Updated: Jun 15, 2022
When It Feels Like Something Else is Taking Over
Have you ever set out to get a ton of stuff done, but ended up not getting much accomplished? Ever meant to buckle down and get started on your to-do list, but somehow you just didn’t? Ever had every intention off knocking tasks, one-by-one, but got caught up doing a bunch of random things instead?
Ever felt as if, despite your best intentions, ‘something else’ in your mind or body had taken over?
It happens to all of us. Life is busy. Our minds are busy. In modern-day life, there’s just too much to do and not enough time to do it.
For many of us, distractions and detours rule our lives. For others, the mirror opposite is the problem. The distractions exist within productivity mode. Whenever it’s time to relax, that same ‘something else’ takes over. It’s impossible to halt our motivation. We feel the need to keep going, to keep making progress, to keep fixing, controlling, organizing, preventing, planning, and orchestrating. Though productive, it’s just another form of distraction. Again, that ‘something else’ has taken over.
So why is it that we humans aim to do this, but end up doing that? What is that ‘something else’ and how do we trap it & kill it?
Well, like any respectable answer to one of life’s important questions, I’ll begin with “this one time in Mexico...”
Years ago, my friends and I headed down to Baja, Mexico for a camping trip. We set up camp right on a secluded beach. It was amazing. We had the whole cove just to ourselves.
On the second day, a local boy came riding over on his mangy old dehydrated-looking horse. He asked if we wanted to ride his horse in exchange for a few dollars – no signed waiver necessary. Why not? I got up from my beach chair and volunteered to go first.
Maybe it was because it was a hot afternoon. Maybe the boy hadn’t fed his horse in a while. Maybe it was my too tight rookie grip atop a horse who was too old to be doing this tourist routine.
Whatever the reason, as soon as I threw my leg over the horse’s back and settled in, that horse took off down the beach. About 20 paces in, I gathered something was not quite right. As the wind was whipping past, I could only focus on holding on. In about a minute the horse was at the end of the beach, climbing up the hill at the far end of the cove.
Amidst the chaos, I could still hear the roaring laughter of my super supportive friends back at the campsite. Luckily, one of my friends had grown up around horses. He ran down the beach after me and that mangy old horse. I was halfway up the hill when he eventually caught up.
My friend grabbed the horse by the reins, made a sharp whistle sound, and gave him a stiff cuff to the snout. The horse listened. He allowed my friend to lead him back down the hill onto the sand without any resistance.
I was in shock. I went from lounging in a beach chair, lathered in sunblock, and soaking up the sun, to riding off into the horizon without a clue. My friend climbed up on the saddle and we headed back to the campsite. On that long, bumpy ride of shame, I tried to put the pieces together. I couldn’t figure out what went wrong.
After about 10 minutes of belly laughs as my friends retold the story in a ridiculously exaggerated manner, my hero friend explained that the horse just wanted to go home, and I wasn’t doing enough to let him know that wasn’t going to happen. The horse didn’t care what I wanted or needed. The horse only wanted what the horse wanted.
I came to realize that this is what happens when you don’t put in the effort to control your horse – you end up being taken for a ride.
In this story, I’m the rider, the one who’s supposed to be in control. Clearly, I didn’t do enough to maintain that control.
In brain anatomy, the rider is the frontal cortex. The frontal cortex is the part of the brain that offers us control. Relative to other parts of the brain, the electrical activity circulating within the frontal cortex is slow. Although relatively slow (Wong et al., 2021) frontal cortex is very powerful (Collins & Koechlin, 2012).
The frontal cortex is the “adulting” part of our brain. It resides right behind our eyes & forehead. The frontal cortex helps us navigate life. It’s the part that problem-solves, thinks into the future, makes plans, resists the temptations of instant gratification, quiets emotional storms, and helps us to socialize appropriately (Yuan & Raz, 2015).
Our frontal cortex allows us to be strategic, future-oriented, logical, and aware of the context of our current situation. It scans the environment, prioritizes targets, determines the order of operations, and initiates productive, goal-oriented action sequences (Rowe et al., 2010).
