As wonderful and fascinating as the human brain is, its operation can be hard to fathom. In some circumstances, our brain’s natural reaction actually does more to sabotage than help. Here, Sparring Mind founder Gregory Ciotti explains how to combat your brain’s own brilliance, overcoming the instinctual reactions which often have devastating effects on your long-term goals.
Your brain can hurt your goals by fantasising too much
Would you believe that fantasising is the #1 way your brain unintentionally ruins your goals? It seems unlikely, right? The thing is, the proof is in the pudding (or in this case, the research): psychologists have found that while positive thinking about the future is broadly beneficial, too much fantasy can have disastrous results when it comes to achieving achieving goals.
Researchers tracked the progress of how people cope with four different types of challenges. As an example, in one of those challenges (trying to find a fulfilling job), those who had spent the most time fantasising performed the worst on a variety of critical data points:
- they had applied for fewer jobs
- they had been offered fewer jobs
- if they were able to find work, they had lower salaries.
Why? Why could fantasising about a positive end take a turn for the worse?
Jeremy Dean, a psychological researcher at UCL London and the owner of PsyBlog, had this to say about the researcher’s conclusions:
The problem with positive fantasies is that they allow us to anticipate success in the here and now. However, they don’t alert us to the problems we are likely to face along the way and can leave us with less motivation — after all, it feels like we’ve already reached our goal.
It’s one way in which our mind’s own brilliance lets us down. Because it’s so amazing at simulating our achievement of future events, it can actually undermine our attempts to achieve those goals in reality. Our poor brain is thus a victim of itself.
Again, this is not to say that visualising goals is necessarily a haphazard strategy for achieving them, it’s just that we need to be aware of the dangers of excessive fantasy. Instead of being entranced with what the future may bring, we need to learn to love the work here and now. Enjoying our day by day progress and realistic ‘checkpoints’ is a much more practical way to create our future; getting lost in grandiose dreams that focus on the ultimate end is not. As they say, don’t give up on your dreams, but don’t fall under their spell either.
Your brain procrastinates on big projects by visualising the worst parts
Procrastination, of all of the things on this list, is likely the most recognisable: everybody realises that they procrastinate from time to time, and it’s something we are forced to battle with every day. How can we fight this persistent opponent?
Interesting research from Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik (whom the Zeigarnik Effect is named after) reveals to us an interesting tidbit about the human mind: we are better at remembering things that are partially done. Ms Zeigarnik came to this conclusion by testing the memory of folks doing simple “brain” tasks like puzzles or crafts. She then interrupted them and asked them to recall (with specific detail) the tasks that they were doing or had completed. She found that people were twice as likely to recall more detail about the tasks they had been interrupted in than in the tasks they had completed.
What does this have to do with procrastination?
Before we get to that, know this: in a study by Kenneth McGraw, participants were given a very tricky puzzle to solve with an “unlimited” amount of time. The thing is, all of the participants were interrupted before they could finish, and then told that the study was over. Despite being told they were done, nearly 90% of participants continued working on the puzzle anyway.
What both of these studies teach us is that when people finally manage to start something, they are much more inclined to remember the task and finish it. The Zeigarnik Effect and the subsequent McGraw study assure us that the best way to beat procrastination is to start somewhere . . . anywhere. Our brain has the habit of envisioning the impending huge workload of an upcoming task. It also tends to focus on the most difficult parts or sections, and this is where procrastination begins to set in: as we try to avoid the “hard work”, we find ways to skate around it and trick ourselves into thinking that we’re busy.
Just starting, though, triggers our brain in a different way. It’s the same way that cliffhangers are utilised to keep us coming back to our favourite TV shows; we’re primed to remember the last episode because the story was interrupted, and our brain wants a conclusion. It’s the same with your tasks: start, and your brain will overcome the first hurdle.
This seemingly small milestone appears to be the most important one to overcome if you wish to defeat procrastination. After starting a task, your brain will be more enticed to take it to its “conclusion”. You also tend to see that it’s not as big a mountain as you initially imagined, and that the work involved in completing this task won’t be so terrifying after all.
Your brain will “abandon ship” at the first sign of distress
Anyone who has fought the good fight with dieting will likely recognise this phenomenon. Envision this:
You’re on a diet, and have been doing well for about 2 1/2 weeks, but you know your defences are at risk. To make matters worse, you’re having dinner with friends tonight. Instead of the healthy meal you could have made at home, you’re forced to use a restaurant menu.
The problem is this: At the bar before dinner, you had a little “cheat” moment by ordering snacks and drinks, after all, you’re with your pals tonight, right? You know that those drinks and snacks, combined with the bread you had before dinner, leave you with one option to stay only slightly over your caloric intake goals: you must eat a salad. The thing is, your brain is yelling out “BURGER!”. Instead of finishing the day a tad over your 2000 calorie goal, you order the burger with fries and don’t look back.
The crazy thing about this scenario?
