• Robb G. Best

Brain Programming and the Importance of Starting Small

The relationship between your basal ganglia and your working memory is a little like the one between Tonto and the Lone Ranger. [Editor's note: presumably minus the old-timey racism?] The basal ganglia acts the role of faithful servant. How does it serve? It converts patterns into little bits of neural code (your brain’s version of personal software programming--or more accurately, wetware programming) to ensure that a particular habit lives on in your subconscious. This frees up your working memory from having to remember and execute a particular task.

Faithful servitude aside, however, your basal ganglia doesn't seem to have a horse in the race as far as your mental or physical health is concerned. It takes no side in whether the habituation it programs is good or bad. Balancing your checkbook every evening, practicing the piano five hours a week, staying up until four in the morning, all feels the same to your basal ganglia.

What’s interesting is that so much of what we habitualize is unintentional. For example, there is a pretty high likelihood that tonight when you sit down for dinner(provided that you eat at home), you will sit in the same chair you sat in the night before. Of course, there's no intrinsic value in that chair (it’s likely there are at least three more nearby that look exactly the same). But over time, your habit-driven brain has programmed that little bit of neural code to free you from dithering each evening about chair choice. And now, habit firmly installed, if someone plops down into a certain one of those identical chairs, you demand they surrender it indignantly with a, “Hey, that's my chair!”

Given that we possess this nifty bit of wetware, you might think we’d take huge advantage of it and program the thing silly. (Think of the Seussian possibilities.) Unfortunately, there are two big hurdles necessary to hacking your own brain. First, neural code takes about 21 days to get rolling, and 63 days of repetition until it's really locked down. In today’s fast-paced world, 63 days feels like an eternity. Second, we tend to do easy stuff and procrastinate about the hard stuff, always postponing some new self improvement scheme into the future.

Enter one BJ Fogg -- author, Ted talker, Behavioral Scientist at Stanford University and creator of the ‘Tiny Habits’ program. He offers the following solution to your procrastination dilemma:

1. Take advantage of neural programming you’ve already created by piggybacking on an existing habit. Your existing habit becomes the trigger for your new desired action.

2. Keep the motivation rolling by rewarding yourself after you’ve successfully completed the desired action.

3. Start small. Like, really small.

Here is one of Fogg’s examples:

Suppose you recognize the value of flossing but seldom do it. Your basal ganglia has already built a habit for brushing your teeth each night, so use brushing as your trigger mechanism. Tonight after you brush your teeth, floss. But here’s the catch, start out flossing only one tooth. By making the initial hurdle so low, it’s almost impossible not to do it. After you achieve your single tooth floss, treat yourself to some verbal praise like, “Aw yeah, check out that tooth! It is flossed so good! No plaque on either side of this sucker! I rock the flossing world!” (This gives you a little squirt of motivational dopamine. to reinforce your new behavior.)

Each night after you brush, add more teeth to your flossing regime. Eventually you’ll find yourself flossing all your pearly whites. Following this simple process allows you to cultivate a tiny habit, motivate through verbal reward, and, after 63 days, nurture a tiny habit into a fully programmed one.

The ancient Chinese proverb, “A thousand-mile journey begins with a single step,” has never been more true.

And, of course, as you begin that important journey, remember to pack your floss.

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