Back to me and the horse. My grasp on the context was clear. It was going to be $5 for a quick jaunt around the beach and back. The problem was that I failed to convey that context to the horse.
Without access to my context, the horse set out to satisfy its own basic drives and emotional needs: food, water, shelter, and getting me off its back.
In brain anatomy, the horse represents the deeper structures of the brain that house fear and our more basic drives. These deeper structures include specific areas such as the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the nucleus accumbens.
Collectively, these deeper structures are the opposite of the responsible and controlled frontal cortex. They mediate fear, disgust, other emotions, memory, and motivation or drive towards rewards. Compared to the frontal cortex, the energy emanating from these deeper structures is fast, raw, in-the-moment, and powerfully motivating (Mendez-Bertolo et al., 2016).
In our everyday lives, it’s a constant battle between the horse and the rider. Whichever is in control at any given moment dictates our conscious thoughts and actions.
Consider which one (the horse or the rider) is in control when at your desk at work, when getting started on your to-do list, or when socializing with others. It’s always you thinking your thoughts and doing the things you’re doing.
But, which you? The horse you, or the rider you?
This analogy of a horse and rider originally coined by Sigmund Freud.
In one of his books on psychoanalysis, he wrote:
The ego’s relation to the id might be compared with that of a rider to his horse. The horse supplies the locomotive energy, while the rider has the privilege of deciding on the goal and of guiding the powerful animal’s movements (Boag, 2014).
That was me in that second sentence. When I jumped into the saddle, I failed to assume the “privilege of deciding on the goal,” which was to trot around a beautiful beach, on a warm and breezy summer afternoon, in full control of the beast thrice my size under my charge. As all my friends witnessed, that’s not what happened.
The horse was disconnected from my context. The horse simply did not care. He was hot, hungry, tired, and possibly annoyed. He was driven to get out of the sun, back to his home for food and water, and away from me. I did not do enough to supersede his fear and desires for relief.
Similarly, without adequate frontal cortex activity, our more basic drives and emotions take over.
The frontal cortex allows us to grasp the context of the situations in which we find ourselves. From moment to moment, the frontal cortex is trying to make sense of what’s happening in and around us. It clues us in to what we need to be doing and how we need to be acting (Amodio & Frith, 2006). It guides our behavior towards satisfying our current and future needs – even if we’ve never been in that particular situation before (Badre et al., 2010).
In a way, the frontal cortex helps us become more present, more rational, and more productive by allowing us to ignore our emotional undercurrents and desires for immediate satisfaction.
Sounds responsible. It also sounds kind of boring. If you’re looking for a little more excitement in life, you’ll need to look towards those deeper structures – the parts mentioned above that sit a little bit further back from the frontal cortex. The functional nicknames of these deeper structures are the fear circuit and the reward pathway. These twin rabblerousers are responsible for a majority of our irresponsible behaviors in life.
You’ve likely heard the saying, “perception is reality.” People use that phrase to point out how emotions can color our perception of reality, skewing it towards the dramatic and irrational. If you take the condescension out of it, this is actually a helpful way to look at our conscious awareness from moment to moment. What we see and think is filtered by our emotions. Emotions make up the lens through which we determine the value of our experiences in life.
The frontal cortex seems really important. Yet, without emotions, we’d be equally lost. Imagine if fun things didn’t feel fun. We’d never try to do fun things. Imagine eating something that tasted disgusting. but not experiencing the disgust. You’d be liable to continue eating the disgusting food.
Some emotions can be ignored, but most cannot. It turns out, that’s a good thing. Emotions help us navigate life. They produce a signal in our brains that captures our attention and drives our choices.
Are emotions helpful? Yes. Are they always under our control? No.
Why aren’t we always in control of our internal emotional animal? The horse is strong, but our minds are stronger, no?
For much of the time, our frontal cortex is steering the ship. But, when tasks become boring, lack a sense of reward, seem too challenging, or we have been at them for too long, our frontal cortex runs out of steam. Like any muscle of the body, the prefrontal cortex can also become fatigued (Petruo et al., 2018). Once the frontal cortex becomes fatigued, it is that much easier for the restless horse to try and buck off the rider.
