Sometimes we make terrible decisions that can cause havoc in our lives and ruin our ability to live happily for a time. We are too committed to the wrong job or in a toxic relationship for too long. We make bad investments or hang out with the wrong people. Sometimes our failures and mistakes can be traced back at a particular decision or event.
There are instances when our professional and personal inertia can be due to small, almost invisible ways that we behave each day. These micro-decisions, while not significant individually, have a huge impact on our lives.
We often believe that a lack in self-control, such as inattention, procrastination or laziness, is an inherent part of who we are. However, we actually have more control and agency over our impulses than what we realize. Andrew Huberman, a Stanford neuroscientist, says impulse control is not something you have to learn.
Recognizing your “go” and “no-go” functions
Huberman spoke with The Knowledge Project about the impact of the basal Ganglia, a portion of the brain responsible for integrating thought and action, on our daily lives. The ganglia are responsible for integrating thought with action. They regulate dopamine and either push us towards action-oriented “go functions”, such as making breakfast or bed, or inhibit our behavior.
As children, we are taught a lot about “no-go” behavior, such as not interrupting other people and sitting still. However, as we age, our lives revolve around going. You can email, call, instant message, switch between 17 windows in your computer dock and multitask as if your life depends on it.
Huberman says adults have fewer opportunities for practicing interrupting the “go” function. Huberman says that we rarely practice our “no-go” functions, which are just about suppressing behavior. But it is important to suppress our less-productive behaviors if we want our plans to be followed, to complete difficult tasks on time, and achieve long-term goals.
How to exercise your “no-go” muscle
Huberman attempts to have 20-30 “no-go” moments throughout his day in order to strengthen the circuit that controls his impulses. He says that neural circuity is a generic concept. You can create a no-go circuit around your inability to bite your nails. This will carry over to other areas that you want to practice more self-control.
Huberman provided several examples of “no go” situations (which may seem trivial) in your daily life.
Refrain from reaching for your phone. How often do you reach out for it daily? I don’t want you to feel worse about your addiction. Next time you feel bored, stuck, or procrastinating, don’t scroll through social media or surf the news. For at least a moment.
Stick to your plan (aka enforce regimen): If you have a plan, such as a workout routine or a way to run your errands, follow it. Rather than deciding to do something spontaneously and changing it up, it is better to stick to it.
90-minute blocks of work: You can only work for 90 minutes at one time. Resist the temptation to grab a cup of coffee, a snack, or fold laundry. Keep your eyes on the task at hand and use tunnel vision to focus.
You can control your snack intake: Don’t wait until the craving or impulse strikes to get the snack you want. This is not a good option for those in recovery from eating disorders.
Meditation: It’s a great way to build your no-go muscles by forcing yourself to do any mindfulness practice even if you don’t want to.
Huberman advised against becoming neurotically attached these no-go’s but suggested that we use them as practice, such as lifting weights for the brain. As adults, there is no one to supervise us. We are responsible for retraining our neural circuits to interrupt unproductive behavior, such as scrolling and hopping between projects without completing them.
We must keep these no-go circuits honed. There’s so much reward and opportunity for ‘go’ today that we don’t train them. Huberman says, “Pretty soon, you’ll have hours of your day gone that weren’t structured.”