Self-development requires hacking your brain. Are you willing to do it?
You may feel tired of unproductive habits or unhealthy ones, and you want a change, but it feels scary and exhausting. You want something to be different: to learn a new skill, to go to the gym every morning, to work smarter, but it feels out of your comfort zone. There is a neurological reason for this.
Your Brain Into Autopilot Mode
According to neuroscience, both productive and unproductive habits are hard-wired in our brains.
Every time you repeat a behaviour, you are strengthening it. Each repetition makes a deeper path in your brain, reinforcing that behaviour. That´s how habits are made. This is key knowledge for self-development.
Your brain uses energy to function, lots of it. So when the brain learns something will easily stick to it and never think of that again. Unless you force it to!
This is the reason you always drive the same route to work, eat the same breakfast, and have the same morning routine every day. You do it so many times that it becomes an automatic behaviour. This way, your brain goes into autopilot mode.
What happens if you try to change these routines? It feels like a titanic goal. That feeling is your brain preserving itself from working hard and consuming more energy. Your habits make you feel safe and, therefore, are instantly rewarding. This is why it feels so hard to change old habits. You are trying to hack your brain against his will.
The Marshmallow Experience
One of the most famous psychological research is the marshmallow experiment conducted by Professor Walter Mischel from Stanford University. The findings that were made are key for self-development.
Hundreds of child participants were involved in the study. These same children were part of follow-up studies that lasted over forty years after the first experiment.
Alone in a private room, each child was invited to sit on a chair with a marshmallow placed on a table in front of them.
What was the deal offered to the child?
If the child did not eat the marshmallow while the researcher was out of the room, the child would get a second marshmallow. However, if the child ate the marshmallow, there will not be a second one.
Basically, instant gratification vs delayed gratification was tested.
Several follow-up studies were conducted while those children became adolescents and adults.
Researchers concluded that delaying gratification has surprising results. Why?
Those children who did not eat the marshmallow performed much better than the ones who did in several areas of life. Research showed that:
they were more cognitively and socially competent adolescents
they had better coping abilities with frustration and stress
they were more attentive and planful
they had better social skills
They also performed better and were more resilient:
They had higher SAT scores
They present lower levels of substance abuse and the likelihood of obesity
Choose Your Marshmallow
How can you use these findings for yourself?
Our brains usually seek instant gratification just by repeating patterns. Going to the fridge when you are feeling a little hungry, turning off the alarm in the morning, choosing Netflix over the gym and the list keeps going.
Science showed that delaying gratification is key to success. Therefore, is essential for self-development. The good news is that you can train this ability.
Choosing discipline over automaticity will not be easy, and your worst counterweight is going to be yourself. However, by knowing this, you are already a step ahead.
The question is, how do you start?
Start small and celebrate your victories.
#1 Choose your marshmallow. What aspect of yourself or your routine do you want to change?
#2 Plan a minor change. For example, if you would like to become an early bird, set your alarm clock fifteen minutes earlier. This way, you are showing yourself that the goal is completely doable.
#3 Stick to it. If the alarm goes off, get up! Try to do it for no less than a week.
#4 Celebrate your win. You are teaching your brain that change is possible.
Self-knowledge is the first step towards self-development. When you know how your brain works and what to expect, it becomes easier. Trust yourself.
One thing is evident from the experiment above: If you want to excel at something, you will need to develop the ability to be disciplined and take action rather than becoming distracted and doing what is easy. To be successful in almost any field, you must forego doing something easy to accomplish something more difficult.