Taming your Impulsive Brain!


In “The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the boy meets a fox who wants the Little Prince to tame him. The fox begins to teach the Little Prince the value of being tamed with these words:

“Please—tame me!” he said.

“I want to, very much,” the Little Prince replied. “But I have not much time. I have friends to discover and a great many things to understand.”

“One only understands the things that one tames,” said the fox.

And then, the fox begins to teach the Little Prince the art of taming. 

You may wonder exactly what we’ll be taming. Have you ever seen an object, whether large or small, that you are driven to buy at that moment?

When you tame your impulsive brain, you start by understanding how and when the brain becomes impulsive.  Then, we’ll look at what to do, with pointers to help you guide your brain—like trying to steer a curious puppy on a leash—toward your goals instead of getting pulled in every direction.

Let’s look at what happens when the brain gets excited, pulling us toward something to buy or do. The following is taken from clients I’ve seen over the years.

Joseph: Imagine this: ever landed on a site with everything from the latest tech to trendy shoes and felt that urge to buy? Happens to me every couple of weeks.  There I am, reading a newspaper article, and I see an offer for something that almost looks like it’s calling my name. It’s just too easy. They’ve got my credit card info. I hit “buy,” and it’s mine. But when my purchase arrives, I’m not sure why I was so excited in the first place. People call it “buyer’s remorse.” I just feel dumb, blowing cash that should be for a vacation I haven’t had in over two years because, well, I’ve already spent the money.

Maryanne: Sometimes, when I go to the supermarket and I’m tired, I don’t just stick to my shopping list. Nope, I’ll find some previously fixed meals in that refrigerated case. Almost every one of them looks good to me. So, I put two or three in my cart, promising I’ll fix them for my partner James and me this week. Then I might see the latest extra virgin olive oil and I’ll buy a bottle. At the checkout stand, if there’s a long wait and I’m standing near where the latest travel magazine is displayed, I’ll buy it, along with some dark chocolate that I just know I’ll need sooner or later. But this is the point: I know, even while I’m walking out the door, that I’ve spent more than I’d planned. But at the moment, before I bought the item, it just seemed irresistible.  

Claudia: I still go to department stores to shop for clothing. That way, I know what I’m buying by the feel of the cloth and the heaviness of the material. There’s only one problem: I love vests! I’ve got a closet full of them. I have a vest to go with almost any color you’d imagine in a piece of clothing. Does that stop me from buying vests? You’d think it would, but it doesn’t! There I was last week, taking a few hours during my day off to go shopping, just “in case” I’d see something I’d later regret not buying. I saw a creamy white vest, the kind you wear with dark blue slacks and a cream-colored, long-sleeved shirt. I bought it immediately! I was excited and didn’t want to miss out on this vest. Plus, it was 10% off!

When I got home later that day and took out the vest, I noticed while I was hanging it up with the rest of my treasures that I already had a cream-colored vest that looked like the one I had just bought! Of course, I took the vest back, but not without intense embarrassment. At least the salesperson didn’t know why I was returning it, and I didn’t tell her.

Alex: I love playing pickleball. Last week, two of my friends each called and invited me to matches.  Without thinking, the first thing out of my mouth was, “Yes.” Only problem? I had clients scheduled during that time. I was in a dilemma: do I move clients or cancel the pickleball invites? In the end, the games lost out. I hate it when I say “yes” to something that I’d love to do, only to find out later I’d double-booked and would have to cancel something. It makes me look like a flake. Well, I guess when I behave that way I am exhibiting flakey behavior! 

You may have a brain with a different type of impulsive behavior than the ones shown above. These behaviors can range from impulsive buyers like Joseph to impulsive market spenders like Maryanne to impulsive schedulers like Alex. Understanding your impulsive brain behavior is the first step towards taming it. 

You might wonder why I talk about your brain in this way. This is the bottom line: you are not your brain! You have two eyes, a nose, a mouth, and a brain. By “taming the brain,” I mean training and shaping it to respond to the cues you wish it to acknowledge, thereby managing your impulsive behavior in favor of responses that will bring you what’s essentially important to you.

Neuroscience is filled with research that corroborates your ability to shape your brain. One key concept is ‘neuroplasticity,’ which suggests that our brains are not fixed but can change and adapt. That is, you and I have a certain amount of control over the creation of synaptic connections. In short, might it be time for you to tame your brain?

