Using your brain as an ally instead of enemy of your goals.
January 25, 2022 by Melissa Witmer in Opinion with comments
It’s late January. How are your New Year’s resolutions going?
If you started working on something new on January first, you’re either well on your way to building the habit you want or you’ve realized that you’ve already gotten off track. Oops!
It’s easy to be frustrated when you’ve made a goal and realize that you’re not working toward it in the way that you had hoped you would be. You started a new habit with good intentions. But now you tell yourself that you must be lazy. Maybe you need to come to terms with the idea that you’ll never achieve the things you want.
I want to offer an alternative option: that you’re perfectly capable of forming new habits if you are willing to try less hard.
Why You Need to Try Less to Achieve More
The truth is you have two brains, or at least our brain has two main functional parts. The part we are trained to use in school works on logic and can do long term, logical planning. Using this part of the brain requires effort and energy. When we are thinking using our logical brain, we literally burn more calories with it.
The other part of our brain is older and more powerful. Some folks call this the lizard brain. I refer to it as the nonverbal brain. It knows things, but it can’t tell you what it knows in words. It governs most of what you do. It works on habit, pattern recognition, and feelings. This part of the brain runs on autopilot and using it does not feel like effort. I also refer to it as “the sports brain” because it governs skills acquisition, decisions you make on the ultimate field, confidence, and your ability to stay with healthy training and recover habits
Sports brain, lizard brain, dragon brain, older brain, brain2, or whatever you call it – the more we can learn to work with and rely on our nonverbal brain, the easier it is to form new habits and achieve the things in life that we really want.
Congrats! You’re Normal
Usually when we set goals and make plans, we use the logical brain to decide and plan what we want the nonverbal brain to do. But these are two different systems: the planning part and the execution part.
If you feel reluctance and resistance and a few weeks pursuing your new goals, that simply means that your habit forming brain is working correctly. It does not want new habits. You have not yet died and it’s primary job is to keep you alive. So it wants to conserve energy and keep you safe by sticking with its current habits.
So how do we engage with our nonverbal brain on the way to our New Year’s ultimate goals?
Communicating with Your Nonverbal Brain
I like to think of working with my nonverbal brain like training a horse, a dog, or maybe even a dragon. A dragon is powerful and useful when it feels safe and understands the task at hand. But you’d never give it a lecture on the economic benefits of herding cattle or a PowerPoint presentation on five tips to tighten up your dressage. You would also know that getting frustrated and spooking the dragon does not enhance the learning process. Patience, persistence, and an expectation of frequent mistakes are more appropriate attitudes to take when training your dragon, your horse, or your nonverbal brain.
The nonverbal brain works in images, stories, analogies, and lived evidence. The paragraph above is full of analogies for a reason. Intellectually knowing how your nonverbal brain works is fun. Imagining, envisioning, or experiencing how your nonverbal brain works is a more powerful and deep knowledge.
So as you set a New Year’s goal, or any goal, you will want to give the nonverbal brain an image or analogy to help it understand the task at hand.
Note of caution: be sure to imagine the actions you want, not the end external result. Imagining the external benefits can lead the nonverbal brain to be demotivated by believing you’ve already achieved the thing you want. Envisioning the actions you need to take, the attitude you want to foster, or the type of person/animal you want to become on your journey will lead to better results.
You can envision your goals using pictures that represent who you want to become. Or by crafting a story in your head of the things you will do, the obstacles you will overcome, and the person you will grow into on the way to your goals. Looking for mentors who have achieved what you are trying to do is also an easy way to give your brain an analogy for what you want it to do.
A Training Exercise for Communicating with Your Dragon Brain
Take 15-20 minutes and write out the story of how you will achieve your ultimate goals, create healthy eating habits, or do whatever it is you want to do. Getting specific will help you identify obstacles you may not have thought of with your logical brain. Specifics will also help you uncover what your nonverbal brain currently thinks about the situation.
Can the nonverbal brain imagine you doing the things you want to do? If not, then you will have a very hard time actually executing those behaviors.
