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Your lizard brain on vacation: How environment builds the brain

Have you noticed how certain habits and routines change when you change your surroundings, for example, when you go on vacation? Your environment constantly shapes your brain and your habits whether you are aware of it or not.

In his book “Situations Matter,” Sam Sommers argues that by understanding the powerful influence that context has in our lives and using this knowledge to rethink how we see the world, we can be more effective at work, at home, and in daily interactions with others.

Today, I bring you my observations about the power of environment to change our habits from the beautiful island of Providenciales in Turks and Caicos, where my daughter and I have recently spent a blissful week of vacation.

By | 2017-05-05T15:00:44+00:00 May 5th, 2017|Brain, Peak Performance, Perception|0 Comments

Stewing is worse than doing: How to overcome procrastination and overwhelm

Do you ever feel overwhelmed and exhausted by all the things you need to do? And when you feel overwhelmed, do you sometimes complain, procrastinate and not take any action at all (or spend hours on social media)?  And all this time, you are building resistance. You are not alone. Many people can relate to this experience. Resisting and complaining sap your energy. Whenever you feel the build-up of resistance, you want to stop and think about how you can transform that inner resistance into strength and action.

Stewing is worse than doing.

What causes procrastination?

There may be several causes of procrastination. Here are some common reasons why people procrastinate:

  • Poor time management habits;
  • Feeling of overwhelm;
  • Perfectionism;
  • Resistance to the task itself or other people’s expectations;
  • Lack of focus, purpose, or commitment;
  • Lack of confidence;
  • Indecisiveness;
  • Fear of failure;
  • Fear of success.

So, how do you move from the state of being “stuck” and resistant to acceptance and action?

You have to find your “tapas,” and I am not talking about Spanish appetizers here, albeit delicious.  I am talking about one of the Niyamas in yoga – habits and practices of healthy living. The word “tapas” in Sanskrit  means heat. You need to build your inner fire of enthusiasm and self-discipline strong enough to burn off any causes of procrastination above. Just like you engage the core muscles in your body to maintain balance, power and control, the following six-pack practices will help you build your mind muscle and start moving forward.

1. Visioning.  Connect your project to your core goals and values. Why is it important in the long term?  How will it help you become a better version of yourself? What are the potential rewards of your labor? Enthusiasm can grow as you become more engaged in the task. What can help you get into the state of flow?

You can also purposefully generate some external pressure to help your build your inner fire.  Talk to people who can motivate you for action. Make public commitments to get things done by certain dates. When other people expect to receive something, you will be more likely to deliver on that promise. Time constraints may be a good thing as they can drive creativity. Create a schedule and a routine around the activities you need to do. Remember that the brain loves patterns and routines. Make sure that your new patterns include a cue to get yourself started and periodic rewards to keep going. This cue – action – reward cycle is at the core of habit formation. What will you do for fun to reward yourself for your great work? Think of little rewards you can give yourself when you complete each part of a longer project.

2. Assessing progress. Organize your thoughts and assess your progress objectively. Mentally run down the list of burning questions you must address. Here are a few favorites to get you started:

  • What needs to be done?
  • Why would it be desirable to do those things?
  • What have you already accomplished that will help you move forward with this project?
  • What do you need to know to complete this project?
  • What kinds of resources and help will you need when you start working on the project?
  • What’s the next action step?

Write out your answers. Writing brings clarity, calmness and objectivity to the mind. Notice any shifts in your mental and emotional states once you have done the exercise.

3. SMART goal setting. Create a plan or action. Define objectives, deadlines, and milestones for your project. It’s time to set SMART goals:

  1. Specific
  2. Measurable
  3. Achievable
  4. Realistic (but don’t be afraid to stretch yourself)
  5. Time-defined

Try a three-tier structure for your goals: the theme, the goals to support your theme, and the steps to accomplish your goals.

Your theme can be the big reason behind the project, the main aspect of it, or the crucial learning and development point. The theme helps to unify the parts of the project, provide additional motivation and momentum to move forward.

