Do you often wonder why your diets never seem to stick or why every year you make, and then break, that same one New Year’s resolution?
Welcome to my world.
I’ve struggled with procrastination for a long time and many of you often ask me for tips on how to overcome the nasty P word, and so am always on the look out for real research based hacks to get around it.
While on that quest last week, I stumbled onto a book that uses actual research to tell you why many of us get caught in awful habit loops, and how to solve it too. There’s lots of cool stuff in the book, but here’s a summary of what fascinated me most:
When it comes to keeping your resolutions, your brain both messes you up and also saves you. That’s because it has two competing parts.
You see, when our ancestors were just barely out of the monkey days and getting geared up to become human looking, they needed a brain that was more about killing prey, reproducing and keeping safe from other predators.
Yep, food, sex and running from danger were the big three back then.
So nature created our first brains with just these three things in mind. Nothing else mattered for our ancestral brains. And it did a great job! After all, it kept the human race alive and flourishing even though we are tiny compared to the other animals out there right?
And we still have this part of our ancestral brain with us today. It’s called the Limbic system; and it still serves us well. After all, how would we know to put on the brakes while driving or to not stick our fingers in the electric socket?
And come on, who wants to give up sex?
This is the fun, child part of our modern brains. It makes us want things (like cupcakes) and makes us throw a tantrum when we don’t want to do something that we know we should (like work on that tax return) and helps us run away from a suspicious looking stranger.
The one problem is: Now we live in a much more complex time in history.
Modern life rewards those who can withstand the instant need for gratification. For e.g: If you can withstand the thrill of drugs, you don’t get addicted and have a chance at a productive life. If you can get yourself (out of the warm, cozy bed) to work out every day, you get to have a healthy, lean body etc; etc;
But how to override the limbic system that wants us to throw caution to the wind and have fun NOW?
To make these kind of decisions that tend to go against what our ancestral brains tell us is fun, nature created an additional structure. It’s called the Frontal Lobe and sits, you guessed it, at the front part of the brain.
The frontal lobe is the one that helps you plan things, resist temptations, cooperate in relationships, forgive, love someone even when you are angry with them, organize your tasks, remember etc;.
It is also the part of brain that knows what you really, truly and deeply want from life.
This is a cool thing, because the next time you pass by a bakery and your ancestral brain makes you long for and walk toward the pastry counter, you can use your frontal lobe to think of what you really, truly, deeply want: to be healthy or to lose weight or to stick around to see your kids get married.
Or the next time you get an itch to check email rather than get started on that work report, you can use it to take a step back and remind yourself what your bigger goal is: to be trusted at work or to set an example to your kids or to get promoted etc;
Isn’t it awesome that a part of our brain actually nudges us toward life’s larger goals?
But, just like anything else in life, the more you use your frontal lobe, the stronger it gets. Which then makes it easier to use the next time.
So does this work? I’ve been trying it out for the past week with my weakness for desserts. And good news: Just thinking and writing down a larger goal (“I want to lose 5 pounds before I go on vacation”), and reminding myself of it when tempted, has helped me a lot. I’ve already lost two of those five pounds this week.
So, with my conclusive case study of one, I highly recommend “The Willpower instinct” book to you.
The author, Dr.Kelly McGonigal is a psychologist at Stanford who has studied and taught courses on human willpower for many years. She is such an expert on it that her course regularly fills beyond capacity every year. In the book, she describes the “I will, I won’t and I want” impulses and teaches tons more ways to use them to strengthen your own willpower.
So, don’t go blaming your genes or your environment the next time you pick up a cigarette or can’t get started on a big project.
Instead, learn ways to flex your “I want” muscle and watch yourself making choices you are less likely to regret.
Over to you: What is the one habit that you want to change in your life? Is it a “I will” or “I won’t” type? Can you use your “I want” muscle power on it? I look forward to hearing your thoughts.