Is Your Brain Impulsive?

As you undoubtedly know, if you want to redirect where your brain focuses, you must first be clear about what situations give rise to an impulsive response. For example, when do you notice an urge to respond quickly to a situation? Many people report that there’s a pleasurable feeling when faced with a certain kind of situation. It could look like:

  • Feeling so excited when you’re asked to do something like join friends at a particular kind of event that you accept the invitation without thinking about your schedule.
  • Experiencing a moment of pleasure that causes you to repeat that action, like putting an extra “app” on your iPad when you see the exciting ads for it as you play a game.
  • Feeling the urge to buy magazines or candy when you’re in line at the supermarket.
  • Buying vacations on the “ spur of the moment” without checking whether this decision is in your best financial interest over the long haul.

As mentioned earlier, some behaviors can cause you to experience regret at a later time. These behaviors are typically characterized by a lack of reflection and an inability to resist an urge because you “think” you’ll regret the lack of taking action. However when your actions are poorly thought out, they create obstacles to your important life or professional goals. You’ll feel regret anyway because you made it harder to do what you would love to do!

How to Tame Your Brain

Remember that the brain always seeks to experience pleasure while recoiling from negative experiences. It doesn’t respond well to punishment, as when you withdraw from any pleasurable experiences in order to curb the behavior. Instead, follow this time-tested strategy of focusing your brain’s attention away from the impulse to do something else.

  • For example, many studies suggest waiting before making large impulse purchases to let initial excitement fade. A standard tip is to wait 24 hours before deciding. This helps you shift from a quick, emotional decision to a more thoughtful one. The delay lets the initial rush of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that drives the urge for immediate gratification, decrease. This pause helps things cool down so that you can think about whether you really want the purchase and if it fits with your long-term goals.
  • Another barrier to thoughtful decision-making is the lack of sleep many of us experience. Taking care of your brain by ensuring you get enough sleep is crucial, even if some people might dismiss it. In fact last year I saw the following on a billboard in Los Angeles. It was an advertisement to join a boxing class.  It read “ You can rest when you die.” There you have it!  The bottom line is: the fact that we’re consistently getting less sleep than our brains need doesn’t give the brain much strength to curb our impulsive behavior.
  • In cases where the decision isn’t as big as buying a new appliance, a car, or a pricey vacation, try the following. If, for example, the urge is to buy some articles of clothing, no matter how excited you are, resolve to walk away from the impending purchase for 20 minutes. Go take a walk, preferably outside in the fresh air, to let the urge lose its intensity. Then, after 20 minutes, when the “dopamine high” is wearing off, return to the item to see if that’s really what you want. If it is, then you’re less likely to experience regret because you bought it. This can even work with smaller articles such as a box of candy (except if it’s a dark chocolate cream, then forget trying to let it go! LOL), a book, or a small purchase off of a website.

Seth:  One solution I found was to print the following words on a 3×5 card: “That sounds great. Let me check my schedule and get back to you.” Every time I’m invited to something, like tickets to a basketball game, I practice saying those words to the person I’m talking to. It’s given me the chance to experience an event without reneging at the last minute because I didn’t check my calendar in my urge to give an immediate “Yes.” I practiced the phrase “That sounds great. Let me check my schedule and get back to you” repeatedly. 

For Seth, this preparation helped him when he needed to respond to an invitation. Even though he was highly motivated to answer “Yes,” he wasn’t sure if his schedule would allow it. This approach gave him time to consider his options thoughtfully. When he told this to one person who was inviting him to a basketball game, they replied, “Okay, great. Get back to me whenever you can.”  And that was it. 

The point in all of the training here is that creating an interval between the urge to do or buy something diminishes the likelihood that you’ll find this is something you simply must do or have, thus decreasing the possibility of a breakdown in your schedule. This is a mindful approach that requires patience as you gently take the focus of your brain’s attention away from an urge based upon a “hit of dopamine” and onto that which has authentic meaning for you. Ultimately, one of our goals is to treat our brains with compassion and respect. 

In conclusion, what we’re looking for are ways to treat your brain with compassion and respect. It does need to be tamed at times, and all you need to do is first understand why it does what it does. Then, you can design ways to help it change.

See you next time,

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