How to Break Away from Habit & Follow Through on Your Goals: Sabine Doebel (Transcript)

Research shows that brain’s executive function has a profound impact on your life – it correlates with academic achievement, mental and physical health, making money and saving money, and even staying out of jail. In this informative talk, Psychologist Sabine Doebel explores the factors that affect executive function — and how you can use it to break bad habits and achieve your goals.

Sabine Doebel – Psychologist

So, I have a confession to make.

I only recently learned how to drive. And it was really hard. Now, this wasn’t an older brain thing.

Do you remember what it was like when you first learned how to drive, when every decision you made was so conscious and deliberate? I’d come home from my lessons completely wiped out mentally.

Now, as a cognitive scientist, I know that this is because I was using a lot of something called “executive function.”

Executive function is our amazing ability to consciously control our thoughts, emotions and actions in order to achieve goals, like learning how to drive. It’s what we use when we need to break away from habit, inhibit our impulses and plan ahead.

But we can see it most clearly when things go wrong. Like, have you ever accidentally poured orange juice on your cereal? Or ever start scrolling on Facebook and suddenly realize you’ve missed a meeting?

Or maybe this one is more familiar: Ever planned to stop at the store on the way home from work and then drive all the way home instead, on autopilot?

These things happen to everyone. And we usually call it “absentmindedness.”

But what’s really happening is we’re experiencing a lapse in executive function. So we use executive function every day in all aspects of our lives.

And over the past 30 years, researchers have found that it predicts all kinds of good things, in childhood and beyond, like social skills, academic achievement, mental and physical health, making money, saving money and even staying out of jail. Sounds great, doesn’t it?

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So it’s no surprise that researchers like me are so interested in understanding it and figuring out ways to improve it. But lately, executive function has become a huge self-improvement buzz word. People think you can improve it through brain-training iPhone apps and computer games or by practicing it in a specific way, like playing chess.

And researchers are trying to train it in the lab in hopes of improving it and other things related to it, like intelligence.

Well, I’m here to tell you that this way of thinking about executive function is all wrong. Brain training won’t improve executive function in a broad sense because it involves exercising it in a narrow way, outside of the real-world context in which we actually use it.

So you can master that executive-function app on your phone, but that’s not going to help you stop pouring OJ on your Cheerios twice a week.

If you really want to improve your executive function in a way that matters for your life, you have to understand how it’s influenced by context. Let me show you what I mean.

There is a great task that we use in the lab to measure executive function in young children, called the dimensional change card sort. In this task, kids have to sort cards in one way, like by shape, over and over, until they build up a habit. And then they’re asked to switch and sort the same cards in another way, like by color.

Now, really young kids struggle with this. Three- and four-year-olds will usually keep sorting the cards in the old way no matter how many times you remind them of what they should be doing.

(Video) Instructor: If it’s blue, put it here. If it’s red, put it here. Here’s a blue one. Okay, so now we’re going to play a different game. We’re not going to play the color game anymore.

Now we’re going to play the shape game. In the shape game, all the stars go here, and all the trucks go here. Okay? Stars go here. Trucks go here. Where do the stars go? And where do the trucks go? Excellent. Okay.

Stars go here. Trucks go here. Here’s a truck. Stars go here. Trucks go here. Here’s a star.

So it’s really compelling, and it’s really obvious when she fails to use her executive function.

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But here’s the thing: we could train her on this task and others like it, and eventually she’d improve. But does that mean she’d have improved her executive function outside of the lab? No, because in the real world, she’ll need to use executive function to do a lot more than switching between shape and color. She’ll need to switch from adding to multiplying, or from playing to tidying up, or from thinking about her own feelings to thinking about her friend.

And success in real-world situations depends on things like how motivated you are and what your peers are doing. And it also depends on the strategies that you execute when you’re using executive function in a particular situation.

So what I’m saying is that context really matters.

Now let me give you an example from my research. I recently brought in a bunch of kids to do the classic marshmallow test, which is a measure of delay of gratification that also likely requires a lot of executive function. So you may have heard about this test, but basically, kids are given a choice: they can have one marshmallow right away, or if they can wait for me to go to the other room and get more marshmallows, they can have two instead.

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