If successful, the rider loses control and the horse takes over. At that moment, we’re victims of our basic drives and emotions. We become lazy and pleasure seeking and irresponsible. We eat. We sit. We loaf around. We scroll. We do anything but.
Unfortunately, this experience of getting bucked off can cue us to question our own character. This opens to the door to some conclusions about ourselves that are negative, self-deprecating, and less than helpful.
Perhaps, there are some better questions to ask: what’s happening in our brain when we aren’t doing what we intended to do, or know we need to do, or actually want to do but somehow just can’t? Again, why is that when we want to get stuff done it feels like ‘something else’ takes over?
What is happening in our brains when the horse takes over the rider?
One thing we know is happening is that the rider temporarily lost control. The part of our brain that grasps onto our current and future context just slipped out of the saddle. Let’s dive into the frontal cortex further. Let’s examine to see exactly how the frontal cortex grasps the all-important context.
The frontal cortex consists of multiple sub-parts. The lines between these sub-parts are not based on physical differences. They do not possess any structural or physical demarcation, like you would imagine looking at the wrinkles and grooves o the outer surface of the brain. Rather, their boundaries are based on function.
As you’ll see below, each sub-part was determined to be its own distinct functional area as researchers observed the various cognitive functions present when these areas were known to be electrically and metabolically active – or when certain cognitive functions were absent when a specific area was permanently damaged.
We can begin with three key areas within the frontal cortex to help us understand how the frontal cortex operates.
Dorsal prefrontal cortex
The Dorsal PFC orients us to time, space, and our needs. The Dorsal PFC is the wedding planner of the brain. It kicks of the problem-solving process by determining the best sequence of events (Wang et al., 2019). The Dorsal PFC helps us make pro/con lists for all of the options before us at any given moment (Kahnt et al., 2011).
For the Dorsal PFC, think D for distance. Dorsal PFC encodes prior context, the order of events, and generates a spatial goal that is appropriate. It’s the part of your brain that says, “ok, first start here, then do this, next do that… and by this point you should be good to go.”
Here’s the questions the Dorsal PFC asks and attempts to answer:
What happened in the past? What needs to happen in the future? In which order? What’s the best way to go?
Ventral prefrontal cortex
The Ventral PFC monitors our current condition and the situation we are currently facing or will likely face in the future (Hansel et al., 2008). It’s the kindergarten teacher of the brain. The Ventral PFC manages our self-reflection and self-awareness (Etkin et al., 2015). The Ventral PFC gathers information about our behavior and the consequences of our behavior, then matches it up against the rules of life we have learned over time (Grabenhorst et al., 2011). It helps us understand the meaning of our choices.
For the Ventral PFC, think V for values. Ventral PFC encodes current context and generates choices that are appropriate. It says, “do what you can, when you can, with what you got… and don’t be rude.”
Here’s the questions the Ventral PFC asks and attempts to answer:
Did I make a good choice? What do I want? What do I need? Who do I want to be? How do I get there?
Orbital prefrontal cortex
The Orbital PFC associates our choices with subsequent rewards (Noonan et al., 2017). If we do this behavior, and then we got that outcome, the Orbital PFC takes notice. The Orbital PFC is the financial advisor of the brain. As life progresses, the Orbital PFC learns which choices or actions garner the best and biggest rewards (Rolls et al., 2020).
For the Orbital PFC, think O for outcomes. Orbital PFC encodes the outcome that is desirable, given the current wants and/or needs. It’s the part of our brain that offers us sage wisdom, “pro-tip: buy low, sell high… hit the snooze button three times, but not four… wipe front to back.”
Here’s the questions the Orbital PFC asks and attempts to answer:
What do I want? What can I get? What do I need to get done to obtain what I want? What’s the best way to go?
As you can see, the frontal cortex is a natural wonder. It leaves its mark all over your personal and professional resume. The frontal cortex is the part of our brain that helps humans achieve amazing feats – inventing things, solving complex problems, creating awe-inspiring art, masterfully organizing your Spotify playlists by various mood states, and more.
