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Drink lots of water. Praise more, scold less. Visualize. Don’t be afraid to ask. Practice gratitude.
And yet, you may still feel stuck in certain areas of your life. Why? Because you are not taking the actions you know you should take.
Maybe you vow that you will spend 10 minutes each morning meditating. When the time comes to actually sit down and close your eyes, however, you just don’t want to. You find a dozen other things that you just have to get done instead, like check one more email. Sound familiar?
You can wrestle with “self-discipline” all you like, but the truth is that there are very real mental processes in your brain that keep you from taking action. So today, I am going to delve into (a simplified version of) what these processes are, and how to design more beneficial ones so that you can take action and have the life you want.
On one hand: Your voice of reason
One of the regions of your brain responsible for making rational decisions is the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The PFC is like your voice of reason. It is great at understanding the consequences of our actions, like “if I eat this cake tonight, I will feel terrible tomorrow.” If you gave the megaphone to your PFC, you would likely be closer to living your dream life by now.
On the other hand: The fear monger
But not so fast. There is another part of your brain that is the champion of fear and annoyance, called the amygdala. Whenever something comes up that scares or annoys you, the amygdala raises a raucous. It tells you “don’t ask that girl out, she will just reject you!” or “I don’t feel like getting out of bed!” If you gave the megaphone to your amygdala, you likely wouldn’t get as much done, but you sure would stay safe and sound.
The PFC decides when you should listen to the amygdala (“yes, back away from that rattlesnake.”) and when you shouldn’t (“no, get out of bed NOW.”). When it comes to our dreams, a strong PFC “calms down” the amygdala and makes sure that we take the right actions; a weak PFC does not, and the amygdala gets to call more of the shots.
So the key to taking the right actions is to strengthen your PFC. Pretty simple and cool, huh?
How do you do that? Here are a few ways:
1. Label it.
Acknowledge what the amygdala is saying, like “I feel scared because…” This improves your objectivity about the situation, giving the PFC a helping hand, and it also doesn’t confront the amygdala in a way that will “aggravate” it further.
2. Dismantle fear in steps.
Maybe a certain action, like giving a presentation, scares you tremendously. Instead of jumping into the deep end by volunteering to speak at the next all-division meeting, which would trigger an all-out amygdalar upset, break the journey into steps. Start by speaking up more at group meetings. Then present to a small group. Bite off pieces that keep your amygdalar response small and manageable by the PFC.
3. Don’t remember.
Stop using your mind to store To Dos, like “get eggs on your way home,” or “remember that tomorrow is Jen’s birthday.” They cloud your thinking, and will deprive your PFC of the energy and focus it needs to properly regulate the amygdala.
Yes, that magic cure-all. It’s been shown that attention and self-control increase after strenuous aerobic exercise.
Like #3, meditation clears excess chatter from your mind so your PFC can make decisions in peace and quiet. Granted, this is a bit of a Catch-22 if you are having a hard time “making yourself” meditate in the first place. But even a small step here can yield big dividends for your PFC.
If you want to be living your dream life, it’s time to make your PFC work up a sweat and assert its dominance over your amygdala. Just like any other part of our bodies, it really doesn’t have to be any more difficult than, say, working out our leg muscles to become a better runner. You just need to practice it to master it!
What mental exercises will you take on to strengthen your PFC so that you can take action? Write me a note and share!
Featured photo credit: Brain Machine in Newcastle, Apr-2013/Mitch Altman via flickr.com
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