How Neuroscience Will Make You a Better Leader

How Neuroscience Will Make You a Better Leader

The world is certainly going through a shift in the way we think about leadership these days. Executives have begun to recognize the importance of a people-first approach to business. Workplaces are throwing out the old hierarchy and beginning anew. We are questioning the norms of office culture and management, leading to better business outcomes, more engaged employees, and happier workplaces.

But what’s behind all this? I sat down with Dr. David Rock, who is paving the way in “neuroleadership.” With his team, he brings together global experts to develop the science of leadership development. It’s all about a research-backed approach to the way we think about, process and execute our leadership styles.

Read on for the latest in brain science and leadership. You’ll be a better CEO in no time.

How is brain research changing the way leadership and success is viewed?

“We are seeing a cumulative value to the recent research, rather than one particular study completely changing the game. There are enough studies within the last decade that enable us to build a complete language in what leaders do and what leadership is, linked back to biology. All of these different aspects of leadership–decision making, innovation, persuasion, collaboration, influence–have been studied at different angles. What’s new is now we are taking an integrative approach to it all.”

What do you mean by integrative approach?

“The state of the art right now is helping leaders have a more robust and complete language for the mental experience. One of the first ideas from brain research to make its way into leadership is the idea of an amygdala hijack–suddenly there is language for telling others that your brain is shutting down. If you understand an amygdala hijack, you should not try to talk sense into someone or make important business decisions.

We also have language to recognize the biases that get in the way of good decision making. We have language for why we like certain people and not others and how can we collaborate better. This language allows leaders to be more adaptive and develop better decision-making strategies.”

What trends do you see emerging in the business world as a response to these findings?

“We are seeing an interesting trend to simplify the whole approach to leadership development. So we’re getting rid of competencies and focusing on a small, memorable set of expectations for leaders. If people can only recall 3 or 4 ideas easily, having a leadership framework with 7 or 8 categories won’t work well. Simplify and focus on what is essential rather than try to do everything.

We are also seeing companies re-think their whole learning strategy based how the brain really learns. There’s a huge movement against ranking and rating people, and that is all driven by our research. Overall, companies are shifting the focus on increasing engagement, agility and collaboration.”

How do you change human behavior?

“The active ingredient to large-scale behavior change is facilitating insight in social situations over time. Research points to the importance of a three-step process: seeing something different in a social setting, having an insight about that behavior, and making these types of connections over time. Insight to action causes change. If you have those insights and discuss them in a social setting, you are more likely to want to change.”

How has learning more about your brain and leadership changed you?

“A thousand ways. I was fascinated to understand the brain because I wanted to wrestle down my own brain. I wanted to gain more control over the quality of my decision-making. I think I am significantly more effective at making great decisions–I am not perfect and am aware of all the mistakes and how biased I am, but over-all I have become a much better leader in my ability to manage my own emotions in the midst of complexity and chaos. I’m better able to connect with other people and bring people together. Also, my ability to read social situations more effectively has improved.”

What would be your top tips for someone to be a better leader in 2016?
“Start every meeting with complete clarity on what the objective is. Work out what your goal is, what you’re going toward. Then work out the best plan to get there, and be sure to foster a sense of clarity and alignment with everyone involved. Whether you’re in a meeting or having a conversation, be clear on the purpose and the plan. Throughout this process, continue to notice the quality of your thinking along the way–be meta-cognitive.”

How to Get the Help You Need

How to Get the Help You Need

ew of us enjoy asking for help. As research in neuroscience and psychology shows, the social threats involved—the uncertainty, risk of rejection, potential for diminished status, and inherent relinquishing of autonomy—activate the same brain regions that physical pain does. And in the workplace, where we’re typically keen to demonstrate as much expertise, competence, and confidence as possible, it can feel particularly uncomfortable to make such requests.

However, it’s virtually impossible to advance in modern organizations without assistance from others. Cross-functional teams, agile project management techniques, matrixed or hierarchy-minimizing structures, and increasingly collaborative office cultures require you to constantly push for the cooperation and support of your managers, peers, and employees. Your performance, development, and career progression depend more than ever on your seeking out the advice, referrals, and resources you need. In fact, estimates suggest that as much as 75% to 90% of the help coworkers give one another is in response to direct appeals.

