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I Don’t Remember Driving Home!

I hang my keys on the same hook, in the same spot, every time I come home. I walk in the door, take off my shoes, walk to the wall next to the refrigerator, and hang my keys. On the same hook. In the same spot. Every time.

On my way home from a stressful meeting, preoccupied with how it could have gone better, now wondering why the car in front of me keeps slowing down, pulling into my driveway, thinking about how to squeeze dinner in before the neighborhood association meeting, walking into the house, remembering that our property taxes are coming due, going to change, figuring out how much time we have before we have to go… I suddenly realize, “where are my keys?!” Did I grab them out of the ignition? Bring them into the house? Did I sit them down?

I go to spot. Look on the hook. There they are. Right where I always hang them.


Do you ever do things on autopilot? I don’t mean a “reflex”. That physiological reaction in which your motor neurons direct an involuntary muscle movement based on an afferent stimulus, such as touching something hot. I don’t mean “reaction”. That central nervous system response when you see a car swerving into your running path and you jump to the side.

I’m talking about habits. Deliberate, multi-step processes that we develop over time and that pick up inertia of their own. (Good or bad).

Located within the subcortical hemispheres of our brains are a collection of nuclei called basal ganglia. Comprised of some interdependent substructures, such as the putamen, caudate nucleus, substantia nigra, globus pallidus, and subthalamic nucleus, the basal ganglia are exceptionally important in the formation of habits that guide many of our seemingly “automatic” procedural functions.

Have you ever been driving a long route and realized that 30 minutes have elapsed and you’re not exactly sure how? Have you ever been engrossed in a broadcast and realized that you’ve completely folded two loads of laundry?

That’s the basal ganglia at work. As a new driver or one who was learning how to properly fold linens, the executive functions of your prefrontal cortex, in close coordination with the precision motor movements of your cerebellum, were actively engaged, doing some heavy mental lifting. But now? Too easy.

So how can we leverage this natural cerebral phenomenon as leaders?

Just as the function of driving became somewhat automatic, so can certain leadership functions become habitual.

Is there a specific task that you need to perform, routinely, that you’d like to turn into an automatic activity?

Make a determination as to when, where, and how you’ll do it… and then stick to it! Neuroscience literature varies somewhat as to the duration required, but after just a few number of exercises over a relatively brief period of time, you’ll find that the task requires less intellectual intensity. You’ll likely also find that some of the negative, emotional stigma you’ve implicitly attached to it begins to lose it’s potency!

For those routine, boring, but unavoidable managerial requirements, leverage the power of your basal ganglia to park those repetitive tasks there.

Save your cognitive capacity for what matters most: Leading the people entrusted to your care!


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