Archive Monthly Archives: June 2015

How to trick your brain

I talked last time about our brains tricking us into bad habits. This time I want to talk about how we can trick our brains instead, to help us to meet our goals. It’s about setting new habits, creating new autopilots that help us towards our goals instead of making it more difficult to achieve them and hoovering away our motivation.

Success is possible. I’ve always been one for hitting the snooze button repeatedly. But now, I hit it once, give myself the nine minutes (why does Apple go for nine minutes?) to wake up, and then get up at 6am – well, 5.59. I did this by simply deciding to do it for 21 consecutive days. I have to get out of bed to call my son to get up for work then (not really, he can get himself up – another trick I play on my brain) so now I don’t get back into bed and hit snooze repeatedly, I just stay up. And now it’s a habit. Even if I have a lie in on the weekend, I can still get back to the 5.59 habit.

I’m not going to try and fire you up with positive affirmations, or inspirational stories of people who succeed against the odds. This kind of positive thinking does have its place, but motivation is more mundane than that. I’m going to take a more pragmatic approach. The great Zig Ziglar said that people often said to him, ‘Motivation doesn’t last.’ His response? ‘Neither does bathing, that’s why we do it every day.’ So how do we motivate ourselves daily? Again, it’s the habit thing. It has to be something we do every day, automatically.

Jeff Olsen, in his book ‘The Slight Edge’, talks about simple errors of judgement. Repeated daily, they lead us into problems. The flip side is simple daily disciplines. Repeated daily, they add up to successful results. Break your diet by a little bit every day, and eventually you will put on more weight, gradually creating health problems. Eat healthily every day, you won’t feel better immediately, but over time will lose weight and feel more energetic.

With apologies to Jeff Olsen. Adapted from 'The Slight Edge'. The planes represent what happens if you go off course by even a small amount, eventually you end up miles from where you want to be.

With apologies to Jeff Olsen. Adapted from ‘The Slight Edge’. The planes represent what happens if you go off course by even a small amount, eventually you end up miles from where you want to be.

Writers often say they sit down every day at the same time to write, for two hours, or three hours, or whatever their personal discipline is. And that’s how you write a book. They don’t wait for inspiration, writers write.

Athletes have a training regime that they adhere to on a regular basis. If we want exercise to be something we do on a regular basis, how can we automate that behaviour? Leave your fitness clothes ready the night before. Have your trainers there too. Instead of getting in the shower or going for breakfast first thing, put on your workout gear. Going out for that run (or fitness walk if running is a step too far) is then an unconscious choice, a result of being equipped. Give it the conscious effort for 21 days, and by then it will become automatic. 21 days to create a new habit is often quoted, and it does seem to be sufficient to ingrain a new routine.

NLP techniques such as the New Behaviour Generator can work by short circuiting the 21 days to create the new habit. You’d need an experienced NLP practitioner to talk you through this exercise. But the key thing is to know what the new behaviour looks like, and to create some kind of trigger for it. If you don’t have an experienced friendly NLP expert to hand, then persevering for 21 days is a good substitute. Not as instantaneous, but surely if something is important enough to you, then a 21 day investment in motivation is a small price to pay.

Of course, trying to establish too many new habits at once is a recipe for disaster. As I said before, I’d like to lose weight and get fit, organise my home and run a successful business. But counting calories, preparing healthy meals, 30 minutes of exercise, doing the hoovering daily, sorting out all my old paperwork, meeting clients, developing training courses, getting my to do list organised are not going to all happen in the next 21 days. Even if I do get up at 6am now.

Take it a step at a time. Get one or two new habits installed, and then move on to another thing. Tricks are for the not so smart part of us, we are all victims of our autopilot thinking where these habits don’t serve us well. Think about thinking, and harness your motivation.

My challenge to you is, what new behaviour, done on a daily basis over a sustained period of time, will help you to achieve your goals?

Once you’ve identified the behaviour, what can you do to trigger that behaviour, what can you do to help it to become a new habit?


Further reading

Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit, William Heinemann

Jeff Olson with John David Mann, The Slight Edge, Greenleaf Book Group Press