How different would your life be, after all, if you could get yourself to sleep 8 hours at night, exercise every day, eat healthy foods in the right portions, take time for reflection and renewal, remain calm and positive under stress, focus without interruption for sustained periods of time, and prioritize the work that matters most?
Right now, the vast majority of what we do each day occurs automatically. We’re often triggered, as these authors make vividly clear, by subtle cues we’re not even aware of — a smell, a visual image, a familiar sight. These cues prompt us to move away from any potential pain and discomfort, no matter how minimal, and toward immediate reward and gratification, no matter how fleeting.
The primary role of our prefrontal cortex is to bias the brain towards doing the “harder” thing. Unfortunately, our rational capacity is often overwhelmed by the power of our own most visceral and primitive desires.
We’re often captive to our biochemistry. When the neurotransmitter dopamine is triggered, for example, what we feel is craving, not pleasure. This explains not just why we fall into a range of self-destructive addictions, but also why we don’t take better care of ourselves and make wiser choices day in and day out.
The solution is to learn how to co-opt the more primitive habit-forming regions of our brains, so that rather than reinforcing our negative impulses, they become the soil in which we build positive rituals that serve our long term interests.