Four Secret Ways Your Brain is Killing Your Progress

Your brain is a funny thing. Just when you think you have it trained and you’re well on your way to reaching a goal, that three-pound weight between your ears throws a nasty curveball. The worst part is that you don’t even see it coming.

These silent killers can pop up suddenly and derail your efforts. Before you know it, you’re three steps forward and five steps back.

To help prepare you for the road ahead, consider these four common killers.

Killer #1: Emotional Burnout
Most of us have experienced some level of burnout or exhaustion in our lives. This is a state where everything you do becomes a struggle, your mood is always down and everything in you wants to abandon your commitments and start life over again.

When you’re feeling burnt out, even the things you once loved to do become a chore, and it seems as though life has become a challenge, if not impossible, in every way.

When in this headspace, you become worried about survival rather than growth. You’re just trying to get by. Sure it would be nice to volunteer for projects that would help to advance your career or to follow through on the healthy meal plan that you created. However, with no emotional fortitude left, there is no way these things will happen.

Even the world’s greatest plan becomes meaningless if you don’t have the energy to make it happen. Survival mode puts you in a shortsighted mindset, where you couldn’t care less about the five-year impact of a single choice. All you really want to do is ease the pain of right now.

You become far more interested in doing what hurts the least, rather than what matters most.

Killer #2: Ego Depletion
Studies have shown that willpower, the ability to control your behavior and to carry out your decisions, is an exhaustible resource. It’s connected to making choices, breaking habits, controlling urges, and practicing mental and physical endurance, along with all other forms of self-control.1

Any kind of real change requires the use of self-control, and with each challenge you overcome, the less control you have left to exert over the next one. This state of suppressed willpower is called Ego Depletion.

You may have experienced Ego Depletion when you got home after work and, despite your weight loss goals, you couldn’t seem to help but have two large servings of pasta and a big bowl of ice cream.

Among other reasons, this is because throughout the day, you exhausted your willpower. You made hundreds of small decisions in the form of answering emails or staff and customer questions. You also practiced self-control by resisting the fatty burger at lunch and going for a salad instead.

Each choice that you make, some more than others, gradually drains your willpower, making subsequent decisions even more difficult. Add in mental fatigue from a long, stressful day and you have the perfect recipe for making poor choices.

Killer #3: Moral Licensing
As you accomplish more and move towards a goal, the urge gets stronger to cheat “just a little bit”. There’s nothing wrong with preplanned rewards and breaks in order to maintain your resolve, but anything else is called Moral Licensing.

The thought in your mind might be, “I’ve been saving really well, so I think I’ll go buy that new outfit” or, “I had salad for lunch so I’ll have fast food for dinner.” This feels like you are getting ahead, but you’re actually going nowhere.

Interestingly, Moral Licensing doesn’t stop with these types of decisions. Even seeing the option of healthy choices actually makes you more likely to make bad ones.

Psychologist Kelly McGonigal explains in her book The Willpower Instinct, that Moral Licensing is why the addition of salads to the McDonald’s menu actually increased the sale of Big Macs. When your brain senses the presence of an opportunity to do right, it gets the same signal as if you actually did it!

Moral Licensing is also at work across different areas of your life. For example, you can help an elderly woman cross the street and then go treat yourself to a donut and coffee. The two were completely unrelated, but because you felt so good about yourself for what you did, it seems ok to seek out a reward.

When you’re feeling virtuous, regardless of the real reason, you not only want to reward yourself for doing such a “good job”, you’re also more likely to trust your impulses because you “know what you’re doing.”

Killer #4: The WTH Effect
We have all had times when we set a goal, gave in to temptation and then decided to simply try again tomorrow or next week. Maybe you had an unhealthy breakfast and then figured fast food for lunch couldn’t hurt now. It all stems from the feeling that, “I’ve already failed, so I might as well give up.”

The WTH Effect is a very real problem for a lot of people. It can seem like making a single mistake has blown all potential progress for the day, but that’s not true. Allowing small setbacks to defeat you only takes you further and further away from the end result that you’re working so hard to achieve.

Don’t believe the lie that a mistake is good enough reason to give up. The truth is we all do it and every little bit matters.

A Common Cure?
Each of these killers has a list of remedies, but there is one that helps to defeat them all. It’s understanding and living by your values. When you choose to be intentional about the things that matter most, you can build up your defences and power through the finish line.

Values & Emotional Burnout:
Science has shown that being true to yourself and living in alignment with your deepest values can help reduce the burnout that is caused by what specialists have termed “intense emotional work.”2

Amazingly, doing what matters on an emotional level helps to protect you from exhaustion. Rather than stealing your energy, it actually adds to it, giving you the ability to make hard choices when you would otherwise be too tired and too burnt out to do so.

Values & Ego Depletion:
When your willpower tank is running on empty, you just want to do whatever feels the best, because resistance requires more energy than you have left to give. In those tough moments you lose perspective and fail to do what would move you forward.

However, studies have shown that linking your choices to your core values can counteract Ego Depletion.3 Similar to emotional burnout, the hard choices become energizing when they serve a purpose deeper than the inconvenience of the moment.

Values & Moral Licensing:
There’s nothing inherently wrong with rewarding yourself from time to time. What’s important though is that you remain conscious of what’s causing your good feelings and what they are tempting you to do.

As you maintain a focus on what truly matters to you, and why you have set your goal in the first place, a momentary good feeling will not have the same power to urge you into poor choices.

Values & The WTH Effect:
Immediately after you slip up, values can come to the rescue. Just because you made a mistake doesn’t mean you have to start over again later. All you have to do is acknowledge what you did, determine what you will do differently next time and then move on.

Falling off the wagon can be a very emotional experience, and getting back up is often easier said than done. However, when you keep your core values in mind, it becomes easier to clear your head, refocus and continue moving in the direction of your goal.

Are You Killing the Killers?
The brain is a wonderful thing. It has the power to accomplish amazing feats of achievement, connection and creativity, but it does have little quirks that need to be managed.

Thankfully, you are greater than your brain. You have the ability to witness your own thinking and pull the right levers to amplify your strengths and offset these killers. All you have to do is become aware and active in the process.

The questions is: are you living by your values and doing what matters most?

1. Baumeister, R. F. (2003). Ego depletion and self-regulation failure: a resource model of self-control. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 27(2):281-4.

2. Free to be you and me: a climate of authenticity alleviates burnout from emotional labor.

3. Self-affirmation and self-control: affirming core values counteracts ego depletion.

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