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

You can get it if you really want…

A few months back, at my weight loss group, I could hear that old song by Desmond Dekker playing..

You can get if you really want, but you must try, try and try, you’ll succeed at last

There’s something about this advice that really irritates me. It goes along with ‘You can be anything you want to be’. So I can be a world class athlete? I think that ship sailed many years ago. Ok, technically I could lose weight, get fit, train to run a marathon, but I’m never going to beat Paula Radcliffe (or whoever the current female world class is now). And to even do that would require lots of hard work, dedication and sacrifice. And yes, if that’s what I really wanted, more than anything in the world, I’d probably try.

What the try, try and try thing doesn’t recognise, is that motivation isn’t as simple as just wanting something and so working towards it will get us there. It doesn’t recognise that our brains are wired to thwart us. It doesn’t recognise that change is difficult to sustain.

But I want three things. I really, really want all three. I want to lose wehome-office-4ight so that I’m slim, physically fit and healthy. I want to have a neat, tidy, organised home. And I want to succeed in business. So can I have all three? If I really want?

Well, not easily. It’s a question of focus. All three take a great deal of time and hard work. To lose weight requires me to lead an active life, getting enough exercise, and to plan and cook healthy meals. Also, it takes longer to eat a nice salad than it takes to eat a toasted cheese sandwich. To have a neat, tidy, organised home will take time. (If you know where I’m starting from, you’ll understand. I have a lot of stuff.) To succeed in business requires commitment and hard work. As a sole trader, it also means you have to get to grips with stuff you don’t necessarily understand, like how to create a website, how to keep accounts, or how to raise finance. If you’re a bit further ahead than that, it means you have to know how to recruit awesome staff, and how to be an awesome leader. And again, pulling all that off, takes a great deal of time.

So, that brings us to focus. Should I continue to work on all three at once, or focus on one? Well, before we look at some things that help us to focus, let’s take a look at some of the ways our brains get in our way.

Firstly, according to Daniel Kahneman, we have two thinking systems, fast and slow. The fast thinking is the stuff we do on auto pilot, that we know how to do without consciously thinking about it. Your morning routine, is it the same every day? When you get in the shower, do you always wash in the same order? Do you brush your teeth at the same point in the routine? Do you put your clothes on in the same order every day? Pretty much yes, I’d guess. The slow thinking is the things we need to apply some effort towards. We can drive to our usual place of work without working out the route. But if you have to drive somewhere you’ve never been before, you need to work out how to get there, look on a map, decide which of some alternative routes is the most suitable, how long should you allow for unexpected traffic, how long should you allow to find somewhere to park? (Oh alright, you might have given this sort of thinking up to your satnav. But you get the idea.)

Daniel Goleman calls these top down and bottom up thinking. In fact, lots of scientists, psychologists, writers, all sorts of people, have different names, but share the concept of two types of thinking. I’m going to go with autopilot for the fast thinking, and conscious thinking for the stuff that requires effort. But let’s stick with Goleman for a little. He describes bottom up as faster, involuntary, automatic, intuitive, impulsive and driven by emotions. Top down is slower, voluntary, effortful, able to learn new models, make new plans, and the seat of self control.

Some key clues there. If you’re the kind of person who has bad habits in a specific area – let’s say, eating biscuits when you’re stressed – then the habit, by definition, is an autopilot. You’re tired and stressed, so your impulsive, involuntary, emotional response is to get a cup of coffee and some biscuits, sit and eat them without thinking, that’s your autopilot reaction. If you’re trying to break that habit, it requires you to use top down, or conscious effort, to exercise self control, or replace the bad habit with a different one.

But another problem with the way our brains work, is that the conscious,  effortful thinking requires, well… effort. It’s hard work. We can only do so much hard work in a day. Our brains get tired of hard work in the same way our bodies do, and they need rest. One reason so much of what we do is on autopilot – we’d never get through the day if we had to consciously think about everything we do. Another thing this reveals though, is that self control requires that effort. And other research has found that self control (otherwise known as willpower) is a finite resource. If we’ve spent all day at work exercising self control not to lose our tempers with awkward customers or demanding bosses, or we’ve been concentrating on solving a tricky problem, we may have used up our quota of self control for the day. Cue a take away for dinner – we haven’t got the energy or the willpower left to cook that healthy meal we had planned.

Another way ou5.1-Dietr brains can trick us is through something called present bias. David McRaney picked this one up in his book ‘You are not so smart’. There’s now me, and future me. Future me is the one who is going to eat healthy, start exercising and be more organised. Now me is the one ordering take away for dinner. The problem with future me though, is she’s always in the future. Those of us who suffer from this delude ourselves about how good we’re going to be in the future. As McRaney says, present bias explains why we buy lettuce and bananas, only to throw them away later when we forget to eat them.

What we need are good strategies for tricking our brain. We’ll take a look at some of these in the next blog. In the meantime, what bad habits have you got into that you’d like to change?

By the way, I gave up the weight loss group. It wasn’t motivating me to succeed, and was just taking up precious time and money.  I’m still working on the good habits.

Further reading

Daniel Goleman. Focus, The Hidden Driver of Excellence, Bloomsbury

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Penguin Book

David McRaney. You are not so smart, Oneworld Publications

To speak or not to speak?

Ever said something and then regretted it? Of course, we all have. Whether it’s a mean comment in the heat of an argument with a loved one, or what we thought afterwards was a stupid comment, and we said it out loud in front of people. Or what seemed to be an even bigger mistake, speaking out at work, clerk-18915_1280-1and losing a job as a result.

I’ve done all of the above. Losing a job seems to be a pretty disastrous consequence, but I don’t regret saying what I did. It was for a small charity, and I pointed out some things that needed changing. I was right about the things that needed changing, and the trustees seemed to agree with me. They also thought that the changes included not having me on the payroll, for reasons I never understood. But no matter, I was right about the changes, and I survived losing the job. In fact, so many wonderful things have happened since, that I’m not even sorry I no longer work there.

But what if you don’t speak up? What about those times you didn’t say something, and wish you had? Yes, there might be times when you decide for the greater good to keep quiet. It’s not those occasions that are the problem. But if you fail to speak up for what you think is right through fear – fear of the consequences, lack of confidence or inability to put your argument – then those times have a serious impact on your self esteem over the longer term.

Because in those instances, you’re not being true to your values. You’re making a decision that you don’t deserve to put your point of view across, or that no-one will listen, so what’s the point in saying anything, or you’re allowing the fear to have power over you. None of those are great feelings. If you allow them to stay with you and affect your behaviour for any length of time, then they will eat away at your confidence, self esteem and happiness.

For a long time, I would move on, leave a job, rather than stand up for what I thought was the right thing. And I worked in the charity sector, so I told myself that I was working in organisations that were a good fit with my values. On reflection, I was kidding myself that working for a charity was going to make me happy – there’s more to it than that. (It was certainly better than working for the government, but still wasn’t the right thing.)

As a friend recently pointed out, you can always apologise for something you’ve said, but you usually can’t go back and speak out about something after the event – the opportunity has passed.

Of course, there are appropriate and inappropriate ways of speaking up, and we’ll take a look at some of these in another post. Meanwhile, I encourage you to consider your values, what is really important to you, and how does your work support or undermine these.

If you want to know more, download our guide to assertive behaviour.

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