So how can you effectively ask for help? How can you impose upon people without making them feel imposed upon?

The first step is getting over your reluctance to ask for assistance. Next, you need to understand that some common and perhaps intuitive ways of asking for help are ultimately unproductive, because they make people less likely to want to give it. Finally, you must learn the subtle cues that motivate people to support you and how to deliver them in the right way.

Costs and Benefits

Perhaps the easiest way to overcome the pain of asking for help is to realize that most people are surprisingly willing to lend a hand. When Vanessa Bohns, a professor at Cornell University and a leading researcher in this area, recently reviewed a group of experiments that she and her coauthors had done, she found that compliance—the rate at which people provided assistance to strangers who asked for it—was an average of 48% higher than the help seekers had expected. Clearly, people are much more likely to be helpful than we think they are. Studies also suggest that we underestimate how much effort those who do agree to help will put in.

That’s in part because saying no or helping only halfheartedly carries a psychological cost that we tend to discount. But it’s also because most helpers know—even if only subconsciously—that giving freely and effectively of themselves has emotional benefits. A Swiss study published in 2017 found that people who simply pledge to spend even a small amount of money on someone else feel happier than those who plan to indulge only themselves.

You can allow people to experience the natural highs associated with helping.

The key to a successful request for help is to shift the focus to these benefits. You want people to feel that they would be helping because they want to, not because they must, and that they’re in control of the decision. That means avoiding any language suggesting that you or someone else is instructing them to help, that they should help, or that they have no choice but to do so. This includes prefaces such as “May I ask you a favor?,” which make people feel trapped, and profuse apologies such as “I feel terrible asking you for this,” which make the experience seem less positive. Emphasizing reciprocity—“I’ll help you if you help me”—can also backfire, because people don’t like to be indebted to anyone or to engage in a purely transactional exchange. And minimizing your need—“I don’t normally ask for help” or “It’s just a tiny thing”—is equally unproductive, because it suggests the assistance is trivial or even unnecessary.

But you can ask for help in a way that avoids these pitfalls and instead gives people agency over their responses, allowing them to experience the natural highs associated with helping. That’s by using what I call reinforcements, or cues, which you can incorporate in specific requests. Perhaps more important, you can also use them in day-to-day interactions to prime the people around you for greater helpfulness.

Three Reinforcements


One reinforcement you’ll want to give a potential helper is assurance that you’re on his or her team and that the team is important. This taps into the innate human need to belong to—and ensure the well-being of—supportive social circles. There are several ways to do this. For example, research by Priyanka Carr and Greg Walton (a graduate student at the time), of Stanford University, shows that simply saying the word “together” can have an effect. When participants working on puzzles alone were told that they were doing so in tandem with people performing similar tasks in other rooms and could later exchange tips, they worked 48% longer, solved more problems correctly, and said they were less depleted by the task than those allowed to believe they were working fully independently.

You might also cite a common goal, enemy, or trait, such as the desire to exceed your team’s sales targets, rivalry with a competitor in your industry, or a love of superhero movies. But the best way to create a strong sense of in-group is to highlight shared experiences, perceptions, thoughts, and feelings. For example, if a senior management team includes only two women, don’t just say, “We’re the only two women on the team” (emphasizing the trait). Say, “Have you noticed that we get interrupted all the time?” (shared experience).

Positive identity.

A second cue for potential helpers involves creating or enhancing their recognition that they are uniquely placed (by virtue of their attributes or role) to provide assistance and that they are not merely people who might help you but helpful people who routinely come to others’ aid. For example, studies have shown that people contribute more to charity when asked if they would like to “be a generous donor” (versus “to donate”) and that children as young as three are more motivated to complete tasks such as cleaning up blocks when told they can “be a helper” (versus “can help”). Remember, however, that people don’t all have the same vision of positive identity, so tailor your message. Research on pro-environment appeals suggests, for instance, that liberals prefer phrases such as “care for the natural world” and “prevent the suffering of all life forms,” whereas conservatives respond better to “show your love for your country” and “take responsibility for yourself and the land you call home.”

