As mentioned in my post, Health Matters More, I’m actively trying to make decisions in the best interest of my long term health instead of short term rewards.
And I’ve got to say, it’s really hard.
I have definitely made progress over the past few weeks, but it’s still a continual battle. And it turns out, the battle is happening in my brain.
A 2004 study from the journal Science¹ found that two areas of the brain are competing with one another – the system associated with emotion and the region associated with abstract reasoning. “Our emotional brain has a hard time imagining our future, even though our logical brain clearly sees the future consequences of our current actions”. Participants’ brain scans showed both areas were active, but those who chose the short-term option had slightly more activity in the emotional system while those who chose the long-term option had slightly more activity in the abstract reasoning system.
Reading about this study made me picture my brain lighting up back and forth the other day as I stood over a Portuguese custard tart feeling genuinely quite conflicted. I’m happy to say my abstract reasoning portion of my brain did kick in and I resisted it, but my emotional side put up a really good fight.
So, what have I been doing to try to make decisions in my long-term interest during the past few weeks?
Since deciding to put my health first, I’ve been meditating daily for five minutes. Honestly, I considered leaving out the length of my daily meditation because it feels so short. It’s as if the length of the meditation dictates how “legitimate” the practice is. But I realized it’s works for me right now, and I’m happy with it, so I shouldn’t be embarrassed or judge myself for it. And, there’s no reason to hide this fact.
What does this have to do with my health goal?
For me, it’s about mindfulness. Taking time every day to be present and practice letting go of all the incoming thoughts. Meditation has been shown to improve self-awareness, and I believe self-awareness helps you make healthier decisions. It has also been connected to increased self-acceptance, which, for me, is critical for showing myself grace throughout this process.
If you can’t show yourself some grace while trying to make important and challenging changes, then it’s going to be a bumpy ride. Grace means not beating yourself up when you slip up – because you will slip up. It’s part of getting better at something. Like learning an instrument or new skill. You make mistakes and then correct them – that’s what makes you better.
A few days after publicly declaring my intention to put health first, a friend suggested I read the book The 5 Second Rule by Mel Robbins. The book was available at my library, so I picked it up the next day and within hours of starting the book, it made a positive impact on my life.
I know this sounds like an overstatement, but it’s really not. Let me explain.
The 5 second rule is all about deciding to act before your brain can talk you out of it. The moment you feel inspired to act, you count down, 5-4-3-2-1, then go. It sounds simplistic – and it is – but don’t discount it’s power.
When you countdown backwards, you are engaging your pre-frontal cortex and becoming aware. This is distinctly different than how we operate most of the day. Every single day, we are on autopilot – we don’t think about which arm to wash first in the shower or which side of the mouth to start brushing our teeth. And nor should we think about those things. We have habits for a good reason – it simplifies our lives and conserves energy. These daily actions happen without our pre-frontal cortex since it doesn’t need to be engaged. But, these unconscious actions can work against us, especially because thought patterns can behave in the same way.
Just like automatic actions, we have automatic thoughts and thought patterns. They become hardwired in our brain. And these thoughts kick-in quickly, especially when we are inspired to act.
Let’s use the example I experienced a couple of hours after starting to read The 5 Second Rule. I walked into a room and saw a box that needed to be recycled.
Inspiration to act: I should really recycle that box. It’s been there for months.
Automatic thought: Nah, I don’t feel like dealing with that right now. You can do it later. It’s not important.
Now, typically, I would succumb to the automatic thought – hence why the box has been in the same place for months. But, I had just read the first 3 chapters of the book and noticed the automatic thought that was talking me out of acting. So instead of leaving the box, I counted backwards, 5-4-3-2-1, picked up the box and brought it to the garage. Done.
On the way to the garage, I noticed more things I “should do”. Once again, I instantly noticed my automatic thought pattern, “that doesn’t have to be done right now”, so I counted down again, 5-4-3-2-1-go.
It was a cascade, and I ended up getting more done in 20 minutes than I would have normally done over an entire weekend. Embarrassing to admit? Maybe. But, it’s true.
And honestly, this simple 5 second rule has helped me so much in the past month, I’m telling anyone who will listen.
Just like the battle in the brain between short-term reward vs long-term benefit, the 5 second rule is between our unconscious, automatic habits vs our conscious choice to act. As the author says, we can’t choose how we feel about something, but we can choose how to act. The moment you start counting down, you are aware and conscious, and you can control your behaviour.
So now what?
Taken together, the meditation and the 5 second rule are helping me be more aware and more present in my daily life. Do they make the decision to choose long-term health over short term gain any easier? I’m not sure yet. I still find it difficult at times. But, I notice improvements overall, so I’m sticking with both.
¹McClure, S., Laibson, D., Loewenstein, G., & Cohen, J. (2004). Separate Neural Systems Value Immediate and Delayed Monetary Rewards. Science, 306(5695), 503-507. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.libproxy.wlu.ca/stable/3839330