December 31st is one of my favourite days of the year and that’s not because it’s New Year’s Eve and I want to party, because confession, I was tucked up in bed by 11pm – ssshhh, that’s our little secret okay! No, December 31st is special to me for a different reason and that’s because it signals both the end of something and the beginning of something. The last day of the year is full of promise and hope, it’s a time of looking back on what was hard and what was good, and a time of looking forward to a year that, in its infancy, feels so full of possibilities.
December 31st is also the time that a lot of people will use those reflections to set their resolutions for the coming year. Fast forward to the end of January though and most of those people will have failed to keep their resolutions. Why, when we feel so determined at the end of December to do something, do we find ourselves a month or so later having given up?
The All Too Common Scenario
Susie has always hated the gym but she desperately wants to lose the weight she’s put on in recent years and so she vows to join and go five times a week so she can get down to her goal weight in time for her son’s wedding in July. Susie keeps her vow for the first week of January but quickly finds herself feeling self-conscious around the other women who seem so much fitter and healthier than she is. Her internal voice reminds her she’s not a gym bunny or natural athlete and that no matter how hard she tries she’ll never look as good as them.
On what would have been her sixth morning in the gym she wakes up to the sound of torrential rain. She decides she doesn’t want to go out in that sort of weather and tells herself that going wouldn’t get her any closer to looking like those other women anyway. She hits the snooze button on her alarm and promptly goes back to sleep promising herself she’ll go tomorrow. She never goes back and labels herself as a failure.
Adam has always dreamed of following in his father’s footsteps and writing a novel. He decides that the coming year is finally going to be the one which sees him commit to his dream. He sets himself a strict writing schedule and his novel begins to take shape but after two weeks he hits a hurdle and for a few days in a row he finds himself struggling to write even a few hundred words. His internal voice tells him he’s not a natural writer like his Dad is so why bother trying? Besides, he’s never seen anything through to the end so why would this be any different?
Soon the rugby season commences and although he had promised himself that he would devote the weekends to his writing, it doesn’t take much cajoling from his friends to get him to abandon his laptop in favour of afternoons and evenings in the pub watching the matches. His novel never gets written and he tells himself it’s because he didn’t have what it takes. It wold be tempting to look at Susie and Adam and to see their failure to keep their resolutions as a lack of willpower or motivation on their part but that’s where we’d be wrong.
If It’s Not A Lack Of Willpower Then What?
If you haven’t already met then allow me to introduce you to the Reticular Activating System (RAS). The RAS sits close to the top of our spinal cord at the base of our brain and is made up of a network of nerves. Its job is to filter out any information it deems unnecessary so that only what it feels is important gets through to us. Imagine that you work in a noisy office – your RAS is what helps you tune out all the chatter around you so that you can focus on the tasks in front of you that need doing. Imagine that same noisy office but now someone is calling your name – your RAS is the system that will make you look up and respond.
David Allen, in his book ‘Getting Things Done’ had the following to say about our RAS: “Just like a computer, your brain has a search function–but it’s even more phenomenal than a computer’s. It seems to be programmed by what we focus on and, more primarily, what we identify with.”
Our minds are so powerful that just thinking something can change our physiology, that is, our body will respond to the thoughts we have in our head as if they are real and trigger a genuine physical response that matches that thought. That’s why if you’re walking home alone at night in a part of town you know is a bit dodgy and you start thinking that you hear footsteps behind you, your heart rate will automatically increase. Whether there is someone behind you are not isn’t relevant to your body, the very fact that you think there is someone behind you is enough to trigger a physical response.
Our Minds Are Constantly Working Against Us
The RAS does a remarkable job of ensuring that our brain is not bombarded with more information than it is capable of handling on a moment to moment basis. It is the ultimate football goalkeeper, defending us from the onslaught of balls the world is constantly trying to kick in our direction and helping to protect us from frequent feelings of overwhelm.
The RAS is sounding a bit like a superstar right now huh? It would absolutely earn superstar status, if it weren’t for one rather substantial problem. You see the RAS is programmed by us, which means that whatever we believe, whether it is true or not, are the parameters that the RAS uses to filter information. Put another way, it will deliberately seek out information that validates the beliefs that we each hold and discard anything that doesn’t fit with those beliefs.
Let’s go back to Susie and Adam for a minute. Not keeping their resolutions has nothing to do with a lack of willpower and everything to do with the limiting beliefs they both hold about themselves. Susie has already told herself she hates the gym, that she doesn’t believe she’s a natural athlete, and that she’ll never look as good as the other women she sees in the gym. Her RAS took these beliefs she holds about herself and ensured it gave her information that fed and validated those beliefs and influenced her actions – in this case, quitting the gym.
The reason Adam didn’t finish his novel was not because he doesn’t have what it takes but because his RAS took the beliefs he holds about himself (that he isn’t a natural writer like his Dad and that he never sees things through to the end) and made it his reality.
So now that we’ve figured out it’s not a lack of willpower on our part that holds us back from moving towards what we want, it’s time to examine how our attention span can also keep us swimming round in circles!
The Goldfish Effect
In 2015 Microsoft released the results of a study which saw researchers observing the brain activity of 112 participants using electroencephalograms (EEG’s) and surveying a further 2000 individuals in an attempt to uncover the length of the human attention span, which they defined as being the ability to concentrate on a task without becoming distracted. The study, which became known as The Goldfish Effect, reported that the average length of the human attention span is just 8 seconds, down from the 12 seconds that was reported in 2000. They compared this to that of a goldfish, believed to have an attention span of 9 seconds, and concluded that a fish now has the capacity to concentrate for longer than a human being.
I think it always pays to be slightly wary of statistics, people are complex and trying to measure anything of this nature is always difficult. Further investigation in to the Microsoft study led me to find that the figure of 8 seconds didn’t actually come from their research but from another source, and as for the goldfish, well we have no real way of knowing for sure what the length of their attention span is! However, those details aside, The Goldfish Effect is a useful analogy in helping us to understand just how difficult it is to give our attention to any one thing for any great length of time.
Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you’re trying to cook dinner, reply to a text message, feed the dog, and respond to your child or partner who’s trying to get your attention to show you something? Have you then somewhat panicked when you’ve realised that the pot of pasta has boiled over and your chargrilled vegetables are more char and less grilled? It turns out that our brains just aren’t designed to multi-task.
David Strayer, Director of the Applied Cognition Lab at the University of Utah who studies multi-tasking, has uncovered that 98% of people cannot multi-task, and yes, I’m afraid those results include both men AND women! While women do not need to mobilise extra resources within their brains like men do in order to multi-task, and so find it easier, both genders are equally likely to slow down and make more mistakes when having to perform more than one task at a time. What about the other 2% I hear you ask? Neuroimaging shows that these ‘supertaskers’ have a brain structure that looks different to the 98% of us for whom multi-tasking is not a good idea!
Whether or not we can focus for longer than a goldfish or give our attention to more than one thing at a time isn’t what matters. What matters is understanding that our RAS is constantly working to push our attention to where it thinks it should be, even when that means taking our attention away from the thing that is going to move us towards what we want.
All Is Not Lost
Ok so by now you may be feeling marginally depressed and wondering why, if a goldfish has a better chance of success, should you even bother trying right?! Well after slightly darkening your skies with my doom and gloom rundown of how our brains work against us, I’m now here to brighten them up by telling you that getting the results we want in life, lies in this newfound awareness of how our minds work. If we can each understand how we as human beings are programmed then we can learn to swim with the tide rather than always battling against it and feeling like we’re getting nowhere; and that my friends, is the key to our success.