Brain Stealers: How to Boss Your Own Brain (save time and feel happier!)

Thank you for being part of this podcast! I love the emails and questions I’m getting from you! And, thank you so much for sharing this! It’s so cool to hear from new people who are joining our tribe and learning with us. We’re so much stronger together! A lot of people have reflected lately that the distractions of home have been an issue with learning and working from home. Truth be told, I’m struggling too. But, there’s always a strategy. And today’s show focuses on a good one.

You know that feeling, when you’re so into something that you stop feeling time? When you’ve been looking at or reading or doing something with such intensity that you’ve missed a meal or two? Or the feeling you get when you have to peel away from something, but it doesn’t leave your mind?

I think we’ve all been there. Whether it’s an interesting conversation, social media, or a game, there is something for every brain to lock into. These “brain stealers,” as I like to call them, are sometimes great. They help us disappear into something engrossing and forget whatever may have been troubling us, at least for a little while. On the flip side, these brain stealers are also usually so enticing that they can lure us into misusing our time. They often are so available and easy that we think we can just sneak a few minutes here and there without falling off track with our obligations. For example, (and ok, I’m guilty of this too), if my students have their phones out while they are attempting to complete school work, even if the phone was initially out for actual academic uses, like looking things up online, their brains will be drawn to look at and interact with their phones. Just the visual of seeing the phone, right there, available and within reach, is a brain stealer. If their phones are visible, there’s a good chance at least part of their brain is stolen already.

This is why I don’t bring my phone to the table when we eat. If I can see the little blue light flashing—telling me someone might need me or have sent a funny meme—then my brain goes to my phone instead of the loved ones I’m with. I am not mad at my brain, but I understand it. I have to leave my phone in another place so it cannot steal my brain. I’m the boss of this plan.

Today I want to teach you that you need to first know what your top brain stealers are and second, know how to be the boss of them. Notice, I’m not saying never use brain stealers ever again! Brain stealers are important tools at times. If they are healthy and you have a good understanding of how they affect you, then planning for the use of a brain stealer is a great strategy to provide yourself some escape. But, far too often, we are leaving our brains “unlocked” and “unarmed,” ready for the brain stealers to come in and take over. The more aware we are, the more choice we have to engage with the brain stealers or schedule them at a better time. We get to the boss of when we choose to let our brains be stolen.

Let me hit you with a little background. You know our brains crave dopamine. It’s what’s released when we do something good for our survival, something we find pleasurable. Being social and feeling love give us dopamine. Eating gives us dopamine (extra if it’s fatty because our brains are still programmed to crave things that will keep us alive the longest). Seeing something new or having something just challenging enough also gets our brains to produce dopamine.

The people who develop the technology that represents a big portion of our current brain stealers know a lot about the science and psychology of human behavior. They design platforms and apps to be addictive brain stealers because they understand a few principles of our minds. First, the fear that we may miss out on something (kids call it FOMO) is legitimate. We don’t want to miss an opportunity or somethings others may talk about. We don’t want to be left out (and if you think about it, this made sense. Humans aren’t well-appointed hunters with claws or fangs. We’re designed more for group survival and support. So, we’re programmed to crave social acceptance). Along the same lines of social acceptance, we also feel the need to respond to others, so we are being inclusive and maintaining our social tribe. We think that if we don’t text back right away, we’re telling others they don’t matter or aren’t in our group anymore.

People who make brain stealing technology also know that human minds often like to feel seen and noticed. We check our technology for social validation through likes and interactions—often right in front of the real-life humans who also love and notice us. The downside of this, but still seeming to be a human need, is that we compare ourselves with others. The concept of downward comparison is valid and can explain why we enjoy looking up people we formerly did not like much. If it appears the person is doing poorly, we feel elevated by comparison. Our brains enjoy this, giving us neurochemicals to feel good, so we keep doing it. You may notice that when you can’t quickly make a downward comparison, you may feel bad and seek other ways to feel better. It’s so interesting. Literally nothing changed in your real life except your thoughts, yet your feelings change enough to steer your behaviors.

