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Overcoming The Tyranny Of The "Lizard Brain"

Why is it so tempting to procrastinate when faced with an otherwise simple task? Even if you have the skills, knowledge, experience, resources and even a great motivation to accomplish the task, there is something that can sabotage your best intentions, and before you know it, there goes another blown promise or missed deadline…

The culprit lies within the deepest recesses of our brain, in a primitive organ – the amygdala. This “lizard brain” is the centre of our basic emotions: fear, anger and sexual desire.

If fear exists is because it the amygdala senses a threat to our survival. Since the beginning of evolution, our natural fear reflex helped us to either avoid or react to the often fatal dangers we faced.  But does this visceral reaction still serve us well in our modern environment?

Consider the to-do list of the solopreneur. Instead of sabre-toothed tigers, what do we avoid out of fear? Tax returns, sending invoices or making payments, calling a client, going to a networking event … Objectively, none of these situations is potentially lethal, but something triggers the lizard brain, flooding the conscious brain with its fear response.

Afraid of what, exactly? The lizard brain does not like the unknown. Taking risks is anathema to the amygdala, because it seeks security in the known, the comfortable, the familiar. So, whenever there is uncertainty, the lizard brain triggers the flight reaction.

For me, I notice that my lizard brain is in full control of me when all of a sudden I’m sleepy in the middle of the day. Another symptom is a tension in my legs, as if I had to flee quickly. And the third element of evidence for me is a sudden desire to eat, especially something sweet.

The fatigue, the desire to flee and sugar are avoidance behaviors that tell me that my “lizard brain” is dominating my thinking. I can be totally aware this is happening, but I’m powerless to do anything about about it, because I’ve let myself become a spectator to my primitive self…

But is it true that I’m powerless? What can I do to dominate the fear response and regain control, so I can overcome the block and create the results I want?

A simple approach is to ensure to reduce or avoid the unknown or the uncertainties. Remove the risk, and the lizard brain goes back to sleep. Here is a simple strategy to do it:

1. Take the time to create a blueprint to guide you through the task. This blueprint should break the big task into smaller pieces, doable in 15 to 30 minutes each. Reducing the size of the actions reduces the uncertainty, because it is easier to see to the other side of the task.  In addition, a detailed plan provides allows the emotional brain to “rehearse success” – quelling the fear response and giving room to the logical mind so it can take control, even briefly.

2. Do one small action at a time, according to a precise schedule. Each action should be scheduled in the calendar, and rigidly controlled in time: do not take more that 15 to 30 minutes for the mini-task. When the action is done, move on to something else that is not as “difficult” to do.

3. Celebrate progress. Whenever you have done the action step, give you a small reward – something you love. But make sure your rewards do not become a distraction!

For example, if the “impossible” task is writing a blog entry, my plan is:

a. do a brainstorming of topics and write them in a list, without prioritizing. No ideas what to write? Surf on over to your favorite blogs and write down the subjects of the last four or five posts without necessarily reading the whole text. Don’t worry, this is allowed and even encouraged, as long as you refer back to the post that inspires you.
b. choose two or three of these subjects and break each one down four or five points for each subject – whatever comes to mind. If nothing comes to mind, move to the next subject.
c. choose one of these expanded topics, and for each point, write two or three sub-points
d. you now have a good outline for your post. Link the sub-points together and it’s done!

Allocate 15 to 30 minutes for each action, and the space them out by one to two hours during the day – this is how I wrote this note starting in the morning from a blank screen.

Whatever task you’re trying to avoid out of fear, remember: it doesn’t need to be perfect – it just needs to be done.

And the more you get used to producing, the more comfortable it gets for your lizard brain. Your task moves from the unknown into your comfort zone.

Remember that your lizard brain thrives on fear. Learn to side-step it and you will become a better producer – and you will be better able to create the future you really want!

For more information

Inspired by a note from Seth Godin

This idea appears to be part of Seth Godin’s new book “Linchpin: Are You Indispensible?http://www.amazon.com/Linchpin-Are-Indispensable-Seth-Godin/dp/1591843162 (no affiliate)

Photo credit: Image by lostartist on Flickr . Use permitted by Creative Commons CC BY-ND 2.0

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