Don’t trust your brain
Your brain is faulty. It lies to you a lot. It may be surprising to hear that, but it happens all the time.
For example, a big part of your self-image is based on what you remember, not what you lived. Studies have revealed that your brain makes no distinction between memories of real events or stories told by other people.
After reading this article, you will be able to spot some of these flaws and know how to deal with them by using a few simple techniques. Let’s start with the issues.
Your memory is faulty.
In the present time we are targeted by hundreds of stimuli over the course of a single day, and our brain isn’t used to it. Not long ago, our major issue was avoiding being eaten by a tiger, not overloaded by emails. That’s why you have a hard time remembering and focusing on the right things.
Aging also impairs your memory. Each person ages at a different pace, but one thing is very clear: things get harder to remember as time passes.
What matters to you may not matter for your brain.
In his book The Happiness Hypothesis, University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains why this happens:
“Our emotional side is an Elephant and our rational side is its Rider. Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader. But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant. Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose. He’s completely overmatched.”
That is why it’s harder to go to the gym than having an ice cream cone. It’s all about early gratification, elephant style.
Your brain doesn’t like new habits.
The human brain fears the unknown. Some people like the thrill of it: doing something you’ve never done can result in crazy unexpected rewards. The truth is that your brain prefers when you do the same thing over and over. Going to your favorite restaurant every week, for example. It’s familiar and secure.
This powerful feeling guides a lot of your decisions. That’s why it is so hard to learn things or to incorporate new habits into your life. Your brain prefers making the same connections over and over than forging new ones. And that sucks.
To make things worse, your brain is not a database and does not organize things in a way you would like. With the elephant crying for attention and the sensory overload of modern days, any help adding some structure to your mind is more than welcome. These are some techniques that helped me immensely over the last few years.
Mindmaps are an excellent way to externalize your memory and neural connections. The textbook definition of a mindmap (from Wikipedia) is:
“A mind map is a diagram used to visually outline information. It’s often created around a single word or text, placed in the center, to which associated ideas, words and concepts are added. Major categories radiate from a central node, and lesser categories are sub-branches of larger branches. Categories can represent words, ideas, tasks, or other items related to a central key word or idea.”
As a programmer, I don’t remember all the keywords and syntaxes of the dozens of computer languages I’ve used over my life. Every time I fail to remember something, I check the related map. If it’s not there, I look it up and write down the answer. I’ve been doing this for years, and it’s amazing how beneficial it is to my mind to have this external backup.
Lists and More Lists
Another good habit to cultivate is to brain dump at least once in a while. Think about everything you need to accomplish — at work, in your personal life, even your dreams and aspirations. Write that down somewhere. By doing that frequently, soon you will be feeling more at peace and less stressed. Suddenly you don’t need to carry all those things in your mind — they are all there in your trusty external piece of memory, waiting to be processed.
I like to do these brain dumps by writing down everything in a notebook, then using patrick rhone’s dash/plus system to deal with it.
Finally, once a week, I move the relevant things to my lists.
New habits are hard to come by.
I use an iphone app, Lift,, to help me incorporate new habits into my life. The app helps me list all the good habits I want to make sure to deal with every day. Every time I do something related to these habits, I mark it as done for the day. By doing it every day, you build up a chain of positive feedback. The guilt of breaking the chain keeps me going. I can’t recommend Lift enough.
Keep what you want right in your face.
If you want to be healthy, surround yourself with healthy things. Want to stop smoking? Remove cigarettes, ashtrays and lighters from around you, purchase a bunch of books about how to quit and use a ‘do not smoke’ wallpaper in your computer and phone. Our brain uses these reminders to make sure the elephant is on the right track. Add a calendar appointment to nag you about what you want every hour. Have you finished doing laundry? How about now? And now?
Even if you have a blog where you write from time to time, having a private journal (and writing on it daily) is a nice form of mental hygiene. It helps keeping your memory working and also improves your self analysis skills. I use Day One on my computer and phone for this.
Death to Context Switching
Watching TV, chatting on the computer and playing a Facebook game. Every time you switch to a different task your brain struggles to recognize the context of the new task.
Context switching is onerous to your brain power and should be avoided. Try to remove any interruptions you can from your daily life. Shut down the instant messaging client. Practice Inbox Zero and turn off email notifications.
Your brain is tricky and has its faults, but it’s all you have to guide you through the world. Make sure to make the most of it while keeping it sane and healthy. Be inquisitive and aware of its faults so you can deal with them accordingly. This will lead to a better, simpler and more relaxed life.