Yet, there is that slowness factor. The activity pulsing within the frontal cortex, as well as back and forth between the frontal cortex to other parts of the brain, is slow. At least it’s relatively slow compared to super speeds seen elsewhere in the brain (Deoni et al., 2016). When it comes to more complex decision making, problem-solving, and order of operations, the frontal cortex is more of a chugga-chugga than a vrrrooooomm.
This relative slowness matters. The nanoseconds delay creates ample opportunity for the rider to slip out of the saddle, or the horse to buck the rider off. Once the rider loses control, that ‘something else’ is ready to lead the way.
As you’ve likely gathered so far, that ‘something else’ is the horse. To be precise, it isn’t something else. It’s us. It’s just the part of us that gets suppressed, buried, muted, or shushed by the rider most of the time.
Due to this relative slowness, the rider is yoked to the horse – and always just a moment away from being bucked off. Our basic drives towards rewards and avoidance of pain will always have that momentary opportunity to rise up and take over.
If we mean to tame the horse, it’s best we learn more about we can about its nature.
Two key aspects of the horse are the fear circuit and the reward pathway. These areas may be small, but they define our human experience. As mentioned above, the deeper structures determine all the interesting parts of human nature.
The Fear Circuit:
The limbic system is a region of the brain responsible for the combination of emotions, memory, motivation, and the form of learning based on emotional experience. The limbic system is where fear lives (Rajmohan & Mohandas, 2007).
The limbic system surveys the scenes for possible dangers and threats (Davis & Whalen, 2001). It’s highly sensitive to possible dangers in our environment. Sometimes it’s right and it saves us. Sometimes it’s wrong, and it harms us, or at least makes us feel foolish.
This is because the limbic system can easily over-estimate the danger we face (Martin et al., 2013). When that happens, we freak out. We’re flooded with emotions and a sense of urgency. We failed to grasp the context of the current situation. Remember, that’s the frontal cortex’s job. When we lose our grip on the context, we lose our grip on emotions. For the limbic system, think L for losing it.
Two key areas of the limbic system are the amygdala and the hippocampus. The amygdala processes “autobiographical memory,” meaning that it clues us into factors that were present the last time we felt distress (Markowitsch et al., 2011). It says, “I’ve been here before… I’d better be careful.”
The amygdala is over-active in many major mental illnesses (Simic et al., 2021). It quickly captures our attention, warning “watch out for this!” This is how traumatic experiences can overpower us, remain sticky, and cloud our judgment.
The hippocampus is the other half of the limbic system. This area is famous for converting short-term memory into stored, long-term memory (Voss et al., 2017). Interestingly, much of the memory that is stored gets colored with the emotions experienced when the information was first absorbed.
That can be helpful if we want to avoid choices that brought negative outcomes or pain & suffering in the past. It can also be highly counterproductive if we truly don’t want to avoid those choices, such as writing a paper or studying for a test, approaching someone to ask them out on a date, going for a chest-burning jog around the block, or writing this excessively long and in-depth blog post.
Here’s the questions the limbic system asks and attempts to answer:
What’s going on? What’s happening to me? Is it good? Is it bad? Should I be freaking? Nevermind, I’m freaking.
It’s important to note, fear is a gift. It keeps us safe. Fear drives us to find a way to survive when under threat. Fear keeps us away from danger as it triggers the pre-programmed fight, flight, or flee response. Yet, without a clear understanding of the context, fear can make us focus on the wrong things.
Fear is the thing that makes us want to avoid things that are actually good for us (Steimer, 2002). In the end – hard work, impulse control, exercise, going to bed on time, eating salads – are all good for us, but they don’t necessarily feel good to us. They tend to produce a sensation of distress.
With distress, there’s resistance. Alternatively, pleasurable or relieving experiences are much more palatable and approachable. They pacify the part of us that is scared we’re about to get uncomfortable.
But, we tend not to be the type of creature that will avoid uncomfortable things and then just sit there and call it a day. We like to stay busy. We tend to avoid things that feel bad and seek out experiences that feel good simultaneously. It may be time to work, but we find ways of having fun. Ironically, when it’s time to buckle down and get to work, we humans exhibit a tendency to seek the gift instead (Kesner et al., 2022).
