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Target Fixation

My friend Scott is an avid mountain biker.

The other day, he told me about this concept called target fixation.

Well, he didn't tell me, he actually just showed me this:

Target Fixation (It's a YouTube short, so I couldn't embed it).

He made me watch it twice, and he didn't say anything before the first viewing or between the first and second viewing.

You should watch it twice.

In a mountain biking context, target fixation is a mental trap that you fall into where you see an object—like a tree—in your way, and focus so much on the object that you eventually hit it.

The reason it's a trap is because the object is actually never in the way of your path, your path will always deviate around the object, but because you're fixated on the object, you fail to see the path.

So I asked Scott how a mountain biker would avoid this.

Using the example of a tree, he said, you have to acknowledge the tree is there, and then immediately look beyond it. You body will then instinctively know what to do.

It feels like such a simple solution. Elegant really. Such a wonderful example of how flawed and also how magical our internal machinery is.

At the time of writing this, it's been two and a half weeks since Scott told me about target fixation.

I haven't been able to get it out of my head.

Yes, I realize the irony. I am fixated on the idea of target fixation.

The reason I am still fixated on it, is because I feel it's one of those mental models that can explain so much of what we struggle with.

The objects we focus on aren't always physical, because we're not always riding a mountain bike.

Yet, the idea of target fixation feels like it's everywhere.

Just minutes before Scott and I first had the conversation about target fixation, I was trying to put our kids to bed.

For what felt like the millionth time in a week, our son was failing/refusing/not bothering to brush his teeth.

Brushing teeth is one aspect of the getting-ready-for-bed process, and I think most other aspects of that process had been completed on this particular night.

I tried my very best to remain calm and recognize that most of the process had been completed, but the failure to brush teeth was a tree that I just kept smashing into.

The typical standoff ensued, and didn't result in any form of positive outcome.

Then when Scott showed me the video (twice), the line that shot the arrow to my heart was, "The tree wasn't even in the way, you made it in the way."

Was brushing teeth, really in the way? Could I not have just acknowledged it, moved on, perhaps gone back to it later, perhaps skipped it for one night ... insert many other options.

What I'm left thinking about now, two and a half weeks after having first heard of target fixation, is this question:

What can we learn about ourselves from the things we fixate on?

I'll leave you to fixate on that for now, dear reader.

Don't focus for too long.

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