Whenever I reflect on my daily actions, I am always impressed to see how easy it is to slip off from my best intentions. It’s as if a part of me is determined to achieve my goals while the other almost finds pleasure in sabotaging them.
While this be might be something we all experience in our lives, the good news is that we can learn to coach our brain to minimise this internal friction. This we owe to recent discoveries in neuroscience.
The first thing to realise is that despite its complexity, our brain doesn’t discern between good or bad choices, it only reinforces what we feed it. Hence, it’s key to coaching it correctly!
Secondly, our brain is mainly divided into three parts: the rational part (prefrontal cortex), the emotional part (the limbic system), and the instinctive part (the reptilian brain). While they all serve their respective function, the problem is they often disagree with each other – resulting in that inner friction we all experience.
With that in mind, how can we ensure to expand our brain’s abilities in the right direction?
According to science, there are 4 elements we must focus on.
Stimulating your brain refers to the act of challenging it to strengthen its neural connections and ability to grow. This could be anything from picking up a new skill or reflecting at the end of the day on your salient moments; by keeping your brain “on”, you are offering it more opportunities to expand its abilities.
With that in mind, it’s important to find the right balance between stimulation and relaxation. This is because overworking your brain can lead to cognitive fatigue, bringing fewer rewards to your efforts.
2Enriching your environment
We often see willpower as the holy grail of heroism and success. While it may act as a great ego booster, the reality is our willpower is finite. For this reason, setting up an environment for success can be an efficient way to increase our chances of improvement.
For example, if you want to learn a new language, try setting your laptop or phone in the language you are seeking to learn. By taking this proactive approach, you are automatically putting yourself in a position to be exposed to the language without having to tap into your precious willpower. Half the battle won!
3Repetition, intensity, effectiveness
Once you are clear on the behaviour you are seeking to implement, ensuring you stick to it is fundamental as your brain expands its ability through repetitive efforts. While this might be hard at first, over time, your actions will turn into habits, which is how the brain prefers to operate.
To increase your chances of sticking to the new routine, make sure you focus on small incremental steps as it’s a lot easier for your brain to digest. This doesn’t mean settling for less but rather taking a brain-friendly approach to reach your goals more effectively.
4Taking care of your brain
Just like any other great asset, our brain needs care if we want it to work for us.
This means focusing on elements such as sleep (at least 7 hours per day), consuming brain-friendly foods (nuts, oily fish, berries, leafy vegetables, to name a few), doing regular exercise(no need for excruciating workouts), and having mindfulness practices like meditation or deep conscious breathing.
Moreover, these are all proven practices to reduce our levels of stress, which is key for the well functioning of our brain. Studies show chronic stress can cause up to a 14% decrease in the area of your brain responsible for memory encoding and storage.
Now that we are clear on these elements, let’s understand how to get our brain to say less “no” and more “yes” to the things we want to do.
The neuroscience of YES
On a high level, our brain is hardwired to avoid pain and seek pleasure. If you think about it, every decision we take is driven by a desire for pleasurable reward, whether it’s meditating to feel good or buying a car to look good.
Knowing what individually drives us to seek pleasure is key if we want to manage our decisions and actions more effectively. While pleasure is undoubtedly a great feeling, when we become too pleasure dependent, we can fall into the instant gratification trap.
This only hinders our overall levels of productivity and well-being. That’s why delaying gratification and trying to avoid all those distracting notifications calling for our attention are some of the best ways to build mental resilience.
As I said initially, our brain is not able to distinguish between what it believes and what it does. For this reason, practicing positive self-talk and visualisation techniques is great to steer into a more proactive direction. Specifically, when practicing visualisation, try to focus on the following steps: relax, imagine the environment, view it as a third person, view it as a first-person, and come back to reality.
Its results are nothing short of impressive. An Australian researcher divided a basketball team into two groups. The first group focused on physically practicing their free throws for 20 days, while the other group simply visualised practicing free throws for the same amount of time. The result? The first group boosted their success rate by 24%, the second group by an astonishing 23%!
The Neuroscience of NO
Whether we like to accept it or not, we are often our biggest obstacle between our current and desired self. Our fears and limiting beliefs are a big part of who we are as individuals but when they manifest too strongly in us, they hijack our logical and calm thinking.
To effectively change our belief system, it’s not enough to replace it with a strong “yes” response: we need to focus our efforts on deconstructing it and rewiring it through a technique called cognitive restructuring.
Here is how the process goes:
- Identify the activating event: define the nature of the event creating a limiting belief. For example, I just got rejected by a client.
- Consequence: define the emotions generated as a result of this rejection. For example, anxiety, unhappiness, and frustration.
- Isolating beliefs: link the activating event with the emotions generated to understand the root cause of this belief. For example, I am bad at sales.
- Rewiring belief: look for evidence disproving this belief to build a more positive and balanced perspective. For example, even though I might have just been rejected by a client, last month I had closed 3 great deals.
When you build up from this new perspective, you can change your inner narrative and self-belief as a result.
Personal development is not a short-term fix but with the right knowledge and spirit, we can achieve things we thought were not possible. After all, our brain does not discern what’s real from what’s not!
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5Author: Filippo di Lenardo
Passionate entrepreneur on a quest to help people live more meaningful and expansive lives, Filippo di Lenardo is the Co-Founder of 3SSENTIA, the SMART management system that helps professionals fulfil their personal and professional goals more effectively. Filippo also runs Leap2yourbest (www.leap2yourbest.com), a 2 day coaching program for entrepreneurs wanting to expand their personal and business growth.