How To Train Your Brain To Be More Patient
By Art Markman
When it comes to motivation, your brain is a little like a traffic light. Here’s how to rewire it.
Are you a patient person? Are you sure? Most of us think we’re pretty good at waiting for the things we want. But in reality, you’re probably more impatient than you’d like to admit. It’s hard not to get what you want right now—that’s just how humans are built.
The good news is that there are a few things you can do to improve your patience. The bad news is that before you can implement them, you first need to understand where your impatience comes from. Here’s how.
HOW YOUR BRAIN’S TRAFFIC LIGHTS ARE WIRED
Your brain has two distinct systems that work in tandem to help you achieve your goals.
On occasion, [your brain] engages goals you no longer want to pursue—or least don’t want to pursue at that moment.
You can think of one as the “go system,” which involves structures deep in the brain. It engages your goals, gives them energy, and directs you to focus on information related to achieving them. This system is extraordinarily efficient. On occasion, though, it engages goals you no longer want to pursue—or least don’t want to pursue at that moment.
When this happens, the second system in your brain kicks in. It involves your brain’s frontal lobes inhibits actions the “go system” is suggesting. You can think of this one as the “stop system,” and it’s generally much less effective by comparison. It’s impaired by stress, drugs and alcohol, and even overuse.
So when you’re impatient to get something done, it means that your “go system” has you strongly fired up to do it right now, and your “stop system” is having a hard time holding you back. The problem is that even if you successfully keep that urge at bay, you’re still going to feel the discomfort of impatience—unless you find a way to disengage the go system from its dogged pursuit of the goal.
Got it? Great! Now it’s time to look at a few ways of doing that . . . thanks for your patience!
1. GET SOME DISTANCE
The go system focuses on goals that can be achieved in the world as your brain perceives it to be. The more distant a goal is from you, the less that it motivates you. So if you can create distance between yourself and the goal, you can decrease the energy your brain’s go system puts behind it.
And luckily, there are lots of ways to create distance. Obviously, physical distance can help; the adage “out of sight, out of mind” really does work. Mental distance can help move yourself out of the direct path of temptation, too. It’s no secret that humans enjoy savoring the experience of being tempted, and that can put a lot of pressure on our capacity for patience. You think about all of the juicy details, which increases your desire, making you impatient.
But you don’t need to become an ascetic who tries to eliminate temptation altogether. Instead, think about those temptations more abstractly. If you’re lusting after a new car that you can’t quite afford right now, don’t obsess over its wood trim and efficient engine. It’s okay to keep thinking about it, but think about it only as a vehicle or mode of transportation. Your go system will soon start to latch on to something else.
2. DISTRACT YOURSELF
In order to help you with goal achievement, your go system also tends to focus you on just one goal at a time. That’s why you get impatient. Everything else gets less important when your go system engages a particular goal strongly. That means that if you can compel your brain to fixate on a different goal, the temptation you’re fighting will get less strong.
So find something else you also enjoy and immerse yourself in it. While you’re pursuing that other goal, you won’t feel the strong pull of impatience as badly as you did before.
3. PHONE A FRIEND
It can be hard to disengage the go system all by yourself. Your natural cycle of thoughts will often bring you back to the desirable aspects of whatever you’re struggling to stay patient about. Your mind creates its own vicious cycle that strengthens the go system’s grip on the goal, making it harder and harder for you to avoid acting on it.
Humans are a social species. We’re wired to give our attention to the people around us and to share their goals.
When this happens, you quite literally need help—from someone else. Humans are a social species. We’re wired to give our attention to the people around us and to share their goals. When you find another person (a friend, family member, or colleague) who doesn’t share your obsession, your interactions with them will lead your go system to pick up on what they want, which creates an opening for your brain’s stop system to pump the brakes.
While you’re with that person, you won’t be the same impatient soul you were when you were alone. In this sense, anyway, training your brain to be more patient may have an unexpected side effect: it can bring people together.