Can We Talk About Your Brain?

Are you feeling called to do hard things? 

Things that make you feel uncomfortable, or require a lot of effort, but that you are committed to because they are important? Perhaps important to your health, to your business, or to creating the world you want to live in.

First, let me commend you! 

Second, can we talk about your brain for a moment? Understanding a few things about human brain function can make taking on those hard things a little easier. 

Caveat: I am not a scientific expert on the human brain. I don’t even play one on tv. But I do help people learn to do hard things, think new thoughts, perceive the world and themselves in new ways so that they can live more intentional, effective and fulfilling lives. Every day. I’m a life coach.

The most technical and science-y thing I will say is this: your decision to do hard things was made in your prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is also what you will be relying on to actually do the hard things. It’s in charge of executive function, and will require a great deal of conscious intention, focus and effort to establish any new behaviors.

The prefrontal cortex can override the rest of your brain that DOES NOT want you to do hard things. That will provide reasons why hard things, new ideas, anything challenging and that takes effort and creates discomfort is A BAD IDEA. That will suggest instead that you check Facebook, make popcorn, scroll through your phone, look out the window. That wants you to keep silent, not speak up, keep your head down, and definitely not step off the well worn path.

That part -let’s call it the lower brain- is just doing its job, which is to keep you safe and expend as little energy as possible. It automates your repeated behaviors so that you don’t have to think about them so much- things like driving, brushing your teeth, getting dressed. 

So how can you use this knowledge to help you do hard things?

You can ease the effort required of your prefrontal cortex by

  • being very clear WHY the hard thing is important to you,
  • breaking the hard things into smaller, clearly defined actions,
  • mentally rehearsing when, where and how you will do them, 
  • imagining how you will feel when this new behavior is integrated into your life,
  • posting notes to yourself stating what you will do and WHY, and then
  • practice, practice, practice doing the hard thing.

You can anticipate the lower brain’s discouragement campaign to avoid being taken in by it, and you can be your own cheerleader. 

Try my current favorite approach: be on the alert and nod knowingly when your lower brain shows up and starts balking (you feel smart), then say something like “welcome, and thank you for your concern! I hear you! Very bad idea: okay, duly noted! You have done your job and done it well; now you may move along thank you very much.” (You feel politely but firmly in charge.)

Then, you do the hard thing- yes, and feel uncomfortable- but know that you have strengthened the muscle of your prefrontal cortex (pause to admire your badassery), and that the next time it will be even easier (how strategic is that).

And if you do this enough times, eventually – here is the magic part!- that hard thing becomes easier and your lower brain accepts it as the new normal, making room for it alongside flossing your teeth and flipping on your turn signal.

Two Brains In One

Do you have ideas for what you want for your life this new year, this new decade? Some goals, life changes? Yep, me too.

Setting a goal and then working toward it always has a secondary benefit, over and above whatever our actual goal is: it’s good exercise for our higher brain.

There’s a ton of great information on the human brain, but here’s the part that fascinates me, and makes so much sense of my experience. Simply put, we have two very different kinds of brain function. 

The prefrontal cortex is what I like to call our higher brain. It’s the source of our highest aspirations, as well as our determination to work through the hard stuff. It’s about consciousness and growth and owning our lives. It’s about principles and spirituality.

The other, primal part of our brain is dedicated to our basic survival, and motivates us to avoid pain, seek instant pleasure and spend as little energy as possible. It’s what allows us to drive, open a door and use a fork with little thought or effort. It also can keep us from change, from challenging ourselves, from doing new or hard things.

When we set a new goal, our primal brain works against us. That’s the resistance we feel, why it seems so hard at first.

This year my new goal feels big and important to me, and has me freaking out a bit. Here’s how I use knowing about my brain’s dual functions to:

…have more self compassion. It helps me not judge myself as weak or unprincipled- just someone who has a human brain. 

…work smarter: with, not against myself. I get that setting my goal is the easy part. Achieving it requires me to change my behavior, manage my emotions and think about my life in new ways. All that takes higher brain function work, which takes effort and focus, but I know that with time my primal brain will kick in to help make the new habits and ways of thinking smoother and more habitual. I appreciate how the two functions each serve a different, complementary purpose.

…provide extra, and deeper, motivation. Even when my determination wavers around my current goal, I remember that every time I choose to stick with my plan or do the hard thing required, I am strengthening my integrity, my confidence, my faith in myself. My ability and capacity for creating my best self. For living more consciously and fully. 

Setting a goal or resolution is an act of faith in ourselves. It has the capacity for strengthening the best and highest part of ourselves.