How Your Lizard Brain Sabotages Productivity
We all have a laundry list of things in our work and personal lives that we’ve been meaning to get around to, but for some reason never do: from short-term goals like finishing a project at work, doing our taxes, or cleaning out the garage, to longer-term goals like training for a marathon, implementing a business idea, or writing a book.
We want to achieve these things and even dream about completing them. So why is it so hard to follow through on what’s important to us?
A big part of the answer lies in our DNA.
You might be surprised to know that there are some ancient biological instincts that spring into action every time you want to achieve something or make a significant change in your life, and these instincts originate in the oldest evolutionary component of our brain - the lizard brain.
One Brain - Three Levels of Function
The concept of the lizard brain comes from the triune brain model, a theory originated by American physician and neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean in the 1960s. Though most modern neuroscientists consider it an oversimplification of our very complex brains, the model is still widely used in psychology and other disciplines, as it provides an easy-to-grasp concept of how our brains function. In the triune brain model, there are three different “layers” to the brain.
- The Lizard Brain- This includes the brain stem or basal ganglia and is the part of the brain that has kept us alive for centuries. This part of our brain can’t consciously think or reason. It is responsible for our instinctual behavior and regulates essential functions like breathing, heart rate, and balance. It is also the center of reward processing and habit formation.
Imagine someone throws a ball at your head: you duck without even thinking. This is the lizard brain at work. It springs into action to protect you when danger is coming and there is no time to think, only to act.
- The Limbic System - This part of our brain includes our amygdala and hippocampus and is responsible for emotions, memory, and emotional behaviors. Like the lizard brain, this part of our brain functions largely on an unconscious level. It records emotional memories of all sorts of things that have happened to us in the past and subconsciously influences how we react to similar stimuli when encountered in the future.
Some psychologists will also refer to the limbic system as part of the primal brain because it generates our fear and fight-or-flight responses. It tends to work in tandem with the basal ganglia to protect us from emotional or physical danger.
- The Neocortex - This is the seat of consciousness, higher- thought, language, and reasoning. It lets us know when something is not a good idea (e.g. taking that second glass of wine when we know we have to drive.) We’re using our neocortex when we learn new skills, create, and problem-solve. In fact, when you decide you want to make any sort of change in your life or set a specific goal, you can be sure the neocortex is in the driver's seat.
With this model in mind, it’s easy to understand why the lizard brain wouldn’t necessarily be a champion of our efforts to be more productive at work or achieve something important. It’s not really essential to your immediate survival to finish a work project or do some much needed spring cleaning.
But your lizard brain goes a step beyond being uninvested in your productivity efforts: it can be downright antagonistic to them, covertly working against any goal you set your mind to.
How the Lizard Brain Gets Us Off Track
There are several ways the lizard brain works unconsciously (but oh so persistently) to derail our very best efforts at creating change in our lives:
It makes you avoid hard things
Conserving energy is essential to survival. So, your primal inclination is to avoid any effort that’s going to consume large amounts of physical or mental energy–particularly when no immediate reward is involved. This is partly why you’ve been dragging your feet about learning a new piece of software for work, or why you feel exhausted just thinking about improvements you want to do in your home.
It’s continually pulling you toward fun
The lizard brain is compulsive and uniquely driven towards things that offer immediate rewards. Unfortunately, the really important things we want to do to improve our lives tend to require discipline and focus and rarely come with an immediate fun factor.
That’s why addiction to social media is so prevalent. Most of us have access to an endless supply of content on platforms like TikTok, YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook. Each time we receive a like on a FaceBook post or watch a video filled with cute babies, we get another small hit of dopamine. This ensures our lizard brains will prioritize quick rewards like social media over working towards a goal.
It has zero interest in creativity
When you want to create a new vision for your life or brainstorm some new innovation, you need to be bold and allow your mind to take risks and venture into new areas of imagination. The primal brain has no interest in such adventures. It is focused on keeping you safe, which means sticking with the status quo of what it knows.
It is a covert driver of insecurities as we achieve our goals
Ever had a great idea or inspiration and immediately talked yourself out of pursuing it?
The rush of self-doubt and onslaught of inner voices about why any new effort is doomed to fail is a tag-team effort from your primal brain and your limbic system.
