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Home » Blog » Neuroscience for Coaches: 7 Research-Backed Strategies to Help Your Clients Change Their Habits, Their Behaviours, and Their Lives by Dr. Irena O’Brien  

It’s not easy to make a change. Making long-term behavioral changes is rarely straightforward or quick. How can we assist customers in making long-term healthy changes?

The truth is that while many people may swiftly make significant changes in their food and lives, they frequently fall short when it comes to changing their behavior and habits. How many times have we heard clients claim, “I followed a plan, and it worked, but then I went back to my old habit, and all my progress vanished!” Unfortunately, when the “plan” ends and old habits reappear, short-term advantages are frequently lost. Clients find these swings in and out of good behaviors, back and forth between being “on track” and “stuck in old ruts,” depressing and demotivating, and preventing them from making substantial, long-term improvements in their life. This is where neuroscience steps in.

Neuroscience for Coaches equips coaches with cutting-edge neuroscience information that will help them deliver greater value to their clients. Based on years of research, Dr. Irena O’Brien, a neuroscience educator, and founder of The Neuroscience School joined us on coaching matters to share 7 research-backed strategies to help our clients change their Habits, their Behaviours, and their lives.

Here is the transcripted version of the conversation.

Neuroscience for Coaches

The obsession with changing mindset as the holy grail of motivation is a big lie. The single best way to increase motivation is to make progress in meaningful work no matter how small and this is based on the research of Teresa M. Amabile and Stephen Kramer from Harvard Business School, who follow 238 employees for between 9 and 38 weeks. And this motivation leads to greater creativity and productivity and making progress. So being productive and creative leads to more motivation, which leads to even more progress. And this is called the progress loop, where progress and motivation fuel each other in an upward spiral.

To be meaningful, your work doesn’t have to have profound importance to society. What matters is whether you perceive your work as contributing value to something or someone who matters. So even your team yourself or your family. So John F. Kennedy, who was a former president of the United States, ran into a janitor at NASA in 1962. When the President asked him what he was doing, the man said, I’m helping put a man on the moon. So here’s the man who found meaning in what we would consider being an unfulfilling and even meaningless job.

So how does this work? When we succeed on the task, we get a burst of dopamine. And this dopamine spike increases the probability of success on the next task. And we can create a string of successes by breaking down big goals into small, manageable tasks, the tasks should be small enough for you to succeed at them. And if you start your day with a small manageable task that you know you can succeed at it can set you up for a productive day. 

For example, my anxiety often starts first thing in the morning and when it does, I remind myself that I only need to start on something small and simple. That’s not scary, but that’s still important and that I can achieve. So looking at a blank page to write an article is scary. So the task I often chooses is to start with how the research study was carried out, and I can copy and paste that from the research, study itself into my article, and then edit it later to make it easier to understand. And this sets me up for a productive day, and it works every time. And when I tried to start my day with the most important thing first, which is what many coaches advise, my anxiety level would stay high all day, and I’d accomplished very little. 

This works even if you don’t suffer from anxiety. It’s amazing how well it works for everyone. The key is that you need to experience success on the first, work-related tasks for the day. So by task here, I really do mean work-related tasks. It’s also a way to overcome procrastination is always short-term mood repair. Meaning that we avoid a task to relieve the immediate anxiety or fear or even boredom that we may have about the task. But you can break it down into something small and simple. But you know, you can succeed in that. It takes away that fear factor from the task and can start that upward spiral.


The brain is constantly bombarded by external and internal stimulation, most of which we’re unaware of. So the brain must decide what bits of information it will pay attention to and most of what the brain will pay attention to are unconscious, such as information from the gut, or the heart, via our autonomic nervous system, which enables our bodies to run smoothly without conscious effort. 

Imagine if we had to consciously decide to breathe or how much blood to pump at any given time. 

