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The Scarcity Tunnel

How focusing incessantly on life's demands diminishes our capacity for peace and balance

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Hidden Brain, an NPR podcast, aired a segment on a phenomena called the scarcity tunnel. In essences two researchers, an economist and a psychologist, engaged in a study that concluded this. When we are desperate for something there is a high likelihood that we can focus on it so incessantly, there will be far less capacity within our brains for anything else.  This state causes us to lose perspective and in turn make poor decisions.

Early in my leadership experience as a COO I thought effectiveness meant that I tuned into everything across an organization. Therefore, in order to model good leadership I attended every meeting, monitored every department’s progress toward results, coached each leader and analyzed all of these connections. I was laser focused on creating a high-performance culture and believed not doing so would impede achievement.

I became obsessed with improvement. I reviewing reports incessantly, sent emails constantly, mandated certain structures and processes, and strove to provide real time feedback, authentic support and praise. I intuitively knew that something was out of balance but I could not turn my brain off. Every thought led to another thought. Every idea to another action. I could hardly keep up and the faster I moved, the more opportunities I found to optimize people, policies and processes all day and every day.

Scarcity takes a huge toll. It robs people of insight. And it helps to explain why, when we’re in a hole, we sometimes dig ourselves even deeper. -NPR

After awhile, I noticed other areas of my life beginning to come undone. I missed dates that were important to my family. My daughter was often the last kid to leave school.  I perceived important rituals like preparing a meal and eating with my family as a distraction that should be moved down my list of priorities. I knew that I could not do it all but had trouble differentiating between what was critical and what was not. I lost perspective and could not compartmentalize work and home responsibilities in a healthy and balanced way. I was unable to sleep and when I did my internal alarm clock sounded way before the crack of dawn. I took B-6 supplements for energy boosts and anti-anxiety herbal teas to calm my brain. I was slowly unraveling and losing all sense of peace and balance. This was absolutely crazy and I was lost in a scarcity tunnel.

Once my physical and mental unwellness forced me to become mindful of these unhealthy patterns I realized that my thinking needed a shift. I asked myself, ‘why do you believe that you need to be involved in everything? What is driving your expectations around how organizational change should occur?’  My behavior was simply a reflection of my scarcity perspective and the imposter syndrome lurking beneath the surface. My hypothesis was, if I did not hyper-focus on activities across the organization then we would not achieve goals, our teams would not be successful and I would not be successful.  FALSE.  Yes, structure and discipline are necessary and teams should be held accountable. However, focusing on what was working and supporting people by providing the resources necessary to be successful was the more balanced approach. I also realized that extending myself grace and supporting my well being by approaching this new role with balance and temperance was critical.

Now I have a better sense of when to take my hands off the wheel and when to steer. Taking my hands off may lead to a fender bender from time to time, but that is just as likely to happen when I perceive that I am ‘in control’. Newton’s Third Law of motion states, every action has an equal and opposing reaction. When I lead with scarcity, the reactions that I subconsciously solicit from teams will follow with scarcity–maintaining a circular pattern of crazy making.  However, when teams and individuals are balanced in their approach, perspective and expectations, they becomes more creative, more focused and more productive.  That shift in thinking can subsequently transform scarcity tunnels into reservoirs of abundance.

Photo by Jimmy Chan from Pexels

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