It’s good to have goals, yet despite your dreams and best intentions, you may lack the motivation to be productive. As your list of things to do grows before you, and gets ever more overwhelming, you distract yourself with pleasurable pastimes and so procrastination ensues. Once your indulgence is over, you’re once again confronted by your goals, and you feel stuck, guilty, and anxious. ‘If only I had the self-discipline to just get it done’, you think to yourself. Many of us may have experienced such frustration more than once, and the reason for this, as well as its solution, lies in neuroscience.
The analytical and impulsive brain
Your analytical mind is often interrupted by the part concerned with your emotions. Herein lies our indecisiveness and lack of motivation as the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system regularly compete with one another.
The brain’s cerebral cortex is responsible for thoughts, language, and consciousness. The prefrontal cortex is concerned with executive function, analysis, and decision-making based on the synthesis of information.
The limbic system is a group of structures in the brain responsible for processing emotions and memories. In his book Neuro-Discipline Peter Hollins describes it as ‘an umbrella term for all the structures that govern our emotions, stress responses, and instinctual drives’.
Neuroscientist Paul MacLean described (in his controversial triune brain theory) the first brain region, the prefrontal cortex, as the neomammalian complex – a structure exclusive to higher mammals. He refers to the second brain region, the limbic system, as the paleomammalian complex – a part of the brain he likened to prehistoric mammals focused on their primal urges.
So, what is the best path to self-discipline in order to attain our goals?
Pleasure and pain
“Every decision we make is based on gaining pleasure or avoiding pain.”– Peter Hollins
The brain seeks pleasure foremost. It seeks to avoid pain, and thus prioritises instant gratification. How we perceive pleasure and pain are powerful drivers in our quest for self-discipline, and often our emotions win over logic. The pleasure principle is a theory of Freudian psychoanalysis which simply states that the human mind does everything to avoid pain and seek out pleasure.
When we experience a reward, or the anticipation of one, dopamine is released. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter linked to self-discipline and is associated with the brain’s mesolimbic pathway, its most vital reward centre. The more dopamine is released, the more pleasure we feel.
Hollins observes that ‘discipline is more or less the definition of a lack of dopamine’, therefore dopamine is directly linked to motivation. Furthermore, you need to ensure that your emotional state allows for self-discipline. If you are stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed your rational, advanced human brain will suffer.
Self-discipline ultimately takes time, commitment, and sacrifice. However, these are not priorities for the paleomammalian brain which craves immediate pleasure. It asks itself ‘what can I gain now that will bring me happiness?’
There is no short-term pleasure that will sufficiently gratify you. Sure, they are out there, but they often come at the expense of our long-term goals.
Consider your future yourself
“With all this in mind, it stands to reason that if we can cleverly manipulate the amount of dopamine we create in our brains, we can be more self-disciplined.”– Peter Hollins
It is possible to outsmart your brain’s automated responses. More importantly, you must start by committing to that one path that will filter out all other distractions and short-term pleasures. You need to accept that success requires a degree of sacrifice.
The list of things that Hollins recommends we let go of are: wanting ‘silver bullets’; fear of missing out; people-pleasing; people who discourage you; multitasking; procrastination; excuses; control; preconceptions; instant gratification; unhealthiness; your comfort zone; pushing yourself too hard; and giving up.
Hollins insists that pushing through these difficult periods will define your future self, whom you are accountable to.
Studies by UCLA professor Hal Hershfield found that people who interacted with their future selves (via virtual reality) were more likely to be concerned with how their present decisions would affect their future. How deeply connected we feel to the consequences of our actions, will determine our commitment to self care, as Hollins explains.
“As we empathise with the fate of our future self and the kind of life it will have to live through if we keep our negative habits up, we begin to feel motivated to change our present ways to be better.”
The next time you feel stuck, consider incremental, attainable goals that will mobilise you towards your loftier goals. Your accomplishments will result in the release of dopamine and keep you motivated and striving towards your intended path.
Your future self will thank you for the self-discipline and sacrifice you exhibit today.