What type of person will you become? As you pursue your objectives, what clothes are you wearing? What are you eating? When do you go to the grocery store? What time do you go to bed and wake up? What’s the most challenging part of the journey? What’s easy about the journey? Do you make any friends along the way? Do you acquire any new skills during this story?
Now that you have a vision, your nonverbal brain will tell you when you are living in this vision and when you are not. This will be more immediate feedback than getting to the end of the week or month and realizing you didn’t end up doing half of what you’d set out to do.
Now, some parts of this vision will likely be incorrect. That’s especially if you have large goals or are doing something completely new. That’s okay. Your vision can and will change as you learn new skills and gather new information along the way.
You Still Won’t Always Feel Like it
The noneverbal brain wants to do whatever it is currently doing. That’s what requires the least effort.
Our nonverbal brain communicates its opinions by feelings. You may feel dread at the idea of going to the gym. You may suddenly feel too tired to cook a healthy meal.
These are the points of decision that matter most in your habit-building process. The common strategies at these decision points are:
- Get frustrated because we don’t want to do the things that will bring us the results we want. We start to doubt our own desires.
- Decide to wait to take action until we DO feel like it (hint – this does not happen often enough to form a good habit)
- Use willpower to make ourselves do things
It’s possible that some elements of willpower are helpful early on in the habit building process. Just remember that willpower comes from the logical brain. Willpower can be helpful in very small doses, but it’s not a good long term strategy.
A Training Exercise for When You Don’t Feel Like It
Let’s take working out as an example.
First, just accept that you won’t always want to go to the gym, at least not during the point of decision. That requires a change of course of what the nonverbal brain was already doing.
Instead of letting frustration dictate your decisions, bring awareness to your feelings and how they change as you move from the decision point, through the beginning, through execution, and afterwards. It’s simplistic to tell yourself the story that because you don’t want to do something, you must hate it and maybe it’s not for you. But start to notice that your feelings about doing what it takes to achieve your goals are usually strongest and most resistant at the decision point.
Start the process of going to the gym. Get dressed and find your car keys (or go to your home gym area). Do you feel more like going to the gym, less like going to the gym, or the same?
Check in during your workout. Are you hating every second? Are there some parts you enjoy? Do you feel neutral? How do you feel about the idea of going to the gym in this moment? Does it feel as bad as you predicted before you arrived?
After your workout, how do you feel? Do you regret going to the gym?
Collect evidence that your initial feelings about “going to the gym” are not all of the story. Your nonverbal brain is not good at predicting how you will feel if you go to the gym. At the moment of decision, your nonverbal brain predicts that it will feel terrible. But the nonverbal brain is good at remembering how it felt last time. And you can strengthen its memory by taking time to notice your feelings.
Your nonverbal brain is good at gathering evidence, telling stories, and remembering. Take time to give your nonverbal brain the chance to remember that you’ve gone to the gym before, you did not die, and you did not regret it. That extra consideration will allow your brain to gather evidence that the positive story of going to the gym is a story it can repeat.
Results on Autopilot
When you get your nonverbal brain truly pointed in the direction you want to go, your behaviors will be more aligned with the person you want to become. You’ll still have moments of doubts and resistance, but they will decrease over time, instead of increasing.
When you get both parts of your brain working together, it can feel like your results are arriving on autopilot. You’re now using the correct brain for the correct tasks.
Your logical brain can help you do research, make plans, decide on best practice, and seek out help. Your nonverbal brain gathers evidence, continues patterns of helpful behaviors, and draws you toward the vision of the person you need to become in order to achieve the things you want.
Want Some Help Learning to Train Your Dragon Brain?
For the past year, I’ve been working with athletes one on one and in groups to help them unleash the power of their nonverbal sports brain to achieve greater results on the ultimate field. Training your dragon brain yields powerful and sometimes very rapid results. But it also takes time. And it’s helpful to have someone on the training journey with you, especially as you learn a new way of thinking and a new set of tools.
If you would like to talk more about how I can help you train your nonverbal brain for greater performance on the ultimate field, sign up here to book a call and explore your options, or join the UAP Premium wait list. And join my Level Up Your Ultimate Game group on Facebook where you can see some of this type of coaching in action.