A Simple Way To Hack Your Brain To Finally Get That Thing Done

It takes five steps, says psychology professor Art Markman, to finally change your habits and meet your goal, or help someone else meet theirs.

A Simple Way To Hack Your Brain To Finally Get That Thing Done

Chances are you have a big goal (write a book, start a business, lose weight, get organized) that makes your list of New Year’s resolutions year after year. There are likely a lot of things standing in your way (time, money, support, confidence). But the biggest thing in your way is probably your own motivation.


According to Art Markman, a professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and a Fast Company contributor, the motivational centers of the brain take your goals and drive you to act. It’s what he calls the “go system.” But the brain uses your habits as shortcuts to getting things done. So if you want to reach a big-picture goal, you have to change your habits. At this week’s Fast Company Innovation Festival, he explained how.

1. Think About The Process And Frame The Goal The Right Way

The first thing you need to make an abstract goal like “lose weight” happen, says Markman, is to frame it in the right way. That means thinking about the positive actions you are going to perform rather than the ones you are not going to do. For example, he says, thinking, “I’m not going to eat as much” is bound to fail. But changing what you do eat will have better results.

The other key aspect to this approach is viewing your goal as an ongoing process rather than a one-time thing: After all, the actions that you will be taking to reach your goal are ongoing ones. For example, Markman says the people who write a lot of books build a habit of writing all the time, not just until they finish one book. “It’s changing the processes for living your life,” he explains.

2. Put It On Your Calendar And Be Specific

To reach a goal, you need a set of specific actions you are going to take, and, most importantly, you need to be specific about when you are going to take those actions, says Markman. Setting the intention of writing “twice a week” is not enough. “There’s no ‘twice a week’ on your calendar–there’s Mondays and Wednesdays from 4-5 p.m.,” he says. By putting it on your schedule, you are reminded of the action regularly and it becomes a habit. This, he says, also makes it easier to figure out what, if anything else, is getting in the way.

Related: Three Work Tasks You Need To Cut From Your To-Do List Right Now


3. Figure Out How You Really Spend Your Time And Factor In Bad Habits

Bad habits like the “fake work” of checking email are often one of our biggest obstacles. Markman suggests keeping a journal of how you spend your time for 14 days, so you can observe where your habits are getting in the way and then make a plan to work around them. For example, you may find that you do your best work in the morning but often lose your whole morning to busy work. Still, breaking the habit of checking your email as soon as you sit down at your desk can be hard to achieve.

Instead, Markman suggests that you let yourself indulge it. Set a timer for 10 minutes and only check your email for that amount of time. Then set your timer for 60 minutes and work on your big project. You will have gotten the distraction of your habit out of the way and accomplished an hour of deep work.

Related: These Three Bad Habits Are Making Your Work Stress Worse

But what if you lack the motivation to get started on that 60 minutes of work that’s on your calendar? Markman suggests telling yourself that you will just do it for 10 minutes and then you can stop. Chances are, he says, that after 10 minutes the flow and enjoyment of the activity takes over, and you’ll just keep going.

4. Enlist Other People

We naturally learn from people around us, explains Markman. You need to find people who know what you need and learn from them, he says. “Successful people only got that way because they had an ecosystem of people who helped them get there who know things they don’t know.”

Related: Want To Change Your Habits? You’re Going To Have To Fight Your Brain


5. Structure Your Environment To Help You Reach Your Goals

The last thing that might be holding you back is your environment, says Markman. He advises that you should set up your home or work space in a way that makes what you want to accomplish easy and what you don’t want to accomplish hard. For example, if you are trying to declutter, set things on your desk that make it hard for you to let papers pile up. If you want to start running, put your running shoes by the door.

To measure your progress with all of the above, Markman suggests looking back every six months or a year at what your systematic failures were. You are bound to have some, but if the things that you are systematically not getting done are different each year, that’s reason to feel good, he says: You are making progress.


About the author

Kathleen Davis is Deputy Editor at Previously, she has worked as an editor at, and Popular Photography magazine.


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