The limbic system will remember any negative feelings that might have come with past failed efforts, and you might then feel a combination of fear and anxiety. This generates an instinctual avoidant response from the lizard brain, as it is unmotivated to pursue anything that could cause hurt or discomfort. It’s just so much easier (and safer) to not try at all.
The lizard brain (and your limbic system) can shut down higher thought
Your neocortex can’t shut down your lizard brain, but your lizard brain can absolutely stop your neocortex from functioning in the face of a challenging situation. Research shows that when we are stressed, activity in the neocortex comes to a standstill while the limbic system and basal ganglia (the lizard brain) become extremely active.
This is great if you have to quickly dodge a vehicle that’s racing in your direction. But it’s not ideal when you’re not in a life-or-death situation and really need your neocortex to problem-solve.
Outsmarting Your Lizard Brain
The great news is that, while your lizard brain is powerful, it is also simple and predictable. Once you understand its workings, you can effectively get out in front of it. What’s more, there is an abundance of tools that can help you wrangle your most basic instincts:
Apps that block access to the apps or websites can effectively shut down addictive impulses in a direct and tangible way. As access is consistently blocked over time, the memory of the dopamine hits from visiting your favorite sites will fade away–along with the primal urge to return. This makes it relatively easy to erase the habit.
There are a few website-blocking options out there to try; but for a more comprehensive solution, try the kōno app-based productivity system which blocks both websites and apps.
Making a conscious effort to structure how you spend your time keeps the prefrontal cortex active. The lizard brain is best able to drive behavior when we are unconsciously floating through our day. Thus, the more you make an intentional plan or structure with your time, the less the primal mind is able to steer you off course. Here are some great tried and true methods to get you started:
- Time Blocking
Having a rock-solid schedule keeps your conscious mind engaged and aware of how you’re spending your time throughout the day, meaning you’re less likely to be diverted.
This is an even more detailed way to schedule your day. Even the smallest things, like brushing your teeth, taking a shower, walking your dog, and answering emails, are scheduled into 10-15 minute increments.
- Pomodoro Technique
This method encourages working in 25-minute blocks and stopping for a 5-minute break. You should repeat the process up to 4 times, taking a longer 20-minute break every 100 minutes.
Mindfulness meditation has been shown to increase thickness in the prefrontal cortex, which is directly linked to attention control. Anything that activates and increases the prominence of our conscious mind is an excellent tool for quieting the noise from the lizard brain.
This kind of meditation also cultivates the practice of simply observing the activity of our brains in a detached manner. It is an excellent way to become more aware of the endless messages the lizard brain is sending throughout your day without acting on them.
Working through Trauma
If you’ve experienced a lot of trauma in your life, your lizard brain and limbic system are most likely hyperactive. Prolonged periods of feeling threatened or unsafe means your fight-or-flight reflex is always primed, even when there is no real danger near. This leaves a lot of trauma sufferers trapped by the impulses of their primal mind, continually in the grip of fear and unable to move forward.
Fortunately, with the help of a licensed therapist, you can work through past trauma and calm trauma responses. Our brains are extremely flexible and can be trained to be less reactive and more mindful and thoughtful when challenges arise.
One of the best ways to calm the lizard brain down is simply by focusing on your breath. The lizard brain controls breathing automatically, but by doing breathing exercises you can consciously engage your neocortex and override the lizard brain.
This is incredibly useful when you feel anxiety about tackling a complex problem at work or taking a step towards a new goal that you’re nervous about. Instead of becoming completely overwhelmed or giving up, taking a moment to stop and focus on your breath gives your higher faculties a chance to function. With your neocortex in the driver's seat, you might find that the problem was not so big after all.
Making Friends with Your Lizard Brain
It’s helpful to keep this information in mind as you embark on any journey to be more productive. Looking at our behaviors through the lens of the triune brain model helps us to stop simply dismissing ourselves as lazy, and to start understanding how biology drives many of the choices we make. We can then chart a path toward our goals that sidesteps the knee-jerk reactions and pursuits of our lizard brain while maximizing the creative and problem-solving abilities of our neocortex.
What’s more, as the lizard brain loves nothing more than a reward, it will start associating productivity and working toward goals with happiness and fulfillment. Challenging activities your primal brain once avoided can gradually be integrated as positive habits. Over time, watch your lizard brain become less of an obstructor and more of an ally for positive change in your life.