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,


{ 48 comments… read them below or add one }

Ashley October 1, 2012 at 10:57 am

i love u


Kyle Maynard October 5, 2012 at 12:30 pm
amanda October 2, 2012 at 8:17 pm

my littlest brother has autism spectrum disorder. his basal ganglia must be really strong because he always looks at me and says “nana, stop, think, good choice? bad choice?” his routines and habits can change in an instant :). love the post.


Kyle Maynard October 5, 2012 at 12:35 pm

Haha! Love it! Funny and probably true.


Michelle October 3, 2012 at 12:28 am

As I’m walking or jogging to not only lose weight but spend time trying to figure out how to bring patience to the forefront of my life, there are two things I say over and over. The first is from a very kind stranger in the park. On my first day running, this fellow jogged next to me for a few seconds and said, “You’ve got this. You can do it,” and then he was gone. Powerful words I am eternally grateful for. How can I fail when a stranger believes in me?

The other thing comes from you. Seeing what you accomplished by climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro and taking to heart what you have said to people time after time again has had a huge impact on my life. “No excuses.”

While I pray for the strength to be patient and hope each day finds me being just a bit more so, these words from two young men have kept me going while I work on my goal. Imagine jogging and repeating over and over, “No excuses. You’ve got this. You can do it.”

You may not see right away how any of this will bring patience to me, but quitting smoking, eating better and finally losing weight are all things I’ve waited a very long time for. In the past I have always given up because it was the easier thing to do. Not this time! Eight months smoke free, down 23 pounds, lowering my cholesterol 17 points. THOSE have been worth waiting for. THOSE are teaching me patience – one day, one pound, one point at a time.


Kyle Maynard October 5, 2012 at 1:11 pm

It’s an amazing thing how someone we spend such a short amount of time with can have such a positive impact on our lives. I actually just spoke at the same conference in Spain as another speaker, Alberto Espinosa, who spoke about this very topic — he calls them “yellow people — pretty cool stuff.


Randy Smith October 3, 2012 at 6:23 am

ROCKING OUT!!!! I competed in RUGGED MANIAC Saturday. It kicked my my butt, BUT I FINISHED!!! I fell off one high wall in the course, my right leg swelled, question of fracture, I am an RN, still could weightbear, so even though some thought I should quit. I FINISHED. Next year RUGGED MANIAC’s butt will be kicked!!!!!! Keep inspiring bro!!!!


Kyle Maynard October 5, 2012 at 1:12 pm

Nice work Randy!! Congratulations.


Caitlin October 8, 2012 at 1:49 am

Awesome post! I find that my basal ganglia particularly acts up when I’m super busy. I’m waaaay more likely to just grab a bag of Cheetos or cookies when I’m trying to meet a deadline at work than when I have more time to make a healthier decision. (I guess it doesn’t help that my office once used to be the Nabisco factory and the birthplace of Oreos hehe.)


Tamara Hurst October 11, 2012 at 4:26 pm

You ever have one of those days when something (or someone) from out of nowhere unknowingly shines a light on something that you are struggling with? Today was that day for me..and you were that someone. I’ve been struggling with a major life decision. To end (or not end) my long suffering marriage of 9 years. I was working and your sweet face caught my eye on my Facebook news feed. Two clicks later, I found myself here. So, for the last few hours I have been thinking about how this is a “choice” more than a decision…and how those two things can be different. So I’m deciding to try to “fix” the situation and make the “choice” to treat and be treated differently. So simple..yet so scary. You are truly an inspiration to this old gal…and I’m so grateful for that sweet face that reminded me of what really is important! Keep up your fantastic journey!!!!


L.G. October 15, 2012 at 8:13 pm

Hi Kyle,

I have the article written about you from Backpacker(06/2012) taped to one of my kitchen cabinets. Seeing your huge smile every morning inspires me to move forward, especially on those days when I just don’t feel like it.
Last year I separated from my husband of 18 years. I have two teenage kids which I homeschool. I have had trouble finding full time work in my field (have a master’s degree) since I was a stay-at-home parent for so many years.

