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Common Obstacles to Success: Part 2

2.Path of Least Resistance

With few exceptions, our brain’s primary purpose is survival; this roughly three pound organ is remarkably evolved to keep us alive. The cost of relying on this compact super-computer is about 20% of our total energy expenditure. To prevent unnecessary energy loss, we have efficiencies built in to protect us, including the capacity to learn based on past experiences. As such, we generally pursue the path of least resistance to conserve our energy for emergency situations. This translates into two types of biases, outlined below. 

Unconscious biases. Why is change so difficult? For neurophysiological reasons, we tend to prefer what is familiar, also known as the status quo, even when the alternative option is equally or more useful. Unfamiliar situations readily trigger fear responses, which means we are likelier to avoid them. This pull toward familiarity further relates to a desire to connect with people who have similar views, known as confirmation bias.

Social wiring. What does it mean to be a social creature? Humans are adapted to connect with others to increase chances of survival. As much as we influence the people around us, they influence us – which in group decision situations, can lead to Groupthink and the Bandwagon Effect, in which the preferences of the group prevent us from voicing our thoughts or coerce us into acting in ways we would not if we were not in a group.


3.Bad Habits

Unhealthy coping strategies. Why do I eat the entire bag of chips? Unhealthy coping strategies are usually developed over time in response to stressful circumstances. Note that there are socially acceptable (working too much) and socially unacceptable (drinking too much) responses to feelings of overwhelm. These coping strategies provide a dopamine release that provides good feelings in the short term, which can make it difficult to reflect on the larger picture.

Addictive behaviours. Is staying late at the office every day as bad as overeating? It depends on whether or not the activities are compulsive and interfering with a person’s physical, mental, emotional and social health. Remembering that behaviours are visible and what people are judged on, it can be difficult to know if two joggers down the street demonstrate addictive behaviours or not simply by observing their behaviours. What matters is their personal relationship – their mental models – with the activity. Are they pursuing better health in balance with other aspects of their lives, or are they exercising because of a fear of gaining weight, which leads to intrusive thoughts about constantly needing to exercise, even at the expense of other activities? 


4.Constant Negotiations

Due to the reality of limitations, living requires constant negotiation. Whether looking at time, space, energy or money, we have limited access to finite resources and need to make decisions based on what best serves our goals. 

Prioritizing. Where do you spend the most time, energy and money in a typical year? While there will naturally be variance at difference stages in a person’s life, looking at longer periods of time helps identify what priorities are. The next step is to ask if this reflects your values. Ideally, our goals and actions should demonstrate what is most important to our well-being.

Every decision has a cost. What’s the big deal if I stay out a little longer? While the short term gain may be tempting, recognizing that this also means you may be low on sleep and not functioning at your best in the coming days is important to determining if the decision is worthwhile. Sometimes the better choice will be to stay out a little longer – but we have to be realistic about the costs! Note also that the decision to not act is also a decision with consequences.


5.Making Flawed Decisions

As part of our brain’s adaptations to learn from experience, we have two particular approaches that allow us to remember what to pursue and what to avoid. These shape our decisions, for better or for worse. 

Emotional tagging. Why does that song from my teenage years bring back so many memories? Our emotional centres have evolved as an efficient means for sorting and retrieving memories related to strong emotions in an intense, snap-shot way. Notably, fear and anger have helped our species survive and can readily override other emotions.

Patterns. Is that déjà vu? Our brains are designed to recognize patterns as a means of consolidating, or ‘chunking’ our memories. The more often a pattern is repeated, the likelier we are to assume that the pattern will continue – which is one of the reasons breaking habits is so difficult.

Indexicality. Why did your newly immigrated employee call a mirror a window? An impressive feature of our brain is that it connects new experiences to the most similar experiences from our past. This process of connecting the most familiar experience is indexicality – which helps identify “not knowing” as inexperience (in contrast to incapacity).


6.Illusion of Control 

We are all trying to make sense of a chaotic world. Our brains are designed to survive, which makes us adept at learning – which in turn involves a lot of assumptions. There is danger in believing that we can control outcomes, as nothing is guaranteed in this world. We do, however, always have options, and those options may increase the chances of a desirable outcome occurring.

External locus. Do circumstances happen to us, or do we shape our circumstances? Undeniably, there is a world out there that is beyond our immediate influence, but the extent to which we experience life passively is what determines our belief about ‘this is just how it is’. On the other end of the spectrum, obsessing over a desirable reality that does not exist (e.g. looking like a supermodel, even if those 20 pounds plus are lost) also does not serve our larger purpose if we do not know the difference between what we can versus what we should change.

Internal locus. If I can’t control circumstances, what can I control? The most difficult yet most impactful shift we can make in our mindset is to recognize that our internal state – our perceptions of a situation – impact our response to it. My coworker, though adept at his job, has the sort of sense of humour that drives me crazy. Perhaps my response is in reaction to a childhood friend with similar humour who betrayed my trust. What is the actual source of the emotional response? Bottom line is that I cannot change my coworker, and I do not want to change my job, so I have to change my response. If my original reaction was to laugh along, perhaps I can change my response to a more authentic “I don’t find that funny” and become more conscious of our emotional choices in situations.