Sharpen your situational awareness skills

“A narrow street is only as wide as the person that walks down it.” ― Anthony Hincks

A woman was walking through the forest when she came upon a man who was furiously sawing at a very thick tree. He was covered in sweat and looked exhausted — the man wasn’t making much progress though.

“You seem to be determined to cut through that tree, but it appears your saw blade is blunt,” the woman said. “Why don’t you take a moment to sharpen it?”

Barely looking up, the young man said, “I have to cut down this tree, and two after it, by the end of the day. I don’t have time to sharpen my saw.”

Being stuck is like cutting through a tree with a blunt saw — no matter how much you try, you won’t make any progress.

Stress and anxiety blind our vision.

When we are obsessed with accomplishing a goal, we don’t know what we are missing. Tunnel vision makes you blind to the opportunities around you. Rather than making progress, you get blocked.

To get unstuck, showing up and determination are not enough; you need to shift your perspective from limitations to one of possibilities. That’s how you discover new solutions.

Widening your vision is like sharpening a saw. You can overcome the obstacles with less effort.

Mind the seeing gap

We see what we want to see.

Tunnel vision limits your perception and common sense. You see just what’s in front of you, not what you need to see.

The loss of peripheral vision, both metaphorically and physiologically, results in a limited perception — we miss anything in the periphery. Tunnel vision creates an illusionary view that screens out early warning signals.

A seeing gap is when we view limitations instead of possibilities. Our emotions and beliefs get in our way — what we see blinds us. Your view is limited by what you think you can’t or won’t do

Your tunnel vision gets you stuck.

“They won’t ever hire me for this new job.”

“I don’t have all the resources I need to finish my project.”

“I can’t keep the pace with my colleagues; they are more creative than I am.”

There are three types of tunnel vision.

1. Anticipation:

This happens when you are looking too far ahead — you focus on the future and stop paying attention to what’s happening in the here and now.

Too many anticipations distract you from seeing life opportunities; anxiety about the outcome keeps your mind busy. You worry about cutting down the tree, but forget to sharpen the saw.

2. Narrow vision:

When you only focus on what’s familiar, you fail to observe what happens beyond your zone of comfort.

Too much focus can also narrow your vision. It’s what happens to horses wearing blinders — by avoiding distractions they can only see what is ahead, not around them.

3. Looking inside:

When you spend most of your time in an introspective mode, the less self-aware you become.

Too much introspection can kill you, as I wrote here. Thinking about yourself isn’t necessarily correlated with knowing yourself. To increase your self-awareness, you need to look outside, not just inside.

Tunnel vision is a trap — once you get caught by it, it’s hard to set yourself free from being stuck.

Your senses become tunneled by stress

Stress negatively affects your vision.

Blurry vision, eyes twitching, tunnel vision or dryness are some of the symptoms of being on the edge. When feeling anxious or frightened, you go into a fight-or-flight mode. Your brain directs more blood to essential functions — like your internal organs — and less blood to your extremities.

By trying to protect your whole body from stress, your vision suffers temporarily.

Tunnel vision shapes a narrow mind, and the other way around.

When your real vision is affected, your mind narrows its perception. In my personal experience, both a massage or a meditation immediately reverse this phenomenon. When my body and mind relax, my actual vision expands — it’s like my periphery extends from 90 to 180 degrees.

The habit of constantly watching a smartphone promotes tunnel vision. Our mind and eyes get used to contract thus narrowing our perception. Looking at a smartphone as we move around increases safety risks too — it diminishes our perception of the environment.

A study performed on youngsters revealed that they didn’t perceive approximately half of the visual cues provided while walking and texting at the same time.

A narrow vision affects more than your perspective — tunneled senses diminish your situation awareness.

You are more likely to miss clues and cues. When our hearing is tunneled too, you can miss hearing things happening around you. Brain researchers at John Hopkins University discovered that, when our vision gets tunneled, all our senses suffer too. The study showed that tunneled vision led to diminished hearing.

