Grimble has a funny name, but he still has dreams. These are the heights that Grimble would like to reach in life:
- Enjoy a muscular, tone, and healthy body
- Become a world class programmer and software developer
- Become the President of the United States
If Grimble could do these things, he’d be pretty satisfied with himself. But Grimble does these things instead:
- Licks his fingers after the last cheese ball is finished
- Is a world class video game addict
- Talks about Donald Trump on Facebook for two hours a day
Grimble, I’m sorry, but you won’t reach your goals with that behavior.
Why We Do What We Don’t Want to Do
Doing what you want to do is basically the goal of life. If you can do what you want to do, then you can develop any of the skills and behaviors you’d like to develop to get you where you want to go in life. The problem is that not many of us are actually good at doing what we want to do. This is because we have competing systems within us that want different things.
When I say “do what you want to do,” I’m referring to the smart part of you—your prefrontal cortex! The prefrontal cortex is the front part of the brain’s frontal lobe, and it is the manager. It takes care of conscious thinking and logistics. It’s the part of you that can consider where you want to be in five years and how to get there.
There’s another part of you that wants primal stuff: food, sex, sleep, and cheese balls (in that order). That part of you is subconscious. It’s the dumb jock of your brain. While dumb in many ways, it’s strong as $#@%. So we have the classic battle of prefrontal brains vs. subconscious brawn. Any time you find yourself doing whatever you would rather not do (eat cheese balls), it’s because your subconscious has your prefrontal cortex in a
In any brains vs. brawn battle, the brains should win, but only if they can alter the fight so that it’s not a physical contest. If your prefrontal cortex were really smart, it’d find a way to avoid the brainlock.
Solving the Cheese Ball Mystery
Why do you think Grimble easily eats cheese balls but struggles to work on his software? You could say that one is work and the other is play, but that’s a shallow analysis. Look deeper. Grimble has a drastically different approach to these two behaviors.
When Grimble sees a bucket of cheese balls, what does he think?
- “Essentially, atomic weight is the measurement of the total number of particles in an atom’s nucleus.”
- “If I am to approach the bucket of cheese balls, I must consume the entire bucket.”
- “Eat. Food. Good. Yum. Cheese. Good. Yes. Good. Good.”
He’s going to think some version of #3. And guess what? It works! He eats (many) cheese balls!
When Grimble has the idea to practice programming, what does he think?
- “What planet is Mars on?”
- “I should do six hours of this today. This is so important. This is my dream! It’s going to be tough. PRESSURE!!!!!!”
- “Programming. Write three lines of code? Good. Try now.”
He’s going to think some version of #2. He will think about the importance of the work, the difficulty of the work, and the pressure to live out his dream. This intimidates him, and creates a large amount of internal resistance to do the work. And why does this intimidate him? Grimble resists programming because unlike cheese balls, his subconscious isn’t comfortable with it and prefers to do other things. Whenever you feel resistance to do something, it’s because your subconscious desires something else. (click to tweet)
His subconscious is saying, “Grimble, you fool! You can eat cheese balls and discuss Donald Trump on Facebook! It’s easier and more fun!”
Winning The Internal War
Some people don’t like the idea that they have a war going on inside of them. They want to see themselves as being in harmony. But this isn’t a matter of creating a war, it’s a matter of recognizing a natural, internal conflict that everyone has with goals that are foreign to their subconscious habits and preferences.
The good news is that with the right strategy, you can end this war. What’s the best way to neutralize an enemy? Make them join you! When your conscious and subconscious desire the same thing, there is no longer a conflict and you’ll have internal harmony. You’ll do the things you want to do.
In order to get your subconscious mind to desire the same thing as your conscious mind, you have to train it. But in order to train it, you have to outsmart it. You have to win every battle of desire.
A Cunning Strategy From the Master, Sun Tzu
Sun Tzu, one of history’s most revered war generals, wrote a book called The Art of War. It is considered to be a masterpiece in strategy. Perfect. We need strategy, and within Tzu’s book is a quote that contains our answer:
“Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.”
Feigning weakness or strength is one of the most cunning moves a person can make in any conflict.
Feigning weakness is the right choice in this case. It has the effect of disarming your opponent. It gives them a false sense of security.
Like the software programs that Grimble makes, the human subconscious is predictable in how it behaves and responds. Your prefrontal cortex is a powerful manager, but it’s an energy hog, which is why our subconscious takes over when we’re tired or stressed. The prefrontal cortex can interrupt subconscious operations with “manual overrides,” but in the long run, the subconscious runs the show. This subconscious internal machine is a critical way that we save and manage our energy.
Since the subconscious plays such a key role, we need to understand what it wants. It wants consistency. The nature of the subconscious is that it hates change and likes things that are easy and familiar. This means it’s sensitive to changes you suggest. This is why we feign weakness—it disarms the knee-jerk resistance of the subconscious.
To feign weakness to your subconscious and win every battle, alter your suggested action. In the Grimble example above, he thought of a grueling and intense programming session, and then loaded even more pressure and importance on top of that. He asked for a lot. Unsurprisingly, this immediately elicited a powerful counterattack from his subconscious. Knockout. He lost.
There was another option, however, that would evoke a completely different response from his subconscious. Option #3 for Grimble’s programming task was “Programming. Write three lines of code? Good. Try now.” This, as you may notice, is the same type of “caveman language” Grimble thought when he saw the bucket of cheese balls! In more ways than just syntax, it matches the language of the subconscious; it’s low pressure and sounds easy. If this is a battle, the subconscious looks at the conscious mind and says, “Really? That’s your request? Okay, sure, but afterwards, we’re eating all the cheese balls. The entire bucket will be gone. Muahaha!”
Hours later, you’ve programmed quite a bit. You’ve won the battle. Even better, your subconscious thinks IT won. The truth? You both won. You accomplished your goal in a way that didn’t alienate your subconscious desires.
The Big Picture
Zooming out, can you see what’s made procrastination an epidemic in modern society? We’ve been taught to make our short-term and long-term goals very BIG and IMPRESSIVE and IMPORTANT.
This is dumb.
Big changes are a THREAT to your subconscious mind. Any threat to the norm generates serious internal resistance. You may win the battles for a time, but remember that in the long run, your subconscious runs the show. It will outlast you like Rocky Balboa.
If you want to change your behavior, disguise your goals as cheese balls! (click here to tweet this)
The next time—ANY time—you feel internal resistance to do something, think about the cheese balls. Think about how easy it is to eat one, and figure out how to create that same feeling with your goal by shrinking it. Goal achievement is a math equation of your ability against your internal resistance. Most people try to increase their ability through superficial motivational tactics. This is like a weakling puffing out his chest (feigning strength). As Tzu suggests, this could work against a dynamic opponent by intimidating them, but the subconscious is not dynamic. It plays its role regardless of your plans. It may wait in the wings as you “take charge,” but once it sees you faint from exhaustion, it catches you and does its job, which is to make you eat cheese balls (because you didn’t train it to do anything else!).
There’s not actually a war between your conscious and subconscious, it only feels that way when you think in the traditional way. By asking for too much too fast, you’re betraying the nature of your brain. Your conscious and subconscious are on the same team, and it’s in your best interest to keep them that way. Simplify your objective. Make it smaller. You can scale it higher later. Starting is only the hardest part because people tend to tire themselves out with requirements before they do anything.
The most life-changing skill you can learn? Make starting the easiest part. 1