People want to see the impact of the aid they give. This isn’t an ego thing.

Gratitude is another powerful way to boost helpers’ positive identity. A recent study by the productivity software company Boomerang of 350,000 e-mail exchanges found that “Thanks in advance” and “Thanks” yielded average response rates from 63% to 66%, compared with 51% to 54% for other popular options including “Best,” “Regards,” and “Cheers.” Even expressed preemptively, gratitude can keep people interested and invested in helping you, as long as you focus more on their generosity and selflessness—and what that says about them as people—than on how you’ll benefit from the help.


People want to see or know the impact of the aid they will give. This isn’t an ego thing. Many psychologists believe that feeling effective—knowing that your actions created the results you intended—is the fundamental human motivation; it’s what truly engages people and gives their lives meaning. Consider a study that Wharton’s Adam Grant conducted at an outbound call center in an educational and marketing software company. Employees knew that the revenue they generated supported jobs in another department, with which they’d previously had no contact. After one of the beneficiaries of their work visited and spoke to them about their impact on his and others’ jobs, the call center’s sales and revenue doubled. To ensure that your potential helpers know that their assistance will matter, be very clear about what you need and its projected impact. For example, when asking a colleague to review a client proposal, you might say, “Would you please review this before I send it to XYZ? Your input really helped my previous pitch to ABC succeed.”

Promise to follow up afterward, and do so. If possible, also allow people to choose how they help you, and be willing to accept alternatives to your original request. You want helpers to give what they can—and what will make them feel most effective.

What Helpers Need

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Personal and Professional

When I explain to people how these strategies work in practice, I often give an example from my personal life, involving an IKEA bookshelf. About a year ago, a friend from graduate school asked me to help her assemble a particularly complicated one, and—this might surprise you—I eagerly agreed. That same morning, I’d turned down a request to review a submission to a scientific journal, ignored an e-mail from my daughter’s school asking for parent volunteers to help with an ice cream party, and grudgingly said I would do our family’s laundry but refused to fold it. So why was the DIY request an easy yes?

One reason is that the person asking was a long-standing friend with whom I enjoy spending time (in-group reinforcement). Another is that I’m weirdly good at such projects (owing less to my construction prowess than to my ability to interpret poorly written directions), and for years I’d been her go-to gal for help with them (effectiveness). And finally, whenever we work together in this way, my friend always wraps up by saying something like “Heidi, thank you. You are always so helpful and generous” (positive identity).

I’ve seen situations play out the same way in professional settings. Consider the head of product development at a learning software company who wanted more input with the sales department, which was making his team’s work difficult by agreeing that highly customized orders would be delivered according to near-impossible schedules. He pleaded to be included in discussions with clients but was often ignored; the people in sales believed that he would slow them down and be an obstacle to their success. Of course, all parties felt they were doing what was best for the company, but in their own ways.

Eventually, the frustrated executive decided to take a fresh approach to getting the cooperation he needed from his colleagues. He set up a meeting with sales leaders to talk through the product development process, realizing that most of the team had no idea what work was involved. In other words, they didn’t understand why their help was needed. He began to emphasize in every interaction that they all shared the goal of pleasing the customer to ensure repeat business, creating a strong sense of in-group with the sales team. Suddenly it was clear that everyone was on the same side. He also started describing sales leaders as the protectors of customer experience and talked about the power they wielded in determining the future of the company’s brand, which gave them a strong positive identity and motivated them to see and approach their work in a slightly different way.

Finally, whenever salespeople did what he asked and included him in the work proposal process, he made a point of following up with them to say how important it had been to the ultimate success of the delivery. They saw their help land and felt its effectiveness.

Over time, these strategies dramatically improved relations between the two teams, and the company saw increases in both client satisfaction and profitability.

