THE BLOG

Fixing the Design Flaw in Our Brains

13/08/2013 12:32 | Updated 09 October 2013

The human brain is an extraordinary piece of equipment. How is it then that, as a species, we struggle in one very important respect? Why do we find it so hard to change our habits and follow through with our good intentions?

The less intelligent creatures that we share this planet with have no problem doing the things which are good for them. For example, a squirrel knows that it needs to gather acorns for the winter. And it just goes ahead and does it. It doesn't have a good intention, make a start and not finish the job.

So is our problem that we lack self-discipline and willpower? That seems to be the common belief. Dr Steve Levinson, psychologist and author of the book Following Through, discovered the answer in the early 1980s. The fact is that the human brain actually doesn't have a mechanism for following through with good intentions.

"We humans are at an awkward stage in our evolutionary development," says Dr Levinson. "We're between guidance systems. We have a Primitive Guidance System (PGS) and an Intelligence-Based Guidance System (IBGS). The PGS has a personality that was well suited to the way we lived long, long ago when surviving was what life was all about. The modern system uses intelligence to figure out the best course of action."

Each guidance system does its own thing, it seems. But our Primitive Guidance System is more powerful. It shouts while the IBGS whispers. And because the primitive system normally has the upper hand, we are not so good at following through and changing our bad habits.

The PGS is vigilant, reactive and focused on the present moment. It was designed to make sure you detect and respond to the need, want, threat or opportunity that's most in your face right now. This explains why we are so easily distracted. It also why we find it so difficult to stay focused on our good intentions, no matter how important they may be to us.

Don't be too disheartened, though. There is an answer as Dr Levinson explains: "First of all we need to understand and accept the fact our brains have a design flaw. We accepted that we couldn't fly and used our human ingenuity to fix the issue by inventing aircraft. Similarly, there are strategies that we can use to fix the fact that our brains don't do a good job of connecting our intentions with our behaviours. The secret is getting the two systems working together. The key to following through despite the faulty wiring is to deliberately and creatively make whatever we intend to do feel necessary."

Dr Levinson has devised seven following through strategies, two of which he calls master strategies. They are so-called because they address the two most fundamental causes of poor follow through.

Spotlighting ensures your good intentions stand out and don't "get lost in the shuffle". It's about setting up reminders as you go through your day that trigger you to listen to the right voices in your head - the ones that make you feel like acting in accordance with your intentions.

Willpower leveraging helps you to get the biggest "bang" out of each "buck" of willpower you spend. It's about using a small amount of willpower now to dramatically reduce the amount of willpower you'll need later on to follow through.

Dr Levinson invented an ingenious gadget in the late 1980s to help people change their habits and follow through on their good intentions. The MotivAider is a simple electronic device that looks a bit like a pager. You put it in your pocket or wear it (for example, by clipping it on your belt or waistband). It reminds you to stay focused on your good intentions throughout the day by signalling you with a small vibration. It's simple but very effective.

Dr Levinson's latest creation is MotivAider For Mobile. It's an Android and iPhone app version of the electronic gadget that allows the smartphone generation to stay focused and change their habits. As we invariably take our smartphones with us wherever we go these days, now there is a way to always follow through - no matter how our brains are wired.

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