The Peril of Task Fixatiom

20121123-162116.jpgSo, You’ve been practicing maintaining a relaxed Code Yellow vigilance at all times, right? Always, every second? What about when you’re trying to get that coffee cup into your car’s cup holder without spilling it all over your upholstery? How about when you’re trying to load a bag into the trunk? Bending over to pick up the newspaper from the porch?

When we’re engaged in a task – especially one that requires physical dexterity or concentration, our attention necessarily locks on to that specific task. This phenomenon, called task fixation, makes sense when you think about how our brains work. But unless we’re aware of task fixation, notice when we’re doing it, and consciously re-acquire our Code Yellow state afterward, we’ve created a leak in our defenses, a place and time where we’re vulnerable. And criminals are very good at noticing and exploiting those leaks. In fact, they depend on them.

Task fixation arises out of a simple biological reality: Our brains cannot focus on two tasks requiring concentration and mental attention at the same time. Some of us think we can do this, and we to about our ability to “multi-task”. But in reality, when we think we’re multitasking, what’s actually happening is simply that our brain is quickly switching focus back and forth between the two things we’re concentrating on. The transitions may happen so fast we don’t perceive them, but in reality our brain is only focused on one thing at a time.

“But, I can reload my pistol while scanning for targets on an IDPA stage,” you might say. That’s true, but this is only possible if you’ve trained yourself enough that you can reload by touch and feel and muscle memory, so that your brain doesn’t have to interrupt the “scan for targets” process to focus on the reload. When I shot my first IDPA match, I didn’t yet have this level of comfort and familiarity with the gun, and so I actually stopped EVERYTHING – moving, target scanning, everything – when it came time to reload. Task fixation is about cognitive processing, not reflex and automatic tasks.

The implications of task fixation are huge. Criminals look for victims who are distracted, because they know that if they attack during that moment when your focus is elsewhere, it will take your brain a certain amount of time to make that transition in attention from whatever else you were concentrating on to focusing on THEM, and you’re vulnerable to attack during that window of time. This is what the OODA loop is all about; it describes the cognitive process of shifting focus from whatever else you were doing to focusing on the next step in the fight.

Without task fixation, we wouldn’t be able to concentrate on anything. With it, we gain the ability to concentrate, but lose awareness when we are.

So what can you do about task fixation? Here are some suggestions:

  • BEFORE undertaking a task that requires your concentration, secure yourself and your surroundings. Scan for potential threats. Eliminate vulnerability if you can. (For example, lock your car doors before you engage in the task of squaring away your coffee cup.) Mentally clear your immediate surroundings to reduce the likelihood of something surprising you while your attention is focused elsewhere.
  • DURING the task which requires your attention, keep conscious of elapsed time. If you have a task which takes a while, try to break it up into smaller chunks and scan your surroundings in between. For example, stow your coffee cup, then scan, then buckle your seatbelt, then scan again. There’s no way around the reality that During the time your attention is focused on the task, you’re more vulnerable
  • AFTER the task which requires your attention, move as quickly as you can to regain your situational awareness. Actively scan your surroundings and check for threats that may have arrived while your attention was elsewhere. Regain your sense of what’s going on around you, and return to Code Yellow as quickly as you can.

Task fixation is a part of our biological programming, and it serves us well in our ability to devote our considerable cognitive power to ever more complicated tasks. But, unless you live an existence where you never have to concentrate on anything, task fixation means you simply cannot maintain Code Yellow awareness every second of the day. Recognizing this reality and training yourself to compensate for it is an important step toward staying safe.

Photo credit: stock.xchng (by singing)


  1. Thanks! Great ideas as always. Friends often ask me why I insist on locked doors, both house and car, all the time. I can’t say I ever put it together with this task focus problem, but it fits. Just always seemed like a fairly reliable way to avoid being vulnerable and, of course, free to concentrate on all the other things I do.

    • I think a lot of people don’t consider the problem of task fixation because we think we can multitask effectively. Realizing that what we perceive as multitasking is really just our brains context-switching very rapidly helps us understand that we really CAN’T focus on two things at once.

      Thanks for your comment, my friend!

      • Actually, I’ve always had a serious “one track mind” and never considered trying to “multi task” at all… just recognized that I had to shift rapidly from one thing to another, especially during my nursing days – and it was often very frustrating since I’d rather do one thing at a time well, than four things poorly. And I’ve always hated distractions. 🙂

        I think that I have always taken precautions such as you suggest, simply because I KNEW I could not pay attention to more than one thing.

        But I agree that far too many people don’t realize that and leave themselves vulnerable needlessly. Just one more thing to add to our training bag. 🙂 And I intend to write that into my class material in greater detail as well.

  2. Merrie says:

    I couldn’t agree more with this post! I find it terribly difficult to remain aware of my surroundings while strapping the 2 yo in his car seat, especially when he isn’t the most cooperative! Even though I have “played” out a situation a thousand times in my head it’s nice to be reminded of the essential tips of getting it done quickly and safely! Thank You!

    • I can relate to your challenge accomplishing these tasks quickly, Merrie – been there, done that, especially when out and about with my good friend who’s got a five year old and three-year-old twins. 🙂 Something that works for me is to consciously interrupt my task periodically to “refresh” my situational awareness picture with a quick scan. It’s not perfect, but it works just like breaking a task into pieces does.

      Another strategy is to mentally “clear” a larger swath around you before you start the task. If a task will take you thirty seconds to complete, and you’ve mentally cleared all threats that are close enough to reach you in that timeframe, you’re probably fairly safe during your period of task fixation. This technique works best, I think, when you’re in fairly open surroundings without a lot of people nearby. If you’re in the middle of a 200 acre field with nobody around, you’re unlikely to be attacked, after all. 🙂

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

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