When you want to make a major change – even if it would have a positive impact on your life – a part of your brain called the amygdala gets activated and triggers a fear response.
If you’re facing danger, this fight-or-flight response can save your life, because you don’t have time to methodically analyze the situation. You have to react quickly.
But other times, this fear reaction can prevent you from taking actions that would actually benefit you. Maybe you want to change careers, start your own business or find your ideal life partner. These can lead to greater happiness in your life. But you’re not able to take the steps that will get you there.
What can you do to avoid an “amygdala hijack” – a term coined by Daniel Goleman, the originator of the concept of emotional intelligence – where this part of your brain kicks in and activates fear, essentially preventing a rational response?
I like this solution from Robert Maurer’s book, One Small Step Can Change Your Life:
“Small, easily achievable goals – such as picking up and storing just one paper clip on a chronically messy desk – let you tiptoe right past the amygdala, keeping it asleep and unable to set off alarm bells.”
As you repeat these tiny steps over time, you create new circuits in your brain and build the new habit.
This makes a lot of sense. If you want to lose weight, adjusting one small aspect of your diet usually works better than trying to overhaul all your eating habits at once. To get into an exercise routine, you can find time for just 5 minutes of walking or lifting weights, while the idea of a 30- or 60-minute daily workout might feel overwhelming.
Here are just a few small changes Maurer recommends that will keep your amygdala in check.
1. Ask small QUESTIONS.
You stimulate your brain’s creativity with questions. You just need to make them small so you don’t arouse the fear response. Examples:
- If you’re feeling pessimistic or negative: “What is one thing I like about myself (or my life) today?”
- To get started on one of your goals: “What is one small step I could take to improve my health (or relationships or career)?”
- When you want to address customer service issues: “What is one thing we could do in our company to improve our customer’s experience?”
Mental rehearsal is a great way to prepare in advance for an action you need to take. Athletes do this all the time before they compete. But you might feel uneasy about spending the recommended 20 or 30 minutes doing this kind of visualization.
The solution is to dedicate just seconds to thinking about the change you want to make. The time commitment should be so minimal that you can easily do it every day.
3. Take small ACTIONS.
A surefire way to get moving is to take such a tiny step that it seems trivial…
- Stop overspending by removing just one item from your shopping cart before you check out.
- If your home is messy, set a timer for five minutes and straighten just one small area.
- Get more sleep by going to bed one minute earlier and getting up one hour later.
Baby steps can be the best kind of steps, even for grown-ups.
“When I face the desolate impossibility of writing 500 pages, a sick sense of failure falls on me, and I know I can never do it. Then gradually, I write one page and then another. One day’s work is all that I can permit myself to contemplate.” – John Steinbeck