The Reward Pathway:
Not all of our impulsive actions and rash decisions are because of fear alone. Rewards are equally powerful. Pleasure, reward, and relief from distress are the other half of our internal emotional horse.
Wedged up against the limbic system is the ventral striatum, which includes a prominent group of neurons named the nucleus accumbens. The nucleus accumbens mediates our sense of reward, reinforcement, as well as aversion to things in our awareness (Klawonn et al., 2019).
The ventral striatum pushes us towards choices and behaviors that are likely to produce good feelings or provide relief from distress in the immediate term (Baez-Mendoza et al., 2013). Whether reward or relief from distress, the ventral striatum propels us towards satisfying our basic drives and desires, in the moment.
For the Ventral Striatum, think VS for very soon, I want that, very soon.
Here’s the questions the ventral striatum asks and attempts to answer:
What do I want that is available? What’s around that I want to avoid? What’s going to feel good right now?
The brain’s mandate is simple: survive and thrive (Mobbs et al., 2015). We are programmed to avoid things that are likely bad for us but also pursue things that are likely good for us – at the very same time.
Our guiding principle – survive and thrive – doesn’t change. Yet, the exact thing we are driven towards can change from moment to moment. In each and every moment, our limbic system and ventral striatum are casting votes for what’s most important for us to focus on and move toward.
As control is being wrestled back and forth between the frontal cortex, the fear circuit, and the reward pathway, what we think or feel changes from moment to moment. It always comes down to who emerges as dominant in that wresting match – from moment to moment.
This can be pretty bewildering. Ever catch yourself staring into space or falling victim to one distraction or another? Just a second prior you were fully engaged in a challenging task that demanded your full attention. You were on it. You were making progress. Suddenly, you pick up your phone and check social media, you get up and mosey over to the fridge, or you look out the window and think of absolutely nothing for a while. What happened?
What happened was the horse is abruptly stopped taking cues from the rider. In an instant, we can become totally disconnected from the context. In an instant, we can become fully immersed in what’s about to feel really good right about now, and it often has little to do with what the frontal cortex thinks we should be focused on.
If the frontal cortex hesitates, or temporarily looks away, it’s automatically back to emotion over reason (Crews & Boettiger, 2009). When the fear circuit and reward pathway commandeer the frontal cortex (when the horse overpowers the rider) that’s when that ‘something else’ takes over.
So, our actions, choices, and behaviors won’t always be under the strict control of our frontal cortex. It is unfortunate, but true. In general, we want to be productive, deliberate, and the opposite of impulsive. In that moment, however, when our emotions and basic drives commandeer our decision-making, we are the opposite – impulsive, absent, and leaning hard into instant gratification. Like it or not, there will be times. Life can feel like a constant, all-day wresting match.
Ready for a deep thought? When you have to make a decision, you’ve got to make a choice.
Here’s what I mean. We all know which decisions are good decisions - eating salads, exercising regularly, going to bed at a reasonable hour, putting on our pants one leg then the other instead of jumping in with both feet at the same time.
However, the problem arises when we don’t follow through on the good decisions. We fail in following through on logic and reason due to momentary fear or drives towards rewards surging into power. That’s when the horse takes the lead. When the horse leads, we tend to make poor decisions.
In making decisions, we first have to choose who’s making the decision. Is it going to be our rational frontal cortex? Is it going to be our emotional limbic system? Or will it be our reward-obsessed ventral striatum?
Who will win out? Will the rider force our hand and help us take the responsible path towards delayed gratification? Will the horse seize control and push us toward irresponsible, yet far more enjoyable instant gratification? Will the rider be too controlling and suppress the horse’s will to the point that we never feel anything good?
Moment to moment, who or what inside our brains decides our behavior?
Well, each part gets a vote. There will always competition between the horse and the rider. At times, these competing voices have us spinning in circles. From one minute to the next, as our horse and rider battle it out for control we hear our own circular thoughts - be responsible, be orderly, be productive, be smart, be chill, be easy, be satisfied, be free, be you. Sounds chaotic, doesn’t it?
Luckily, there is a referee. There is another distinct structure in the brain that takes input from the frontal cortex as well as the fear circuit and the reward pathway… and decides (Stevens et al., 2011).
