Is there a way to live a better life?

Leadership is not just for department heads, entrepreneurs, or people with impressive name plates. You can’t be an effective leader of anything, big or small, until you learn how to lead your own life.

It comes down to the ability to make good decisions. This has become an even more important aspect of good leadership with the emergence of big data and analytics. What to sift through or throw out?

Behavioral scientists have proven that our brain struggles with information overload. Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman points out that our brains tend to rely on shortcuts and biases to make many automatic decisions.

Leadership starts in our mind, and only by understanding how our mind works, can we lead ourselves, and others, in an effective manner. When we’re under pressure, our brain’s natural behavior will dictate how we react. A pressure-packed situation involves high stakes, emotions are heightened, and our reaction is often automatic and unfiltered.

Once we understand this, we can outsmart our brain and live a better life:

1. Choose Words With Care

My Grandmother was a crack shot with a shotgun. She never allowed me to say “I can’t” when she told me to do my chores. She never let me whine and complain, either. Come summer, she was the kind of person who would rather burn her front yard than mow it. People didn’t mess with grandma.

She never had more than an 8th grade education, but my grandmother knew something that researchers at world-class universities are just now understanding.

And that is, every time we say the words “I can’t” we are creating a feedback loop in our brain that impacts the way we’re going to behave in the future. We’re reminding ourself of our limitations, and we’re really saying, “I don’t have the confidence to do this.”

Have you ever said to yourself:

  • Public speaking is not my thing, so don’t blame me if it goes badly.
  • I don’t like to perform under pressure is not something I do well, so don’t blame me if nothing happens.
  • This project is too much, so don’t blame me if it’s not a success.

Every time we repeat phrases like these, they produce a negative feedback loop in our brain.

There are several regions of the brain, and an MRI scan can show what parts of the brain are lighting up when we are thinking. If you fold your fingers into a fist, they would represent the cerebral cortex—the thinking part of the brain. This is the brain that finds new ways of processing information and generating solutions; it is more logical in its approach.

But the moment something creates fear or discomfort, we move into another part of the brain. The thumb underneath your fist would represent the limbic system—the reactive or emotional part of the brain.

The limbic brain system is instinctive and survival driven. When we’re confronted with threatening obstacles, we move from the cerebral to the reactive limbic system and it creates the “fight” or “flight” reactions that have kept humans alive for centuries.

The limbic brain is 100% self-protective and it’s not always a good place to be when we’re trying to make decisions when facing adversity. All it knows is that you’re in discomfort and feel anxious. Instinctively, it tells you to flee or withdraw, so you obey and say, “I can’t.” We have to switch gears to consciously move out of the reactive limbic system and into the thinking cerebral brain. When facing adversity and obstacles, it’s vital to get the two brains working together so the best decisions can be made.

How To Make It Work For You: Rather than react to an emotional situation, take the time to pause. Breath, not because a breath will bring any wisdom or clarity, but it will give your slower, thinking brain time to catch up. That’s the real reason it’s a good thing to take a deep breath before you say something that will make you sound like a jerk.

2. Prioritize Information

Our brain places more emphasis on immediate satisfaction than long-term rewards. That explains why we tend to focus on non-urgent tasks that give us satisfaction at the time, and leave important tasks that will take more time until later in the day, or week.

An interesting study found that people are more likely to complete small but urgent tasks that have a deadline than they were to perform important tasks without one. The reason is that the brain seeks the goal of completion.

Even when we know a larger task is more important, we’ll choose to do the smaller task if it’s urgent.

How To Make It Work For You: When you prioritize information, it forces your brain to interact with it rather than simply react to it. Prepare a good old-fashioned list. Create visuals with whiteboards and list projects so it forces the two brain’s to work together to sort out the day’s activities. If possible, assign a theme to each day. When you focus on one specific type of work each day of the week, it helps you stay accountable and monitor progress. It also helps you stay focused on work.

3. Learn How To Manage Your Stress

As an FBI agent, I experienced as much fear and anxiety as anyone when confronted with stressful situations. Research has shown that law enforcement personnel, such as FBI agents and Special Forces, develop a leadership brain when they learn how to quickly manage their fear and anxiety. It’s not that they don’t feel discomfort; it’s that they have been trained to manage that discomfort so they are hardier and more resilient.

How To Make It Work For You: Here are two ways to manage stress:

Learn to Be Grateful—gratitude emanates from the limbic system, and because of this, we can use gratitude to influence other emotions such as anxiety and fear. The ancient book of the Bible reminds us that “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it (Psalm 118:24 ESV)

Learn to Write Down Feelings—writing down and then thinking about certain areas of our life for which we feel grateful can boost our ability to counter the negative emotions we are experiencing. Keeping a journal moves us from the limbic system into the cerebral. It’s important to not only think about why we are grateful, but also to focus on the feelings attached to our gratitude.

4. Label All Of Your Emotions

Describe an emotion you experienced in one or two words. In the exercise above you were encouraged to identify and write down your emotions. Now it’s time to label them, even the embarrassing ones that make you sound like a sniveling wimp. Own it. You’re deluding yourself if you don’t admit (when provoked, of course) you have ugly emotions.

Although most people expect labeling emotions to increase emotion, when you label your fear or anxiety you actually lessen your discomfort. It’s very important, however, to keep the label to one or two words because if you open up dialogue about it, you will only increase the emotional state of the limbic system.

People like my grandmother understand how important it is to acknowledge our fear and anxiety so it doesn’t fester and grow in the dark. Only when we acknowledge it exists can we find ways to deal with it in a productive way.

Whether you’re in law enforcement, a leader, or a grandmother, let your discomfort be a trigger to take positive and constructive action so you can move forward.

How To Make It Work For You: The fight or flight reaction begins in the amygdalae, which is where your brain interprets emotions. When you reflect on your feelings and label them it assists in calming the limbic brain system. You can move out of the fight/flight mode so you can think about the issue at hand.

© 2019 LaRae Quy. All rights reserved.

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