This week we discussed how mindmanager, our brain’s gatekeeper, and overworked executive, can be encouraged to support our goals rather than “sticking us back in front of the tv” of familiarity. But I realized that I hadn’t clearly explained why mindmanager is so persnickety in the first place.

Why can’t we engage with any goal we want, any time we feel like it?

Ok, so first let’s clarify that the thing you want to do is difficult. No one is blocked about things that are easy! “I want to binge on Netflix but every time I sit down to watch, I freak out and disengage,” said (almost) no one, ever.

When things are hard, they involve:

  • Times when you don’t feel like doing it
  • Times when it’s physically or mentally draining to keep going
  • Times when you feel so emotionally vulnerable that you almost can’t stand it.
  • Times when you really, truly just don’t know what to do next

What happens in times like these? Do you dig in and push through? Or do you disengage and check out? This is when mindmanager either needs to be on your side, or you will drop back into familiarity.

Let’s imagine that your mindmanager is busy toiling away in your mindscape. She has SO. MUCH. TO. DO. And here you come with your “great idea.”

“Hey, mindmanager,” you say “can you help me interrupt my habit of not exercising? Instead of immediately sitting down and looking at my email I want to get super sweaty for 30 minutes. Can you help me with that?”

Imagine how annoyed mindmanager is at this moment.

how to overcome procrastination

She’s in the middle of consolidating your memories, surveying your surroundings, and generally making sure you don’t die.

Is she going to also break out the tools necessary to overcome procrastination and disengagement? Tools like concentration, willpower, hard work, creativity, decisiveness, and resilience? These are the tools of productive persistence- that state of staying with things when they are hard- and they take a LOT of mental resources. As such, mindmanger has locked them up in a palace (we’ll call it “the Palace of Productive Persistence,” just to be dramatic) and works just outside the gates… basically, to keep you out.

It’s kind of a weird thing to do when you think about it. These are our best impulses! Our purest efforts at improvement.

Why aren’t we able to access the tools of productive persistence whenever we want to?

For the answer to this question, we turn to brain science. So here’s a little factoid for you: the human brain evolved out of the ape brain, evolutionarily speaking. Some parts of our brain are basically intact- exactly the same as it is in the ape brain (hello lizard brain!). Other parts of our brain have received an update, but the basic functions are the same (hello occipital lobe!).

But one part of our brain- the newest, and arguably the most human part of the brain, is the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is responsible for helping you to make decisions, solve problems, make creative connections, suppress your negative responses, and helping you reframe disappointment into opportunity. Do these things sound familiar?

Yes! These are the same things that are held hostage by mindmanger in the Palace of Productive Persistence!

Now, the interesting thing about your pre-frontal cortex is that it gets tired. Other parts of your brain don’t; your medulla, for example, doesn’t ever get tired of helping you to breathe. But this newer part of your brain does run out of energy.

You’ve probably experienced this over the course of a day.

Think about it: at the beginning of the day, you are large and in charge! You go to the gym, you’re patient with your family and co-workers, and little things (like missing the subway by 10 seconds) don’t get you down. By the end of the day, however, missing that subway makes your blood boil, you’re way more likely to eat a whole box of cookies, and much more prone to yell at some lucky person who lives with you. Whether you realize it or not, you’re much more likely to avoid making decisions and will avoid thinking about new and novel problems like the plague.

Basically, your pre-frontal cortex controls your willpower, and your willpower is seriously limited.

This brings us back to where we started. Mindmanager is in place to protect your willpower from being needlessly wasted.

As we learned yesterday, mindmanager can be convinced to participate when you are

  • in action but also taking breaks (engaged retreat). If you aren’t then you are either stuck in the mud moving too slowly to make any progress or utterly exhausted from the never-ending hustle.
  • excited and committed but also detached from expectations (passionate detachment). If you aren’t then you are either so bored it simply is not worth the effort, or so emotionally plugged in that every time you take an action you trip a circuit breaker and become overwhelmed.

These two (engaged retreat and passionate detachment) create the conditions under which mindmanager CAN participate. If you don’t have them in place, mindmanager simply doesn’t have the resources, and can’t help you.

When you do have them in place, she’s much more interested and available.

About the author

Dr. Amanda Crowell is a cognitive psychologist and business coach who helps accidental entrepreneurs get more clients and have a bigger impact. She is the author of Great Work, the host of the Unleashing Your Great Work podcast, and the creator of the Great Work Journals. Amanda's TEDx talk has received almost two million views and has been featured on TED's Ideas blog and Ted Shorts. Her ideas have also been featured on NPR, Al Jazeera, The Wall Street Journal, Quartz, and Thrive Global.