Maintaining Focus: How Cognitive Tunneling Derails You

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Smarter Faster Better" by Charles Duhigg. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Is maintaining focus a challenge for you throughout the day? Do you know what cognitive tunneling is and how it impacts your ability to focus?

If you’ve ever been interrupted by a ringing phone, you’ve experienced cognitive tunneling. It’s an impediment to maintaining focus and staying on task. Ultimately, your productivity suffers.

Read more to understand cognitive tunneling and the importance of maintaining focus.

Maintaining Focus Is Crucial for Productivity

To be productive, you need to make sure that you remain focused on what you’re doing. If you continually become distracted or flit between tasks, you’re not going to be as efficient or as effective.

When it comes to maintaining focus, it helps to consider the factors that can prevent you from doing so. One culprit that can hamper the brain’s ability to focus effectively is cognitive tunneling. This is a cognitive process in which the brain becomes hyper-focused on one stimulus—usually the stimulus that’s the most immediate and obvious—at the expense of all others.

What Is Cognitive Tunneling?

Cognitive tunneling makes maintaining focus a challenge. It arises when your brain is forced to transition from an automatic state to a focused state too suddenly. 

When you enter a state of “automatic pilot,” your brain takes the opportunity to rest. It disengages you from your surroundings. When you suddenly have to focus again, often due to an unexpected event such as receiving an unforeseen message or an unarranged phone call, your brain has to snap into “focused mode” very quickly. 

When this abrupt transition occurs, the brain panics and doesn’t know exactly what to focus on. Rather than using common sense and concentrating on the thing that’s most important to you in your current situation, it takes the easy option. It focuses on something that’s right in front of you and ignores everything else.

Cognitive tunneling may occur during times of extreme stress. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, this may trigger your brain’s panic reaction, kick-starting its frantic search for an easy and obvious stimulus to focus on. 

How Does Cognitive Tunneling Harm Productivity?

Maintaining focus is crucial to productivity. Cognitive tunneling’s harm lies in the fact that the most obvious stimulus in front of you isn’t necessarily the right stimulus to focus on to maintain your productivity. 

For example, imagine you’re at work. If your brain jumps to focus on the most obvious task that’s in front of it—such as an email you’ve just received—it may bypass more important or productive tasks. You’ll end up focusing your energy on a less useful activity, and your productivity will fall.

Likewise, cognitive tunneling hurts your productivity by robbing you of the ability to choose what to concentrate on. You can no longer choose to focus on tasks that further your priorities and goals. Instead, you’re left at the mercy of your brain’s panicked automatic reaction.

Maintaining focus is key to being productive. As we seek to improve productivity, it helps to understand how focus can be derailed.

Maintaining Focus: How Cognitive Tunneling Derails You

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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She has always appreciated nonfiction, especially about history, politics, and ideas. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. As a former intelligence analyst and a teacher of critical thinking skills, Elizabeth enjoys analyzing arguments on all sides of an issue. Her nonfiction preferences include theology, science, and philosophy. She studies the intersection of these three in pursuit of the highest truths. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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