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How to Use Your Two Brains to Get What You Want

Article at-a-glance:

  • There’s a disconnect between what people say they want and what they’re doing.
  • The reason why people repeatedly fail to reach or keep their goals is because they’re trying to create habits that contradict how their brain works. 
  • For life-long habits that help you reach your goals, start using your body’s natural tendencies in your favor. 
Anxiety Word Cloud

By Dr. John Neustadt

One of the saddest things I can think of would be to look back on my life and lament the person I could have been. That level of unfathomable regret is something I hope none of us ever experience. Most people do the hokey pokey with their health. They commit for a while and then go back to old ways and old habits. As they get older, they become more and more out of shape, more tired, and heavier. And they get sick. 

The Underlying Cause

The tragedy is that most chronic illnesses are caused by a combination of poor diet, lack of exercise, poor sleep, and feeling disconnected from a higher purpose. These are the Four Pillars of Health that I’ve written about. But failing to dedicate consistent effort toward reaching our goals is why too many people aren’t living the life they really want.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 60% of American adults have at least one chronic disease and that 70% of the population is overweight or obese.1 Being overweight or obese causes heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney disease, impairs your brain health, and lowers your mood. It’s also associated with at least 13 types of cancer, including endometrial (uterine), breast cancer, and colorectal cancer. Together, these cancers make up 40% of all cancers diagnosed in the US.2 

Putting aside for the moment how you’ll get there, people universally would much rather live a happy, energetic, and inspired life than one full of regret, what-ifs, worry, sadness, and the long slow decline that too many people with chronic degenerative diseases experience. 

Positive Psychology

The field of Positive Psychology, pioneered by Martin Seligman, Ph.D., has concluded in study after study that your happiness is absolutely under your control. You can change your level of happiness, and in so doing change your health, relationships, professional success, and your life’s trajectory. 

You might be seeking peace of mind and a renewed sense of purpose, or you may find yourself in a deep depression and can’t see much of a future at all. 

I’ve spent decades researching ways to improve my life and the lives around me. This journey has taken me down many paths: religious, spiritual development, meditation, counseling, neurology, biochemistry, linguistics, and philosophy. 

After nearly two decades of clinical medicine, research, and helping thousands of people all over the world improve their physical health. After going through my own struggles and growth. This I know for sure: the only way to have a better life is to create goals that are in line with our strengths, pursue the skills to help you reach those goals, be open to change at any moment, and above all else focus on the process and not the outcome. When the process is correct, the outcomes take care of themselves. If you’ve been frustrated by not reaching your goals, it’s simply because you’re following the wrong process.

Stop the Hokey Pokey

Since everyone knows carrying around excess pounds and eating like crap aren’t healthy, you’d think the produce aisles, gyms, and hiking trails would be full. But that’s not the case.  In the US, more than 80% of people don’t eat the minimum recommended amount of fruit and vegetables.3 What are they eating instead? Lots of crap—processed foods and sugar. 

The average American consumes around 2,700 calories per day and eats about a ton (nearly 2,000 pounds) of food every year. If all of it were healthy, nutritious food, that would be fantastic. But it’s not. In 2014 alone, Americans gobbled up 20 billion donuts. That’s 63 donuts per person. And since I don’t eat donuts, someone else is eating my share. Love ice cream? Apparently so do a lot of other folks—to the tune of 15 billion pints (47 pints per person) every year.4

It’s not for a lack of desire. According to a 2018 food and beverage survey of more than 1600 adults, 63% say they try to eat healthy most, if not all, of the time. Neary 75% also say they’re committed to at least one health, wellness, ethical or environmental attribute among the foods they eat. 

Clearly, there’s a disconnect between what people say they want and what they’re doing. In fact, the financial model of gyms depends on it. It takes a lot of square footage and expensive equipment, staff, and liability insurance to run a gym. Every January gym memberships predictably increase as people set lofty New Year Resolutions to get in shape. According to data published by Zen Planner, a provider of software solutions to gyms, each January memberships increase on average by 18%. But by February, 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail and gym memberships decline.

Your Two Brains

The explanation for why people fail to create long term-health isn’t found in your genes, it’s found in the lump of fat between your ears. Your brain controls how you think, move, and feel. And those three things together create your unique identity. 

I’m grateful to the women and men who donated their bodies to medical schools so we could learn. Dissecting another person was profoundly humbling, especially the day I first held a human brain. Looking at the beautifully intricate folds and ridges I thought about the person this was. The brain in my hands contained a person’s hopes, dreams, joy, pain, fear, love, excitement, memories, anxiety, plans, triumphs, disappointments, and insecurities. All the experiences that make us uniquely who we are. 

