What Neuroscience Says on Why Self Improvement is So Effing Hard (and What to Do About It)
Using Brain Science to Profoundly Alter Your Life for the Better
It looked like a Coke.
The brown sugary liquid fizzed over a tall glass of ice just like a Coke would.
My college roommate even handed it to me saying the words, “here’s your Coke.”
I grabbed the glass without a thought, thanked him, took a swig and...
Spit out a mouthful of the nastiest tasting liquid into the glass, onto my chin, and all over my shirt.
It may as well have been motor oil. It tasted that bad.
I shot a look at my roommate, a combination of disgust and surprise, to tell him the Coke had turned. But his smirk told me he was up to his pranks again. This time I was his target.
As it turned out, there was nothing wrong with the drink. It simply wasn’t the drink I was expecting. I had asked my roommate to grab me a glass of Coke. He brought me a glass of root beer instead.
The thing is, I love root beer. There’s nothing better than a tall, cold glass of Mug on a hot day. I have fond memories of pulling up to an A&W in the back of my Grandma’s beige Cadillac where the waitress would hang a tray of frozen glasses full of the sweet drink on our window.
But because my brain was expecting one flavor and my taste buds delivered something completely different, my brain malfunctioned causing a visceral reaction that had me wiping my chin and had my roommate laughing at me for hours.
Your Brain is an Expectation Machine
Everything you do, or experience, or think is affected by the expectations you already have.
Take your arms, for example.
With both arms intact, your brain works swimmingly. It sends signals to your limbs, they move, they provide feedback, and your brain breathes a sigh of relief that the cycle is complete. When you expect your arm to move and it does, your expectations are fulfilled. All is well.
But if one arm were missing, this feedback loop doesn’t close. A variety of sensations, including pain, can follow.
In a fascinating book Phantoms in the Brain, Dr. Ramachandran explores the world of neuroscience through people who have lost a limb. Patients experienced phantom sensations in an extremity that no longer existed; some as simple as a fleeting tickle, others as irritating as an un-itchable itch and, in the worst of cases, pain.
The patient’s brain, having sent a signal to the missing limb, would expect a response. Without receiving one, its neural pathways would get confused, causing severe phantom pain where none should be possible.
Or take relationships, for example.
While you may pride yourself on accepting strangers with open eyes—never judging, never assuming—how you actually treat them is, in part, based on expectations you already have for them.
In a pivotal study performed by Harvard Professor Robert Rosenthal in 1964, a random group of students was given a standardized IQ test. From the pool of test results, Rosenthal selected a few children at random, telling their teachers that his test predicted these children were “on the verge of an intense intellectual bloom.”
Rosenthal then followed these children and their teachers for two years. What he found was astounding. The randomly chosen children, children whose teachers had higher expectations for them, now performed better on IQ tests than the other students in his study. In short, the teachers’ higher expectations for the students positively affected the children’s development.
In both studies, the study of phantom pain in missing limbs and of setting high (albeit false) expectations of a students performance, we see that our brains aren’t quite operating in the way we believe they are.
We believe we receive stimulus through our senses, process it, then consciously decide how to react. But in reality, we receive stimulus through our senses, our brain processes it, then delivers answers based on what it expects to see next. Unless we interrupt our brain’s processing and delivery system, we receive answers that may not be logical, reasonable, or even appropriate.
While this may seem cause for alarm, it’s actually quite helpful.
Your Expectations Maximize Your Productivity
Most of the time, you are on autopilot.
Wake up, make coffee, eat breakfast, shower, and head to work. You do these things without thinking.
From the second your alarm goes off, your brain begins to execute a series of routines. Unless something unexpected comes up, these run without a hitch.
During the day, many other programs execute without your involvement: meeting with people, triaging emails, lunch, social media, driving home. All of these things happen without much contemplation on your part. Yes, you’re engaged, participating, even interacting. But you’re not thinking deeply. You know what’s expected of you and easily live up to those expectations.
Your brain, the ultimate expectation machine moves from one program to the next, predicting what will happen and delivering answers that match reality with your assumptions. You’re doing whatever comes to mind.
And that’s a good thing — most of the time.
Autopilot lets you act without thinking, perform without expending energy, and make decisions without deciding. It lets you talk to a friend while driving a stick shift. It lets you shampoo your hair while thinking about your upcoming schedule. With autopilot turned on, you can move through your morning routine in a sleep-deprived daze, making coffee, eating breakfast, and triaging emails using minimal mental resources.