But how does the brain choose what to pay conscious attention to it’s through something called salience and salience of a stimulus whether it’s an object, a person, a sound, or a pixel is the state or quality by which it stands out from its neighbors. It typically arises from the contrast between items and their neighbors, such as the red dots surrounded by white dots, a tone telling you that a message has arrived or a loud noise in a quiet environment. It could be the result of emotional, motivational, or cognitive factors. So did you see how that caught your attention?

So when our attention is driven by salient stimuli, it’s considered to be bottom-up memory free, and reactive. It’s not a conscious decision. So like the mirror cat here, in a group, there’s always one mirror cat that’s on watch duty, waiting for something to catch his attention that could spell danger. But we can also have voluntary attention that’s deliberate, such as looking both ways when we cross the street or deciding to tackle a piece of work.

So humans and other animals have difficulty paying attention to more than one thing at the same time. So we’re constantly faced with the challenge of continuously integrating and prioritizing what catches our attention, and what we want to deliberately attend to. The brain is always attending to something and to live a productive and meaningful life, we need to make sure that we are in charge of what our brain is attending to. The key to deliberate attention is our prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for executive functions. Our prefrontal cortex inhibits or blocks distractions, switches between tasks actively maintains and manipulates information, and changes and updates old knowledge.

So the brain has many networks. But the three that are important for us here are the default mode network. The default mode network, the central executive network, and the salience network. So the default mode network is active when we’re at rest, or when we’re in our own internal thoughts. The central executive network is where we get our work done. The thing is, we can’t be on both networks at the same time. That’s what the word anti-correlation here means. It’s one or the other. What determines which network is active in the salience network is that salience can be either reactive, or it can be deliberate. So one cannot be attending to their internal thoughts and accomplish a task at the same time. 

If we work on trying to get motivated or changing our mindset, before we start, we are keeping ourselves in the default mode network. And it’s impossible to get work accomplished in that network. So you need to get out of the default mode network and into the central executive network. When your mind is focused on your internal thoughts, and you need to get work done, the simplest way to take your mind out of your own thoughts is by looking around at the items in your room, without judgment, or looking out your window, or just start working on something small and simple.

In fact, we just saw that it was progress and meaningful work no matter how small that influenced motivation and led to an upward spiral called the progress loop. So waiting until you feel motivated, is counterproductive. It keeps you in the default mode network.

Will Power

Willpower has traditionally been seen as a depleting resource. Once we use willpower, it would be difficult for us to exercise self-control, even in unrelated tasks that require willpower. But this view of willpower has come under question recently when a number of studies failed to replicate it. So more recent work has found that people who are good at resisting temptation report that they experienced fewer temptations. To put it more simply, the people who said they excel in self-control or willpower, we’re hardly using it at all. So why is that?

People who are better at self-control may actually enjoy the activities some of us resist, like eating healthily, studying, or exercising, they make activities more enjoyable by adding a fun component to them, such as going to the gym with a friend. So people who are good at self-control may have learned better habits. A really good dieter, for example, wouldn’t buy a cupcake or even pass in front of the bakery.

Some people just experienced fewer temptations, and it may be due to genetics. So I’m the kind of person who can’t eat just a few cookies, or part of a bag of chips, I need to eat the whole bag, or they just keep calling to me. So I’ve organized my life stuff so that I don’t keep any cakes, cookies, crackers, or chips in the house at all. And if I have wine in the house, I’ll drink it. And even the red wine and I don’t even like red wine. So I don’t keep any in the house. Having to go to the liquor store is determined, even though it’s just around the corner from my house. But that’s enough. So I’ve organized my environment so that I limit the temptation. And that’s because the environment always wins. And it’s the first rule of habit-forming. 

So why make it hard on ourselves when we could just organize our environment to make things easier. But we tend to dismiss things that come easy for us, we only value things that require effort.  


So one of the ways to motivate ourselves is to visualize having successfully achieved our goal. Visualization makes the event seem real, but in fact, visualizing success is only wishful thinking. When we visualize success, we substitute the fantasy of success for progress toward the goal. Athletes use visualization successfully, but they don’t just visualize themselves on the podium. They visualize the process of getting to their goal.