The last thing brain stealers are good at is manipulating the idea of intermittent reinforcement. Basically, if something gives you what you want almost all of the time, but every once in a while, it just doesn’t work, it’s more addicting. It reinforces your seeking it intermittently—and this is much stronger than if you always or never got what you needed. People often use slot machines as the example. In terms of raising and teaching kids, intermittent reinforcement means your kids know how to work your weak spots. For example, they know that every once in a while, they can crack you and you’ll buy whatever candy they’re asking for in line at the store. Because you give in once in a while, they’ll continue to beg and cry. Sometimes their crying will work, sometimes it won’t. But they’ll continue because it has some promise and definitely lots of interest. You reinforce their crying by giving in. Hmmm…makes you wonder who to be mad at, huh? (Totally guilty of this too at times. I’ll tell the students I’m having a no-student lunch once in a while, just so I can get a break. And what do I do when they show up anyway? Half the time I let the little turkeys in because they need help on work, and I can’t say no. I reinforce the begging. It’s hard not to. So, don’t beat yourself up if you do too.) In terms of apps, though, this makes sense. Most of the time, our photos get likes, so we keep posting. Once in a while, we get a really big, great reaction, and sometimes none at all, so we keep posting.

Now, we can understand why a lot of things in our lives are brain stealers. So, how do we deal from here? First, keep track. You can probably already think of some things that steal your brain. List them out. Then, keep track of how much time you spend each day using these brain stealers. No judgement. Just keep track. You’ll be surprised at how many hours a week your phone gets, believe me. (Parents and teachers, you can also help your child do this as well).

After you can see some patterns, it’s time to be the boss of your brain. If you see that you spend a good two hours on social media a day, and that doesn’t sit well with you, then schedule the time you will allow your brain to be stolen by social media and stick to that schedule. Again, it’s ok to let your brain lock into something just for fun. It’s just best if you do so with your own permission, not being at the whim of your brain and its cravings. If you’re helping a child learn to manage brain stealers, then first reflect on the patterns he or she found after tracking their time. I’ve had a few kids recently who have been staying up until the wee hours of the morning to finish work for the semester. These same kids tracked their time and found that from lunch until dinner, their brains were property of their phones and video games. When they flipped their schedules to use the afternoons for work, then play after dinner, they were not only more productive (because less tired brains work better), but they were also happier when they let their brains be stolen—because they didn’t feel guilty, like they were missing work time.

I know we talked about this in the episode about setting up a school-at-home schedule, but as a reminder, it’s okay to make arbitrary rules about brain stealers. You can refer to these rules as the bad guys or treat them just as “facts” to ease the power struggle when you say no to your child. For example, “No phones during work time,” is my favorite rule. It just is. When it’s work time, your child can “choose” if his phone goes in his backpack or your desk, but it’s not allowed during work time. The schedule says it. Sorry. (A secondary step to this is to reflect with your child later about how much more he was able to focus when he put his brain stealing phone away. He needs to understand you’re not being terrible, just ultimately helping. He also needs to see that he can be the boss of his brain and focus by removing his own brain stealers when he needs or wants to).

Another way to manage brain stealers is to use the term without judgement. Calling something a brain stealer isn’t bad or good. It just is. And, when you can label something a brain stealer, it helps to connotate what to do next with it. If it’s time to veg out and relax, a brain stealer may be just the thing you need. However, when it’s time to focus, a brain stealer may need to go away for a bit. Again, not good or bad. But, having that language available to describe something like this is really helpful in making it less emotional and fighty. Yes, I said fighty. It just fits there.

In stressful times, let’s say like surviving a pandemic, your brain and your child’s brain may be craving brain stealers even more. Recognize that and accept it. Now, you can strategize and say when you allow your brain to engage and be stolen. No more brain larceny. You’re the boss.

Pep talk o’clock. Grab that kid.

Hey kid,

Have you noticed that you can watch funny videos or play certain games all night without knowing time went by? That’s because certain things are brain stealers—they are designed to be so fun and engaging that your brain wants them all the time.

Today your grown up learned that brain stealers aren’t always a bad thing. Every brain needs a little break sometimes to do something fun and something that takes its focus away from anything negative.  You grown up also learned that you all need to know which brain stealers are your most common, so that you can plan when you let your brain be stolen and when you don’t. Like, during work time, you keep your brain stealers, like your phones or games, far away so you can’t see or hear them. Then, your brain can get the work done faster and easier—saving you a good chunk of time for actual fun brain stealing stuff! Your grown up also learned that keeping track of how much time brain stealers take is a great first step in becoming the boss of your own brain and your time.

Keep up the good work of bossing your own brain, kid. You are my inspiration! I’m heading off to allow my brain to be stolen by a good book, or maybe a cat video, or a nap—I love brain stealers at the right time too.

All my love,

Sarah