But when it comes to self-improvement and personal growth, autopilot, for all its energy-saving and decision-making benefits, is hugely limiting.
Your Expectations Are Limiting Your Growth
Even with good intentions—plans to eat right, exercise, plan your days, set goals, build your side-hustle, get home before dinner—it sometimes seems impossibly difficult to grow.
We all have our reasons.
There’s too much to do. Too little time. Too many distractions. Too many competing priorities. Life seems to get in the way.
These reasons sound well and good, but (truth bomb coming) they’re all lies.
The real reason you don’t plan, eat right, exercise, set goals, grow your business, and live a balanced life isn’t because you have too much to do. It’s not because you get distracted.
It’s because you aren’t conditioned to.
If you always eat breakfast after making coffee, your autopilot switches from coffee-mode to breakfast-mode without thinking. If your morning routine has never included exercise, inserting a workout into it is jarring. In some ways, your brain rejects it, making it far easier to skip it and fall back into a familiar routine. A routine that’s safe. A routine you’re comfortable with.
Self-improvement requires change. It requires us to do things we’re not familiar with, that we’re uncomfortable with. But our routines, the expectations we’ve built for how our life runs, they don’t allow for the uncomfortable. And so, they don’t allow for growth.
Without modifying your expectations, you can’t hope to change. And without change, you can’t hope to grow.
Why Self-Improvement is So Effing Hard
Now we have the basis for understanding why self-improvement is so effing hard.
If you expect to drink a Coke and your prankster roommate gives you a root beer instead, your brain cries foul. Not because you don’t like root beer, but because you’re geared up to taste Coke and, when you taste something different, alarm bells tell you something is wrong. Similarly, if you introduce exercise in your morning routine when you’re used to eating breakfast after making coffee, you’re brain will initially cry foul. It won’t feel right. It won’t be expected.
And that’s when the excuses come. “I just don’t have enough time to exercise. Not this morning.”
If you lost a limb in an unfortunate accident, your brain might be tortuous. Telling your arm to move and not receiving the expected feedback confuses your neurons, causing pain where none should exist. Similarly, if you try reading a productivity book after breakfast when you would normally read the news, you’re brain will feel confused. You’ll worry that you’re missing out on important world events. A mild form of pain will crop up.
And that’s when the excuses come. “There are just too many distractions. I’ll read this book tomorrow.”
Or, as we learned with Professor Rosenthal’s teaching experiment, the expectations we set for others changes the way we interact with them. If you’re used to doing everything yourself but know a mentor could help accelerate your business, the expectation you have for yourself (that you can do it all) will prevent you from finding that new mentor.
That’s when the excuses come. “Finding a mentor just isn’t a priority right now. I’ll look for one next week.”
As if that weren’t enough, even if you force yourself down the path to a better self, your brain produces a little motivation and happiness drug called dopamine. Dopamine is released in anticipation of met expectations. It’s withheld for unmet ones. Dopamine, as we’ll see, likes to keep us right where we are. Safe and sound.
According to Professor Wolfram Schultz, who studies dopamine and the brain’s reward centers at Cambridge University, the best way to release the most dopamine is with an unexpected reward. On the other hand, the best way to withhold dopamine from your brain (which can frustrate you and put you into a severe funk) is to set expectations that won’t be met.
My kids get pretty excited when we decide to go out for ice cream for no good reason (unexpected reward = dopamine hit). And those few times we’ve promised them ice cream and then have to change plans, all hell breaks loose (expected reward withdrawn = dopamine withheld).
But professor Schultz studies go further, showing that your brain not only releases dopamine when you get what you want but also just by wanting something at all. In other words, wanting something—a treat, a gadget, an award, a goal—creates the expectation of getting that thing, which releases dopamine to reward your good intentions.
Things like exercise, reading self-help books, or finding a mentor to improve your business are all long-term investments that won’t provide an immediate reward. When your brain can’t expect the reward somewhat immediately, it doesn’t release dopamine. Worse, if you’ve forced yourself to get started but aren’t seeing immediate results, your brain withholds dopamine because your high expectations weren’t met, putting you into a funk that brings all further self-improvement to a halt. You won’t feel good about what you’re doing and will quickly fall back into old habits.
That’s when the excuses come. “This isn’t working... I’m not seeing results... why bother?”
Using Brain Science to Profoundly Alter Your Life for the Better
You have to break out of autopilot.
And the good news is, you can.
