7 Keys to Building New Habits and Taming Your Lizard Brain

Breaking habits is tough work.  Whether you want to quit smoking, stop procrastinating or get off the couch, it’s tough row to hoe.   Your amygdala is frequently referred to as your lizard brain and it’s standing in your way.  It’s the oldest part of your brain and where your fear lives.  When you get on a bike for the first time in ten, er, twenty years, your amygdala kicks in and remembers how to ride the bike.  It also brings along all the emotions that go with it.   I remember when I broke my arm at age 13 while riding my bike down Majestic Court with my friend Wendy.  It’s all there – one pedal at a time, balancing, the asphalt, the road rash, the trip to the ER, and the cast on my arm – one big sloppy sack of memory.  And my amygdala is happy to bring it up every time I think about riding a bike.

So every time you try to start a new habit like riding a bike, eating less, or working on projects first thing in the morning, your lizard brain wakes up and tries to put the kabosh on the new habit.  When you wake up the lizard brain, it sends out the fear signals.  Ride a bike? Don’t you remember going to the ER that time? Skip the Krispy Kremes at the breakfast meeting? But I always get a glazed cream filled donut at the finance meeting.  We are on auto pilot and our lizard is leading us down the path.

The good news is there are ways to unplug your auto pilot, tame your lizard and get on the road to renewal:

1. Meditate. Studies have shown that just 5 minutes of meditation a day can increase neuroplasticity and blood flow to your prefrontal cortex in just 8 weeks. This creates greater connections in the brain and improves brain function, especially your prefrontal cortex (where your best work is done!).   The best part is that it decreases the size your amygdala which lowers your stress level.  When your stress is lower, you make better decisions; like skipping the donut and riding the bike instead.

2. Lucky 7.  That is the sweet spot on sleep.  No more, no less.  For optimum cognitive function, you need 7 hours of sleep.  More than 8, and your brain function declines.  Less than 6 and a half and it declines as well.  For better concentration and control of your decision making, it’s best to get seven hours of sleep.  Have you ever had to have a conversation with a teenager after an all nighter?  Nuf said.  Get your lucky 7.

3. HRV.  You want to increase your Heart Rate Variability.  In the book, “The Willpower Instinct” by Dr. Kelly McGonigal, studies have shown that those with a higher HRV can handle anxiety and stress more easily.  They bounce back and get back on track easier.  It’s difficult to change your HRV but quitting smoking, eating a plant based diet, meditation and regular exercise are four proven ways to increase it.  Slow your breathing down to 4 to 6 breaths per minute.  If you can exhale slowly before facing a stressful situation, you will be more resilient.  Angry customer?  Slow your breathing.  Need to resist that cream filled donut?  Slow your breathing.  Take back control.

4. AlcoholEvery time I started smoking again, I was in a bar.  Hmmm.  I wonder why?  Maybe it’s because alcohol was involved.  Alcohol lowers your inhibitions and, of course, lowers your self control.  So if you are working on a new set of habits and want to bolster your self control, put down the martini glass.

5. Exercise.  It just takes 15 minutes a day.  It can take any form you like: window shopping, gardening, walking, p90x, or yoga.  As Dr. McGonigal says all that’s required is that you are able to “answer no to the following two questions: 1. Are you sitting, standing still, or lying down? 2. Are you eating junk food while you do it?”.  Easy.

6. Plan.  Think and plan your habits.  Put your sneakers by the foot of your bed.  Don’t power up your PC until you’ve planned your day.  Schedule your meals for the day in advance.  When you’ve planned it out ahead of time, the new habit becomes a default. I guess I have to run this morning because my sneakers are waiting for me.

7. NoAll willpower starts and ends with No.  You will need to push away from the table, turn down the dessert, shut down your devices, and walk away from facebook.  Start with steps 1 through 6 and your prefrontal cortex will be there to support you when the going gets tough.

