Is there something that you need to do that has routinely blocked you? Tax returns that need to be filed, starting an exercise routine, cleaning up your house? Taking on that “super important” project at work that intimidates you in some way?
In this day and age, success is most often defined by what we can accomplish in our daily lives. We only have so much time. How we use that resource and how efficiently we apply ourselves to meet our goals can lead to a sense of satisfaction, self-agency, self-confidence and yes, even self-esteem.
But what if I told you that the biggest tool to achieving your goals is within your reach? What if your greatest challenge is you? The truth is, your thoughts and feelings have a strong hold over us. They determine what goals you pursue, which dreams you label as “unrealistic”, and others you’re not so sure about that you simply ignore.
More often than not, we push our dreams aside because of anxiety and fear. We are afraid to try because we cannot bear the thought of failing. Society has conditioned us to believe that failure can define you. No one wants to be a “loser”. If you continue to fail, your self-worth and self-confidence will plummet leading to feelings of frustration if not despair.
Fear develops because people feel vulnerable and insecure about how they function. Because of this, we are afraid to take on new challenges that could potentially lead to greater growth and success. Instead, we use procrastination and the underlying psychological defense of avoidance to protect us from feelings that we think we can’t handle but ultimately get in the way of meeting our goals.
First, a little about our psychological defense system. We all employ psychological defenses to manage our everyday lives. Denial, repression, splitting, sublimation, intellectualisation, rationalisation—and avoidance-- are just some of the defenses we use to protect ourselves. If we rely on them too much, as in the case of a parent who is in denial of his son’s addiction problem and therefore fails to get him the treatment that he needs, these defenses become dysfunctional and create a secondary problem. This is often the case with avoidance.
We avoid something that we are uncomfortable about and we leave it there (for the time being). But we never come back to facing the original task. Avoidance cuts off that healthy initiative to face challenges. In this way, avoidance becomes a habit. We begin to apply it to a range of tasks and behaviors that make us uncomfortable but for different reasons.
At the root of it, you are afraid of disappointing yourself or finding out something about yourself that you cannot face. But not facing something important can make you feel worse, because at some level you know that you are avoiding it, backing down, turning your back on it or simply not dealing with it. When avoidance eventually becomes a habit, your productivity basically disappears. You feel like you cannot risk doing anything because you are too afraid of taking the emotional risk of falling short of your own expectations.
Regardless of how rich or poor you are or what social class you happen to fall into, no one is exempt from fear and anxiety. In my line of work, I have developed a trademarked technique for performers (such as athletes, musicians, public speakers, actors, dancers, test takers, storytellers, brain surgeons, job interviewers) to help them install a new way of functioning that captures all the characteristics of the flow state. The flow state is a mental state where you’re optimally functioning at the highest level of performance.
This new technique is called Cardio Imagery & Rehearsal is based on the concept of applied or self-directed neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the mind’s ability to stimulate new learning by how you use your brain. For example, when you learn a new language, you change the anatomy of your brain by creating new neural circuits that store that new learning. What if we can rapidly install the new learning that we need to execute a performative task?
Turns out we can!
From my research, I discovered that using moderate cardio exercise on an elliptical trainer or a stationary bicycle (heart rate about 120 to 130 beats per minute), combined with mental imagery (what your optimal functioning would look like), you can essentially program your brain to learn that piece of behavior. As you engage in the cardio exercise, the key is to imagine the task, sport, or role you want to play. Musicians, for example, exercise while imagining the perfect way to play a new piece of music. They may listen to the music they want to perform and then imagine playing it themselves in a way that expresses their creative goals.
When you exercise, more blood is directed into your brain to handle the performative task. Several studies have shown that grade-school students who run around the school track during the first period of school and then begin the academic classes learn more and faster than those students who have not run. If you’re interested in the biology of exercise, read ‘Spark’ by John Ratey, a neuroscientist.
But physical exercise also does something else: it redirects some of that increase in blood flow away from the prefrontal cortex and working memory to the motor parts of the brain. For example, when you’re doing heavy exercise like long distance running or playing a full 90 minutes in a competitive soccer match, your ability to engage in cognitive problem solving becomes limited. The physical task is more demanding at that moment so the brain redirects the blood disproportionally to the motor centers.
