Emily is a passionate entrepreneur who does a lot of things right…but she’s also a workaholic.
Emily intends to close shop on Friday and spend the weekend with her family. But a potential client asked for an appointment this Saturday, and she couldn’t say no. Sunday won’t be a day off either, as she’s trying to meet a deadline on a major project.
A similar scene repeats itself week after week, month after month.
Emily is still exhausted. She knows that overwork here causes easy irritation. And she feels bad every time she misses her son’s soccer games.
Yet she cannot disconnect from her business. She finds it impossible to say “no”. No matter how hard she tries, she can’t break these bad habits.
Whether or not you’re faced with a similar situation, you can probably relate to Emily’s struggle. You may feel like you are a victim of your brain’s emotional programming and there is nothing you can do to change it.
If you feel like Emily, you might benefit from a technique I learned from a psychologist a few years ago. It is based on the principles of emotional intelligence, the ability to understand and manage your emotions.
I like to call it: the rewiring rule.
What is the Rewiring Rule and how can it help you rewire your brain and trade bad habits for better ones?
Before we answer that question, let’s learn a bit about how habits work.
(If you find value in the “rewiring rule,” you might be interested in my course on emotional intelligence – which includes 20 additional rules that help you develop your emotional intelligence. Check out the course here.)
Change the way you think with neuroscience
It is a common misconception that the adult brain is static or otherwise fixed in form and function. But as scientists have discovered in recent years, the brain has a remarkable property called neuroplasticity.
This plasticity means that you have some control over the “programming” of your brain. Through a combination of focused thoughts and focused actions, you can “rewire” your brain and exert greater control over your emotional reactions and tendencies.
Of course, bad habits are especially hard to break, but that doesn’t mean you have to be at their mercy forever. Instead, you can use the rewiring rule to reprogram your thoughts and establish new (and better) habits.
To follow the rewiring rule, follow this three-step method.
If you want to change a habit, you must first be sufficiently motivated. You must be fully convinced that the habit must change and you must really want to to make the change.
To do this, you need to find your “why”. Why do you want (and need) to change this habit? What benefits will you feel if you succeed?
Emily, for example, wants to spend more time with her family and strengthen important relationships outside of work. She will also enjoy better health if she can reduce stress, get more sleep, and have a weekend she can enjoy.
To do this, she needs to stop overcommitting herself and establish clear boundaries between her work and the rest of her life.
To master a new skill, you must practice it many times, until it is completely internalized. And before you can change bad behavior, you must first understand why you are reacting in a certain way.
It requires self-reflection. Finding time for this can be difficult, so book an appointment in your calendar – a meeting with yourself. Next, think about the last time you gave in to a bad habit or said or did something that you regret.
Ask yourself questions like these:
- Why did I react like this?
- Did my reaction help me or hurt me?
- What would I change if I had to do it over again?
- What could I tell myself next time that would help me think more clearly?
After this kind of reflection, Emily realizes that her inability to say “no” stems from a deep-seated fear of failure. However, she also realizes that her workaholic tendencies will take a toll on her health as well as the happiness of her family.
With this in mind, she is able to set realistic boundaries and work towards a healthier work-life balance. She then mentally rehearses — and even practices aloud — her response for the next time a client requests a Saturday meeting or she’s tempted to spend a nice Sunday in her home office.
Now that you’ve done your homework, it’s time to test your reaction in real situations.
Every day you will have the opportunity to apply what you have practiced. Use the script you developed when you need to interact with others, and also to respond to the voice of criticism in your own head.
But remember: some days you’ll be proud of your self-control, while other days you’ll stand back. If this happens, return to the self-reflection questions listed above. Take the time to identify how you feel, think about the consequences, and identify what you can adjust for next time.
As you take every opportunity to integrate these “habits by design”, you will proactively shape your emotional responses. Over time, this will allow you to rewire your brain and replace bad habits with good ones. You will wake up each day better equipped to deal with the emotional challenges that come your way.
And that’s how you use neuroscience to increase emotional intelligence — and make emotions work for you, rather than against you.