Break your project into well-defined goals that will serve as the milestones for your work. When deciding upon goals, make them big enough to really stretch your comfort zone. We often underestimate what we can achieve.

Picture the benefits you gain from completing your goals. Visualize the outcomes. How would you know you have accomplished your objective? How will it feel to succeed? Capture your best reasons on paper and return to them when you need extra motivation.

Identify the cost of your goals. Each goal comes with a price tag. What do you have to give up for the opportunity to achieve your goals? Identify those trade-offs and decide if you are truly willing to pay the price.

Prioritize and eliminate inconsistent goals. The goals we set often compete for our time, effort, and resources. It’s important to know the priority of your goals and check for conflicting objectives. You may be as passionate about visiting Italy as you are about traveling to Bali, but you can’t be in two places at the same time. You must choose.

Set a deadline for each of your goals.

Schedule regular intervals to revisit your goals and track your progress.

Finally, divide your goals into smaller tasks or steps, giving each task a target date for completion as well. These steps will give you a clear picture of what you should be working on at any given time.

4. Mental rehearsal. Use procrastination to brainstorm and mentally “rehearse” the project. Give yourself permission to come up with bad ideas and don’t filter anything. Your unrestrained imagination may lead you to innovative solutions. You can also use this time to create a mind map of your project. Those of you with a perfectionist streak may find it therapeutic to produce something fast without worrying too much about quality. Remember, it’s just a rehearsal. That way, you will have something to build on and improve later.

5. Gamification. To make your project more enjoyable, bring in some game elements. Schedule periodic rewards to have something to look forward to. Find a way to get more feedback about your performance by soliciting it from your network or sharing some ideas on social media.  Make sketches, draw or doodle to find new creative ways to present information. Take time to daydream as it is associated with increased creativity. Change your surrounding and try working in a coffee shop or park to bring some fresh sensory experiences to your brain. Look for the sources of inspiration.

6. Staying energized. You want to keep your inner fire burning without getting burnt out. Give yourself extra time to plan for any unforeseeable delays.  Make sure you get a good amount of sleep. Your brain needs oxygen and nutrients for optimal performance. Both nutrition and exercise directly affect the quality of your thinking. Rest, walks, meditation, listening to music help to recharge your brain. Self-care is not a luxury, it is a prerequisite of productivity.

How do you build your tapas, or inner determination, to stay on course?

Happy Valentine’s Day!

The person who has your heart is you.

The person who has your brain is also you.

This Valentine’s Day, take the time to celebrate you.

Give the heart your heart-felt attention.

Open your chest wide with pride,

As you look up at the sky

And see a beaming light

Shining bright from your heart.

Give some love to your brain too.

It’s no heart’s fool.

It’s a useful tool

That sends those feel-good molecules

From the top of your head to the tip of your toe.

It wants a cocktail of oxygen and some good fats to flow

And sparkle with delight as new neurons grow.

Breathe in love, breathe out more love.

Wrap the world in its warmth and glow.

By | 2017-02-14T18:42:40+00:00 February 14th, 2017|Brain, Yoga|0 Comments

The word play ritual to spell release, intention and surrender

As the year end is getting closer, people take time to reflect on the months past and set their vision for the future. Today, I offer you a ritual that can bring more creative play to this process. Words, rituals and play captivate the brain in their own unique ways and facilitate transformation. Words can cause the brain to create a vivid and real experience of whatever these words represent to us.  Rituals tap into the predictive power of the brain to set expectations and rewire the brain to give commands in accordance with such expectations.  Play liberates our creative spirit, silences the inner critic, and allows us to see a broader range of possibilities and solutions.

The ritual below is a form of contemplative practice, so it should not be rushed. You may have heard that the popularity of coloring books for adults have grown over the past years because they help people release stress. Coloring is easy and gives an opportunity for the mind to wander. In addition, research suggests that using your hands to write or do crafts, like knitting, for example, also benefits the brain. The word play ritual offers the same benefits but in a more personal and creative way. Children can have fun with it too.

