We are now over a month into the new year, but how many of us are still following our new year’s resolutions? Research shows that 80% of resolutions fail by February. Why is this? One reason is that most people focus on conscious effort to achieve their goals, believing that it is sheer force of willpower that will create the new you. This narrow focus is detrimental to goal achievement because it ignores the powerful influence of the unconscious mind on our thoughts, actions, habits, and more.
In Before You Know It: The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do, John Bargh, Ph.D., the world’s leading expert on the unconscious mind, examines how the unconscious affects our everyday lives, and explains that when we better understand the interplay between the conscious and unconscious operations of our mind, new opportunities open up to us. “We can learn to heal wounds, break habits, overcome prejudices, rebuild relationships, and unearth dormant capabilities.”
Have you ever been with a friend, and suddenly notice you are both seated the exact same way, or that you are walking in-step with each other? We unconsciously mirror those around us, and the behavior and emotions of others are contagious. In fact, long-term romantic partners end up looking more like each other over time because they are continually, and unconsciously, mimicking each other, using the same facial muscles and making similar expressions, so they develop the same muscle and line patterns on their faces – be careful who you marry, because you will end up looking like them! This contagious effect doesn’t just happen in person, but over social media as well; online emotions and behaviors are contagious, so pay attention to who your Facebook friends are and who you choose to follow.
Our unconscious can also be extremely helpful in making difficult or complex decisions, and attaining short and long-term goals. When faced with a complex decision involving many factors, more than the conscious working memory can hold at one time (which is about three things), allow the unconscious to evaluate the situation for you by doing something else for a while or sleeping on it. The mind continually works on our problems, even when we aren’t consciously thinking about them, and often comes up with solutions beyond the framework of the conscious mind. There is scientific backing behind your mother’s advice to sleep on it!
Our environment also automatically influences our unconscious, and this effect can be harnessed to achieve goals. Instead of planning to exercise more in general, create implementation intentions, concrete plans you make as to when, where, and how you will carry out the intention: e.g. when I get home from work, I will change into my sneakers and go for a walk. By creating this goal, the unconscious will be automatically triggered by the event of getting home from work and want to go for a walk. Over time, this creates an automatic habit that is more effective than periodically willing yourself to exercise.
Bargh’s book has many other tips for working with the unconscious mind to help you remember to-do items, shop smarter, sleep better, and more. It is also filled with fascinating facts backed by the latest psychological research: our body temperature is affected by our social interactions; we unconsciously prefer people who are similar to us, even if it is superficial facts like the same initials or same birthday; we automatically read someone’s personality from their face, although it is often incorrect (“baby-faced” adults are more likely to be found innocent at trial); and, anti-smoking ads actually cause people who are smokers to smoke more.
Pick up Bargh’s book for an entertaining and informative read, and learn how to improve your life by harnessing the hidden powers of the unconscious mind. Before You Know It is available at the Cornwall Public Library, Coles in the Cornwall Square, and online.
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