You don’t have to live a life of conditioned response, doing whatever comes to mind, whatever your brain is expecting. You can improve. You can grow. You can break through self-imposed barriers that cause fear, uncertainty, and doubt.
Using the same neuroscience concepts to your advantage, you can create new expectations and habits that set you on a path to success, profoundly altering your life for the better.
1. Set Your Environment for Success
Set an expectation of success and your brain rewards you. Follow through on that expectation and your brain rewards you again.
If exercising is important to your daily self-improvement ritual, set an expectation that you’ll succeed. Lay your clothing out the night before. Not just a shirt and shorts, everything you need to go to the gym. Socks, shoes, keys, wallet, a bottle of water, gym pass, maybe even a note to yourself on why it’s important to you to workout.
When you do this, your subtly telling your brain that you expect to go to the gym. Upon waking up, everything is ready for you. NOT going to the gym will go against your expectations. Your brain won’t like it. It won’t feel right. So you’ll just do it.
Similarly, if you know that planning your day will improve your ability to hit your goals (it will), set out your planner and a pen the night before. Put a candle next to it. Have your chair pulled out and ready for you to sit in. Leave your planner open to the page on which you’ll do your planning.
Your brain won’t be able to ignore the expectation you’ve set for yourself. You’ll have created an environment where you can only be successful.
“Most people’s environment is like a rushing river, going the opposite direction of where they want to go. It takes a lot of willpower to tread upstream. It’s exhausting. Instead, you want your environment to pull you in the direction you want to go.”
2. Set a Big Hairy Audacious Goal
Your brain rewards you with dopamine just by wanting something. So, want something. And want something big.
Don’t merely set a goal to exercise daily. Make it specific. Make it realistic. And make it as grandiose as possible.
Set a goal to add 12 pounds of muscle in the next 12 months, which will require you to lift heavy and eat big.
Set a goal to drastically improve your bloodwork in the coming year, which will require you to eat more fruits and vegetables.
Set a goal to increase your income by 20%, which will require you land a raise, start a side-business, or both.
Big goals are rewarding. They set expectations for you to change. It’s the beginning of improving yourself. It’s the first push of a giant wheel that starts momentum building for the future.
3. Break Down Your Goals into Smaller Milestones
Setting a big, hairy, audacious goal will kickstart your momentum, but if you don’t actually achieve something, the dopamine reward your brain gives you will wear off, and you’ll lose interest quickly.
So keep setting goals. Smaller goals. Milestones that will take you from where you are to where you want to be: achieving that big, hairy, audacious goal set far in the future.
When you set a smaller goal, your brain rewards you. And, if it’s set small and achievable enough, you’ll be able to hit that milestone before the dopamine-induced excitement wears off. Then, when you reach your milestone, your brain will reward you with another dopamine hit. Set another milestone, achieve that, and keep getting rewarded. Rinse and repeat.
All of this builds momentum. It changes your expectations for what’s possible. You’ll no longer be satisfied living someone else’s goals and dreams. You’ll turn into a dopamine-crazed goal monster, setting bigger and better targets for yourself, increasing your confidence, and building more momentum over time.
4. Clear a Path to Your Goals
When you’re trying to improve yourself, you’ll encounter many obstacles and unknowns along the way.
It’s a certainty.
If you already knew how to make a million dollars, you’d be a millionaire. If you already knew how to pack on 12 pounds of muscle in the next 12 months, you’d already be fit as a show horse.
The challenge, once you’ve started down the path of self-improvement, comes from bumping into obstacles the way. These obstacles, no matter how trivial, can be devastating to your progress. In many cases, it can kill it completely.
When you set an expectation for receiving something, achieving something, or getting somewhere, and that expectation isn’t met, your brain withholds dopamine. It can put you into a funk, frustrate you, even make you angry. This effect can last for days, destroying your progress and possibly halting all the momentum you’ve created to get where you’re going.
You can’t let this happen.
So, to prevent that, plan for failure by clearing a path to your goals. Create a list of risks and obstacles that you’ll destroy one by one.
Write down anything you can think of that would get in your way. Write down anyone you can think of that would benefit from you NOT succeeding. Write down all the reasons you might find to quit, stall, or have doubt in your work.
Then, for each one, write down an action plan for not letting that (or them) get in your way.
Of course, unexpected roadblocks will pop up. But if you’ve planned for failure, you’ll be in the mindset to break through that obstacle and keep on trucking instead of stalling out or stopping progress for good. Furthermore, the momentum you’ve built and the expectations you’ve set for crushing your goals and milestones will keep you on the straight and narrow.