Experiencing the rush of new love? Those emotions are neural networks lighting up in your brain from the release of dopamine and oxytocin. Feel sad and reach for a bag of cookies? That’s your brain craving relief. Go for a run or bike ride? Planning and executing complex tasks? Your ability to do so is controlled by crosstalk between different parts of the lump of fat between your ears. Ok, so it’s not all fat, but fat does make up 60% of your brain. 

The brain is exquisite. Its nearly 90 billion nerves receive life-giving oxygen and nutrients pumped by your heart through about 400 miles of blood vessels. Chemical signals that communicate information pass from one nerve to the next across small gaps called synapses. 

An elaborate network of neurons forms more than 500 trillion connections that allow instant communication between one part of your brain and all the other parts. Without consciously thinking about it, every moment of your life your brain performs a dazzling assortment of complex tasks, like navigating city traffic while talking on the phone and drinking a cup of coffee. The supercomputer people rarely give a second thought and can make 10 quadrillion calculations every second. 

No matter what you’re doing, even simply while reading this blog right now, your brain is automatically detecting hunger, feeling hot, cold, or just right, and regulating your breathing and temperature. And if there are other people around, it’s also sensing threats and identifying friends. 

Your brain controls the logic you use to justify your decisions, your emotions, your mental images and your focus, learning and memory. It connects past experiences with your present while projecting and calculating possible future outcomes. It would be impossible to consciously think about every detail your brain keeps track of. If you did, you’d have a psychotic break. 

With such a powerful supercomputer running the show, why aren’t people healthier? After all, who hasn’t at some point set their mind to eating healthier, exercising, and dealing with emotional traumas that are holding them back? And since we know that diet, lifestyle, exercise and sleep are the four pillars of health, shouldn’t we all be in amazing shape? 

Use What You’ve Got

The reason why people repeatedly fail to reach or keep their goals is because they’re trying to create habits that contradict how their brain works. Instead, for life-long habits that help you reach your goals, start using your body’s natural tendencies in your favor. 

What you’ve been calling your brain is functionally two brains. Your logical brain, which includes your conscious thoughts and willpower, is controlled by the neocortex.  And your emotional brain is controlled by the limbic system. 

The neocortex is a younger, more recent development in the evolution of mammals.  It resides in the outermost layers of the brain that contains ridges and valleys and resembles a cauliflower. The neocortex is responsible for thinking, processing information, and producing and understanding language. 

The neocortex is the part of your brain that says, “I don’t want those chips” or “I shouldn’t eat that ice cream.” Decide you want a glass of water and reach for it? Your neocortex is directing that. Having a conversation with your friend? The nerves in your cortex are firing on all cylinders. Trying to decide what to have for dinner? Your neocortex lights up to help you figure that out.  

If your brain were all neocortex, reaching any goal would be easy. All you’d have to do is harness your willpower and propel yourself forward from one success to the next. The equation would be simple. Pick a goal. Summon your willpower. And success would be a foregone conclusion. 

Anyone who’s tried to lose weight, get in shape, change destructive dynamics in relationships or improve their diet knows it doesn’t work that way. However, for decades that’s what we were all taught. 

Instead of trying to muscle through the impulses to lay around, eat chips, or put off doing any number of things you know are good for you, make it easier and do the following. 

Make it easier: When faced with two options, your mind will naturally more often choose the easier of the two. So, reduce the friction and make it easier to reach your goals. For example, put your healthy snacks, fruits, and vegetables at eye level in your cupboard and refrigerator.  If you want to drink more water, put a full glass next to your bed and drink it first thing when you wake up. Think of any activity and brainstorm how you can make it easier to do. 

Schedule it: Put important things on the calendar and make non-negotiable appointments with yourself. For example, at the beginning of the week schedule your exercise times in your calendar for the week. And remember, you don’t have to go to the gym. There are simple ways to work exercise into your life. Also, make sure to schedule blocks out of your day for personal time, even if it’s just 10 minutes. Taking care of yourself will make you more effective in all areas of your life. Invest in your health by treating these times on your calendar like business appointments and committing to following through. 

Boost your happy chemicals: Dopamine and oxytocin are two important brain chemicals that improve mood and that can help you reach your goals. Dopamine specifically is released when we’re pursuing a goal. When you learn how to release your happy chemicals, you’ll be working with your body’s natural way of moving you toward your goals and you’ll be more efficient and effective. Read my blogs, How to Boost Dopamine and How to Boost Oxytocin for specific tips you can start implementing today. 

Habits are created when you do an activity over and over until it becomes your default. Use these tips to develop habits that will help you reach your goals instead of sabotaging your health. 

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References

1Chronic Diseases in America (US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) (2020).

2Poor Nutrition. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed September 20, 2022.

32015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 8th Edition. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. Accessed September 22, 2022.

4Food Consumption and Nutrient Intakes 2017-2018. Accessed October 01, 2021.

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