However one thing we know is true, change is constant and not all change has to be bad. With the support I’ve received, meditation and your inspiring story, I have been able to turn these difficult life-changing situations into smaller manageable events and use my creativity to seek alternative solutions. After a year of searching for a job locally, I decided I had to do something drastic. I decided to apply for a phD program at the local university.

I remember hearing of people being inspired by someone they didn’t know and didn’t have an idea of how this could be possible but now I know! Thank you for sharing your determination with the rest of the world. Keep spreading your positive energy.


David Moshe Siegel October 25, 2012 at 12:53 am

thank you for your insights! A while ago, I opened the fridge during an emotionali thing…stopped and I AM NOT HUNGRY!!! The power of actualzation is amazing not just for ipones and galaxies, ect. But for the good and bad cues that we do have.
The trick is to say really what we need/want to do….and do it with a new que.
Thank you I hope to keep up with your posts.


Campbell October 26, 2012 at 11:15 am

Kyle,you inspire me so much more than anyone ive ever heard of,keep on doing what ypur doing cause you are great at it


Croteau October 26, 2012 at 11:23 am

I’m a student from Knox Doss at Drakes Creek, which i forgot to mention in my previous comment. Our teen living teacher told us to read two of your blogs, and they have both inspired me a bunch! You’re an inspiration to me and I think that the things you do are amazing! Keep up what you’re doing, it’s amazing! Have an amazing day!


toney October 26, 2012 at 11:24 am

Thanks for the wise words you choose thanks! :)


max barnett October 26, 2012 at 12:10 pm

you have inspierd me so much i cant belive that you can do all this i have never seen someone that has so much heart .You can do anying you set your mind to.You are my biggest fan in the whole world.the reason why you are my biggest fan is because you just inspire me so much and i want to thank you for that.


strickland October 26, 2012 at 12:13 pm

i love reading these comment and then you anwser. its really cool how you take time out of your day to responf to these people. this is my first time on a blog and i love it. keep inspiring people. you have inspired me soooo well its crazy. i hope you have a great rest of your life. please respond, thanks.


stuhrenberg October 26, 2012 at 1:29 pm

You are truley an inspration kyle!


brendonrampy October 26, 2012 at 1:35 pm

i am 13 and you are an inspiration to me and to evry on else that meets you. i cant believe the challenges you faced but tt proves that anyone can do anything you can do like climb a mountain like you did.


Price October 26, 2012 at 1:37 pm

I love reading your blogs! You are such an inspiration to all of us! Stay strong.


house October 26, 2012 at 3:13 pm

How did you learn how to do things like eat,drive,and write?Was it hard to do those things?


Anderson October 26, 2012 at 3:19 pm

You are amazing. We watched your video in school and you are awesome. You really inspire me to treat people like they want to be, and not what they look like. When I get older and you are still speaking I will come see you. It’s amazing that you made it Mouont Kilimanjaro and that you did what you did with the ashes. You are amzaing.


Batson October 26, 2012 at 3:23 pm

How did you learn to eat,type,drive,and write? Was it hard to learn how to do all of these things? When I watched your videos in school, I was insanely inspired by you.I hope to learn a lot about you through life.


fuqua October 29, 2012 at 10:01 am

wow , great blog . look forward to reading another one.


House October 29, 2012 at 10:07 am

Kyle you are such an inspiration to everyone! I love reading your blogs. I think you have changed many people’s lives. Stay strong and keep doing what you are doing!


fuqua October 29, 2012 at 10:11 am

I’m amazed everytime I read your blog. They’re really inspiring . I can’t imagine going through some of the things you do . Your a very brave man . Continue inspiring other , like you have me.