So studies show that visualizing a successful outcome can actually be worse than not visualizing at all. That’s because it’s just fantasy and fantasy leads to a drop in energy so that there’s not enough energy to work toward realizing the fantasy. 

So Gabrielle autogen, who works in this in this field asked students to write about how everything in the coming week would go really well, versus just writing down thoughts and daydreams about the coming week, whether positive or negative. She found that the students who fantasize accomplished less in that week than those who had not fantasized. And the students who fantasize reported lower feelings of energization than the students who did not fantasize. So then she measured energization, using systolic blood pressure, and found that the systolic blood pressure, of the students or the daydreaming condition, drops significantly, whereas the systolic blood pressure of those who wrote in detail about the coming week remained unchanged. At baseline, the systolic blood pressure of both groups was the same. 

So this was an objective measure of a reduction in energy, following fantasy. And in a further study, she also found that for those students for whom academic achievement was important, the systolic blood pressure of those who fantasize about achieving an A also dropped. So why do we continue to fantasize? Because it makes us feel good because we’re celebrating our success before we achieve it.

So what is the correct way to visualize? Create an expectation of success by mapping out your steps and obstacles, and visualize the steps you need to take to achieve your goal. 


As coaches, we’re in the business of changing brains, because all behavior change is brain change. Consider a street map of London? So in order to qualify as a licensed London taxi driver, a trainee driver has to learn the complex and irregular layout of London’s approximately 25,000 streets within a specific area and the locations of 1000’s places of interest. And this learning is known as knowledge and it typically takes between three and four years. And then there are stringent examinations that have to be passed to obtain a license. And these training and qualification procedures are unique among taxi drivers anywhere in the world. 

So research done with the London taxi drivers has found that those who would pass the knowledge test successfully, after working on the knowledge for three to four years have increased their gray matter volume in their hippocampus and those who didn’t complete the knowledge didn’t show an increase in the hippocampus. So here’s where the hippocampus is located. And the hippocampus acts as a storage unit for spacious storage site, for spatial information. 

So what can the London taxi drivers teach us about neuroplasticity, there needs to be a goal. The London taxi drivers have a goal to pass the knowledge and become a licensed taxi driver. The learning needs to be effortful or deliberate. The learning did not happen by accident, the participants put in a great deal of effort to learn the knowledge. It needs to be repeated over a period of time. 

The structural brain changes occurred after the participants were trained over a period of time. For the London taxi drivers, it was over three years or more. The amount of time depends on the difficulty of the domain. So learning the knowledge is infinitely more difficult than learning how to juggle for example. So in sum, the London taxi drivers show us that there is a capacity for memory to be improved and related structural changes to occur in the human brain well into adulthood. And these results offer encouragement for lifelong learning. 

The requirements for neuroplasticity if there is a goal, that it’d be effortful, or deliberate, and that there’ll be repetition applies to any kind of change behavior change that you want to make that you want. That will create neuroplasticity.

About The Speaker

Dr. Irena O’Brien is a cognitive neuroscientist with over 20 years of experience studying psychology and neuroscience. She returned to university after 15 years as a chartered accountant and earned a PhD in Psychology from the Université du Québec à Montréal. She did brain imaging and electrophysiological investigations there before moving on to McGill University’s Centre for Language, Mind, and Brain for a postdoctoral scholarship.

Dr. Irena is a neuroscience enthusiast. She studies and writes about the most recent research in neuroscience and psychology, which provides us with practical skills and methods to help us and our clients live better lives. She is a living example of this, applying what she has learned from neuroscience to her own and her family’s lives.

That’s why she developed The Neuroscience School, a neuroscience training and information programme for coaches and health and wellness professionals, where she demystifies neuroscience and offers students practical, evidence-based tools and tactics they can apply in their work. Misinformation about neuroscience in the media is one of her pet peeves, and she wants to correct that. Dr. Irena is particularly interested in how our lifestyle choices affect brain shape and function, as well as how they affect mood and cognitive performance in later life. She believes that having a healthy head and mind necessitates having a healthy body.