It is inspired by nature and the change of seasons. While trees let go of the leaves and stay bare in their dreamy rest through the winter, our human cycle of activity tends to speed up during the holiday season.  Amidst this hustle and bustle, it is useful to find a practice that can bring us to the roots, ground and center our energy. As leaves decompose in nature to fuel the growth of plants in the Spring, our dry plant ink will help us let go of anything that is no longer needed and cultivate the quiet intention for the transformation we want to bring into our lives.

You begin by preparing your dry plant ink. For my ink, I used dry rose petals, chamomile flowers and lavender flowers that I often use to brew teas.  Dry herbs, spices, tea leaves are all good options. You can crumble the dry plants with your hands or use a rolling pin.

I like to collect my dry plant ink into a mesh sachet bag. I may even through a few of my favorite crystals into the mix.  When not in use, you can keep such sachet on your desk for its beautiful aroma, which will serve as another reminder to your brain of your set intentions. (The sense of smell is the only one of the five senses directly linked to the limbic system – the center of emotions in the brain.)

For your project, you will also need a surface to work on, such as a sheet of paper or a canvas. Instead of a pen, I roll a paper cone to spread my dry plant ink on the surface. You can just use your fingers to spell the words too. I have a little paint brush and a broom to help me along.

Once you have everything ready, it is time to think of the words that represent something that you want to release. For example, I chose to spell the word “fear” as something to let go of. I “sit” with this word and the feelings it may stir in me as I spell it with my dry plant ink. As you paint your word, notice what comes up for you in the process. For example, I noticed that I wanted to rush and finish the “unpleasant” word faster. This is not surprising because we want to avoid unpleasant feelings or discomfort associated with them. However, I chose to slow down and make it beautiful nonetheless. Those negative feelings are there for us to warn or alert us to something. They are worthy to be acknowledges and accepted for what they are.

Once the word is completed, take time to appreciate it before you let it go. I sweep it with my tiny broom. You can mix it up with your hands or even blow it away. This represents the impermanent nature of our emotions. We can move from one mental state to another.

Now is the time to pick up a new positive word that represents something you want to focus on or bring more of into your life.  You use the same dry plant ink to transform the negative into the positive as you invite the lessons of your negative experience to fuel the positive change. Savor the time and the process as you spell your positive word. Notice what comes up for you now. My positive word ended up much bigger and fuller than my negative word. I added more ink to complete it. Keep it as long as you wish before you feel it is time to return it back into the sachet bag and breathe in its lingering aroma. I left mine on my daughter’s desk for now as a surprise when she comes back from school. Perhaps, it will inspire her to paint her own.

Try it and let me know how it goes. Maybe, you will want to share your picture too.

I wish you a happy and peaceful holiday season!

[UPDATE] This is what I got back from my daughter 🙂

By | 2016-12-21T12:49:31+00:00 December 20th, 2016|Brain, Change, Communication, Creativity, Learning|0 Comments

Your fear of pubic speaking may be influenced by who you choose to look at when you speak

Our brains are wired to pay more attention to negative clues and threats in the emotions-caricaturesenvironment. This is also true in the context of public speaking, especially for speakers who may experience social anxiety.

In a recent study, participants – some low in social anxiety, some high – were asked to give a three-minute impromptu speech over Skype to an audience shown onscreen. What the participants didn’t know is that the audience was made up of actors who produced facial expressions and body movements on purpose.  In fact, their positive (smiles and nods), negative (frowns and yawns) or neutral expressions had been recorded earlier and  were shown to the participants as they spoke. The researchers tracked the participants’ eye movements as they gave their speeches, recorded their physical anxiety via sweating and heart rate, and asked them to rate how anxious they felt.

It turned out that speakers with higher social anxiety showed a preference for looking at negative audience members, which fueled their anxiety even more.  In contrast, people with low social anxiety chose to look at positive, engaged audience members.

To calm your nerves, it may be worthwhile to pick out some friendly faces in the audience and deliberately pause there longer as your eyes scan the room.

Better yet, meet some of your audience members in advance of your speech, perhaps, by greeting them as they enter the room.  You will feel more support from the audience that way.

Virtual platforms and networks offer another way to get to know your audience prior to your presentation.