photo of bitter little pill
“Not exercising is like taking a brain damage pill.”

Whoa. That’s pretty strong language. I know it’s true that exercising increases alertness, energy, and the ability to concentrate, and that it improves physical and emotional well-being. But brain damage pill? Isn’t that going too far?

No. That’s exactly as far as I need to go.

After several years of failing to transform my off-and-on running habit into a permanent, lifelong habit, I have finally discovered a powerful key to achieving my goal: the highly emotional, simple, concrete self-advertisement. I have learned that using this “brain damage pill” metaphor stimulates me to behave in the way my “higher self” wants me to behave (go for a run), even when my “lower self” is feeling exhausted, unenthusiastic, or tempted by couch-potato pursuits and sleep. The brain damage pill metaphor has proven to be magic.

I gained insight into the “why?” behind this simple technique for behavioral change from the new book, Made To Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. The authors assert that there are six principles for making ideas “sticky” and influential, and #5 on the list is, “Make messages emotional; make people care.”

The Heath brothers cite an example of the head-to-head competition of two anti-smoking ad campaigns, both targeted at teenagers, in the late 1990s. One ad took an analytical approach and had the tagline, “Think. Don’t Smoke.” The other ad (from the famous “The Truth” campaign) showed body bags piling up outside the headquarters of a major tobacco company, and implied that teens were being lied to and manipulated by conniving, rich tobacco executives. In follow-up studies of the ads’ effectiveness, seven times as many teenagers remembered the body bag ads as remembered the “Think. Don’t Smoke” ads. Pushing the right emotional button beats out rational, research-based analysis. Every time.

For years, I tried to motivate myself with the knowledge that aerobic exercise is good for my body and brain. We’re all aware of studies that prove the undeniable benefits of daily exercise, the most compelling being that the habit significantly increases the length and quality of our lives! And yet, “Exercise because it’s good for you” has always been strangely devoid of motivational potency.

Even the shocking phrase, “Not exercising is like voluntarily injecting myself with an early-death serum” hasn’t galvanized me. Premature death still seems like a long way off, and I can always rationalize that I’ll start the work of prolonging my life tomorrow.

Not exercising is like taking a brain damage pill hits the sweet spot. It’s true (for me). It’s simple. It’s concrete. It’s emotionally powerful. The implied consequences of ignoring it are immediate. It imperils my highly valued mental acuity. I would never pop a brain damage pill… so, obviously, I must exercise today!

Rob Crawford, a school administrator who loves baseball and acoustic guitars, writes on productivity, impact, and self-management at Crawdaddy Cove.

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