Learning to Fight Your Lizard Brain

The concept of your lizard brain is one that has mentioned before, but it was brought home to me, repeatedly and painfully, over the weekend. Having happily left my stabilisers behind 25 years ago, I spent last weekend in Wales, relearning how to ride a bike. I wanted to get to grips with riding off road, going downhill and over rocks, roots and even jumps.

The mantra of the weekend was ‘brakes are not your friend’; the idea is to reduce your speed when you approach an obstacle, then release the brakes while actually riding over it.  This sounds straightforward, until your lizard brain takes over.  I approached a small step and released my brakes as instructed. The front wheel dropped and the back wheel followed, by which time I was going a bit quick, and my lizard brain leapt in, jamming on my front brakes as hard as I could.  Over the handlebars I went, in what was – apparently – a spectacular yet graceful encounter with the ground.

The term ‘lizard brain’ was coined by Seth Godin, to describe the resistance we all encounter when we try to do something challenging.  The lizard brain is a remnant from our evolution, and it wants us to make life as easy as possible.  It wants us to be warm, fed, comfortable and preferably not being chased by large predators.  When we’re not in a survival situation, the lizard brain still has an impact, but now the drive is to make life comfortable and to avoid modern difficulties or hazards.  This weekend, the lizard brain kept yanking on my brake levers.  When you’re presenting data, the lizard brain makes you put this year’s numbers into a chart or table that you originally designed last year, or the year before.  After all, nobody complained, so it must have been alright.

The lizard brain suggests that you stick to using slides you’ve prepared from previous presentations.  It makes you revert to using bullet points and complex diagrams that take ages to explain.  And the lizard brain always says that, because your colleagues think it’s OK to take an hour to prepare for a 30 minute presentation, you can only spend that amount of time too.

We all do it.  We set out with the best intentions: this time, I’m going to redesign this data and make it really shine; this time, I’m going to ride with the brakes off; and the lizard brain pops up.  But if you want to overcome your lizard brain, here are three things that I’ve taken away from my weekend on a bike, and that you could bear in mind when you need to overcome the resistance to visualising your data or preparing your presentation differently.

1.  It’s uncomfortable

Your instinct is to be cautious, to not make yourself a target for criticism, to do what’s universally accepted.  This is, of course, totally sensible.  So when you’re trying to do something new, expect it to feel awkward.

2.  It takes time

Habits, whether working habits, or the habits of a lifetime (so far) of riding a bike, take time to break.  It also takes time to learn new habits.  Try and factor that time in, whether it is blocking off some time in your diary to look at good examples elsewhere, to finding images, or to make sure you put aside as much time as you can to prepare a presentation.

3.  It brings its own rewards

Yes, it feels awkward, or difficult to justify to colleagues.  Yes, it doesn’t come naturally, especially when you’re changing long-standing habits.  But yes, it does feel good when you’re able to fight back and overcome your lizard brain.  Not just achieving whatever it was you wanted to do: design a new approach to communicating numbers; give an excellent presentation; get that funding; but also knowing that you’ve had to consciously decide to do things differently.