Sometimes, we make colossally bad decisions that mess up our lives for a period of time. We stay too long in the wrong job or a toxic relationship. We hang out with the wrong people, or make a risky investment that doesn’t pan out. There are times when our mistakes and failures can be traced back to a specific decision or event that threw us off course.
And there are times when our personal and professional inertia is due to the small, almost imperceptible ways we conduct ourselves daily — unconscious micro-decisions that, taken individually don’t amount to much, but compounded over time, have a large impact on our lives: Namely, our habits — and the skill governing them: I’m talking about self-control (or lack thereof).
While we often come to believe a lack of self-control in the form of inattention, procrastination, or laziness is endemic to who we are, in fact, we have more agency and power over our impulses than we think. Far from being mere victims to our habits, according to Stanford neuroscientist Andrew Huberman, impulse control is a skill you can train.
Becoming aware of your “go” versus “no-go” functions
In an interview with The Knowledge Project, Huberman explains the influence a part of the brain called the basal ganglia has on our daily lives. Responsible for integrating thought and action, the ganglia, which are regulated by dopamine, either propel us into action-oriented “go functions” like eating breakfast and making the bed — or “no-go functions” that inhibit behaviour.
While we learn a lot of “no-go” behaviour as kids — such as sitting still and not interrupting others — as we get older, our lives are centered around going, going, going. Emailing, calling, instant messaging, alternating between the 17 open windows in our computer dock, and generally multitasking as if our lives depended on it.
There are fewer opportunities to practice interrupting this “go” function as adults, Huberman says. “We rarely rehearse our no-go functions…which are simply about suppressing behaviour.” But suppressing our less-than-productive behaviours is necessary if we want to stick with our plans, complete difficult tasks in a timely manner, and reach long-term goals.
How to flex your “no-go” muscle
In his own life, in an effort to reinforce the circuit that controls his impulses when he’s about to go into reflexive action, Huberman attempts to create 20 to 30 “no-go moments” throughout his day. “The thing to understand about neural circuity is that it’s generic,” he says. If you establish a no-go circuit around not biting your nails, for example, it carries over to other areas where you’d like to institute greater self-control.
Huberman listed several examples of how to create “no go’s” (which can be trivial), in your everyday life.
Resist grabbing your phone: How many times a day do you reach for your phone? (Don’t answer that, I don’t want to feel worse about my addiction.) The next time you’re bored, stumped, or procrastinating and feel the urge to mindlessly scroll social media or check the news, resist. At least for a little while.
Enforce regimen (aka, stick to your plan): If you have a plan in mind, for example, an exercise routine at the gym, or an order in which to run errands, complete it as designed, rather defaulting to something more spontaneous and switching it up on the fly.
90-minute work blocks: Work for 90 minutes at a time, resisting the urge to get up and get coffee, a snack, fold laundry, or anything else other than the task at hand. Create tunnel vision focus, and unless there is an urgent need to interrupt your work, keep your butt in the seat.
Controlled snack breaks: Delay getting the snack you want when the impulse or craving first arrives. (Huberman notes this isn’t a great option for people in eating-disorder recovery.)
Meditation: Forcing yourself to complete any kind of mindfulness practice when you’d rather get up is a way to train your no-go muscle.
Huberman cautioned against becoming neurotically attached to these no-go’s, but rather to use them as practice, like lifting weights for our brain. Since there’s no one supervising us as adults, it’s up to us to workout the neural circuits that interrupt unproductive behaviours, like wasting hours of our day scrolling, or flitting between projects without completing any.
“We need to keep these no-go circuits trained up. Nowadays there’s so much opportunity and reward for ‘go’ that we don’t train the no-go pathways.” In the age of smartphones and instant access to information, Huberman adds, “Pretty soon you’ve got hours of your day gone that were not structured.”