This decider is called the anterior cingulate cortex. Being that it mediates the push and pull of emotion versus reason, it makes sense that anatomically it is sandwiched between the frontal cortex and those deeper structures. The anterior cingulate cortex is literally the bridge between the frontal cortex and the emotional and reward centers (the limbic system and the ventral striatum).
Anterior Cingulate Cortex
The ACC, as it swishes electrical activity back and forth to the ventral prefrontal cortex, processes reward maximization and effort minimization (Klein-Flugge et al., 2016). The ACC primarily assessed the effort cost of any activity that is likely to lead to a reward, but the ventral PFC then reminds us of how much we want that reward (Hogan et al., 2019). If we want it enough, the ACC will energize our brain and the reward pathway, leading us to buckle down and get ‘er done (Aben et al., 2020).
In sum, the ACC gathers predictions about how much effort a certain action or behavior would cost, as well as how rewarding the outcome is likely to be. With this role as the reward-maximization-effort-minimization calculator, the ACC settles ongoing arguments between the frontal cortex and the deeper structures (Etkin et al., 2011). It’s the decider. Sometimes it will decide in favor of digging deep and putting forth larger amounts of effort for bigger rewards. Other times, it will feel the negative emotional burden effort and encourage us to take the easy way out, to seek lesser, but easier to obtain, rewards and means of relief.
For the ACC, think C for choices, or maybe ACC for action-cost calculator.
Here’s the questions the ACC asks and attempts to answer:
How much effort is this reward worth? Effort is one thing, but how long do I have to wait until I can get this reward? What’s the gift instead?
Reflect on your past lesser behaviors – the late-night carb binges, the midday loafing on the couch, the procrastination, the unfiltered comments, the sarcastic text that don’t translate well, the regrettable in-the-heat-of-the-moment explosions. Now consider how the brain is calibrated. Its automatic default is reward maximization and effort minimization.
Here’s that equation said another way:
Fear (multiplied by) Drive Towards Reward (minus) Momentary Strength of Our Frontal Cortex (equals) Our Behavior.
When fear and drive toward reward are momentarily stronger than whatever activity is going on in the frontal cortex, our lesser behaviors emerge. Instead of pushing us towards delayed gratification, we take the line of least resistance (Kennerley & Walton, 2011). We seek the gift instead.
Here’s how it looks in real life. Writing a paper for school? Eh, let me check social media quickly. Sitting down to finish up an important project? Let’s just see if anything new has magically appeared in the fridge. Getting ready to clean the house from top to bottom? Perhaps it would be easier to clean with Netflix on in the background. Or better yet let me just sit down on the couch and watch one episode and I’ll clean later on.
Note: despite its distracting (and sometimes destructive) nature, we cannot exist without fear, or our drive toward reward. They are essential for our survival. They are not bad, or immoral, or plotting against us. These are temporary detours, not manifestations of a flawed character.
It’s survival programming. In that moment, the rider fell asleep at the wheel. And, the horse is always at the ready. The horse is ready to steer us away from danger, and towards reward and relief, and it does that job well. Remember the horse looks to the rider for the context. Without context, the horse is just moving forward, but indiscriminately with no real plan.
When the horse takes over, our values and principles fall by the wayside. Our basic creature comforts become the target of our energy. That’s not great. But it’s not crazy or extremely unusual or shame worthy either. And, remember, it’s temporary. In the very next moment, the rider can wake up, grab the reins, regain control of the horse, and reclaim that “privilege of deciding.”
GRABBING THE REINS
If the brain’s reward/effort calculator is – at baseline – permanently biased towards reward maximization and effort minimization, then clearly we’re in trouble (Skvortsova et al., 2014).
Is there any way to tip the balance? Is there anything we can do to bias the calculation in the other direction? How can we shift the tide away from fear & reward toward the productivity, and prudent decision-making?
In practical terms, can we ever want to do the dishes? Can we ever desire to fold our laundry? Can we figure out how to successfully and reliably sit and focus on boring work for long periods of time?
How can the rider master the horse? How can we manipulate the calculator that is pre-programmed to lean into instant gratification and avoidance of pain?
