Reprogram Your Brain

Are you using your brain right? As Daniel Kahneman showed, our brains have two thinking systems: A fast system and a slow system. The slow system is for carefully considering situations, and it uses a lot of energy. The fast system provides quick answers in routine situations and uses much less energy.

Our brains have evolved over thousands of years to automatically select which system to use. In every situation, the fast system gets the first try. In 98% of all cases, the fast system comes up with what it thinks is a good answer, and doesn’t even ask the slow system.

Fortunately, you can use the slow system to re-program the fast system. To change your behavior, think about a situation in advance and tell yourself what you want to happen. Your fast system might automatically say yes when your boss asks you to handle one more ticket today. Tell yourself that next time, you will say that you will do it tomorrow. Simply stating your goal reprograms your fast thinking system to select another response next time.

Talk Nicely to Yourself

How do you talk to yourself? When our actions lead to bad outcomes, we blame ourselves. That is OK if it leads us to reflect on our behavior and do better next time.

But the language we use when we blame ourselves is sometimes much worse than we would ever use with other people. If a colleague breaks the build or drops a production table, we don’t call him stupid. But we might call ourselves stupid. Don’t do that. Talk to yourself at least as politely as you talk to others.

You Can Do More Than You Think

Could you land a plane? Unless you are a flight simulator enthusiast, you probably think you can’t. But if you were in the air and your pilot fell unconscious, you would be able to land the plane. A passenger with no flying experience found himself in that situation above Florida yesterday. With assistance from an air traffic controller, he successfully landed the small aircraft.

Many things we think are impossible really aren’t. Once we start, we find that we can do more than we thought. The important thing is to take action towards the goal. If you take no action today, you are not likely to take any action tomorrow. But if you take one small step today, you are likely to take another tomorrow. The difference between zero actions and one action is huge. Take that one action today.

Add Some Control to Your Life

Are you in control of your life? Many people feel that life is coming at them faster than they can respond. That leaves you with a feeling of being stressed and overwhelmed. That decreases your happiness, negatively impacts your health, and causes you to make worse decisions.

One way to add some control to your life is to start each day by deciding on one task you want to complete that day. If your most important task is one that cannot be solved in a day, you can decide that your task for the day is to work on the larger task for one hour. Agile teams start their day with a stand-up because it works. You can do your own personal stand-up, too.

Create a Breathing Habit

How is your breathing? Now you might notice it. But most of the time, your breathing just happens. Try taking a few deep breaths. Notice how you feel calmer.

Breathing is interesting because there is a direct two-way connection between your breathing and your emotional state. Your stress level affects your breathing, but your breathing also affects your stress level.

To make sure you remember to take some time to breathe deeply, connect breathing with something you already do. Find some action you take several times a day, and take a few deep breaths before you do it. For example, whenever you pick up your coffee mug for a refill, hold the mug while you take three deep breaths. Getting some good breathing into your life will reduce stress.

Experiment on Yourself

Many self-trackers run science experiments on themselves. You should, too. I don’t recommend injecting yourself with strange drugs from the internet. I am talking about making changes to your diet and tracking the outcome.

Science has shown that improved diet can have as much effect as the latest innovation from the pharmaceutical industry. To improve your life, try an experiment.

Like Newton and Da Vinci, you’ll need a notebook. For one week, write down how you feel. That is your baseline. Then make a simple diet change. You already know what a better diet looks like. For example, you can replace an unhealthy snack with nuts and raisins. Continue writing down how you feel. After a few weeks, examine your notes and see if you feel better than the baseline before you made the change. If you do, great! Keep the change. If you don’t feel any improvement, that doesn’t mean the experiment failed. It means the experiment was successful and you proved that this change was not right for you. Make another change and repeat the experiment.

Use science to improve your life!

You Need 8,000 Steps per Day

You don’t need 10,000 steps a day. But 8,000 steps a day cuts your risk of dying prematurely by 40%. A big meta-study published in The Lancet gathers data from 15 large studies. They conclude that mortality – your risk of dying in any given month – at 8,000 steps is only 40% of that at 5,000 steps. Every 1.000 steps above 5.000 give you a 10% improvement.

If you believe you already take 8,000 steps per day, I have bad news for you: You don’t. Most people significantly overestimate their activity level. There is only one way to know and increase your number of steps: Count them. Get an app for your phone, or use a smartwatch or fitness tracker. Set a goal of 8,000 steps and find a way to track your progress. You will find that it also improves your productivity and your mood.

Focus on the Action

You control the effort, not the results. If you want to change your life, you can take action today. There is no guarantee where your actions take you – your environment, other people and chance all play a part, too.

That is why the focus of your daily review before bed should be on the action you took today, not the results you experienced.

Save Energy Using Boxes

Every item in your field of vision costs you energy. Brain scans show that the automatic effort of filtering out irrelevant objects takes power, and the more items you look at, the worse your focus becomes.

You need to see fewer objects. You don’t have to throw anything out (though that is probably good, too). Simply take a number of items that have some relation to each other and put them in a box. 12 USB cables and 7 memory sticks become one object when they go into a box.

Throwing random objects into a box doesn’t trick your brain, however. Looking at a box you know contains random junk actually costs more energy, because now your brain is also thinking about the task of getting the stuff out of the box and sorting it.

Get out a box and remove some clutter from your field of vision. You’ll find that your energy increases. You just might even get around to that task you have been putting off for weeks.

Stop Speaking While You Think

Do you, like, use too many, like, filler words? Sitting in a coffee shop in New York a few weeks back, I noticed that every fifth word in New York English is “like.”

Research shows that people who use more filler words are considered less intelligent, and their arguments are considered weaker. So it’s a good idea to get rid of your filler words. Here is an exercise: Record yourself on your phone speaking on any topic for one minute. Listen to the recording and count how many filler words you use per minute. Like, uh, ah, um, er, well. If you use more than one, you should improve.

Now record yourself again for one minute, this time making an effort to simply say nothing when you need to think. Pause and think instead of just babbling a filler word. People who pause while speaking are considered more intelligent. Listen to your recording and count your filler words. Hopefully, you have fewer. Also, notice that a pause of one second – the time normally filled with a useless word – is not a problem at all for the listener.