Are You Living By Design or Default?

healthy lifestyle mindset Oct 07, 2020

The Brain-Behavior Gap

Have you ever had one of those moments where you stop all of a sudden and wonder, "when did I stop doing that?" I know meditation is good for me personally (I tend toward racing thoughts), but the habit of meditation has never been very "sticky" for me. Recently I had a busy week, and somewhere in the midst of it, my meditation habit fizzled out.

Do you have a recent experience like this? If so, let me share some insight from Kyra Bobinet, MD, a researcher at Stanford who I heard discuss behavior change on the Sigma Nutrition Radio podcast.

She tells a story of interviewing a woman in a weight loss program who was excited about the progress she was making, but then said, "I know what I should do and eat, I just don't know why I don't do it." That is a thought I've heard repeated in my clinic over and over through the years. Anyway, this thought motivated Dr. Bobinet to delve deep into what she termed the brain-behavior gap. That is, the gap that exists between what we know we should do or want to do, and what we actually do.

Success Leave Clues

Her talk was very rich, so if you find this at all interesting I'd encourage you to listen to the whole talk, about 45 minutes of your time but well worth it. I thought I'd share a few takeaways which came from her observations about what separated people who were successful in their attempts to make healthy changes from those who were not:

  • Design thinking. People who are successful think like "design thinkers" in that they expected to have failures, and they plan in advance what strategies they might use to make progress when failure happens. Rather than giving up, they adapt their approach to incorporate something new or different into their program.
  • Systems. The brain uses a lot of energy, and it likes to take shortcuts when it can to preserve energy. Successful people put systems in place to help support their desired outcomes so they didn't have to rely so much on choice and willpower. They put their running shoes by the door. The planned their lunches for the week, planning and shopping in advance. They arranged to meet a workout partner who was counting on them to show up.
  • Motivation. Successful people feed their motivation. This was really interesting, and new for me. There is a part of the brain in the thalamus called the habenula, which has a role in motivation. Apparently this part of the brain keeps a "scorecard" of perceived failures and incorporates these into motivation. It is the root of sentiments like "that doesn't work for me" or "I've tried everything." And these sentiments kill motivation and promote failure. Successful people do things to keep motivation high and in the front of the mind, things like reviewing goals and especially why the goals are important, reviewing and celebrating success, and trying new ideas to fight plateaus or boredom.
  • Curiosity. Successful people adopt a mindset of continually striving to find the new and better approaches. Rather than seeing failure as absolute, they say "I am going to figure this out" or "there must be a way this can work for me."

This week

What can you do this week to "do what you know you should"? How will you plan to deal with setbacks or failure? What systems can you put in place to help you? Are you feeding your motivation? Are you staying curious about yourself?

I hope it's a good week for you.


Dr. Topher Fox


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