Updated: Feb 6
It’s a brand-new year and you are going to conquer the world. Way to go! You’re full of optimism, spunk, and determination that this year is going to be different. We are almost a month in--how are you doing? Still going strong?
I’ve been in this situation many times in the new year where there is so much hope and ambition only to find come late January or early February (right about now) I start to wane and go back into my old habits. The determination of the new year fades into the cold, bitter reality we call the Chicago winter. Why is it that year after year it’s so hard to keep our resolutions? You may even be reading this thinking “Psssh…resolutions…I left those a long time ago, they never work!” Well keep reading, maybe it’s not you. Maybe it’s your brain.
The Two Competing Brains
Inside each of us we have two sides of our brain that compete for our attention. Rather than go ultra-technical and make this a snooze-fest, let’s call one side the “thinking brain” and the other the “fun brain.” You’ve made a resolution? Good for you. Thank the thinking brain. The thinking brain is the one that helps us think logically, set big goals, imagine conceptual ideas, and become a better version of ourselves.
Sounds great, right? Well, not so fast. As we learned from Jack Nicholson in The Shining, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Enter stage left: the fun brain. The fun brain is programed to…you guessed it…have fun. The fun brain is much older than the thinking brain and has been having fun for much longer. This means it’s harder to overcome the fun brain with rationale. Think of the fun brain as a hippie at a party who is always chill. The fun brain looks at the thinking brain as an uncool dad. It says to the thinking brain things like, “What happened to you?” and “You used to be cool.” The last thing that the fun brain wants to do is work on changing habits.
Have you ever had a long day at work and KNOW you should go to the gym, but you end up binge watching Netflix for the whole night? Yep. That’s the fun brain in action. Meanwhile, the thinking brain is screaming at you to go to the gym. Bedtime rolls around, and you feel worse because you spent four hours binge-watching the last ten seasons of Mad Men and didn’t do what you knew you should.
We were so determined. What happened? We unwittingly set ourselves up for a psychological mutiny, led by none other than Captain Fun Brain.
We know we can’t go full force at our resolutions/goals because we’ve tried that for too many years, and it hasn’t worked. So, what do we do? Make peace with the thinking brain and fun brain. If we only focus on our goals, we want to achieve we’ll get fatigued and the fun brain will take over. How do we find a good balance? Work with the Captain.
Four-Step Process to Achieving Your Goals
Let me explain in a four-step, easy-to-use process how you and Captain Fun Brain can make change happen.
1. Choose a goal you’d like to accomplish - Make your goal specific and something you can control. Instead of saying you want to lose weight, say you want to lose 15 pounds in three months. It’s more specific—more tangible. But we aren’t done there. We can’t control how much weight we’ll lose in three months. However, we can control how often we work out. Let’s refine our goal of working out for 30 minutes three times a week.” This is something we can control. If we lose the 15 pounds, great; if we don’t then that’s also ok. By focusing on a goal we can control, sooner or later the weight will come off. Use this same philosophy in your finances too. If we say we want to save enough for retirement, that leave us aimless. Rewrite it to say we want to save an extra $50 a week to put into retirement accounts.
2. Start on your goal – Let’s say your goal is to work out three times a week. Ask what you’ll need to do to accomplish that goal. It’s not as easy as walking to the closest gym and jumping on a treadmill. List the steps you need to take to accomplish the goal. Do you have a gym membership? If not, start there. List what you need to do to make this goal a reality. This is a brainstorming session with the thinking brain. For example, before you even step on that exercise bike, there are several things to consider:
a. Listing gyms around the area you’d like to check out
b. Making appointments with each gym for a tour
c. Doing a dry run to see how long it takes to get to each gym
d. Charting out when you’ll work out each week
e. Creating a plan for what exercises you’ll do each time
f. Finally, executing your plan
3. Don’t forget to reward the fun brain, aka The Captain – Remember the mutiny of Captain Fun Brain? At first, it’s going to be easy to work out, but then the bed seems warmer in the morning, the traffic to the gym seems worse, and the fun brain will whisper in your ear how much better it is to not exercise. To combat this, after accomplishing each task from the list you made in the previous step, stop to reward yourself. And I mean stop…
What does this mean? Let’s continue our example…say you had your brainstorming session. Great!
Watch an episode of The Simpsons. Pour yourself a nice glass of bourbon. Blast your favorite Beatles song on repeat. Relax!
Next, research the gyms around and make a short list of the ones to visit.
Now stop and relax.
If you’re on a roll and you don’t feel like stopping, then keep going, but especially in the beginning, reward, reward, reward. The more we interject fun and relaxation into our goals the less the fun brain mutiny is likely to occur.
4. Track your goals – Now that you are making progress and relaxing along the way there may be a point where you don’t feel like you’re progressing. This is where tracking your progress helps. Create a journal, notebook, excel spreadsheet, whatever, so you can see how far you have come. This will give you added inspiration when the times are the hardest.
That’s it! A four-step method that interjects fun into the noble pursuit of a better you. With this four-step method, your “Captain” will be leading the charge to change.
A Note on Failure
You will fail. Wait, what? I thought this was a motivating post. Now you’re telling me I can’t do it? I know. It’s harsh but it’s true. There will be times when you fall off the proverbial horse. When this happens, take stock to see if you have had enough rewards in your program. Remember, the “fun brain” is going to rebel unless it’s getting the rewards along the way. After you’ve taken stock, know that many people have failed before you. Heck, Thomas Edison created 10,000 light bulbs before he found one that worked. Rather than focusing on failure, frame your mind to think of failure as one step closer to success. I know it sounds like a bunch of mumbo-jumbo but it’s a heck of a lot better than getting down in the dumps because of a fail. Get up and get up again. You got this!