Emily’s a passionate entrepreneur who’s doing a lot of things right … But she’s also a workaholic.
Emily has every intention of closing shop on Friday and spending the weekend with her family. But a potential client asked for a meeting this Saturday, and she could not say no. Sunday will not be a day off either, since she’s trying to meet a deadline on a major project.
A similar scene repeats itself week after week, month after month.
Emily’s always exhausted. She knows overwork causes here to get irritated easily. And she feels terrible every time she misses her son’s soccer games.
Still, she can not unplug from her business. She finds it impossible to say “no.” No matter how hard she tries, she can not seem to break those bad habits.
Whether or not you face a similar situation, you can likely relate to Emily’s struggle. You might feel like you’re a victim of your brain’s emotional programming, and there’s nothing you can do to change it.
If you feel like Emily, you might benefit from a technique I learned from a psychologist some years ago. It’s based on principles of emotional intelligence, the ability to understand and manage your emotions.
I like to call it: the Rule of Rewiring.
What is the Rule of Rewiring, and how can it help you rewire your brain and exchange bad habits for better ones?
Before we answer that question, let’s learn a little about how habits work.
(If you find value in the “Rule of Rewiring,” you might be interested in my emotional intelligence course – which includes 20 more rules that help you develop your emotional intelligence. Check out the course here.)
Change the way you think – using neuroscience
It’s 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 amount of control over your brain’s “programming.” Through a combination of concentrated thoughts and purposeful actions, you can “rewire” your brain and exert greater control over your emotional reactions and tendencies.
Of course, bad habits are especially difficult to break, but that does not mean you have to be forever at their mercy. Instead, you can use the Rule of Rewiring to reprogram your thoughts and establish new (and better) habits.
To follow the Rule of Rewiring, follow this three-step method.
If you want to change a habit, you must first be properly motivated. You need to be fully convinced that the habit needs changing and you must truly want 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 experience 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 actually have a weekend she can enjoy.
To do this, she needs to stop overcommitting and set clear boundaries between her work and the rest of her life.
To master any new skill, you need to practice it many, many times, until it’s completely internalized. And before you can change a bad behavior, you first have to understand why you react a certain way.
That requires self-reflection. Finding time for that can be challenging, so book an appointment in your calendar – a meeting with yourself. Then, think of the last time you gave in to a bad habit or said or did something you regret.
Ask yourself questions like these:
- Why did I react this way?
- Did my reaction help me or harm me?
- What would I change if I could do it again?
- What could I say to myself next time that would help me think more clearly?
After this type of reflection, Emily realizes her inability to say “no” stems from a deep-rooted fear of failure. However, she also realizes that her workaholic tendencies will have negative consequences on her health as well as her family’s happiness.
With this in mind, she’s in a position to set realistic boundaries and work towards a healthier work-life balance. She then mentally rehearses – and even practices out loud – her response for the next time a client asks for a Saturday meeting or she’s tempted to spend a beautiful Sunday in her home office.
Now that you’ve done your homework, it’s time for the test – how you’ll react in real-life situations.
Every day you’ll have opportunities to apply what you’ve practiced. Use the script you’ve 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 take a step back. If that happens, return to the self-reflection questions listed above. Take time to identify what you’re feeling, to think about the consequences, and to identify what you can adjust for the next time.
As you take every opportunity to integrate these “habits by design,” you’ll proactively shape your emotional responses. Over time, it will allow you to rewire your brain and replace bad habits with good ones. You’ll wake up each day better equipped to handle the emotional challenges that come your way.
And that’s how you use neuroscience to increase emotional intelligence – and make emotions work for you, instead of against you.