The title has a big promise, I know. But, after having struggled through nearly nine months of stay-at-home with a 13-year-old, fighting over homework, competing for wifi bandwidth, trying to hold my job together on Zoom, preparing what seems like ten meals a day, and keeping the house from looking like a cyclone just hit it, I’d try anything.
Which is what I told coach Wendy Hart when I was at about wit’s end. How come I can never get a handle on the work I need to get done, and more importantly, the big goals I set for myself? And how come I can’t motivate my son to be on top of his stuff either?
Wendy explained it to me this way. The fact that we don’t accomplish the tasks we set for ourselves has nothing to do with motivation, and everything to do with our brains. Every single thing that we put off, everything that we dread, means our caveman brain has associated danger to it.
And when our caveman brain has linked danger to it and we nevertheless try and do it, there are roughly 1400 chemical responses, and 30 hormonal changes that happen in an instant -- a chemical cascade that goes through our bodies causing a lump in our stomach, and making it really difficult to move forward.
Seemingly simple tasks like folding the laundry, picking up the socks, balancing our bank accounts, or answering our email become as challenging to accomplish to our lower brain as climbing Mt. Everest.
Our upper brain, the prefrontal cortex, on the other hand can’t fathom why we can’t accomplish something we’re supposed to do, or say we’re going to do, and it proceeds to blame and shame.
The fact that you’re not accomplishing what you want to, and that your kids aren’t either, is not your fault. And as I’m sure you’re aware, blaming and shaming does no one any good.
As you probably remember from high school physiology class, the brain has three parts, the lower brain or brain stem that is always on the lookout for danger — the fight or flight mechanism, the middle brain that regulates the emotions, pain and pleasure, and the third or top brain, affectionately called our thinking brain. The top brain or prefrontal cortex is the seat of logic and reason. Our top brain can intellectualize what we should do, and can berate us when we don’t do it, but the power to do it is hijacked by the lower two brains, and their cascade of chemicals.
Sure we can try and use the willpower of the top brain to achieve what we’ve been putting off, but it’s about as effective as making your child do her homework by picking her up, placing her at her desk, and forcing a pencil in her hand.
Everything we push against creates friction. We fight against ourselves to get things done. And that's not a fun way to go through life. Getting things done, accomplishing our tasks, and helping our children accomplish theirs is not about finding another way to motivate us, but about removing the obstacles that are preventing us from moving forward.
Most of us believe that, left to our own devices, we’d lie on the couch, eat bon bons and binge Netflix all day. So we tell ourselves that, if we could just find the right motivation and stop being lazy, we’d accomplish our dreams.
It’s simply not true. We don’t need more motivation. We have motivation in spades. What we need is to remove the obstacles that keep us from moving forward — the tripwire in our lower brain that assesses danger. Once we get out of our own way, our natural motivation kicks in and propels us in the direction of our dreams, or in the direction of folding the laundry, or for our children, in the direction of completing their homework or picking up after themselves. And, the good news is that it’s simple to do.
Wendy teaches a 7-step recipe known as the Procrastination Cure that tricks your brain into getting things done without triggering the tripwire that shuts it down.
I promised Wendy I wouldn’t give away the entire 7-step recipe which you can find on her website. She did agree however, to let me share one of the tricks.
A simple way to get “unstuck” is to counteract the chemistry of dread with the chemistry of silliness, much like in chemistry class, when you mixed an acid and an alkaline, they neutralized each other. Wendy teaches to put easy buttons, like the ones sold at Staples, all over the house.
Whenever you succeed at anything, even the tiniest task — for instance, let's say your kitchen is a disaster and it’s too overwhelming to clean up, so you just put one fork in the dishwasher — you hit the easy button that says “That was easy,” and do a happy dance. By doing so, you've just created a small but complete neural circuit of intention, follow through, and prizing.
When you hit the “easy button,” you have a lightness. It’s fun. It lights up all the parts of your brain because it’s visual, kinesthetic and auditory, all at the same time. It's visual in that it's a big red button. It's kinesthetic because you have to push it. And it's auditory because you hear the little man's voice say “That was easy.” It's multi-layered input in the brain.
All the while, your brain releases happy chemicals in lieu of the fight or flight chemicals of dread — happy chemicals that are the result of your tiny action, that begin to cement the new circuit into place.
Whenever you’re stuck, break your overwhelming task or project into tiny chunks and hit the easy button over and over and over.
The added benefit to getting things done that you’ve been dreading and the rush of “feel good” chemicals that cascade throughout your body is contagious, especially to your children.
Instead of teaching your children this technique, just start walking around the house, completing tasks, hitting the easy button and celebrating, saying things like, “Hey, I did that” and “Don't I rock?” and “I'm the mom that followed through.” Your kids will eventually ask, What the heck are you doing?
Tell them, “I'm just doing my homework. I have a coach that told me to do this.” That's all you tell them. Be mysterious. And very quickly what happens is they’ll steal the easy button and they'll be in their room doing one math problem. And you hear the button. And the next math problem and you hear the button. And they'll be cleaning up their room and they'll start laughing and hitting the button. And as simple as that is, it's rewiring your child’s brain for success and increased self-esteem.
The easy button works for adults, teenagers, young children and even toddlers. In fact, it’s a great way to turn potty training from an epic battle into a positive and enjoyable experience using easy buttons and positive reinforcement. Every time your child is even the tiniest bit successful, they get to hit the easy button, and laugh and celebrate.
The easy button becomes a reward system that makes your child want to do the things you want them to do. And it's just brain science, but it works. In fact, it works ridiculously well.
As I said above, the easy button is just one part of Wendy’s whole recipe to trick the brain into getting yourself “unstuck” from whatever it is that you’re putting off. It’s one actionable tip that anybody with seven bucks can go change today.
It's not just a good idea and fun, but you're changing the chemistry in your body by doing so. And you're teaching your caveman brain to have a different response to danger. Because, let’s face it, most of the tasks we dread — like paying our bills or calling a business prospect — are not really dangerous at all.
When we work with our brain chemistry and not against it, not only are we able to follow through and get our tasks done, but the effects can spill over onto our children — not by telling them what to do, but by modeling it.
In short order, our kids will be doing their homework, fighting with their siblings far less, and cleaning up their rooms. Their self-esteem will increase and their grades will improve. And above everything, they’ll have learned an alternative response to discomfort that allows them to address problems rather than avoid them. I’d call that priceless.
For more information about Wendy Hart’s Procrastination Cure, go to: http://procrastination-cure.com/
This post comes from the TODAY Parenting Team community, where all members are welcome to post and discuss parenting solutions. Learn more and join us! Because we're all in this together.