You are Not in Control

by kyle maynard on October 1, 2012

We are a little over 3 weeks into this challenge, and at least for me, times are getting a little tough. The newness of this experience has worn off. I don’t quite feel the same excitement as I did last week. Not only that, but I have learned that this is not easy. Changing habits can be really difficult. Since I want to change my fitness and nutrition, this is a big life change for me. I have developed some seriously bad habits over the past few months. For many of you, especially those of you who are making larger changes in your life, you might be feeling an even greater sense of fear or dread. This is a long and hard up hill battle, and we have only just begun. How can we ever hope to take control?

Have I told you that I am a motivational speaker?  ;)

In all seriousness, I know that this challenge is difficult, and I became really interested in figuring out how to make this process any easier for you and me. After doing some reading and some research (particularly in the book “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg), I learned a really crazy fact. This fact is so simple but so profound, and I think it can go a long way to answering the question posed above.

How do we take control?

The truth is that most times, we are not in control at all. Thats right, you are not in control.

Feeling better? (Haha, just bare with me here)

Now, I’m not talking about philosophy here. This isn’t a question of free will or determinism or any one belief. I want to talk about some really cool science that I think can provide some tangible benefit to us all.

I mentioned this briefly in an earlier post, but the truth is that our brain is a pretty marvelous machine. There are many different parts to it, and scientists are finding that one of the most important parts is an area called the basal ganglia. Many scientists think that this is one of the most primitive parts of the brain because it controls some of our most basic functions like motion.

Our ability to move our arms, legs, and eyes, all come from this part of the brain (consequently this is also the part of the brain that is damaged by diseases like Parkinson’s or Huntington’s). New research is finding that this part of the brain also plays a pivotal role in our motivation. In other words, the basal ganglia not only controls when we move and what we move, but why we moved it.

Now, how does the basal ganglia relate to our habits? Well the truth is that this part of the brain is actually responsible for all of our habits, so understanding how it works can help us figure out how to change our habits.

There are many actions, like brushing our teeth in the morning, that we don’t even think about. Our basal ganglia just does it for us, and oftentimes this is great. Our brain would be exhausted if it had to think about all these tiny actions, so instead the basal ganglia puts us into auto-pilot so we can focus on more important and complicated things.

What scientists are learning is that the basal ganglia works off a 3-step process. 

  1. The cue – a sign that tells our brain to start a habit (maybe walking into the bathroom or turning on the faucet in the morning)
  2. The routine – the act of going through the habit (putting toothpaste on the toothbrush, brushing your teeth, spitting etc)
  3. The reward – the good feeling we get when we have completed the habit (the fresh taste in our mouth)

All of our habits work in this way, whether they are good or bad. Running everyday works the same way in our brain as eating a box of twinkies on the couch. If the right cue is there, our basal ganglia will kick our bodies into auto-pilot until we get the reward it is accustomed to.

See what I mean? There are many actions that we don’t control at all.

After I learned this, it completely changed how I viewed my habits. What I needed to do was try and eliminate the cues that start the bad habits, and instead consciously develop new cues that would start a good habit.

For example, whenever I arrive at a new hotel, the first thing I do is head up to my room. I tell myself that I am just going to drop my bags off, change my clothes, and then I am going to go workout. However, I have discovered that entering the hotel room is a cue for a bad habit. As soon as I enter, my basal ganglia kicks in and I inevitably hop on the bed to relax. Next thing I know, a couple of hours have gone by, the tv is now on, and my brain is receiving the reward of relaxation. 

The funny thing is, however, that even though habits never actually disappear from our brain, they can be very fragile. Changing the circumstances of your cue even a little bit, will prevent your basal ganglia from kicking in and re-starting a bad habit.

Since learning this, I have started doing things differently. After checking into a hotel, I still have to go drop my bags off at my room.  However, while I am in the elevator I turn on a specific song on my phone. (I turn on ‘Sail’ by AWOLNATION because it really pumps me up.) I listen to this song as I enter, and now I get a very different feeling. I don’t want to jump into bed, I want to go to the gym and get in a good workout. I have changed my cue.

After consciously choosing to do this, my basal ganglia started to learn a new habit, a healthier habit, and my brain kicks me into auto-pilot until I have gotten the reward of a really great workout. Now, I don’t even have to think about it. As long as I play the song as I am entering my hotel room, my brain does everything for me.

Not being in control can actually be pretty awesome.

As we all are working towards this challenge, I urge you to think about how our basal ganglia controls our habits. What cues bad habits? How can we change these cues to start learning good habits? I would be honored if you shared some of your new cues in the comments below.

Oh, and make sure you remember to reward yourself. That is equally important in reinforcing those good habits!

Until next time,


{ 49 comments… read them below or add one }

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: