4 Ways To Trick Your Brain Into Committing To Long-Term Goals


Humans are clever creatures. We thought up outer space travel, penicillin and the Internet. We've come a long way in the past 100 years, and we consider ourselves the most intelligent beings around. Yet, we make irrational decisions to this day.

We would rather stay at jobs in which we're unhappy than pursue something else. We don't start working on projects until only a few days before they are due. We do things that we will likely lead to regret down the road.

So, why do we do them?

We're not as in control as we think.

We like to think we're logical and rational about our decisions. If a problem comes up, we think through each step carefully and find a way to resolve it. That may be true some of the time. But more often than not, we act first and think later.

As a result, we perform an action and then, we find a way to logically make sense of what we did. This is known as the "attitude follows behavior" principle.

In a study, a group of participants were asked to hold a pencil between their teeth as they watched cartoons. This forced them to a smile. Another group of participants were asked to hold the pencil between their lips. It did not touch their teeth, and this caused them to frown as they watched the cartoons.

The result? The participants who were forced to smile perceived the cartoons as funnier than those who were forced to frown.

In real life, the attitude-behavior principle leads to bigger implications. Even if we genuinely want to do something, external circumstances or emotions get the best of us. This causes us to rationalize our poor decisions.

For instance, you might:

  • Not apply to your dream school for fear of rejection. Then, you say, “I didn't really want to go there anyway.”
  • Not get time off from work to travel. Then, you'll reason there's no need to visit anywhere else.
  • Max out your credit card on a shopping spree. Then, you'll comfort yourself by saying there were a lot of good deals at the mall.

In all of these instances, we do things to feel better in the short term, without considering the long-term consequences. We may live to regret our choices down the road, but we're doing fine right now. So, there's little incentive to think long-term.

It seems silly now to see the rationale behind our poor choices. It's as if we have different personalities waging a war inside of us, pulling us in different directions. In a sense, that's exactly what's happening.

The Three Brain Networks

Humans have three separate components in the brain that act very differently from one another. Over a long period of time, a newer layer developed over the older component, in order to form the modern human brain.

The first layer, known as the basal ganglia or “reptilian brain,” is the oldest of the three. It focuses on survival, such as nourishment, reproduction and threat avoidance. While that's all good, this part of our brain is averse to changes. It can be stubborn to the suggestions of the other parts of the brain.

The limbic brain emerged next. It focuses on our emotional responses to situations. The limbic brain causes us to make snap judgments based on past experiences and memories.

Finally, the neocortex is the newest part of the brain. It focuses on complex skills such as rational thinking, creativity and languages. We have the neocortex to thank for civilization's advancements.

These three layers communicate with one another and influence our thoughts and decisions. Unfortunately, the older, powerful parts of our brain can work against what's best for us.

How Your Brain Makes Decisions

As soon as a situation pops up, the three parts of our brain try to resolve the issue in different ways. For instance, let's say you walk into a room and see a molten lava cake, oozing with chocolate sauce. You start to salivate.

Your reptilian brain sees food, while your limbic brain imagines how delicious it would be to bite into the cake. On the other hand, your rational neocortex sees the calorie-dense cake and says, “Hold on a second. I'm supposed to be watching my weight. Besides, I'm heading over to Jane's place tonight, where there will be tons of food and dessert.”

Back before modern civilization was around, eating the cake (or whatever food was around) was a wise decision, since you never knew when the next meal would be. Today, though, eating everything you see leads to weight and health problems.

So, which part of our brain wins in the end? It depends on the scenario. Research from Princeton University concludes that impulsive choices happen when the emotional part of our brains triumphs over the logical part.

When people get really close to obtaining a reward, their emotional brain takes over. So, if a chocolate cake is staring right at you, things will get dicey.

“Our emotional brain has a hard time imagining the future, even though our logical brain clearly sees the future consequences of our current actions,” says David Laibson, professor of economics at Harvard University. "Our emotional brain wants to max out the credit card, order dessert and smoke that cigarette. Our logical brain knows we should save for retirement, go for a jog and quit smoking."

When we see, touch or smell something we really want, the temptation gets too great to resist. We act impulsively because the dopamine in our brains gets all fired up. When our brain has calmed down afterward, though, we end up regretting our actions.

Make peace in times of war.

With all these temptations, it seems like you and I are doomed to eat whatever we want, shy away from opportunities and spend lavishly outside our budget. What hope is there if our brains keep working against us?

Don't despair just yet. There's good news. For one, we get wiser as we grow up. Our cortex helps us delay gratification in favor of long-term rewards. As children, this part of the brain isn't quite developed, which is why kids have a harder time resisting marshmallows than adults do.

When we go through our teenage and adult years, our cortex develops and matures. It can then communicate better with the other parts of our brain. While that's an improvement, we still easily get seduced by the bag of Doritos nearby.

So, here are some methods I've used to help my brain do what's best for me in the long run:

1. Manage your environment.

I've noticed that cravings happen the most when I see an object. My brain then thinks, “I want that.” Since I've placed healthier snacks and food nearby, I don't need to expend energy trying to resist temptation. (Note: I talk about this concept in greater detail in my guidebook.)

Managing your surroundings also works when you want to achieve an important goal. Since I have made writing a regular habit, I talk to like-minded people and have resources at hand to help me with this skill. Doing so makes it easier to keep going.

2. Tend to basic needs.

If possible, find ways to work with your reptilian and limbic brains. Try not to work against them. Even if the older parts of your brain don't always work in your best interest, that doesn't mean they're evil. The best way to tend to their needs is to maintain your energy levels.

Feeling tired? Take a nap or get more rest.

Is your stomach grumbling? Eat balanced meals throughout the day.

Are you cranky from stress? Go and play. When your energy levels aren't being taken care of, your mood drops, and your reasoning skills worsen.

3. Tie your emotions to your goals.

Our emotions can easily overpower any logical skills we may have. So, if you really want to start creating a habit, associate it with an emotion. For instance, if you forget to floss your teeth, put a sign up reminding yourself that cavities are painful.

On the other hand, if you find it hard to work on a project, find ways to make it exciting. I like to use the page-turner technique to make it easier to get back where I left off. You can also picture how your life will benefit from completing a task.

4. Just do it.

When we feel nervous or scared of doing something, we often try to talk ourselves into becoming more confident. While this method helps boost our self-esteem, there comes a point when we just have to jump.

After all, we're naturally inclined to stay in the same situation. In my case, I felt nervous about sending cold emails to reach out to strangers. I tried to reason with my fears and decide why it wouldn't be so bad.

But eventually, I just had to go ahead and do it. Now, I don't mind sending cold emails. I actually see it as a fun process.

Our decisions are often driven by factors outside of logic and reasoning. Distractions and emotions can lead us away from where we want to go. But if you can find ways to get parts of your brain to cooperate and behave according to your goals, you're well on your way to tipping the scales back in your favor.

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