Six proven methods to overcome bad habits

Your primitive lizard brain wants to run your life, but you can take back control

Six proven methods to overcome bad habits

Imagine you’re slogging through your morning commute in bumper-to-bumper traffic when a car abruptly pulls into your lane, forcing you to slam on the brakes. Your fingers tighten around the steering wheel and you mutter a few curses, along with some colorful commentary about the shabby drivers taking over the roads these days.

That surge of anger comes from your limbic system, commonly referred to as the lizard brain — the instinctual, primitive part of the mind that helped humans fight off saber-toothed tigers during the Ice Age. Today, the lizard brain is mainly responsible for ulcers, heartburn, headaches and other stress-related illnesses. It also drives bad habits that can destroy your relationships at home and in the office.

Steve Scanlon has devoted his career to “quieting the lizard brain.” His company, Rewire, offers coaching, workshops and corporate programs that help clients discover the ways their lizard brain is driving their actions – and take steps to combat them.

“If you want to build your emotional intelligence, you have to quiet the lizard brain,” Scanlon said. “The louder your lizard brain, the tougher it is to change.”

Here are the lizard’s favorite things:

  1. Familiarity: Have you ever noticed how your co-workers all tend to sit in the same places in the conference room? The lizard brain is comforted by familiarity — and that drive gets stronger during stressful times. 
  2. Being right: This one often shows up during fights between spouses, but it can also appear at work. Some people love to dig in their heels when challenged, even prioritizing being right over getting paid; for instance, an originator who fights an underwriter for a week, rather than working to close the deal.
  3. Habits: There is no fast, easy way to break a bad habit like smoking or overeating. It takes time to rewire your brain — and you have to be willing to endure some pain — but it can be done. 
  4. Control: Do you freak out if a flight in cancelled? Not only is it inconvenient, the process is also out of your control. That makes it all the more uncomfortable.

Now that you are aware of your worst tendencies, how can you sooth your lizard brain? There are a few scientifically proven approaches you can take to put your higher self in the driver’s seat.

  1. Rest: Sleep helps everything, including your mood and immune system. Poor sleep quality is tied to excessive cortisol, which leads to weight gain, dementia and cardiovascular disease. Still, many of us are not getting enough of rest. Experts recommend cutting caffeine, alcohol and screen time to improve the quality of your zz’s.
  2. Enjoy life: Everyone has to work hard, but find some fun in it. Cultivate hobbies that still your lizard brain like knitting or hiking. Pleasurable experiences release dopamine and serotonin, which are natural mood boosters.
  3. Wellness: Exercise and eat well — good health habits improve your physical fitness and build your brain. Even small changes count. The next time you feel stressed, get up and go for a walk.
  4. Invest: Learn to be a giver. The lizard brain naturally wants to hoard as much as it can for you. Instead, donate time and money to a favorite cause. 
  5. Release: Forgive others and forgive yourself. This step is an antidote to the lizard brain’s focus on being right and replaying past grievances. Let it go.
  6. Execute: Decide to address something about yourself that you want to change. No motivational advice can make a difference if you never act on it.


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