Whether we want to limit our alcohol consumption, lose a few pounds, or work toward our next career move—our brain isn’t always on the same page. Even though the hardwiring of the brain is out of our control, there are clever ways to trick ourselves into staying on track.
Notice your environment and make adjustments.
Our environment has a strong impact on our behavior, much stronger than we likely give it credit for. In fact, our environment can trigger certain behaviors without us even realizing. Even if we’re going a little stir crazy at home, the good news is that our home is where we have the most control. We can train our brains to notice mindless or automatic behaviors, it just requires switching up our routine.
For example, if your goal involves cutting back on alcohol or snacks, pay attention to what you’re watching on TV. Research shows that adults will mindlessly consume 1.5 more drinks when watching people drink on TV. The same goes for snacks. We’re significantly more likely to head to the kitchen after seeing a food advertisement. Since we can’t control which ads are presented to us, or when our favorite actors will go out for cocktails, the best solution might be to turn off the screen all together. A book is a healthy alternative.
Set reminders. A lot of reminders.
It’s not as if we’ll forget to engage in healthy behaviors, we usually remember the intentions we set—but will we stick to them? Unfortunately, we can’t rely on our thoughts alone to inspire action. If you want to get things done, you have to nag yourself with reminders.
Start nagging yourself by writing things down. Make lists and put them somewhere you’ll see often. As simple as it sounds, there is a reason “to do” lists are helpful—the act of writing tasks down creates a conscious intention. This makes it harder to waste time scrolling through Instagram or clicking around online. You already told yourself you wouldn’t, you even put it in writing.
This strategy has proven to be particularly effective for people trying to change habits like smoking, nail-biting, or anxious thoughts. By bringing unconscious habits to the forefront of the conscious mind, we start to change our behavior, simply by noticing it.
Create a sense of urgency.
Despite the goals we want to achieve in the future, our brains are wired to prioritize instant gratification in the present. This isn’t a failure of our own willpower, it’s an impulse meant to keep us alive. "Immediate response to threat is very strongly wired in all organisms, as it is essential to survival," Huda Akil, a neuroscientist at the University of Michigan told New Scientist.
Even though our brain has good intentions, this impulse makes it hard to think realistically about our future selves. Brain-imaging studies show that when we think about the future, areas of the brain that process information about other people light up, while areas of the brain that process information about ourselves stay dormant. Basically, our brains see our future selves as someone else entirely.
The best way to stick to a goal that is months or years away is by creating a sense of urgency. Set small, tangible goals for yourself in the short-term that work toward your larger goal. Give yourself real consequences if you don’t stick to it. Make it feel important, right now.