When you next find yourself in need of help, remember that people are willing to give it much more often than not. Few will think less of you for needing assistance. And there is no better way to make someone feel good about himself or herself than to ask for it. It brings out the best—and the best feelings—in all of us.

Why We Select Toxic Leaders

Why We Select Toxic Leaders

Humans evolved in social hierarchies, and, as a result, we have significant cognitive resources devoted to identifying and then empowering potential leaders. However, incompetent or even malevolent individuals can take advantage of the cues we use to identify potential leaders, and rise to power even when they may be poor leaders, or even worse.

Charisma is a part of the problem. While charisma eludes a precise definition, the management professor John Antonakis and colleagues have delineated nine teachable tactics, including nonverbal behaviors, such as use of an animated voice, gestures and facial expressions.  Then there are verbal tactics, such as the communication of moral conviction, of having high expectations, and of high confidence. Visionary leaders can attract and motivate followers, but they can also lead a group off a cliff.

Confidence is key. We don’t find just confidence attractive; Cameron Anderson and colleagues have shown in several studies that we’re even drawn to overconfidence. When people worked in groups, the most overconfident workers were seen by their teammates as the most deserving of respect and admiration, largely because they were seen as the most competent. Anderson also showed that hubris is motivated by the desire for status. Later work revealed that overconfidence is rewarded with status even when it’s revealed to followers as overconfidence. Yes, you read that right.

As well as charismatic individuals, we’re also drawn to narcissists, people who vigorously fight to maintain a positive self-image even at the expense of others, including people who often lash out at detractors. Amy Brunell and colleagues found that in work groups, narcissists with a strong will to power were ceded the largest leadership roles, but with no benefit to group performance.

Although narcissists can be energetic and charming, they also tend to be immoral and destructive leaders. In an analysis of every American president through George W. Bush, Ashley Watts and colleagues found that grandiose narcissism—assertiveness and immodesty—predicted several indicators of successful leadership, such as winning the popular vote and passing new legislation. But it also predicted unethical behavior, dirty politics, impeachment, and losing reelection. In romance, business, and politics, narcissists tend to wear out their welcome. We like to hire them, but then regret our choice soon after.

One holdover from prehistoric times is the appeal of dominant leaders, those who rule by threat and aggression—and might keep misfits in line or defend the group from violent outsiders. Anthony Little and colleagues found that when people were shown two men’s faces and asked whom they’d vote for to lead the country in a time of war, they picked the more masculine. In a time of peace, they preferred the more feminine. So an aggressive, dominant leader vying for power might depict a war with an enemy county, or something as vague as economic hardship or terrorism, thus attracting scared followers. Does this sound like anyone you know?

Mark van Vugt and Richard Ronay, who study the evolutionary psychology of leadership, have argued that our preference for male leaders may be a vestige of ancient circumstances, and that in an era that emphasizes communication skills and empathy over raping and pillaging, women might make for better executives.

Fear mongering can also increase existential angst, which can increase support for a leader who embodies a strong defense against the purported threat. A 2004 paper by Mark Landau and colleagues found that subtle reminders of the 9/11 attacks increased support or President George W. Bush and his anti-terrorism policies, among both conservatives and liberals.

An autocratic leader needs only to instill uncertainty to gather support. Several studies show that uncertainty can be treated by the limbic system in the brain as even more threatening and dangerous than actual threats. In a study by David Rast and colleagues, British workers who felt their futures to be uncertain—but not those who didn’t—reported appreciation for bosses who were “harsh,” “bossy,” and “autocratic.”

Once manipulative leaders gain control, they find underhanded ways to keep it, beyond starting a conflict or instilling general anxiety. Van Vugt and Ronay have noted several tactics: controlling information flow, eliminating rivals, criticizing subordinates, and offering short-term benefits at the expense of an organization’s long-term success.

Yet when tyrants gain control, we have more to blame than just the tyrant. Art Padilla and colleagues have written about the “toxic triangle” of destructive leaders, susceptible followers, and conducive environments. Charismatic and egotistical leaders take their greatest hold among followers who lack self-assurance or who share the leader’s ambition and selfishness, and in situations marked by instability, individualism, or lack of accountability.