It’s more than a momentary act of weakness: psychologists have observed that this is much more likely to happen as a result of you missing a previously-set goal. Specifically, in research by Janet Polivy and her colleagues, people who were actually on diets were tested with pizza and cookies. In the study, two groups of participants (those on diets and those not dieting) were told not to eat beforehand and then served exactly the same slice of pizza when they arrived to the lab. Afterwards, they were then asked to taste and rate some cookies.
The thing was, the experimenters didn’t really care about the cookie’s rating; they just wanted to see how many people ate. This is because they tricked some of the participants into thinking that they had recieved a larger slice than the others (using framing and false information). This was to make them believe that they had most certainly “ruined” their diet goals for the day.
When the cookies were weighed, it turned out that those who were on a diet and thought they’d blown their limit ate more of the cookies than those who weren’t on a diet. This doesn’t paint the true picture though: they ate over 50% more! On the flipside, the dieters that did think that they were in their caloric limit ate the same amount of cookies as those who weren’t on a diet at all. Truly, our brain is geared towards a call of “Abandon ship!” whenever we fall short of our goals.
Don’t let this happen to you!
The best way to stop your brain from signaling ‘Mission Abort!’ after you’ve missed a short-term goal is to re-frame what just happened. Yes, you did fall short or maybe mess up this time, but remember the progress that you’ve made. With the diet example, you could look at all of the “good days” you’ve accumulated thus far: even if you fell after only a few days of starting your new diet, it’s still an accomplishment to have started one and to have set long-term goals for yourself.
Short-term lapses in your end-goal are not like a bad apple spoiling the bunch: you have gotten things accomplished so far and you need to stay focused on the long-term, not become distraught by a single mishap. Research tells us that this is the best mindset to take for misfortune and failure in general: your progress and achievements go so much farther than that slip-up; don’t let your brain convince you that all is lost!
Your brain loves mindless busy work disguised as progress
One of the ways in which your brain continues its trickery is through busy work: work that gets “something” done, but not something that produces any measurable results.
In fact, research by John Bargh and colleagues reveals that our brain loves to become robotic and to mimic people out of habit. I shouldn’t have to tell you that this is disastrous when it comes to achieving long term goals! This busy work is often a mechanism our brain uses in cohesion with avoiding big projects (mentioned above): instead of diving into the difficult tasks we KNOW we should get done, we’ll instead float around doing semi-related (read: barely related) menial tasks to make ourselves feel productive without actually getting anything done.
Here’s the thing: you’re not going to build a thriving business or a successful blog with that kind of busy work. It takes doing the hard work and it takes deliberate practice — there’s no way around it. The thing is, your brain knows this. That’s why you have to remind it that the challenging stuff is often the stuff that produces the results you desire. Also remember that you can fight that procrastination by just getting started.
When you look back at what you’ve gotten done by the end of the day, make sure you’re proud of what you got accomplished, don’t let your brain ruin your goals by diverting you from what needs to be done!
Your brain is not good at “winging it” when it comes to planning…ever!
Every night before I go to sleep, I like to write a simple to-do list that I group into two categories. I put some in category ‘A’ (must be done tomorrow) and some in category ‘B’ (must be worked on or done in 2-3 days). I do this because when I sit down at the computer without a plan, I tend to fall flat on my face. My so-called “work time” turns into the not-so-productive “check email time” or “browse Reddit” time; nothing of any importance gets done. It seems that I’m not alone!
In research by Gollwitzer and colleagues, the subject of “if-then” plans was discussed in relation to how we set and stay consistent with out goals, and the results are not surprising but reveal a lot of insight into how our brain reacts to planning (and even some great tips). The thing is, researchers found that not only do well-laid plans seem to get accomplished more often, but planning for failures along the way (“In case of emergency”) helps people stay on task under duress.
Let’s continue our diet example from above.
Say you did have that lapse and go over your calories for the day. Instead of “winging it” and letting your brain crumble to its likely response (discussed above), you should have a backup plan ready to know what to do when failure strikes. This could be something like: “If I go over 2000 calories in a day, I’ll finish the day as close to 2000 as I can, and then the next morning, I’ll go for a 15 minute run as a ‘penance,’ make sure I eat an extra healthy breakfast, and then continue the rest of my day as normal.” You are likely no stranger to feeling ashamed about getting off track; we’ve all been there.
Having those “In case of emergency” plans help us to have a gameplan in case we do falter, and including a small ‘penance’ as I discussed above, can help us get over it quicker. If you failed on your diet for a day and then ‘punish’ (again, just with a quick run) yourself by running in the morning, you can go about your day knowing that you got what you deserved, instead of sliding down the slippery slope of guilt through the rest of the day.
So remember to include an “if-then” plan for your next big goal — you’ll be able to beat back your brain’s guilt over slipping up now and then and you won’t have to ever “wing it” in case something goes wrong!
Gregory Ciotti is the founder of Sparring Mind, the blog that takes psychology and persuasive marketing and makes them play nice together. Download his free e-book on ‘Conversion Psychology’ for more research or follow Greg on Twitter.
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