'No-Go Moments': An Impulse Control Technique by Andrew Huberman
Strengthen the neural circuit in your brain involved in suppressing action.
How much genius are we losing to the compulsive need to scroll just a little bit more?
The other day I realized something. Heads up, it's pretty depressing.
Say we spend 2 hours of "wasted time" per day on our phones (and that's probably being kind).
- 2 hours x 365 days = 730 hours per year
Let's say we do this for 50 years of our lives.
- 730 hours x 50 years = 36,500 hours
That equals 4.1 years.
4.1 years, OF. OUR. LIFE, 24/7, spent on our phones.
Is this as shocking to you as it was to me? Sure, it's old news that our collective screen times are through the roof, but I never considered it on the scale of years in a single lifetime.
And I'm not here to demonize phones. I wouldn’t want to live in a world without them. However, I find it sad that it’s the first thing I think about when I open my eyes in the morning. And it bugs me that I can't make it more than 10 minutes without feeling the urge to reach for the damn thing.
One of the main challenges is that our behavior has become reflexive.
Stanford neuroscientist Andrew Huberman insists that we can change our ways. Impulse control, with enough self-awareness and effort, is an ability we can develop.
In the Knowledge Project podcast with Shane Parrish, Huberman discusses how this works in the brain as well as the technique he uses himself to develop greater self-control.
Go & No-Go Circuits in the Brain
In our brains, we have neural circuits involved in motivating us to initiate action or withhold action.
Experiments suggest that the basal ganglia play a key role in modulating and gating such decisions via two aptly named functional pathways in the brain:
- 'Go' circuits (initiate action)
- 'No-Go' circuits (withhold action)
The basal ganglia refer to a group of structures near the center of our brain that form important connections. These connections allow different areas of our brains to work together.
The basal ganglia control your body's voluntary movements. They can approve or reject movement signals that your brain sends, filtering out unnecessary or incorrect signals.
The 'Go' circuits are involved any time we make a decision or perform a behavior. For example: deliberately reaching out to pick up a bottle and putting it back down.
The ‘No-Go’ circuits are the ones that suppress behavior and inhibit impulses. For example: resisting the urge to order extra salad dressing.
In this post, we’ll talk about the ‘No-Go’ circuits, specifically focused on finding a better balance with our phones.
Use "No-Go Moments" to Train Your Willpower
Resisting urges and impulses requires tons of energy and effort.
Unsurprisingly, the less we use these functions, the weaker they tend to grow.
But here's the good news:
'No-Go' circuits are like muscles. We can train them. We have neuroplasticity to thank for that — the nervous system's ability to change in response to deliberate focus and experience.
As far as we know, we're the only species that can rewire our nervous system deliberately in this way. It's incredible, and we should leverage this natural feature more than we do.
To strengthen the willpower muscle, Huberman has a simple rule for himself:
25 times per day, he will suppress the desire to take an action. He calls these "No-Go moments." Small moments where he'll purposefully not act on a thought or an urge.
"Something as trivial as having the urge to scroll through social media but refusing to pick up your phone can begin to train your No-Go circuit."
I've been playing around with this, and the opportunities to practice are endless.
- Resist taking my phone out of my pocket while waiting in line.
- Resist refreshing my emails when I checked them 5 minutes ago.
- Resist reaching for my phone while I’m reading a book (I always seem to come up with the most urgent questions “I must know the answer to right now” just as I’ve sat down to read!)
Individually, these are small interventions and won't make me an uber-productive machine overnight.
But they add up, and the point is I'm slowly strengthening the circuit.
"The thing to understand about neural circuity is that it's generic," Huberman says. A well-trained 'No-Go' circuit around not reaching for our phone can then be relied on in other areas in our life where we'd like to institute greater self-control.
Be a Non-Judgmental, Curious Observer
Once you start playing around with these "No-Go moments", you'll quickly notice how difficult it is. Huberman says he finds it excruciating.
The thing is — the agitation of the no-go effort is supposed to feel challenging.
These are not individual weaknesses that reveal our personal failings — they are universal experiences and part of the human condition.
These aren't opportunities to beat yourself whenever you fail to resist or to rail against the modern world and all its temptations.
Instead, take the approach of a non-judgmental, curious observer — like a scientist looking into a microscope hoping to discover something fascinating and useful about yourself as a weird, human being.
Here are three interesting ways to do this:
1. Know Your Triggers
Become aware of the situations where you feel the urge to reach for your phone most strongly.
Is it in the morning, when you wake up? Or do you typically waste a lot of time scrolling through your phone in the restroom?
Be extra cautious in those moments.
A great book to train your self-awareness is The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal.
2. Discover What It'll Feel Like
You'll quickly notice the voice in your head trying to negotiate with you. "Just pick it up; this is silly anyway, you can start again tomorrow if you want to, but now, you need to check your phone. Why are you so hard on yourself?"
When the urge becomes too strong, ask yourself this question:
"Am I more interested in feeling the experience of taking my phone, or discovering the feeling of not taking it?"
Credit to Sam Sager for this question. He was doing multi-day fasting, and this was one of the questions he asked himself when his body was craving food.
Be curious about what it would feel like to not grab your phone. And if you manage to keep doing that, what could that mean for you, your work, your relationships, and your life? (Think of the 4.1 years!)
The only way to find out what a balanced relationship with your phone could look like will be to consistently prioritize the feeling of not giving in to the urge (unless, of course, you are ins some kind of danger, then by all means, grab the phone!)
3. Surf the Wave
When resisting an urge, you'll feel irritation and frustration spread through your body.
Make it a game.
Learn to notice an urge, and then mentally surf the emotional wave — without fighting it — as it crests and wanes.
The funny thing is that these waves only last for a few seconds, or maybe a minute. They usually recede very quickly.
Focus = Finding Flow (without being neurotic)
When I posted a Twitter thread on this topic, I got a version of this comment a few times:
"That's no way to live, constantly stopping yourself from doing things. That's the opposite of flow."
Of course, you don’t want to become neurotically attached to these No-Go’s, and if you struggle with any form of OCD, this is not the right technique for you.
But I disagree with the idea that self-control is the opposite of flow.
Flow is a state of consciousness activated when someone is immersed in an activity with complete focus, involvement, and enjoyment.
You can only achieve that if you are able to control urges and impulses.
I am convinced many people could double their productivity, without giving up any work/life balance, if they'd simply stop checking their phone every 5 minutes.
This requires constant effort, but eventually, it will become automatic, in the same way that reaching for our phone has become automatic.
I, for one, am motivated to find out what I could accomplish in 4.1 years — or even half of that.
Of course, it's not as black and white, but the better we are at controlling our relationship with distractions and impulses that draw us off track, the more we will be able to produce great work, have strong relationships, and feel good about ourselves.