The interactions between leader, follower, and environment create a feedback loop in which toxicity can self-amplify. But it allows a leader who is toxic in one circumstance to be well-suited for another. Recent work by Annebel De Hoogh and colleagues found that among retail teams with stable power dynamics, autocratic leaders increased intolerance and fear of risk-taking, thus reducing team performance. But in teams that suffered power struggles, autocratic leaders actually boosted safety and success.

So it seems there may be times and places for narcissistic, dominant, aggressive leaders—otherwise they would never have any appeal – such as when we have conflicts that may require an aggressive, dominant response. On the other hand, when collaboration is likely to be a better path to a healthy organization, or a healthy planet, we have to be careful not to let charismatic leaders use our psychology against us. Toxic leaders, like overly sweet deserts, might seem delicious in theory, but the results can leave a bad taste in the mouth, and give us indigestion for hours. Or in this case, in the real world for years to come.

Diversity Makes Inclusion Harder, But Here’s What To Do About It

Diversity Makes Inclusion Harder, But Here’s What To Do About It

Good-faith attempts to champion diversity often backfire for a pretty intuitive reason: The more an organization points out the differences among employees–even in order to celebrate them–the more likely it is that some employees will feel less included, and behave accordingly. The fact is, our brains have been fine-tuned over eons to become amazingly efficient at noticing differences. It’s not just gender or ethnicity, either. Out-groups form even when people are asked to wear red or blue T-shirts.

Couple that sensitivity to difference with the human need for fairness, and you may also get dominant groups feeling neglected. Such is the argument some white men in Silicon Valley are making–that diversity efforts amount to discrimination. Indeed, when we asked over 200 diversity and inclusion (D&I) professionals at a recent event about their biggest worry over the next five years, the top answer was backlash against their efforts.

Related: Diversity Efforts’ Top 3 Mistakes That Are Slowing Down Progress

Diversity makes inclusion harder; it’s easy to welcome different perspectives when the people sharing them are all mostly the same age, gender, went to the same schools, and crack the same jokes. But when people of truly diverse backgrounds are thrust together, it gets a lot harder. The real challenge, when it comes to building work cultures that are both diverse and inclusive, is to leave ample room for difference while still thinking like–and identifying as– one big in-group.


Diversity efforts don’t always account for the long-established psychological tendency toward “out-grouping” and its frequently unproductive consequences.

A 2015 review in Social and Personality Psychology Compass found that efforts to celebrate differences can lead non-dominant members feeling uncomfortably aware of their group identities. What’s more, that can also leave them feeling like positive group attributes are being imposed on them, leading to a sense that they’re actually being miscategorized or “just don’t fit.” In experiments conducted in both simulated and actual work environments, some multicultural efforts led to perceptions of exclusion in dominant-group members. The important exception: if inclusion efforts were framed as benefitting and addressing everybody, resistance was reduced.

In other words, organizations may want to consider flipping the way they think about inclusivity. In our research covering 42 of our client organizations across seven countries, just 43% of D&I programs described by interviewees were universally offered to everyone, and just 19% of companies intentionally included white males in conversations about diversity and inclusion. That’s a mistake. Rather than focusing just or mainly on giving diverse team members extra visibility that risks fracturing the overall team, leadership and staff should strive to unite people. They should highlight similarities and remind team members that there is no “us” versus “them”–only one big “us,” no matter what our differences might be.

This isn’t just semantics, and it’s not about minimizing diversity.  It’s emphasizing universally inclusive practices, like parental leave offered regardless of gender or sexual orientation. Same goes with flexible work arrangements, which serve people in many different ways when they’re made available to everyone: They can reduce headaches for parents, caregivers, those with mobility challenges, and mega-commuters alike. These “for-everyone” policies don’t efface differences, they support them.