Situational awareness: survive or thrive

The perception of the environment around you is more than a means for survival. Thriving in life requires realizing the opportunities that lie around yourself.

Situational awareness is the perception of what’s happening in your vicinity — understand how information, events, and your actions will impact goals and objectives.

The ability to “read” what’s going around you will help you thrive in life.

When you suffer from tunnel vision, you just see what’s right in front of you. You miss the feeling to detect clues and cues that are critical both for survival and success. Reading the reality around you turns meaningless objects and events into invaluable opportunities.

In a dangerous situation, being aware of a threat even seconds before it occurs can keep you and your loved ones safe. In a normal condition, it increases your consciousness — being more present in the here and now.

Mindfulness is the opposite of living on autopilot, as I explain here. It’s the practice of noticing what happens around you. It’s being aware without an open mind, absorb like a sponge rather than thinking. Embrace curiosity, contemplate your environment without judging. Don’t fight reality, pay attention with flexibility.

Mindfulness is allowing the space to create connections between things and events that seemed disconnected. It’s a natural mindset, not a forced behavior.

Detectives are always observing, rather than simply seeing. They don’t judge the facts but observe them. Like Sherlock Holme who could enter a room and afterward describe everything he saw. He focused on finding the connections and making perfect sense out of everything by applying the principles of Deductive Reasoning.

Developing situational awareness will make you focus on seeing the opportunities, not the obstacles.

Get out of the tunnel vision trap

1. Master observation:

To achieve effective situational awareness, you need to train your mind to observe as much of your surroundings as possible. Learn to watch without judging. Your commute is a perfect situation to build this skill. Capture everything on a list, focus on describing things as they are, not as your mind sees them.

Put yourself in a place where you can see the whole action. Whether you are in a restaurant or in a meeting, find a place without obstacles.

Master memorization to reward your brain for observing more than you usually do. Turn into a game with your team. Every time you go to a new place, focus on mentally retaining everything you see. Afterward, compare notes with your colleagues. See who remembers the most. Challenge contradictions.

2. Make sense out of observations:

Describe everything you observed. Start with the broader picture and then capture all the details.

Find a common thread. What are the connections between everything you noticed? Formulate hypothesis. Create a fictional story to make sense out of everything you observed, especially contradictions. Design three potential scenarios and define an action plan for each. Exploring possibilities will help you see more opportunities.

3. Challenge your environment:

Routine promotes tunnel vision. When we repeat ourselves, we stop observing life. Asking ‘why’ is the best way to challenge your reality.

When you feel stuck, what’s holding you back? Is it lack of clarity, motivation, or interest? Ask ‘why’ at least three times for every obstacle you face.

“Why am I doing this?” “Why did I start this project? What purpose does it serve?” “Why will others benefit from this new product?” What am I missing? And why?” “How can we achieve the same goal by behaving differently? Why?”

4. Continually assess the situation:

Taking life for granted make opportunities invisible to our eyes. Change is the only constant. Don’t let your routine distract you from understanding what’s different in the here and now.

Change your point of view. Take a giant step back to observe your reality from a distance. What are the things and people around you telling you? Notice differences and inconsistencies. When you take the train or enter your office building, what has changed since the day before?

Looking for small signals and cues will train your mind to be alert.

5. Actively prevent fatigue:

Being tired affects your ability to watch for possible danger or opportunities. Protect your sleep time. Take breaks in between tasks, especially if you spend too much time in front of a computer. The brain needs to pause from time to time. Your body needs to change positions to avoid stiffness.

A gentle massage, a body stretch, or a deep meditation help restore oxygen and relax both your mind and body.

The tunnel vision trap reduces your situational awareness. Both threats and opportunities occur around you without you noticing them.

Being stuck is like cutting through a tree with a blunt saw — it’s a waste of time and energy. Don’t let stress, fatigue or routine affect your vision.

Train your mind to see what you need to see, not just what’s in front of you. Practice and a challenging mindset will sharpen your situational awareness.


How to Get Out of the Tunnel Vision Trap was originally published in Personal Growth on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.