5. Believe Your Work Will Make You Better
Just as a teacher can improve their students IQ scores by expecting more of them, you can improve yourself by expecting more of yourself.
You have to believe with every cell in your body that what you are doing will make you a better person.
I’m not just talking about, “yeah, if I read this book, I should be a little smarter and will probably have learned a thing or two.”
I’m talking about, “I must read this book, at all costs, because it’s precisely in line with my goals, will help me achieve my next milestone in life, and if I don’t learn the information found within I will be worse off than if I had.”
I’m talking about, “I must exercise every day because, if I don’t, my heart will atrophy and I’ll find myself back in the emergency room with another heart attack in 6 months... or in the ground, dead.”
When you have those kinds of expectations for yourself, you expect NOT to fail. And so you won’t.
6. Make it Exciting
Whatever it is you’re trying to improve—your health and fitness, mindset, or productivity—it will be easier to achieve if it’s exciting.
Your brain is rewarded with dopamine when expectations are met, and even more if those met expectations are unexpected or surprising.
Excitement isn’t simply the anticipation of reward. It’s an entire physiological response, an arousal that increases your heart-rate, production of hormones, and nervous system activity.
When you are excited, you are more likely to make impulsive decisions. This is great because, instead of overthinking (and finding yourself in the same rut you’ve been in), you can override those rational decision-making parts of your brain and make an emotional decision to start whatever self-improvement activity you need to.
To get excited about the personal development ventures you’re undertaking, you need to get emotional.
Print out a motivational quote that gives you goose-bumps and read it before each workout.
Make progress on a small task that fits into your bigger milestone or goal. Every small win excites you, even if only in a small way, giving you the motivation to keep going.
Finally, limit your options. If you tell yourself you’re going to either a) workout or b) take a nap or c) do some email or d) watch tv, your will tire from deciding and will probably default to whatever it expects to happen next; usually the easiest possible decision with the lowest amount of energy consumption, and therefore the lowest personal-growth reward.
Save energy by giving yourself only one option. Get excited about that option. And execute.
Onward and Upward — Practice Discomfort Until Discomfort is Comfortable
Your self-improvement journey won’t happen without practice.
Breaking your expectations won’t happen overnight.
Research shows that habits take 21 days to form. You’re literally reprogramming your brain on what it should expect. You’re telling your brain that what it’s familiar with should be replaced by something else. Something hard. Something uncomfortable. Something that forces you to grow.
Practice using the techniques described above. Set your environment for success. Set a big, hairy, audacious goal. Break down your goals into smaller milestones. Clear a path to your goals. Believe your work will make you better. And make your self-improvement journey exciting.
Finally, stick with your discomfort for the long haul. Realize that progress won’t happen overnight.
Keep at it time and time again, and you’ll finally get to the point where your brain doesn’t just expect you to succeed, it will crave success.
That’s when you’ll know you have won.
“A fundamental part of conscious evolution is learning to control and direct your attention - so that you can shine that spotlight onto what you want, rather than what you’ve been conditioned to want.”
Cook, G. (2012, October 16). How The Power Of Expectations Can Allow You To ’Bend Reality’. Scientific American. Retrieved September 13, 2019, from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-the-power-of-expectations-can-allow-you-to-bend-reality/
Patel, N. (2015, May 17). The Psychology Of Excitement: How To Better Engage Your Audience. Hubspot. Retrieved September 13, 2019, from https://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/psychology-of-excitement
Rock, D. (2009, November 23). (Not So Great) Expectations - Expectations: use them or be used by them. Psychology Today. Retrieved September 13, 2019, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/your-brain-work/200911/not-so-great-expectations
Spiegel, A. (2012, September 17). Teachers’ Expectations Can Influence How Students Perform. NPR.org. Retrieved September 13, 2019, from https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2012/09/18/161159263/teachers-expectations-can-influence-how-students-perform
Yon, D. (2019, July 4). Now you see it: Our brains predict the outcome of our actions, shaping reality into what we expect. That’s why we see what we believe. Aeon. Retrieved September 13, 2019, from https://aeon.co/essays/how-our-brain-sculpts-experience-in-line-with-our-expectations
About the Author
HUSBAND, FATHER, ENTREPRENEUR, BUSINESS STRATEGIST, AUTHOR, FITNESS NUT, ORGANIZATION FREAK, PRODUCTIVITY JUNKIE
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