Gallagher October 29, 2012 at 10:13 am

Kyle Maynard! You are beyond an inspiration in everything you do & accommplish! Your life is an amazing story to everyone! You made us realize NOT to take things for granted in life & to apprieciate whe have. You taught us how to not judge people & to look on the inside instead of just the outside & to NEVER GIVE UP! You are such a stong & positive person Kyle, its crazy! God has blessed you to be able to do the things you can do in life..such a blessing!


Kerby October 29, 2012 at 10:16 am

you are a big inspiration to me. you taught me never to give up. you are my role model. keep doing what you do best. im 13, and many choices will pop up out of the blew in the near by future, and i have to make a decision. no matter how tough,hard, easy it are my inspiration, thank you.


bell October 29, 2012 at 10:17 am

Dear Kyle,
my name is regan bell i have a bad habit i chew my nails badly to the end of my skin.
and my mom says stop and i keep doing it and my step dad is chewing his nail too.thank you for making a change.


hemsher October 29, 2012 at 10:18 am

Thank you for showing us making a change is difficult , but we should not give up when it gets hard.


MackenzieWilliams October 29, 2012 at 10:54 am

Hi Kyle,
You are such an inspirational person! Thank you for all you do!


Johnson October 29, 2012 at 10:59 am

Thank you for the inspiring words. I have read a couple of your stories, and they all have influenced me a lot. Thanks so much. :)


mabrey October 29, 2012 at 11:01 am

You are an inspiration to everyone if someone says i cant do it i would say well look at Kyle Maynard! If he can do it, so can you!!!


mabrey October 29, 2012 at 11:01 am

You are an inspiration to everyone if someone says i cant do it i would say well look at Kyle Maynard! If he can do it, so can you!!!


max banett October 29, 2012 at 11:48 am

you have inspired me so much how did you do all of this. just to let u know you are my biggest fan in the world


13518 October 29, 2012 at 12:09 pm

What is your favorite football team? Why I ask is because a friend of mine whants to be a football player or a proffesional swimmer when she grows up.She has written to you and goes by Wilder. Do you think she is able to do it? And why?


menon October 29, 2012 at 12:33 pm

i really love your blog. it is very inspirational.


Ignatoski October 29, 2012 at 12:34 pm

Hey Kyle! I am so amazed at the things you have accomplished. You are very inspiaring!


Nakia :) October 29, 2012 at 2:50 pm

i think it is awesome that you have been wresling and climbing relly relly relly big mountains and doing it all by your self…. just keep on traning.. we all love you here at kddc :)


sebastian October 29, 2012 at 2:57 pm

You are awesome. You have done a lot more things that I havent done in my life and I am 11.


lewlew October 29, 2012 at 3:03 pm

hey kyle! you are an awesome inspiration! im inspired seeing your story was amazing!!


SAMUEL October 29, 2012 at 3:08 pm



Ryan October 29, 2012 at 9:46 pm

What’s your favorite football team? Why I ask is because a friend of mine wants to be a professional swimmer or a football player when she is older. She has written to you and goes by Wilder. Do you think she is able to do it? Why?
P.S.- Good luck with working on your next big accomplishment what ever it may be.


Nicholas Carroll November 2, 2012 at 11:19 am

Your speech helped me a lot. I just recently signed up for Basketball. Thanks for inspiring me.


thip athiya January 27, 2013 at 10:16 am

I love you


online stopwatch for kids August 5, 2013 at 3:46 am

Very soon this site will be famous among all blog viewers, due to it’s nice content


sriniwasa August 7, 2013 at 11:31 am

Today, I am so glad to meet you at Griffin Spalding County schools auditorium.
You are amazing motivation to my life, You are a real hero. I am going to teach my special students, how to overcome challenges in our life, think positive and find the purpose of life, to make this world a beautiful place to live.



titus hall September 12, 2013 at 12:06 am

Cool your awsome I’m in your sisters class she told me to go to your website can you come visit us


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