Have you ever procrastinated? Waited until April 15th to do your taxes? Put off that project until the last minute? Have you ever indulged in the office donuts when you meant not to? Do you struggle with establishing a regular exercise routine, hit the snooze bar one too many times in the morning, or occasionally lose your temper with your co-workers or children? Have you ever surfed the internet a little too long, checked your email too many times or spent too much time on Facebook?
If you’ve done any of these things, I have a revelation for you. You have a human brain. This is probably not earth shattering news, but what you may not know is that in all of these occasions that I just described, your brain was doing exactly what it was designed to do while at the same time impeding your progress towards your long-term goals.
To understand how that amazing feat of engineering in your head can be so self-defeating, we need to go back millions of years to the Savannah and Neanderthal You, sketching primitive drawings on cave walls, hunting and gathering for food, and trying to stay out of the way of saber-toothed tigers. Your primitive brain was wired for basic functions and survival. It kept you breathing and moving, and continually scanned your environment for predators and your next meal. Your primitive brain has one and only function – to keep you alive.
As you evolved and started to do interesting things like play with fire and make stone tools, a much smaller rational brain grew alongside your primitive brain. The rational brain is responsible for language, abstract thought, consciousness and imagination. It thinks and analyzes and keeps the primitive brain in check through impulse control. It’s what separates us from the rest of the mammals, puts us at the top of the food chain, and makes us human.
There have been a lot of metaphors to describe these two parts of the brain, but my favorite is the quintessential angel and devil, each perched on one shoulder, and each giving very different directions on how to act. The devil, or your primitive brain, says go ahead and eat that cheesecake, while the angel, your rational brain, reminds you that eating the cheesecake is not a good idea.
As you might have guessed, as long as the rational brain is running the show, you keep on task, don’t procrastinate, stick to your diet and exercise regime, keep to your budget and don’t lose your temper. But while your rational brain is trying to hold it all together, your primitive brain is constantly chattering away in the background. Your rational brain tries to resist the donut, and your primitive brain points out that you might very well starve if you don’t eat it. You try to get started on a task, but your primitive brain tells you that the task is going to be unpleasant so you best keep scrolling through Facebook. You try to hold your tongue while your mother-in-law doles out yet one more criticism, while your primitive brain, perhaps rightly so, categorizes her as equivalent to a saber-toothed tiger and readies you for battle.
Listening to all that chatter is exhausting. So much so that after a while, your rational brain gets tired. And when that happens you lose impulse control. You say yes when you would normally say no. You procrastinate, freak out, feel overwhelmed, eat things you shouldn’t and skip your workout, lose your patience and say the wrong thing, hit the snooze bar instead of getting up and assure yourself that tomorrow your future self, who is totally awesome, will do all the things your present self couldn’t do today.
It’s not your fault, really. Your primitive brain made you do it. Like an insistent toddler, your primitive brain wants to be well-fed, happy and safe right now. It doesn’t care what happens tomorrow. Who needs long-term goals on the Savannah when any moment could be your last? The primitive brain is impulsive and acts quickly, not waiting for the rational brain to show up and weigh the pros and cons.
The good news is that if you are guilty of being human and giving in to temptation, you can increase your impulse control. All you need to do is engage the rational brain before your primitive brain makes you act on the impulse. And the best way to do that is. . . to wait.
Wait. Wait for 10 minutes to be exact. The interesting thing about impulsive behavior is that, well, it’s impulsive. The primitive brain is flooding you with all the reasons to eat the donuts before the analytical rational brain has a chance to counter with reasons not to. If you do not act on the impulse immediately, and instead wait for 10 minutes, you give your rational brain a chance to catch up.
Waiting is hard of course when you are faced with a box of chocolate truffles. But give yourself a 10-minute grace period and you might find that you can then think up a lot of reasons why you shouldn’t eat the whole box. Ten minutes is all it takes to remind yourself of what your long-term goals are and how this immediate action will or will not impede your progress towards them. Set a timer and go do something else. Don’t sit there staring at the Dunkin Donuts box for 10 minutes – that will not work.
What if you are procrastinating? Do the opposite. Engage in the task you are avoiding for 10 minutes, and then at the end of the 10 minutes go back to Facebook.
What if someone is pushing your buttons and you just want to scream at them? Excuse yourself to the bathroom for 10 minutes and breathe. Better yet, go outside and take a 10-minute walk. The impulse will subside.
Each time you take 10 and increase your awareness of what you are about to do, choosing the more difficult and more beneficial option, you strengthen your neural pathways, making it easier to stay the path in the future.
Instead of saying “My Brain Made Me Do It,” soon you’ll be saying, “I Made My Brain Do It.”