation made me feel important. This caused a feedback loop that increased my commitment and engagement with the work. This added attention made it easier to deal with fires effectively. I retained a lot more new information with this added purpose to my work.
Caveat to This Kind of Rapid Learning
I’ve found that which is learned in the tunnel is often known only on a muscle-memory level. I may be able to repeat the action or recall the information later, but only intuitively. The more I try to consciously recall the steps, the more my performance suffers.
For example, I was studying the Deployment process for my role as a Dev Lead a few weeks before actually starting. This time it was a logical approach, I applied active thought to try to understand the information. But the information felt loose, the application wasn’t clear. It wasn’t until I started the role and had my first big deployment that rested on my shoulders that I internalized the lessons I was learning.
Muscle memory began to kick in and I learned VERY fast the steps involved. I was able to quickly engage in this behavior later under similar high demand because the tunnel required that I not overthink. But once I had the space to try and logically think of what I did, it wasn’t as easy, I found myself visualizing acting it out. This is like trying to explain to someone where the “R” key is on your keyboard. You may find that you have to visualize your hand placement on the keyboard. This is not conscious information, but intuitive or subconscious.
Reflecting on this experience and my interactions with the previous Dev Lead, I gained another insight. The previous Dev Lead struggled to articulate the process when she was onboarding me. I believe this is because she learned the process while in the tunnel during similar high-demand projects.
I believe that which is learned in the tunnel is incorporated into muscle memory more so than in actual conscious thought. The result is you’re able to “feel” your way through the actions to repeat them but lack the ability to articulate what you’re doing. Which suggests whatever brain process is involved for motor-movements more quickly encodes information than the part responsible for abstract information. I think this makes sense, being able to move through space to avoid predators or hunt is more important than “pretending”.
Some people accept this intuitive grasp on the information or skill, and in many cases that’s as far as they need to go. But to elevate to higher performance, you need to get more precise. You do this by conscious effort, which can be frustrating because you may “feel” you know it and get very uncomfortable when you realize you don’t “consciously” know it.
This may be why the best teachers are those who had struggled to learn a subject. They know where the pitfalls are and they likely had moments of frustration and a lot of conscious thought applied to the material. They therefore can apply language to their experience and articulate it in a way that a student can understand.
Those who learned a subject or a skill while in a state that resembles the tunnel (i.e. high urgency, or at least the equivalent neurochemical state) are likely those who struggle to articulate exactly what they’re doing.
So while the Rapid Learning may be welcomed, recognize that to build true understanding, you’ll likely need to reflect on the actions you took when in the tunnel. In this way, a good approach may be to try and learn the subject via conscious thought, thinking deeply about the material, then enter in tunnel-like situations that demand rapid decisions based on your understanding of the material. Then, once outside the tunnel, reflect and connect the theory to the practical.
Rapid Connection to Mission
Commitment is necessary in order to survive in the tunnel. If you’re not all in, you quickly pay for it.
This demand for commitment shapes your identity as you make sense of the time and emotional investment. After all, you wouldn’t be stressing about the fires and giving them so much attention if they weren’t important. This primes the brain to tag the work as important. You may even find it hard to stop thinking about it once you take a break. All of this attention the brain is applying to the task is doing some massive rewiring.
The result is you feel an investment into the tasks at hand. This is a GREAT way to start any major transition in your life, including a new job, school, or an important relationship. Seek out some initial sacrifice that carries with it risk. For example, arriving early and staying late at a new job, while maintaining high quality work and high challenge throughout working hours.
The necessity the tunnel brings naturlaly causes you to throw out distractions and unproductive habits.
If nothing else, the tunnel helps make obvious what these are so you could address them later. The unforgiving nature of the tunnel demands you to be objective. You’ll learn more and more about yourself and each successive journey through the tunnel will be more and more productive.
How to Leave the Tunnel
The nature of the tunnel is that high-demand tasks are begging for your attention. An untrained individual will get caught in an endless loop of trying to “whack a mole”. You have to break this pattern, which can be uncomfortable. Let’s see how.
Here are a few strategies to leave the tunnel:
- Create Slack Time to Make a Plan
- Define a Transition Period
- Engage in a Post-Mortem
These can be considered an ordering as well. You begin by forming an attack plan by building breathing room. Then, you get a “definition of done” that defines when you should leave the tunnel and how you will make this a defining moment. Finally, you reflect on the experience.
Create Slack Time to Make a Plan
You must find and capitalize leverage point. Creating structured slack time (NOT idle time) is usually a good first step. Finding this time may requires sacrificing something you’re doing now (e.g. watching TV) to formulate an attack plan to get things back in order.
Once you take a step back, briefly leaving the tunnel, you gain perspective. This brief hiatus may even bring powerful insight into problems you were facing while you were heads down. You’ll have an easier time seeing leverage points from this higher-level vantage point. These leverage points may simply be small wins that help clean up the tunnel to give you more air the next time you dive in. They may include the next step or even a full path to finish line.
In short, the idea is to gain distance from the problems of the tunnel. Realize how insignificant those problems will be 10 years from now.
Define a Transition Period
It can help to have a defining moment. Something that draws a line in the sand marking the end of being in the tunnel. The more intense the fires you encountered in the tunnel (such as major health issues in your family from a pandemic), the more intense the transition period needs to be.
Some experiences have a natural transition period, such as finishing a major project at work. Others will require some work and creativity.
For example, consder if the fires you faced involved moving between houses and adapting to living on your own with unexpected house issues. A transition period could be engineered by delaying some pleasure you engage in, such as watching your favorite TV show, until after the move is complete and the leaky basement has been fixed. Then when you finally relax to bing-watch your favorite TV show, take care to relish in how enjoyable it is and then to give a subtle reflection to how far you’ve come. Have a thought of “I’ll be alright” and really buy into it. The key is in the emotional experience of this transition period. Capitalize it as much as you can.
Engage in a Post-Mortem
Post-Mortem here means to simply reflect on the experience you’ve just had. It can help to create an “After Action Report” (something used by the military) to consider what went well, what went wrong, how you could of prepared better, and how you can improve for next time. This can serve as a part of a Transition Period itself.
Another way this helps is by providing a psychological reset.
After a short time in the tunnel, unless all fires have been exhaustively put out, you will often feel inertia from leaving the tunnel. The experience from within can be slightly traumatizing. It is easy to think something will go wrong once you take your eyes off of it. This is a natural side effect of the neurochemistry necessary for tunneling. It’s the price to pay for that high-focus mental state. It’s normal. Don’t beat yourself up when your mind wants to revisit what you have just experienced.
The tunnel is a metaphor for a psychological state that one is in when under high demands.
Use the cues mentioned above to recognize early warning signs and prevent tunneling when you don’t mean to. You can also recognize when a loved-one is in a high-stress state for long periods of time and thus could use your objective vantage point to provide perspective. Leave a meaningful mark on that period of your life by creating a transition period and reflecting on lessons learned.
That’s the tunnel! It is dark by its very nature, but sometimes the lack of light helps make the important things shine. Stay tuned for next time where we will see how the healing mechanisms of the body during inflammation relates to tunneling for optimal performance.
Thanks for reading!