It’s also a good idea to take one small step at a time.  Start with the meditating and then build from there.  It takes time and patience to take control of your lizard.  Be the Lizard Tamer.

How have you tamed your lizard?

Git ‘er done!

Have you ever –

  • Hemmed and hawed over a project?
  • Drug your feet on even starting?
  • Come up with 50 shoulda’s and kicked the can down the road?
  •  And down the road a little more?

Your lizard brain has taken over your prefrontal cortex with fear of failure and all you can do is hang out on facebook for hours or watch one more show on the Food Network.  Procrastination is gripping you and you can’t even see the first step, let alone the whole staircase.

I spent my Christmas vacation watching my son delay his college application process.  He spent hours on “Call of Duty” instead writing college essays.  This was a project he promised to start in August.  And suddenly it was December 28th and most of the deadlines were January 1st.  Now he was behind the eight ball and his sister and I (his editors) were not very empathetic.  Now with the pressure of the looming deadline, he had to git ‘er done!  He did get it done although it was painful for all of us.  Care for some ideas on getting over procrastination and moving projects to completion?

Here are some tips:

1. VacationZig Ziglar makes the case in his audio tapes called “How to Stay Motivated”, that we all seem to find time to get it all done on the day before vacation.  This really hit home with me.  Suddenly, you have your day scheduled out, know all your priorities, don’t waste a minute and are completely focused.  So, if you really want to take action, imagine that you are going on vacation and plan accordingly.

2. Three.  When the alarm goes off in the morning, plan three things you want to accomplish today.  Just three.  Not five.  Not ten.  Just three. (1) Go to the Y and work out. (2) Finish the financial aid submission.  (3) Finish 3 annual reviews.  There.  You have your day planned out.  As Stephen Covey would recommend, you have to schedule your “Big Rocks” (important non-urgent projects).  In doing so, the “gravel” (unimportant distractions i.e. facebook, twitter) will fall by the wayside.

3. Timer.  I do this for every blog post I write.  I give myself 30 minutes to write.  Anything.  Just write.  I don’t have to finish.  I just need to write.  After thirty minutes.  I’m done.  If I’m still inspired and on a roll, I keep going.  If not?  Go onto the next project.  I find this to be the best cure for procrastination.  It helps you side step perfection.  It doesn’t matter if it’s perfect.  You invested 30 minutes.  And you can invest another 30 minutes tomorrow.  At least you started.  Set a timer.

4. Appointment.  Many times we are collaborating with coworkers, team mates and bosses who are even better procrastinators than ourselves.  They create squishy deadlines or vague goals.  This can be like herding wet kittens.  Make a firm follow up date.  Make an appointment.  It might get moved.  But at least you are taking steps to keep the team or department on task.  Make an appointment to follow up and stay on task. eat an elephant one bit at a time 2

5. Chunks.  Big projects are really just a gathering of chunks.  How do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time.  Break the project into chunks.  I can remember my daughter getting a book to study for the SAT’s.  It was a very thick book.  An overwhelming book.  I suggested that she take twenty pages a day.  We wrote on the calendar page numbers on each day.  We chopped up the elephant.  Chunks are much easier to digest.

6. Worst is first.  In “Eat that Frog” by Brian Tracy, he recommends starting with the worst task first (ergo eat that frog).  So if that happens to be exercise or reading an SAT prep book or writing annual reviews.  Go for it.  Forgo answering emails, chatting over coffee with your coworkers, or surfing pinterest.  Get out your fork and knife, and eat that frog.  The rest of the day will glide by with the worst of it behind you.  Tackle the worst first.

Procrastination can be debilitating.  Try just one or two of these suggestions.  You’d be surprised how starting a habit or two can change what you can accomplish.  Let’s reduce the frog and elephant population (no animals were harmed in this post) and git ‘er done!

