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Lessons Learned

Five Simple Methods I've Learned To Fight Tunnel Vision At Work

Find yourself getting sucked into your work? Here's how to climb back out and stay grounded.

[Photo: Flickr user Paul Nuttall]

I catch tunnel vision like a virus, and it always has the same symptoms. I know it’s happening when I feel fatigued and disinterested. I begin to withdraw from important side projects and my social life, and despite the fact that I’m completely focused on one thing, I’m more susceptible to being blindsided by others that I should've seen coming.

Maybe it happens to you, too. Maybe, like me, you're great at multitasking some of the time but find yourself swallowed whole by big projects and challenges other times—and then struggle to claw your way back out. I have to admit that I've actually made myself vulnerable to tunnel vision. I now run four companies, host a YouTube show, and serve as an administrator for a few entrepreneurs' groups. Lots of things compete for my attention, and any one of them can lock me out of the others if I let them.

Here's how I've learned to avoid giving in to all-consuming work at the expense of everything else.

1. Post Big Goals Where You Can’t Ignore Them

There's more than one effective way to organize your schedule and track your goals. While I use many of the same apps that most entrepreneurs do, like Todoist and Evernote, sometimes you have to go a little old fashioned. Goals easily get lost when you need to swipe through screens or shuffle through Chrome tabs just to remind yourself what they are. That’s why I keep my all of my most important goals on a giant whiteboard that dominates a wall in my office.

You may not have access to a whiteboard that's big enough to take up a huge chunk of your workspace, but you can achieve the same effect with big piece of paper and a marker. Whatever you do, scrap the tiny sticky notes and pocket-size notepad—those won't grab your attention the way you need them to. Just make a large hard copy and put it right where you can’t ever ignore it. I like to keep mine just past my monitor, so that every time I look up from my screen, my goals are glaring right at me.

There’s something to be said for the tactile feeling of crossing something out on a hard surface versus tapping a screen. There’s also something to be said for listing goals in imposing, foot-tall letters that you can't help but see constantly.

When your immediate goals are impossible to overlook and you're confronted with success or stagnation every time you look up, your goals are more likely to be compressed into a diamond in your mind that can’t be easily dislodged.

2. Don’t Stop At Professional Goals

Getting fixated on a big project for too long can lead to burnout, which is why I’ve made sure that my goals include everything I want from life, not just the things I want in my career.

So remember to include experiences, pleasures, and things you find personally meaningful—not just achievements that will push your career forward or help your business grow. Reading certain books, visiting certain places, and sharing certain experiences with loved ones are all equally valid goals that can help you stay grounded and avoid tunnel vision when the pressure starts to build.

Keep in mind, too, that not all your goals have the power to make you happy. Some objectives are business necessities, others are personal necessities—sometimes they overlap, but not always. Make sure the goals that actually make you happy make it toward the top of your list, this way you can actually invest the same time and focus in them that you pour into your other major undertakings.

3. Keep Yourself Accountable—Or Have Others Help You

I’m a pretty competitive guy, and I know what stings the most for me: someone else knowing I’ve failed. That’s why I force myself to share my toughest goals with friends and colleagues. When a deadline passes and I know that they're aware of it, I’m more determined not to let myself fail.

You may find different ways to keep yourself motivated and accountable, but if you like this approach your mentors should be your first stop. There’s no one better to judge you and hold you to your intentions than the people you’ve chosen to look up to, right?

Sometimes, though, I’ve found it works even better to share my goals with people who are more like "frenemies"—people I talk to and respect but still compete with in business. By playing into my competitive streak, I can remember to lift my head up from my own work now and then and refocus on the big picture.

4. Clean Up Your Workspace Daily

Remember that whiteboard I mentioned that "consumes" my office? That’s because my office is tiny by deliberate design. I'm a chaotic worker, and I need to force myself into a situation where I simply can't use my workspace if I don’t make the effort to file everything where it belongs.

This routine forces me to break out of whatever intense focus I might've sunk into over the course of a day—to look up, take stock of things, see how far I've come, and get everything back in order before diving in again. It's a great, regular "reset" button for tunnel vision.

5. Look For Easy, Routine Ways Expand Your Perspective

It usually costs, at most, $15 to change your point of view: That’s more or less what a book costs. It may sound silly just to be reminded to read, but professionals prone to tunnel vision tend to banish all other activities and pastimes in order to devote their full focus to their work. And that can be a mistake.

I've forced myself to read at least one book each month, and by turning that into a regular habit—as opposed to an occasional thing I need to make an effort to do every now and then—and it's influenced my work and goals and has helped keep me grounded.

The best way out of tunnel vision is to expand your perspective. But you need to build excuses into your daily routine to actually do that regularly, and simply reading about others' experiences can help you. It takes practice, though. Fighting tunnel vision requires constant vigilance. All the more reason to start right now.

Adam Steele is a builder of things, including Internet marketing agency The Magistrate and outsourcing solution Loganix, among others. He is a member of the Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC), an invite-only organization comprised of the world's most promising young entrepreneurs.

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