Related: This Simple Chart Will Get You To Rethink Your Diversity Program


Inclusive programs, framed in ways that promote an organization’s values and benefit everyone, can be considered “superordinate goals” that unify people across group divisions. These goals are higher-order missions shared by multiple people, with rewards bestowed on everyone involved. (Science fiction frequently employs a big, scary superordinate goal as a narrative device: the aliens come to earth, and humanity suddenly gets along.) Superordinate goals support inclusion efforts because they get people thinking in terms of others’ skills and value–not their appearance, beliefs, or status.

We’re not saying that all employee resource groups should be banned, or that programs that benefit a single group should be done away with. There are times when institutional asymmetry–much like structural inequality in the broader society–has to be addressed head-on. When people are being paid less based on gender, when a certain demographic is being hired in paltry numbers, and when promotions only go to those who fit a certain mold, there’s no substitute for direct action.

Nevertheless, we counsel our clients to understand the detrimental side effects that may follow those same, totally necessary actions. Every leader needs to be able to make important trade-offs, but charging ahead with difference-focused initiatives without understanding the risks involved won’t help an organization move in the right direction.

As we’ve studied organizations that are relatively more mature in their D&I efforts than others, one thing we’ve found is that difference-focused initiatives are more necessary in less mature cultures–the ones featuring large disparities between those in dominant and non-dominant groups. But the more diverse and inclusive a culture becomes, the more those gaps fade; before long, there aren’t seriously underrepresented groups in the organization anymore. And whenever other disparities are uncovered, they can be addressed in more targeted ways.

If you can create one large in-group, you can mitigate the risk of stereotyping and other biases. Everybody feels like they’re on the same team. And crucially, diversity and inclusion can truly reinforce one another.

A Simple Strategy to Build Inclusion in Diverse Teams

A Simple Strategy to Build Inclusion in Diverse Teams

Research knows that diverse teams are smarter than more homogenous teams. The friction of differing sets of experiences, ideas, and philosophies may feel uncomfortable in the moment. But chances are, it will lead to more creative, innovative outcomes.

But that presents a new challenge for leaders: helping people feel like they fit in. After all, we know inclusion doesn’t just mean having a seat at the table; rather, having a voice at that table. So it rests with leaders to help everyone feel like they can meaningfully contribute.

One way to do that, research suggests, is by practicing what psychologists call in-grouping.

The science of in-groups

Humans are a social species. As such, we’re highly sensitive to our place in the larger social circle. We notice when we gain status or power over others, and we notice when we get pushed to the fringes. In organizational settings, this sense of rejection can often lead to negative feelings and general disengagement from work.

Leaders may actually create these feelings unintentionally with calls for employees to “bring their whole selves to work.” Or they may create employee resource groups that inadvertently fracture the office more than they unite everyone.

As we wrote for Fast Company in 2018, leaders should consider flipping the way they think about inclusivity. Instead of making room for small bundles of people to organize, leaders should unite everyone around shared organizational goals.

“They should highlight similarities,” we wrote, “and remind team members that there is no ‘us’ versus ‘them’ – only one big ‘us,’ no matter what our differences might be.”

Why in-groups work

Psychologically, this strategy has the benefit of creating superordinate goals. These are the goals that multiple people share as a common objective, which studies have shown do a tremendous job uniting even the most diverse team members.

In setting these goals, leaders essentially work to build tight-knit in-groups, but instead of finding common ground in their ideologies, backgrounds, and beliefs, employees can find motivation from the shared success of achieving something larger, together.

The Fast Company article, “Diversity Makes Inclusion Harder, But Here’s What to Do About It,” was featured in the recent NLI white paper “NLI Perspectives: Cultures of Inclusion.”

Download the NLI white paper, “NLI Perspectives: Cultures of Inclusion”

How Your Habits Determine Your Chances Of Success

How Your Habits Determine Your Chances Of Success

“Most of us can clearly understand that good habits are better than bad habits and yet there is still a clear gap between intention-to-act and action.”

We live in a time where people are preparing for life on Mars and are actively engaging with robots in the workplace. Yet, when we consider new habits and self-mastery, it doesn’t seem that we have conquered that frontier yet. The self-help book industry alone in 2008 was valued at $11 billion. Even though we have goals or intention-plans to achieve these goals, some studies prove that having an intention to act and actually acting is only correlated by 28% in actual behaviour change.

