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3 Habits To Help You Beat Life’s Supermarket Line

3 Habits To Help You Beat Life’s Supermarket Line

We are a highly developed race, tried and tested through years of environmental challenges courtesy of natural selection. Through those many trials, we have developed mechanisms that help us assess our environment and react in an almost instinctive fashion.

In general, automatic reactions are great when they’re activated in the right context: they save valuable resources by removing the mental hassle associated with decisions. But while automatic reactions are useful when applied in context, the problem begins when they influence our decisions and actions out of context.

Let’s take our saliency detection mechanism, for example. It helps us prioritize relevant information and focus on one quick decision — the one that is the most salient. Unfortunately, it gets in our way and is responsible for several illusory correlations, including this frustrating fallacy:

How many times you’ve stood in line at the supermarket thinking that the other lane is progressing faster due to lack of progress in yours? I bet more than once. And how many times, after you’ve switched lanes, has the lane you previously stood in started progressing faster? Almost always, right?

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The problem with this automatic reaction is that it tries to optimize our position, while it ignores several facts like our lack of control over the line’s progression rate (thank you Tom Stafford for this example and for inspiring this post).

There are many automatic reactions that work with and against us while we complete tasks and strive to be more productive. Below are the three habits you need to master in order to get more control over your automatic responses.

1. Determine the lane you’re going to stand in and stay there!

Trying to reaffirm your choices on a regular basis leaves you exhausted.

You may think switching between tasks (or lanes) will help you progress faster, but you’re quite wrong. Your brain is just pulling a fast one on you, convincing you that you can do things better if you’ll finish them later and move on now.

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When you’re constantly switching tasks, you spend more energy on skipping then you spend on doing. Sticking to your chosen path saves a lot of energy on several levels.

First, you don’t waste energy thinking about alternatives, you focus your energy on completing one task. Second, you don’t need to invest energy on new beginnings. Third, you don’t feel guilty because you’ve left something open, resulting in better focus on the task at hand.

The solution as you probably guessed by now is quite simple: plan your tasks and execute them one task at a time.

2. Focus on yourself and don’t compare between lanes.

When you’re stuck, you have a feeling that everyone around you is moving forward. This happens because our brain is calibrated to be self-centered.

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When everything runs smoothly, you don’t pay attention to your surroundings; you focus on the actions you’re about to make. When you’re focused on doing rather than comparing, things tend to get done.

The problem begins when there’s friction, when things don’t progress as we anticipated and we begin to look around for explanations and clues as to why everyone else is moving and we are not. But this is really just a distraction. So, instead of looking at what other people are doing, have a little faith in yourself and discover your own worth.

3. All lanes are the same.

Most of the time, we are the ones who are holding ourselves back. External influences almost never prevent us from reaching our goals. Sure, they might hold us back for a while, but they can never stop us from completing a task once we set our minds on finishing it.

Since we are our own worst enemies, we need to evaluate our condition using real-world parameters, like time and effort, while ignoring interruptions that offer an easy way out. One of the most talked about interruptions that prevents us from finishing tasks is FOMO, or fear of missing out. FOMO makes it really hard to focus on one thing because, according to our perception, there’s high chance we’re missing out on something.

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Dropping everything mid-task and moving onto something else will almost always backfire. It will most likely create a backlog of incomplete tasks and increase your stress and frustration. Not giving into FOMO and staying painfully honest with yourself is a must, otherwise the only thing you will truly miss out on is your goal completion.

Until next time, be polite and wait in line!

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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