It’s a miserable, wet and bleak Sunday in London, hard to get motivated about anything on a day like this. I wanted to go for a run this morning, but I looked out of the window and couldn’t muster the energy. My whole family was the same. No energy or motivation to do anything, so we just sat around all morning, getting bored. Then it hit me - the more we allow this lethargy to spread and multiply between us, the worse we’ll all feel.
I’m constantly thinking about how people can become better. Better at work, better at life, essentially better versions of themselves. It’s a major part of my job, but it’s also my passion.
One undeniable truth is that it’s not easy. It takes effort, perseverance and time - lots of time. But often the hardest part is getting started in the first place.
I reached for one of my favourite books for inspiration - Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist, grabbed my laptop and just started typing. My daughter instantly picked up a book and started reading and my son started building with legos.
You see, I’m just as bad as anyone else with this. I procrastinate, I bounce from one thing to the next & I stop when the going gets tough. I’m easily distracted and often look for short-term pleasure rather than longer-term progress.
We all have these human flaws, but there are ways to overcome them.
Our Inner Chimp
As humans, we are often irrational, driven by what Prof Steve Peters referred to as our inner chimp. It lives in the amygdala and is a fast-acting defence mechanism that doesn’t think but responds quickly, often based on an emotional response. This irrational mode of thinking is often in direct conflict with our human brain, powered by our prefrontal cortex which acts slowly. Our human brain does our analytical thinking & takes decisions based on logic.
What this really means is with any given situation, we will react either with our rational human brain or our irrational chimp brain. The one you react with will determine what you end up doing, but it’s possible to choose which one to react with.
Somewhat counter-intuitively, the key to reacting to situations with your rational, human brain is, to give the chimp side a safe space to vent.
Without letting it out, your chimp side is likely to take over and you’ll resort to decisions that only serve you in the short-term and might even get you into trouble.
For example - someone pushes past you to get on the train on your morning commute, your inner chimp wants to push back, shout at the person or rant about it to anyone who’ll listen.
If you don’t let it out, it could fester and come out in a far worse way later on that day.
So you have to let it out on your terms. Give the inner chimp a safe space to vent, internally. Go through it in your mind, for just long enough to make the emotional feelings subside, then go about your business.
By ‘feeding the chimp’ you’ve managed it and stand a far higher chance of making the best decision for your long term growth and happiness.
Refactor your computer
The situation above might seem like it has nothing to do with how we can be better at developing ourselves, but it’s in these micro-actions that we build the habit-forming muscles that help us to make better decisions with our logical human brain.
To complicate things further, there is a third part of our brain that Peters calls the computer. This is the part that behaves automatically based on learned experiences and our previous patterns of behaviour. We do hundreds of things each day without even thinking about it.
For example, when was the last time you had to think about chewing your lunch?
Our autopilot kicks in with these repetitive tasks to preserve our energy - if we had to think about everything we do, we simply wouldn’t have the energy to make the big important decisions.
Mindset by Dr Carol Dweck there are consequences to having the computer side to our brain. What happens if our autopilot kicks in a way that doesn’t serve our long-term goals?
These negative habits and actions, that Peters calls ‘Goblins’, controlled by the computer part of the brain can be controlled themselves.
But first, you have to find them.
Once identified, your human brain can start to replace the automatic response, with the desired, rational response that we want to become our best selves.
One such Goblin that I’ve struggled with, is the belief that I am less able than others. That I’m only average and that I should be happy with ‘only average’.
As a teenager I was fearful of failure, therefore I wouldn’t try hard. I convinced myself that people around me were more clever, creative and athletic. To protect myself, I wouldn’t put in any effort. Getting by was fine by me. If I didn’t try, I would always have an excuse.
Years later I discovered that what I had was a fixed mindset. My computer brain was making decisions based on a lifetime of minimising my effort as a strategy to minimise my perceived pain of not being good enough.
But I had to change this.
How I managed to grow and how you can too To change your deepest habits, you have to change almost every aspect of your life.
But you don’t have to do it all in one go. I’ve been on a deliberate journey of constant improvement for over 10 years now, I’m still learning and improving & I always will.
Here are a few things that you can work on today:
- Take a moment - Pause to allow your human brain to take over. By deliberately practising this technique you are more likely to automatically do it in future. It also allows you to find your Goblins. This is what I did today to get the motivation to start this blog post
- Do something small - As mentioned above, change is hard and takes time. But rather than be daunted by the scale of the problem, set yourself an achieveable goal to do something small for the next few weeks
- Acknowledge your Goblin - It took an incredibly long time for me (I was in my late 20s), for me to realise that my default belief was that I couldn’t excel. Just that recognition alone was a major turning point
- Embrace challenges - I would shun anything that seemed too hard. Then I realised that the happiness & satisfaction of accomplishing a big goal was worth every bit of effort
- See effort as the path for mastery - I love the quote “progress is on the other side of hard work” - with the mental model that your effort and your progress are directionally proportional, it’s easy to decide to go through the pain to come out better
- Surround yourself with people you want to be like - Proximity effect can be an incredibly positive factor in changing your belief systems. If you’re around growth-minded, positive doers, you will become one yourself Remember the Chinese proverb - the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the second-best time is today.
What will you do today to become better tomorrow?