You always have a choice.
At least that’s what many people believe. No matter what happens, you can choose how to respond. And if you want things to be different, all you have to do is make different choices.
It’s a highly appealing belief to hold, yet you may have found that making a different choice is often tantalizingly out of reach, even when you know exactly what you want to do differently. So what’s going on? If you don’t make a different choice, does that mean you really don’t want to? Does it mean you lack self-control or will power? Does it mean you’re trying to sabotage yourself?
If you believe that you could make a different choice but don’t, why don’t you?
When you fail to make a different choice, you’re forced to explain yourself—at least to yourself. The result is often the beginning of a vicious cycle of rationalization, excuse-making, or self-blame that can drag on for years or even decades. This is a waste of time and totally counterproductive to changing behavior.
The more we discover about the circuitry of the brain, the more the answers tip away from accusations of indulgence, lack of motivation, and poor discipline—and move toward the details of the biology. —David Eagleman, Incognito
The truth is that we don’t always have a choice. In fact, we rarely have a choice. We keep doing the same things we’ve always done because that’s how our brain is wired. It conserves precious energy by turning as many behaviors as possible into routines and habits. Once those routines and habits are in place, they’re extremely difficult to disrupt. When faced with a familiar situation, you will most likely do what you’ve always done in that situation, even if you want to do something else.
That’s because minute by minute, second by second, the unconscious part of your brain is absorbing and processing an unbelievable amount of data, all but a small fraction of which you’re not consciously aware of. So at the moment you’re faced with that familiar situation, your unconscious has picked up on signals, made connections, and initiated the usual response all before you can consciously consider doing something different. When it comes to routines and habits, consciousness is simply no match for the speed and anticipatory responses of the unconscious brain.
If you don’t understand how your brain works, you won’t be able to work with it. The challenge is to use your brain’s addiction to habits and routines instead of being used by it. That’s where intention comes in.
The time to decide how you want to respond in a familiar situation is not when you’re in that situation but when you have some distance from it and can think clearly about it. If you know what you’re up against, you can come up with a plan to get your brain to do what you want it to do. The plan includes three components:
The three-step I.A.P. process is based on the way the brain actually works.
- Plan ahead. Formulate a clear and specific intention.
- Don’t count on remembering. Come up with a way to keep your attention focused on your intention.
- Assume you won’t be perfect out of the gate. Your unconscious brain is stubborn and set in its ways. With perseverance, however, your desired response will become the automatic one.
The 20-page booklet Make It So! outlines the I.A.P. process and describes exactly how to use it. Click here to download it.