The secondary reactions that result from physical activity can be useful in stimulating new learning. First, it stimulates memory recall of unconscious learnings that can come up into conscious awareness. As the prefrontal cortex slows down, it allows the brain to be more open to new ideas and methods to accomplish your goals.
Cardio exercise releases an important protein called Brain-derived Neurotrophic Factors (BDNF). BDNF stimulates the production of new neurons. This is called neurogenesis. The production of new neurons is important because when combined with visualisation and imagery, the neurons become sensitised to the new stimuli. These become the beginning of new neural tracks that hold the new learning.
As exercise creates the optimal environment for your brain to create new learning, we take advantage of the opportunity to install what we need: new behaviours, thoughts, and ideas to increase our productivity in our daily lives. The new neurons created in the process are then wedded to the new behaviour you are trying to learn.
As with any kind of learning—especially complex performative behaviors, practice is key.
We know that repetition of performance behavior – whether it is throwing a football or baseball, or playing a complex orchestral piece – is established science both in the fields of sport psychology and performing arts medicine. We also know that repetition is required, and can build on this by applying some of the new research on learning and memory.
One of the key findings in the learning and memory research is that we forget 75% of what we learn within 72 hours of exposure to the material. Your brain is bombarded with so much information that it cannot take it all in. As a result, it dumps the vast majority of whatever information it is exposed to.
However, if you re-introduce that same material when the memory starts to decline, then the brain realises that the new information is important because it comes up again. Essentially, that new information gets reassigned as more “important” because it is showing up again. The brain then decides that it warrants being moved into long-term memory.
So, the findings can be applied to the goal of rapid learning by reintroducing the behaviour at a specific time that supports that learning.
To reinforce a new behaviour, try using this method every second or third day for three weeks. By the end of the third week, this new behaviour will become your new go-to behavioural script, making it easier to perform the new task.
In addition to installing a new brain script, this technique is ideal for problem-solving. If you exercise in the morning try thinking about the challenges you will be facing that day. While exercising try loosely holding all of the elements of the day in mind. Typically, whatever comes up first as a priority will be a task that needs your attention. But don’t spend all your time focusing on that first issue. Try looking over the whole day and locate new thoughts and ideas about the situations you will be grappling with.
I have worked with people who procrastinate on filing their taxes. Every April, my clients will call me and say, “I cannot do my taxes right now, but I have fifteen days to get this done.” I tell them to then go to the gym, get on an elliptical trainer, and mentally run through all of the steps involved in filing their taxes.
Start with the first steps and see if you can identify what holds you back. Is it a thought or a feeling or a memory in your body? Keep that in mind and just park yourself in the area you’re focused on and let the process unfold. Be patient and be curious. In the case of my tax-anxious client, what comes up is all the reasons why they do not want to do their taxes.
But if they are able to run through the whole process in their minds while exercising, most people find that they are able to go home and complete the task with greater ease. Once they are aware of the real reason behind their avoidance and procrastination, their unconscious problems lose their power and they are more equipped to overcome them and complete their goals.
Your unconscious mind is a reservoir of knowledge. Most people do not realise that they carry around a wealth of knowledge because they have not figured out how to tap into this gold mine. Once you use exercise to bring up the unconscious content into the conscious part of your brain, you can support new learning which will help you complete your tasks.
Many people make the mistake of listening to music while exercising. This is actually counterproductive because unless you are imagining how you can play the piece of music, the music may only serve to distract your brain from your thoughts.
If you are a busy professional, you may be tempted to read a contract or go over your presentation while exercising, but multitasking does more harm than good. It is best to stay focused on the present and use exercise as the time to clear out your mind and prioritise your day. You can accomplish greater things with optimal quality if you are focused on what matters most.
To view the full content, sign up for a free account and unlock 3 free podcasts, power reads or videos every month.
Dr. Patrick Gannon
Clinical & Performance Psychologist