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Tired of not taking action? Give your brain a good workout!

Tired of not taking action? Give your brain a good workout!

With all of the excellent tips you can read on the web, I would bet that you could probably write your own blog article on how to get the body, relationship, or career you want.

 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?

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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.

Their relationship

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.

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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.

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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.

4. Exercise.

Yes, that magic cure-all. It’s been shown that attention and self-control increase after strenuous aerobic exercise.

5. Meditate.

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!

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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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Last Updated on November 15, 2019

How Do You Change a Habit (According to Psychology)

How Do You Change a Habit (According to Psychology)

Habits are hard to kill, and rightly so. They are a part and parcel of your personality traits and mold your character.

However, habits are not always something over-the-top and quirky enough to get noticed. Think of subtle habits like tapping fingers when you are nervous and humming songs while you drive. These are nothing but ingrained habits that you may not realize easily.

Just take a few minutes and think of something specific that you do all the time. You will notice how it has become a habit for you without any explicit realization. Everything you do on a daily basis starting with your morning routine, lunch preferences to exercise routines are all habits.

Habits mostly form from life experiences and certain observed behaviors, not all of them are healthy. Habitual smoking can be dangerous to your health. Similarly, a habit could also make you lose out on enjoying something to its best – like how some people just cannot stop swaying their bodies when delivering a speech.

Thus, there could be a few habits that you would want to change about yourself. But changing habits is not as easy as it seems, why?

What Makes It Hard To Change A Habit?

To want to change a particular habit means to change something very fundamental about your behavior.[1] Hence, it’s necessary to understand how habits actually form and why they are so difficult to actually get out of.

The Biology

Habits form in a place what we call the subconscious mind in our brain.[2]

Our brains have two modes of operation. The first one is an automatic pilot kind of system that is fast and works on reflexes often. It is what we call the subconscious part. This is the part that is associated with everything that comes naturally to you.

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The second mode is the conscious mode where every action and decision is well thought out and follows a controlled way of thinking.

A fine example to distinguish both would be to consider yourself learning to drive or play an instrument. For the first time you try learning, you think before every movement you make. But once you have got the hang of it, you might drive without applying much thought into it.

Both systems work together in our brains at all times. When a habit is formed, it moves from the conscious part to the subconscious making it difficult to control.

So, the key idea in deconstructing a habit is to go from the subconscious to the conscious.

Another thing you have to understand about habits is that they can be conscious or hidden.

Conscious habits are those that require active input from your side. For instance, if you stop setting your alarm in the morning, you will stop waking up at the same time.

Hidden habits, on the other hand, are habits that we do without realizing. These make up the majority of our habits and we wouldn’t even know them until someone pointed them out. So the first difficulty in breaking these habits is to actually identify them. As they are internalized, they need a lot of attention to detail for self-identification. That’s not all.

Habits can be physical, social, and mental, energy-based and even be particular to productivity. Understanding them is necessary to know why they are difficult to break and what can be done about them.

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The Psychology

Habits get engraved into our memories depending on the way we think, feel and act over a particular period of time. The procedural part of memory deals with habit formation and studies have observed that various types of conditioning of behavior could affect your habit formations.

Classical conditioning or pavlovian conditioning is when you start associating a memory with reality.[3] A dog that associates ringing bell to food will start salivating. The same external stimuli such as the sound of church bells can make a person want to pray.

Operant conditioning is when experience and the feelings associated with it form a habit.[4] By encouraging or discouraging an act, individuals could either make it a habit or stop doing it.

Observational learning is another way habits could take form. A child may start walking the same way their parent does.

What Can You Do To Change a Habit?

Sure, habits are hard to control but it is not impossible. With a few tips and hard-driven dedication, you can surely get over your nasty habits.

Here are some ways that make use of psychological findings to help you:

1. Identify Your Habits

As mentioned earlier, habits can be quite subtle and hidden from your view. You have to bring your subconscious habits to an aware state of mind. You could do it by self-observation or by asking your friends or family to point out the habit for your sake.

2. Find out the Impact of Your Habit

Every habit produces an effect – either physical or mental. Find out what exactly it is doing to you. Does it help you relieve stress or does it give you some pain relief?

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It could be anything simple. Sometimes biting your nails could be calming your nerves. Understanding the effect of a habit is necessary to control it.

3. Apply Logic

You don’t need to be force-fed with wisdom and advice to know what an unhealthy habit could do to you.

Late-night binge-watching just before an important presentation is not going to help you. Take a moment and apply your own wisdom and logic to control your seemingly nastily habits.

4. Choose an Alternative

As I said, every habit induces some feeling. So, it could be quite difficult to get over it unless you find something else that can replace it. It can be a simple non-harming new habit that you can cultivate to get over a bad habit.

Say you have the habit of banging your head hard when you are angry. That’s going to be bad for you. Instead, the next time you are angry, just take a deep breath and count to 10. Or maybe start imagining yourself on a luxury yacht. Just think of something that will work for you.

5. Remove Triggers

Get rid of items and situations that can trigger your bad habit.

Stay away from smoke breaks if you are trying to quit it. Remove all those candy bars from the fridge if you want to control your sweet cravings.

6. Visualize Change

Our brains can be trained to forget a habit if we start visualizing the change. Serious visualization is retained and helps as a motivator in breaking the habit loop.

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For instance, to replace your habit of waking up late, visualize yourself waking up early and enjoying the early morning jog every day. By continuing this, you would naturally feel better to wake up early and do your new hobby.

7. Avoid Negative Talks and Thinking

Just as how our brain is trained to accept a change in habit, continuous negative talk and thinking could hamper your efforts put into breaking a habit.

Believe you can get out of it and assert yourself the same.

Final Thoughts

Changing habits isn’t easy, so do not expect an overnight change!

Habits took a long time to form. It could take a while to completely break out of it. You will have to accept that sometimes you may falter in your efforts. Don’t let negativity seep in when it seems hard. Keep going at it slowly and steadily.

More About Changing Habits

Featured photo credit: Mel via unsplash.com

Reference

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