Have you said any of these recently?
- I get distracted and procrastinate.
- I make plans but I don’t follow through on them.
- I get things done… but not the right things.
The problem often comes down to just one word: “reactive.”
Maybe that wasn’t the word you were expecting. But reactivity is a problem people have been contemplating for thousands of years. And, yes, it’s a bigger issue now than ever.
What is it? What can we do about it? Neuroscience and ancient wisdom from Buddhism and Stoicism have answers.
Let’s get to it…
Your Reactive Brain
Maybe you’re lazy, maybe you’re not lazy. But one thing is for certain: your brain is.
Research shows that even in our free time we often don’t do what we enjoy most — we do what is easy. Your brain doesn’t want to waste energy. So it’s always a bit lazy.
Problem is, the world is not lazy. These days it’s constantly shouting at you.
Sometimes it’s the siren song of entertaining things like text messages from friends and other times it’s scary things like work emails — but it’s shouting.
Everything is demanding our attention. We’d like to make a plan and follow through or accomplish goals undistracted but the world seems to be working against you.
When I spoke to Duke professor Dan Ariely, he said exactly that: the world is working against you. Here’s Dan:
The world is not acting in our long-term benefit. Imagine you walk down the street and every store is trying to get your money right now; in your pocket you have a phone and every app wants to control your attention right now. Most of the entities in our lives really want us to make mistakes in their favor. So the world is making things very, very difficult.
Your lazy brain is happy to just react to that relentless bombardment of stimuli coming its way. But when you just react, you don’t usually make the best choices. And while you’re definitely doing something, you’re rarely achieving your goals.
That’s because when you’re reacting, you’re not in control of your life. In fact, reacting is the opposite of control. You see something fun and you chase it. You see something scary and you run away. Either way, your environment is determining your behavior.
It’s ironic that we so often say to others, “Don’t tell me what to do!” And yet, all too often, we’re letting the world around us determine our actions. We’re not starting from plans and decisions, we’re reacting.
And these days we’re often sitting there hoping we get a new text, email, update or notification. We’re all but saying, “Please, tell me what to do.”
And while technology has made the problem worse, this issue has been around forever. About 2000 years ago the Stoic philosopher Epictetus said this:
If a person gave away your body to some passerby, you’d be furious. Yet, you hand over your mind to anyone who comes along, so they may abuse you, leaving it disturbed and troubled — have you no shame in that?
(To learn the 7 step morning ritual that will keep you happy all day, click here.)
More often we need to step back rather than dive in. But how do we do that? First, we need to prepare…
Control Your Context
Brian Wansink is a professor at Cornell who studies eating behavior. And one of the main things he’s found about overeating is that it’s rarely due to hunger. It’s usually due to context.
Everyone — every single one of us — eats how much we eat largely because of what’s around us.
You eat less when food is farther away and more when it’s closer. Here’s Brian:
People ate half as much if we simply moved the candy dish off their desk and placed it six feet away.
So when you need to get work done, put your phone on the other side of the room. Make distractions harder to reach.
When you have fewer things to react to or you make it harder to react to them, you’ll be less reactive.
(To learn the 4 rituals neuroscience says will make you happy, click here.)
Preparation is great but that’s just the first line of defense. What do you need to do when you’re face to face with something that’s pulling you into reactive mode?
Take a pause. Something fun is saying “Come play with me!” Or something scary is in front of you and you want to run away and procrastinate. So just pause for a second. As Marcus Aurelius said a long time ago:
The first thing to do — don’t get worked up… The next thing to do — consider carefully the task at hand for what it is, while remembering your purpose is to be a good human being.
And modern science agrees. All that emotion is not going to help. Albert Bernstein, a clinical psychiatrist, says staying calm is key to making good decisions in the heat of the moment:
…the basic idea is that in many situations, you’re reacting with instincts programmed into your dinosaur brain, rather than thinking through a situation. If you’re in your dinosaur brain, you’re going to play out a 6 million-year-old program, and nothing good is going to happen.
Neuroscientists say stress takes your prefrontal cortex — the rational part of your brain — “offline.” Quite simply, stress makes you stupid. And that’s why just reacting often makes you do stupid things.
(To learn how astronauts, Samurai, and Navy SEALs stay calm and make good decisions, click here.)
Okay, you paused. But you can’t just freeze every time something tempting comes up. So what’s next?
Think About Your Goals
Make sure the most important thing stays the most important thing.
Even the ancient Stoics knew that. Epictetus said:
First tell yourself what kind of person you want to be, then do what you have to do. For in nearly every pursuit we see this to be the case. Those in athletic pursuit first choose the sport they want, and then do that work.
Not big on Stoicism? The ancient Buddhist practice of mindfulness is on the same page. Joseph Goldstein, one of the leading experts in the field, told me something very similar:
Where is this action leading? Do I want to go there? …This thought which has arisen, is it helpful? Is it serving me or others in some way or is it not? Is it just playing out perhaps old conditions of fear or judgment or things that are not very helpful for ourselves or others?
And modern neuroscience research agrees with both.
Thinking about your long-term goals when you’re tempted by distraction gives your brain a sense of control and can release dopamine which will make you feel better and more motivated.
Alex Korb, a neuroscientist at UCLA, told me this:
By thinking, “Okay, what is my long-term goal? What am I trying to accomplish?” Calling that to mind can actually make it feel rewarding to be doing homework instead of going to the party because then your brain is like, “Oh yeah. I’m working towards that goal. I’m accomplishing something that’s meaningful to me.” Then that can start to release dopamine in the nucleus accumbens and that can start to make you feel better about what you’re doing.
(To learn more about the six rituals that ancient wisdom says can make you happy, click here.)
You’re calm and you’re thinking about your goals. Now comes the hard part…
Make A Deliberate Decision
Turning down fun distractions is hard. Resisting the urge to procrastinate is really hard.
So take a second and deliberately decide not to give in. I know, that sounds waaaaay too easy to be helpful…
Wrong. Neuroscience shows pausing and taking the time to make a decision actually helps stop you from engaging in bad behavior.
Making decisions also helps overcome striatum activity, which usually pulls you toward negative impulses and routines.
And then, finally, act on that decision. Follow your long-term goals. Here’s neuroscientist Alex Korb:
When the prefrontal cortex is taken offline by stress we end up doing things that are immediately pleasurable. Instead of getting overwhelmed, ask yourself, “What’s one little thing that I could do now that would move me toward this goal I’m trying to accomplish?” Taking one small step toward it can make it start to feel more manageable.
(To learn more about the neuroscience behind mindfulness, click here.)
Okay, we’ve learned a lot. Let’s round it up and see what happens when we put it into action…
Here’s how to resist distraction and be less reactive:
- Control your context: You can’t react to what’s not there.
- Stay calm: Stress makes you dumb. Stress and reacting leads to dumb behavior.
- Think about your goals: Get Stoicism, mindfulness and dopamine on your side.
- Make a deliberate decision: When you do, your brain is better able to resist no-no’s.
You don’t have to react and answer that text immediately. You don’t have to react to that delicious smell and eat all the cookies. You can pause, stay calm, think about your goals and decide to do the right thing.
We’re all so afraid of being bored that we run to any distraction that presents itself. But when we truly engage with the world and focus on our goals, we’re never bored.
And as David Foster Wallace said, “If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.”
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