The intention/acting gap

Most of us can clearly understand that good habits are better than bad habits and yet there is still a clear gap between intention-to-act and action.

There are a number of techniques for new habit formation that focus on setting, context, barriers to action, social influence, emotion and purpose but these should be unpacked on a case by case basis and do not always provide a wide spread approach that many people can make use of. However, breakthroughs in our understanding of how we actively form new habits in the brain have assisted in the development of new behaviour and habits that last.

To understand these we first need to understand the dynamics of a habit.

Related: 10 Powerful Habits That Will Make You a Millionaire

The science behind habits

A habit is an automatic behavioural pattern in response to a cue. It’s the result of repeating a behaviour in the same context again and again. It happens when we buckle up our seat belts when we get in a car, jump onto Facebook when we are feeling bored, or remember to take a notebook with to a meeting.

Repetition strengthens the connection in the brain between a cue and the associated behaviour. With enough repetition our habits move from being initially conscious behaviour to unconscious habit. A recent study proved that it takes 66 days on average to form a new habit and that some people can take up to 250 days to form the same habit.

The secret is that repetition is key. How we move from new behaviour to habit can be likened to learning to drive a car. When driving for the first time we felt very conscious about what we were doing and constantly remembered to put the gear stick into second gear when we moved through a corner. Yet, over time and with repetition, we can’t even consciously remember shifting gears after we have driven somewhere on the same day.

The brain loves to hardwire thinking, but it has limited capacity to do so. We can only manage to change one habit at a time. This is why we can talk on the phone and drive once we have mastered driving a car  (assuming that you are using a hands-free device of course), but not when we were first learning to do so.

Small steps, big rewards

Often, we expect big changes in our behaviour and set challenging goals: Lose 38kgs, wake up at 5am, make R10 million in the first year of business. The reality is that change and the formation of new habits is small and requires incremental repeated steps to take hold. When we have a lofty goal we often get disheartened when we don’t see significant progress towards that goal. This limits our desire to repeat the behaviour that is required by the brain to create new habits.

So, what’s the solution? We need to chunk our goals into smaller habits that can be achieved easily and habitually. When we achieve goals the brain releases dopamine, the feel-good hormone, and adrenaline, the energy hormone.

This creates an upward spiral where we feel motivated and have the energy to achieve more. So, instead of working towards a R10 million target, break down that goal into a piece of lead-generating activity a day. This achievement of smaller incremental goals will create a synergy of dopamine and adrenaline in the brain associated with the behaviour that will enable us to ride this wave in a positive upward spiral of repetition over time.

Related: 8 Habits Of Highly Successful Leaders

“If-Then” plans and how to use them

Behavioural scientists suggest that we need to create a routine that weaves our new desired behaviour into our daily lives to increase repetition so that it may one day become a default response and thus a habit.

This requires routine, consistency, a reminder to do so and most importantly, what some scientists call, an If-Then plan. This is a cue in our mind to behave in a certain way when a situation presents itself. This is aided by stacking new desired behaviours into existing habits.

For example, we could create an If-Then plan to go to gym after working by making sure that once we get home after work and get changed out of our work clothes (If), we get dressed into our gym clothes (Then).

This creates an achievable and easily repeatable behaviour (getting ready for gym) that enables us to create a positive upward spiral (releasing dopamine and adrenaline) to fulfil a larger, more important, goal (improved overall health).

Once we can create this loose connection in the brain between desired activity (Then) and situational cue (If), this associated behaviour becomes easily accessible in the brain and therefore easier to recall.

Once we have recalled it enough it is hardwired and becomes a new habit, moving from the conscious to unconscious.

Pulling it al together

What goals are you currently working on that you can break down into smaller goals to create a positive upward spiral? How can you create If-Then plans or mental cues to make sure that your desired behaviour is easy to recall and act upon based on cues in your day-to-day environment? Start small, but start — that’s how you form the habits that will ultimately lead you down a path of success.