Two Minds

There was an interesting article in the SMH today about dieting, habits and willpower.

I liked the way it described the disconnect between the conscious and unconscious brains in terms of building habits.

1. You have two minds…

Let’s start with a simple exercise: close your eyes and then try to remember all the details of the place where you are and the people around you (if there are any). ….

The question is not how much you could remember. Rather, the point is that you did not decide to remember some things and forget other things.

There is a part of your mind that operates in your nonconscious – that simply stores some things in your memory and not others without you even being aware of it. But this mind does a lot more. To give you just one more example, it manages all your organs – your liver, digestive system, kidneys, heart, breathing and so forth – without you being aware of this happening.

While you don’t know what’s going on in your nonconscious mind you are aware of what you are thinking about when you make a plan – you wonder whether you should or shouldn’t do something, try to make sense of something, or when you decide to lose weight.

This is an important point: we all have a mind that does a lot of things – in fact completes thousands of tasks concurrently without us being aware of it – and we have a mind that allows us to consciously think about things.

We could name these the ‘Doing Mind’ and the ‘Thinking Mind’. …our ‘Doing Mind’ has evolved over some 4 to 5 million years, while our ‘Thinking Mind’ developed only some 80,000 to 100,000 years back.

2. Making a decision to lose weight is not enough…

Now it gets interesting: when you decide to lose weight you are using your ‘Thinking Mind’. And when you set yourself a specific goal (I plan to lose … kg by…) you use your ‘Thinking Mind’. But your ‘Doing Mind’ has no idea what you are thinking about.

It just goes on doing what it does best, namely helping you to survive in a hostile natural environment – a challenge it has been designed to address and the way it has served humankind for much of the last 4 to 5 million years.

Now imagine you are going on a diet. Your ‘Doing Mind’ interprets the lower intake of food as a sign of danger. After all, this mind is supposed to help you survive in a hostile environment and eating as much food as you can get is a key survival strategy. So the more you are trying to diet the more your ‘Doing Mind’ is pushing you to eat.

As your ‘Doing Mind’ is much more powerful and faster than your ‘Thinking Mind’ it should be quite obvious as to which mind will win this battle.

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Boost your willpower
• Sleep allows you to replenish your willpower so make sure you get plenty of it if you can.
• Alcohol depletes your willpower so take it easy on that front.
• Making decisions depletes your willpower, so try to develop routines and habits that eliminate the need to make decisions.

Manage stress
• …. learn a relaxation exercise that allows you to relax more deeply. Do the same relaxation exercise every time you get stressed.
• By repeating the same intervention every time you are ‘training’ your brain to respond.

Change bad habits
• Habits are driven by your nonconscious mind – you don’t think about them…

Habits is a topic that fascinates me (here). I have read lots of books on it, but still I like this article for succinctly describing the challenge we all face when changing habits.