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When You and Your Brain Don't Share the Same Goals

May 14, 2019

I want to let you in on a little secret: Your brain does not want you to reach your goals.

I know, crazy, right?

It turns out that your brain doesn’t care about your goals at all. It doesn’t care who you want to be or what you want to do in your life or how precious you think your time on earth is.

Your lower brain only cares about one thing: survival.

Which is important, I guess.

But the thing is that survival used to be a lot harder. When our species first evolved there were a lot more potential threats around us. There were predators. There was the real possibility of starvation or dehydration. The elements were a much bigger concern to our safety and security. Everything was dangerous.

And so the brain learned to function according to three important principles in order to keep us alive. These are also known as the motivational triad. According to the motivational triad, the brain is programmed to:

1. Avoid pain – As humans we learned to avoid pain and discomfort at any cost, as much of our survival depended on our ability to avoid painful situations.  Maybe some of your think this is still a really good idea.  (It's hard to argue with that.)

2. Seek pleasure – Because we were busy avoiding potentially painful situations, we needed powerful programming in order to override this long enough for us to leave  the cave and gather food. We came deeply pre-programmed to seek food and sex and companionship with other humans.  Again, still seems like this might be a really valid way to live.

3. Save energy – Finally, because we didn’t know when the next threat would arrive on the scene, we learned to conserve our energy and save it for when we really needed it. The brain learned to do what was easiest every time.

All of these were awesome instincts when survival was more difficult and even now, they might seem like a pretty good way to live.  But it turns out that if we want to reach some big goals and do some things that are outside of our comfort zone, this old protective programming can keep us from reaching those goals.   

This is because achieving anything requires a good deal of discomfort, lot of energy, and it is not always immediately pleasurable and rewarding.

For example, my brain (like your brain) doesn’t like to spend energy. But I had a goal at the beginning of the year to be able to do five pull-ups in a row. I had mastered one, but even though I was lifting weight six days a week and consistently working on my lats, I saw no change in the number of pull-ups I could do.  The amount of pull-ups I could do hadn't changed in an entire year of working out.

I decided to focus on pull-ups specifically.

I watched a guy on YouTube teach me how to move from one pull-up to five pull-ups following a specific pull-up progression that he said I needed to put into my workouts two to three times a week.  In mid-February I put the progression into action.

It was hard work.

It was painful work.

And my brain did not like the pain I was experiencing nor the effort I was expending.

And so it went to work, trying to convince me that this goal was a bad idea.

I told you, your brain does not care about your goals. It only cares about avoiding pain, seeking pleasure and saving energy. It has no other priorities.

Every day I went to do my pull-up progression exercises it would start up:

“You’re wasting your time.”
“Nothing is happening.”
“This isn’t making a difference.”
“This isn’t working.”
“Why does this matter? This is a dumb goal.”
“Being able to do five pull-ups is not going to help anybody.”
“You’re never going to be strong enough to do these.”

Mostly, it just kept telling me that it wasn’t working and I was doing all this effort for nothing.

But I just told my brain that it’s opinion had been noted and did my exercises anyway.

Even though I couldn’t see any difference. Even though it felt futile.  Even though it seemed ridiculous.

I knew that was all just a lie my brain was selling, but I didn’t have to buy.

Two months after I started the project, I took the video at the top of this post.  As you can see, I am not quite to five pull-ups yet. But I can do four in a row. When I started I could only do one.

The thing is, my brain was right about one thing.  Pull-ups really don't matter.  But showing my brain that I'm in charge does.  Every time I override the objections of my own brain and do hard things, I get stronger.  And by that I mean, mentally stronger.

Whatever your goal is, your brain will try to talk you out of it. It will tell you that it’s not important and that you aren’t making any progress.

That is just a lie your brain tells you because its whole job is to keep you alive and it think this is the best way to do it. It’s just wrong about that.

My coach likes to say that we overestimate what we can do in a day and we underestimate what we can do over the long term.

Consistent effort in overcoming your own brain’s objections day after day after day is the key to accomplishing anything you want.  Don't underestimate what can happen when you just don't buy the lie your brain is selling you.

Don’t worry, brain, everything's going to be fine.  I've totally got this.

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