Build resilience by hacking your own brain

Serendis logo

By PIp Murphy

September 9, 2020

At Serendis we are working with teams and leaders who are generally incredibly engaged and with great intentions to grow and evolve. However, once they leave our sessions, many find it hard to remain on track. As you can see from the picture I took of the books sitting on the floor next to my desk, I’m obsessed by what the science is telling us are the best ways to change behaviour. Here are some ideas on what I’m discovering.

There are three common ways our brains hijack our ability to thrive but thankfully there are a few simple practices that can combat these and set you on a path to being happier and more resilient.

1. Our brains are subject to ‘Thinking Errors’ 

The primary purpose of our brain is to detect threat above all else. This is a wonderful survival mechanism that has allowed the human race to survive for many centuries, but it has a downside. It means that we over-index negative experiences such as mistakes, feedback, or conflict. This can have a powerful effect not only on our behaviour but our inner dialogue. All of us are subject to some degree to what we call ‘thinking errors’ which stem from our brain’s tendency to overstate the negative. The first step is to become aware of the most common ‘thinking errors’ and the second is to reframe them. Here are some that most of us experience at times:

Catastrophising Taking one piece of data and extrapolating to the most negative outcome
Binary Thinking Viewing a situation in only two categories – good/bad  success/failure or   strong/weak when life is usually far more nuanced
Fortune Telling /Mind Reading Predicting the future negatively or believing you know what others’ motivations are without asking them
Emotional Logic Feeling an emotion and believing something negative will happen because of it
Comparisons Evaluating yourself, another person, or a situation by unreasonably magnifying the negative (in you) and/or maximising the positive (in them)
Personalisation Believing others are behaving negatively because of you, without considering more plausible explanations for their behaviour


We think we see reality in all its glory but what we really see is our own reality through the lens of our personal history, biases and experiences.  Knowing that all of our brains have a negativity predisposition is the first step. So try this intervention:

Over the next 24 hours, disrupt your ‘thinking errors’ by noting them and pausing to ask: is this thought helpful and empowering, or even true?

2. Short-term gratification often trumps long term goals

Let’s face it, most of you who are reading this know the fundamental behaviours that will build your resilience and overall life happiness levels. Things like eating right, sleeping enough, giving your body and mind a chance to ‘rest and recover’ and of course regular exercise, but most of us don’t regularly do all of this, why not?

The reason is that our willpower is very fragile, but our brains don’t intuitively believe this, we try to ‘be strong’ and not eat that extra piece of chocolate!  This can end up in a cycle where we beat ourselves up for not having enough discipline or self-control. Willpower can be helpful in one off situations but it isn’t the golden egg that we have been taught to believe. This is why only 12% of New Year’s resolutions make it to Dec 31st and almost half have been discarded by the end of January!

It is much harder for us to satisfy our long-term needs by suppressing our immediate desires than we think because there are two parts of our brain that are operating in conflict – there is our emotional (limbic) brain and a separate part that controls abstract reasoning ( the neocortex). Research from Princeton University found that these two areas are telling us to do different things, this is why literally in the moment of breaking a promise to yourself you know it, but your emotional brain wins out.  When a reward gets very salient, when we can touch, feel, smell and see it, our emotional brain often triumphs. Our emotional brain just cannot imagine the future in that moment.

So what do we do instead – what’s your alternative? One idea to combat the mismatch is to do what Katy Milkman, Professor of Decision Making and Information at Wharton calls, Temptation Bundling. Temptation Bundling means you bring together a short-term reward only when you are doing something that is moving you towards a long-term goal. For example, listening to your favorite podcast only when you are jogging, or going to your local burger place only if you finish a specific task or meeting a friend for a walk instead of a coffee shop. In his book, Atomic Habits, James Clear talks about an Engineer from Ireland who wired up his stationary bike to his TV so he could only watch Netflix when the wheels were turning at a certain speed!

So try this exercise: write two lists – a list of things you ‘want’ in the short-term and a list of things you ‘should’ be doing.  Be creative in finding ways to match up your ‘shoulds’ with your ‘wants’. When you receive a short-term reward and your brain will release a shot of dopamine, (the pleasure chemical) then over time, you will associate positive emotions with your ‘should’ behaviour and it will be more appealing in the moment.

3.  Our brains prefer to work on autopilot (but they forgot to tell us!)

Wendy Wood, author of Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick suggests that 40-50% of our everyday actions are automated and repeated.  Our automatic brain essentially locks in a certain behaviour, action or reaction and associates it with a time, place, type of communication or person/s.  Next time we are triggered by that context, our brains hit ‘repeat’ and before we know it we are in flight. Think of a time you drove or walked in the wrong direction because you ‘weren’t thinking’ – this is an example of your autopilot brain taking over. We usually don’t realise how powerful these unthinking forces are.

We all have our habits of ‘energy’ and these include our sleep, eating, exercise routines. Then we have our habits of ‘attention’ which dominate how we filter information and what we choose to absorb and respond to in terms of the firehose of stimulus available to us. The idea here is that we are responding and behaving in ways that are often outside our consciousness.  In order to interrupt our habits, we have to bring them to what Daniel Kahneman calls our ‘System Two’ Thinking. We need to slooooooooooow down our thinking and understand the trigger, the routine and the reward. By shining a light on the trigger, routine and reward we can get under the hood of our habits and then we can more consciously replace them. When we talk about ‘habits’ we usually refer to habits of ‘energy’ rather than habits of ‘attention’ but if you take control of your thinking habits you will build a superpower that will create more resilience and grit than you’ve ever imagined possible.

Here is an exercise that will take just 5 minutes and will help you map out a habit you want to change.

Step #1: Think of a habit of attention that you have that isn’t supporting your success.  This is a belief or mental model that you draw upon in a particular moment. It may be the way you react when your boss asks for more data on your monthly progress, maybe it’s the internal story you tell yourself of incapability to add value during a strategy session because you just aren’t a ‘big picture’ thinker. Pick something where you experience an unhelpful emotion such as frustration, disappointment, anxiety or anger.

Step #2: Write down the trigger (person, place, time or day/week), the subsequent routine and the reward (not being wrong or showing vulnerability, being off the hook to prepare, confirmation that you are right about a person or situation, not having to revisit/redo work, not risking failure) in the ongoing habit you’d like to adjust.

Step # 3: Re-write the cycle but with a replacement habit – remember you have to identify a reward or you will be unlikely to follow through!

Step # 4: Use your ‘conscious’ brain to evoke the new habit the first few times (this is where you will need a bit of willpower) and make sure you enjoy the reward. We know that if we savour and visualise a reward, our brains experience it again and release more dopamine. This causes us to ‘lock-in’ the habit and associate it with positive emotions, overtime you will automate the new behaviour.

At Serendis we talk to a lot of our clients about constructive conflict and feedback. It is natural to be defensive when someone critises your ideas but by using this process and hearing the feedback not as criticism but as ‘learning’ you are more likely to get curious and it may prompt you to join the dots differently, adjust your idea or articulate it in a more compelling way.

Good luck with these techniques, please let the Serendis team know how you’ve gone!