Here’s some ideas…
First, learn to forgive the slip ups, the distractions, the side-tracks, the moments of weakness. Know that it’s human to have them 1000 times a day. Each and every one of them can be forgiven.
Understand that fear and the drive to seek rewards & relief are here to help us survive and thrive. These programs need remain operational – at all times. As a species, it would be dangerous for us to allow our fear circuit and reward pathway to go offline for any period of time during our day.
Avoid the false promise of guilty repentance. Don’t use guilt to motivate you. Don’t look at the gap between what you should be/should have accomplished and how you are currently functioning. That’s called should-ing yourself. You will know that you are inappropriately using this gap to motivate yourself when you catch yourself thinking, “if I can just…” For whatever reason, this is what we do. We think we can make up for the past by somehow creating this extra amazing the future.
On the surface, this mindset feels positive. It inspires us to dig deep, try harder, and push ourselves to the next level. However, they’ll always be a price to pay for should-ing yourself.
Second, instead of guilty repentance and the should (fantastic band name), get comfortable with the reset. Time is always passing. As time passes, we are continually presented with a new opportunity to reset. From one moment to the next, we are allowed to experience (or try to promote) new and different brain activity.
We all get off track. It happens. The only thing to do after that is reset. Harboring negativity and self-recrimination after getting side-tracked or emotionally overheated is counterproductive, unnecessary, and not what the rest of us would want you to do. If can be stunning to stop and see how long you have let distractions and detours go on.
Let that sudden awareness that you’ve drifted be your cue to stop, engage your frontal cortex again, and get back to the context. This will require a massive amount of non-judgment. Lots of non-judgement. So much non-judgment. In the very least, more non-judgment of yourself than judgment of yourself.
Consider this, we just want to be moving forward and making progress. It’s what we wake up and do every day. But, how easy is it to make forward progress from a place of negativity.
Third, remember that every single task, every single decision, every single behavior gets its own calculation. If you want to do something productive, get clear on why you want to do it. Get clear on why it would feel good to get it done. Add that new information back into the calculation. Force the fear circuit and reward pathway to see things the way the frontal cortex sees them. Envision the way you will get it done, the person you want to be, and things you really want in life.
Remind yourself of all these motivating truths when you feel that initial resistance. Once you make that connection, the distractions and detours will become the aversive stimuli. Your reward pathway will suddenly be repurposed to serve your frontal cortex.
Reach into the future and grab a hold of the anticipated joys of committing yourself to delayed gratification. Why would it feel really great to complete a certain set of tasks? Why would it feel awesome to finish a big project? Why would it feel amazing to get the boring and mundane tasks out of the way before you moved on with your day? Imagine how empowering it would feel to hold off on the gift instead.
Use your frontal cortex to reach into the future and tighten your grip on your overall goals and values. This will make hard work more enticing – in the moment. Each sub-part of the frontal cortex has its own way of enticing us toward delayed gratification. The dorsal PFC tells us “if you do it this way, it’s doable.” The ventral PFC reminds us “it’s who I am, it’s who I want to be.” The orbital PFC confirms for us, “it’s what I really want.”
Start now. Perhaps begin by jotting down some notes on your delayed gratification wish-list. Decide which large-to-very large problem you want to solve. Narrow down which future accomplishment align with your values. Ask yourself what would feel like a fulfilling set of achievements, in the short- and long-term.
If the tasks, project, and goals you write down are challenging enough, and important enough, you’ll likely guarantee yourself a sense of pleasure obtained from problem solving. That will help recycle the energy you put into these projects back into yourself and into your next endeavor. Once the job is done, you’ll be able to see the problem solved as the gift instead. With the problem solved being the gift instead, that ‘something else’ won’t have a chance to take over.
Fourth, feed your brain! Our brain absolutely needs fuel in order to focus, tackle complex tasks, and maintain adequate impulse control (Nishi et al., 2010). If you want to dig deep, you’ll need adequate calories and glucose to charge up your prefrontal cortex and ACC. Energizing these systems will help the rider stay firmly in the saddle. Are we ready? Giddy up!