Alright, so a few months back I wrote a piece all about the “delusions” that help us be successful. At the time, I was mega-interested in understanding how the brain works, and how through understanding more about the brain we can make better decisions. In that article I mentioned a little thing called “priming” and that’s what we’re going to look at today.
Priming is the name given to an unconscious type of short-term memory that helps us kinda predict how to act, what’s going to happen next, or how to find relevant information faster. Priming is an incredibly useful tool that I’ve been using to try and unconsciously make myself more motivated, have more confidence, and work harder. What we’re going to look at today is how priming works, and how you can implement it into your life.
How Priming Works
For example, here’s the word HOSPITAL, now fill in the blanks for the following:
- N _ _ _ E
- D _ _ _ _ R
- P _ _ _ _ _ T
I’m assuming that you mentally filled in the blanks as NURSE, DOCTOR, and PATIENT. Even though NORSE, DANCER, and PASSPORT, are equally as valid, your brain unconsciously looked for things similar to the word HOSPITAL.
More interestingly, your environment primes your overall behaviour. In 2004 a joint paper from Stanford and Yale was published, that showed how just a few changes in someone’s environment can dramatically affect a person’s thought processes and actions. If you’re not into reading academic papers there’s a great roundup of the experiment here, and I’ll do my best to summarise it.
The participants were given the task of dividing $10 between themselves and another person. The participant could keep all the money, half it, do a 60/40 split, whatever, but the other person could accept or reject the offer.
The experimenters had one group fill in forms taken out of a backpack, and filled in with a pencil, then deposited in a cardboard box. They had another group fill in forms taken from a leather briefcase using an expensive pen, the forms were then put back in the leather briefcase.
All of the participants that filled in the forms with a pencil split the $10 evenly. However, half of the participants exposed to the “business items” tried to keep more money.
Why Priming Works
Note: I’m not a psychologist this is just a synopsis of everything I’ve read about priming. If I’m wrong, let us know in the comments.
Due to the sheer amount of information that our brains take in we use thoughtcuts to process this information quickly. In the same way, we can go on auto-pilot when performing our morning routine, our brains have “routines” when it comes to processing certain stimulus.
Using the example of the fill-in-the-blank experiment, our brains use the information we have (the word HOSPITAL) to deduce the information we don’t have (the words with missing letters). In the same way, the participant’s brains looked at the information that it was presented with (I’m in a “business” environment) and deduced that it was time to act in a business-like way.
Instead of deeply analysing every situation we’re put in, our brains attempt to quickly piece together bits of information in order to guess what the unknown information will be, and act in a way that will bring us most benefit. When faced with a conundrum, your brain will unconsciously fall back on information that it already has in order to tackle the problem.
How to Use This in Your Life
This psychological quirk has a number of uses and the issue of whether or not you can actually prime yourself is still up for debate. With that said, I’ve been trying to prime myself for a while now and I think it’s working (although I haven’t done any experiments on myself) so here are some things that have (anecdotally) worked for me.
Buy High-quality Things
I hate throwing things away. I love giving things away but throwing something away because it is broken is something I loathe. So, whenever I’m buying something I try and buy something that I consider “high quality”.
Whenever I’m using that thing, be it a pen, razor, laptop, I’ve primed myself to believe in its value and enjoy using that thing a lot more than if I considered it to be disposable or poor quality. Similarly, because I’m using things that I think are high-quality I’ve primed my brain to think “Only a high-quality individual would use this, therefore I’m a high-quality individual”.
I’m not suggesting that you go out and only buy designer goods, I’m suggesting that if you want something; do some research and find something that you’ll enjoy using, that will prime your brain to think of yourself as a “high-quality” individual. This has all sorts of benefits to confidence, self-esteem, and motivation.
Motivational/Inspirational Desktop Slideshow
I spend a lot of my day looking at a computer screen, and I figured if just seeing a leather briefcase can make people more “business-like” then imagine what a slideshow of motivational images would do.
I scoured the net to find all the best, hardest hitting, things-that-make-you-feel-like-you-can-do-anything desktop backgrounds that I could, and I’ve put them all in a neat folder for you here.
Strangely enough, I was in the gym absolutely dreading my next exercise and as soon as I thought “I can’t do it” my brain immediately defaulted to thinking about all the quotes and images that I had passively absorbed through looking at my computer screen.
By viewing these desktops, even for a moment, I’ve primed my brain to think about success and motivation. I’m unconsciously approaching situations and problems with the mindset primed by the desktop images and am always looking for opportunity and ways to solve problems.
For those who are less technologically inclined here’s a guide on how to make a desktop slideshow.
Surround Yourself with Things You Care About/What You Want to Achieve
My apartment is decorated with me and my girlfriend’s favourite pieces of art, poems we’ve found inspirational, and photos of our adventures and the people we care about. As well as expressing our personalities and making a place feel like “home,” I’m priming my brain to be happy and appreciative.
I’m literally surrounded by reminders of why I do what I do, and what’s important to me. Unconsciously, I’ve created a fortress of happiness, that spurs me on and helps me push myself so that I can find more pieces of art so that I can have more great adventures so that I can have more amazing memories with amazing people.
Create Dedicated Spaces
My apartment is incredibly small by UK standards, it’s more like a bedroom with an oven. However, I’ve primed the (limited) areas of my apartment to make me think about different tasks.
The desk has pens, my laptop (which never leaves the desk), and an office chair. This primes my brain to think “the desk is for work”. The bed has books, a journal, and a colouring book next to it. This primes my brain to think “the bed is for being creative and for relaxing”.
I’d like to have rooms dedicated to different activities (Productive/Creative/Sleep/Socialising) but, for now, that’s an impossibility. I would also like to create a greater sense of “Work” at my desk, but we’re only going to be in the apartment for a month more so it’s a poor investment.
Priming Produces Powerful Performance
Once you understand the ins and outs of priming it’s a fantastic way of helping you build routines, both mental and physical, into your life. It’s also a fantastic way to help you get into the best possible mindset for a certain task.
I’ve used this technique to prime myself to stay motivated and to increase my productivity. You can use this for any goal that you set for yourself, you just need to change a few things. If you’re taking control of your eating, it may be worth investing in high-quality cooking tools that encourage you to cook more. If you’d like to increase your fitness, then you can dedicate some space in your living space for exercise. If you’re becoming less stressed, it may be worth hanging up art that makes you relax.
My four basic techniques to positively priming your life are:
Invest in the things you use: When you buy something, think “I’m looking to buy something that I’ll enjoy using every day”. There’s little point in buying something that you don’t enjoy using, or that you’re expecting to throw away.
Use your desktop more effectively: Most of you reading this spend the majority of your day looking a screen. Why not use this time and visual real estate to better use? Create (or use these) a slideshow of images that motivate you, or remind you of your goals.
Surround yourself with things you care about: This is the physical version of the previous point. Decorate your spaces with things that remind you of all the love in your life, and things that you take pleasure in looking at.
Design spaces for certain mindsets: When looking at the spaces that you spend most of your time, think “what is this space for?” And decorate/design accordingly. Put all the things that make you feel “business-like” in one space, and put all the things that make you feel creative in another.
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