The three ways our brains hijack us AND what the science tells us you can do about it!

Serendis logo

By Serendis

June 23, 2022

Do you feel like you have less and less time and more and more to deliver? It’s true, the fast pace, highly competitive environment we all work in demands more and more self control, efficacy and brain performance. 

Ok! Now that we’ve stated the obvious. What are the hacks we can employ to take control?!

Just like how you can harness better performance and functionality out of technology if you learn how to use it well, so too can you develop a better understanding of the human brain’s key features and harness these to boost your own performance. Here are three ways our brain can hijack us unless we mindfully take control.

1. Negativity Bias

Our brains over index the negative because their primary function is to detect threat. This is an evolutionary hand me down from our cave dwelling ancestors, when being aware of our environment was a matter of life or death. The problem is that our world is full of invisible threats these days so our ‘fight or flight’ response is in overdrive. The simple fact of being aware of this human tendency is powerful but there is one simple behaviour that has been shown time and time again to stop negativity bias in its tracks. It’s…. drumroll please, gratitude!  

Gratitude is a notion that is getting a lot of airtime but also is dismissed quickly by many. Stay with me here, because if you are like most people you will find this idea incredibly cheesy and you won’t want to do it!  

If you believe the groundbreaking research by Professor Martin Seligman from the University of Pennsylvania and that of Nicholas Epley, a Professor of Behavioral Science at the University of Chicago, it is guaranteed to work! Here is a process that they say will punch above its weight in terms of impact: 

  1. Think of someone who has made an impact on your life, but you haven’t told (they don’t have to have saved your life – small or big it doesn’t matter). 
  2. Write a letter of thanks to them. 
  3. Meet with them (virtually is fine) and read the letter to them out loud.  

This one exercise has been shown to boost your mood (and theirs) not only in the moment but for up to a month! 

2. Our Attention Deficit 

Trying to stay on task when we have a long list of to-dos or a big report to get done is very hard to do. It’s helpful to look into what is really going on to get on top of this. First, know that it’s not just you, it is all of us. Distraction comes from two sources – either external or internal. The external distractions are all the dings and rings going off all the time around us and our brains are incredibly susceptible to these modern external distractions for 2 reasons:

  1. We’re wired to be tribal. And it’s very difficult for us psychologically to know there’s an email or message is waiting that we’re not answering.  
  2. Most of us desire to prove our value to the organisation we work for and in many workplaces there is an unwritten rule that showing up as ‘busy’ is a proxy for productivity. 

The second, more shrewd and invisible source of distraction is that which comes from within us. This happens when our brains send a message out that alerts us to a negative emotion, it could be loneliness, uncertainty, anger or even boredom.  

Remember, our brains primary function is to detect threat and avoid pain. Often, we turn to our external distractions to escape those uncomfortable emotions and our ability to stay focused on a task gets hijacked.

One way to take control of your distractibility is to do an ‘audit’ on yourself. Try this exercise; over the next 48 hours set clear intentions about what you want to achieve when you sit down at your desk and then be curious about what happens.  When you find yourself getting distracted just pause for a moment and ask yourself  ‘What is the root cause of this distraction?’ If the distraction is legitimate and you need to switch gears, then be compassionate to yourself and pivot accordingly. If, however you are suppressing an uncomfortable emotion then catch it and feel it and dig in.

3. Automatic Thinking

Our brains ability to ‘lock in’ and automate routines, behaviours and thinking is very useful for repeated activities – it means we don’t have to re-learn everything from scratch every time we experience it. 

Our brains can understand and execute with little or no effort  BUT making these mental shortcuts can lead us astray and move us in the wrong direction. 

Daniel Kahneman who was the first person to ever a win a Nobel Prize in the area of behavioural economics – which is the cross section between economics and psychology created a construct that explains this – he asserts that we have two types of thinking, System 1 and System 2.  

System 1 is fast, intuitive, unconscious thought which usually lets us navigate the world easily and successfully, but it requires us to make quick judgments about people and situations based on past experience and stereotypes.  

System 2 thinking is slower and clunkier but far more conscious. It allows us to make more accurate decisions but it takes much more energy.  

The real challenge is that our brains trick us to believing we have reasons and logic in what we think and what we do. But more often than we realise we are driven by our embedded automatic thinking.  

The best way to combat your automatic thinking is to sloooooooooow down at key moments. Decide on one habit you want to shift or add to your routine and create a small, but consistent behaviour that you will start doing. One idea is to stop and ask yourself a specific question such as: “In which way could I be misled by my fixed perspective of this situation? Would it help to broaden my thinking here?” Just the simple act of repeating this behaviour will change the outcome overtime.