Be the Lizard Tamer

Breaking habits is tough work.  Whether you want to quit smoking, stop procrastinating or get off the couch, it’s tough row to hoe.   Your amygdala is frequently referred to as your lizard brain and it’s standing in your way.  It’s the oldest part of your brain and where your fear lives.  When you get on a bike for the first time in ten, er, twenty years, your amygdala kicks in and remembers how to ride the bike.  It also brings along all the emotions that go with it.   I remember when I broke my arm at age 13 while riding my bike down Majestic Court with my friend Wendy.  It’s all there – one pedal at a time, balancing, the asphalt, the road rash, the trip to the ER, and the cast on my arm – one big sloppy sack of memory.  And my amygdala is happy to bring it up every time I think about riding a bike.

So every time you try to start a new habit like riding a bike, eating less, or working on projects first thing in the morning, your lizard brain wakes up and tries to put the kabosh on the new habit.  When you wake up the lizard brain, it sends out the fear signals.  Ride a bike? Don’t you remember going to the ER that time? Skip the Krispy Kremes at the breakfast meeting? But I always get a glazed cream filled donut at the finance meeting.  We are on auto pilot and our lizard is leading us down the path.

The good news is there are ways to unplug your auto pilot, tame your lizard and get on the road to renewal:

1. Meditate. Studies have shown that just 5 minutes of meditation a day can increase neuroplasticity and blood flow to your prefrontal cortex in just 8 weeks. This creates greater connections in the brain and improves brain function, especially your prefrontal cortex (where your best work is done!).   The best part is that it decreases the size your amygdala which lowers your stress level.  When your stress is lower, you make better decisions; like skipping the donut and riding the bike instead.

2. Lucky 7.  That is the sweet spot on sleep.  No more, no less.  For optimum cognitive function, you need 7 hours of sleep.  More than 8, and your brain function declines.  Less than 6 and a half and it declines as well.  For better concentration and control of your decision making, it’s best to get seven hours of sleep.  Have you ever had to have a conversation with a teenager after an all nighter?  Nuf said.  Get your lucky 7.

3. HRV.  You want to increase your Heart Rate Variability.  In the book, “The Willpower Instinct” by Dr. Kelly McGonigal, studies have shown that those with a higher HRV can handle anxiety and stress more easily.  They bounce back and get back on track easier.  It’s difficult to change your HRV but quitting smoking, eating a plant based diet, meditation and regular exercise are four proven ways to increase it.  Slow your breathing down to 4 to 6 breaths per minute.  If you can exhale slowly before facing a stressful situation, you will be more resilient.  Angry customer?  Slow your breathing.  Need to resist that cream filled donut?  Slow your breathing.  Take back control.

4. AlcoholEvery time I started smoking again, I was in a bar.  Hmmm.  I wonder why?  Maybe it’s because alcohol was involved.  Alcohol lowers your inhibitions and, of course, lowers your self control.  So if you are working on a new set of habits and want to bolster your self control, put down the martini glass.

5. Exercise.  It just takes 15 minutes a day.  It can take any form you like: window shopping, gardening, walking, p90x, or yoga.  As Dr. McGonigal says all that’s required is that you are able to “answer no to the following two questions: 1. Are you sitting, standing still, or lying down? 2. Are you eating junk food while you do it?”.  Easy.

6. Plan.  Think and plan your habits.  Put your sneakers by the foot of your bed.  Don’t power up your PC until you’ve planned your day.  Schedule your meals for the day in advance.  When you’ve planned it out ahead of time, the new habit becomes a default. I guess I have to run this morning because my sneakers are waiting for me.

7. NoAll willpower starts and ends with No.  You will need to push away from the table, turn down the dessert, shut down your devices, and walk away from facebook.  Start with steps 1 through 6 and your prefrontal cortex will be there to support you when the going gets tough.

It’s also a good idea to take one small step at a time.  Start with the meditating and then build from there.  It takes time and patience to take control of your lizard.  Be the Lizard Tamer.

How have you tamed your lizard?