How To Program Your Brain To Stick To The Goddamn Plan

When it comes to training, your brain is an easily-distracted bozo. Neuroscientist Dr Nicola Ray knows how to fix that

Hush that brain of yours and up your feet, soldier!

Thinking of signing up for an event that’s far beyond anything you’ve attempted before: a half marathon, an obstacle race, maybe even a sprint triathlon? You’ll be wanting to immerse yourself, then, in a long-haul training regime.

The first few weeks of this new regime are always going to be the easiest – perhaps not physically, but certainly mentally. You’ll still need a decent level of motivation to get yourself off the couch for those first runs or workouts, but by week seven you may find that it takes Herculean levels of willpower to get out the door and you might need to try some tricks to program your brain to stay motivated.

Why Does Your Brain Get Distracted From Long-Term Goals?

One reason for those first few days and weeks being relatively easy is that they’re rewarding in themselves: we get a kick out of the very fact that we’ve started working towards a long-term goal, such as running a marathon.

We lose focus on a long-term goal because the brain reacts more readily to short-term goals

However, as time draws on, we start to lose focus on that goal, because the brain is primed to react far more readily to short-term goals – scoffing a takeaway right now, for example, rather than grinding through a workout designed to get you through Tough Mudder in two months’ time.

Get your brain off MSG and back onto MPH

Neuroscientists interested in understanding the neural basis of achieving long-term goals have pinpointed an important region of the brain, known as the anteroventral prefrontal cortex (avPFC).

The anteroventral prefrontal cortex (avPFC) is located at the front of the brain, on the left

They discovered that when people are trying to inhibit actions that lead to instant rewards (i.e. scoffing a takeaway) so that they can achieve a long-term goal (i.e. getting fit enough for a marathon), the avPFC interacts ‘negatively’ with the brain’s reward-processing regions.

This so-called negative interaction is actually a positive, because the more it occurs, the more likely a person is to refocus on, and succeed at, a long-term goal.

(If you’re scientifically-minded, take a look at this research paper published in the Journal Of Neuroscience for a more in-depth picture of how this all works.)

4 Ways To Cure Your Brain Of Its Short-Sightedness

1. If the brain prefers short-term rewards, give it some!

To do this while exercising, you’ll need to learn how to activate the fabled ‘runner’s high’. Runners’ World magazine detailed training techniques specifically aimed at triggering the release of your brain’s feel-good chemicals .

Push yourself just to the point of stress and pain for a blissful post-run shower

The abridged version: you push yourself just to the point of stress and pain (but no further), at which point the release of endorphins and the synthesis of endocannabanoids is maximised, and you can look forward to a particularly blissful post-run shower.

Your brain will soon come trained to associate running with short-term reward – that giddy runner’s high – and will crank up your motivation levels accordingly.

2. Make the long-term reward bigger

Scientific studies of the value that humans attribute to rewards have revealed that distant rewards – even when greater in value than immediate ones – are less appealing to us than rewards we can have right now. Think of being asked to choose between receiving £5,000 now, versus £6,000 in three years’ time.

Of course, the greater the distant reward, the more willing we are to wait for it – think £5,000 right now versus £50,000 in three years. So every time you’re tempted to sack off the training to watch the latest Game Of Thrones instead, add extra value to your end goal by factoring in a gift to yourself that can only be redeemed once you’ve achieved it: a new laptop, a holiday, two blissful months of no training whatsoever… Whatever works for you.

This could be you… IF you get those 20 squats done

3. Practise delaying everyday rewards

Our current theories of how the brain functions emphasise its changeability, or its ‘neuroplasticity’. This means that our experiences and past behaviours actually alter the brain’s wiring, which suggests that it’s possible to ‘train’ certain connections – such as the connection between the avPFC and the reward-processing regions of the brain.

Consistently and repeatedly delay everyday rewards and you’ll be able to resist anything

So if you consistently and repeatedly delay even the simplest of everyday rewards, your avPFC should eventually become so powerful that you’ll be able to resist anything the TV or fridge throws at you.

As an example: the next time you have an itch, don’t scratch it straight away. Leave it for 15 minutes, then go at it like a dog with fleas. There you go: your avPFC just levelled-up.

4. Become an eccentric billionaire

Unfortunately, you’ll need a Bruce Wayne-sized bank balance to put this last one into practice, as it requires a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner (price tag: circa £200,000) and a team of neuroscientists, radiographers, and physicists.

But let’s assume that you have access to all that – in which case, congrats! You can use a technique called real-time neurofeedback, currently being trialled as a treatment for chronic addictions, severe pain and psychiatric disorders.

You’re hooked up to an MRI scanner and shown live images of your brain’s activity

If you were to use neurofeedback to supercharge your training regime, you’d be hooked up to an MRI scanner and shown live images of your brain’s activity. As you looked at the screen, you’d be guided – via aural cues such as “Picture yourself crossing a finish line” – into a state conducive to achieving long-term goals.

Real-time neurofeedback: the eccentric billionaire’s training tool

Witnessing first-hand the control you have over your own brain activity, you eventually become able to achieve your desired mind-state at will.

However… If you need this degree of intervention to see your fitness goals through to the end, maybe you’re not quite ready for that half marathon just yet.

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