What do lizards, procrastination, and Permaculture principles have to do with your brain? Part 3

This is Part 3 in a Series about using permaculture design principles to train your “lizard-brain” – a name I’ve used to refer to the regions of your brain that are responsible for keeping you safe and comfortable.[i]

In Parts 1 and 2 of this Series we met the lizard in your brain, found out how it’s responsible for behaviors like procrastination and avoidance, and began to explore the idea of re-casting its role in your life, from foe to friend.

Here in Part 3, we’ll explore a common form of procrastination—being sidetracked by distractions—and see how you can “design your distractions” so that instead of leading you astray, they lead you in the direction you want to go.

Lizards have simple priorities

The lizard brain’s priorities are very simple. It reacts to whatever seems most compelling in any given moment, moving you away from threatening or uncomfortable things, and toward safe, comfortable things.

In other words, humans are easily distracted from tasks that are important and valid, but that feel difficult or uncomfortable, because there is a lizard on the control panel who is obsessed with comfort and wants immediate short-term gratification.

“No pain, no gain” – doesn’t work for lizards. Photo: Egor Kamelev, Pexels


What about that good old saying, “No pain, no gain?”

Well, that saying doesn’t work for lizards.

It’s true that with enough will power and motivation you can wrest the controls away from the lizard and stay focused on your goals for short periods of time.

But your lizard brain is waiting to catch your rational brain napping ii. When it does, it will seize its chance to immerse you in some comfort – and then you’re going to “wake up” a short time later, wondering how you got from … 

‘I REFUSE to be distracted by those cookies one more time,’to the bottom of the empty cookie jar.

What can we do to work with this, rather than fighting it?

“Design” isn’t just for Permaculture plots

Permaculture people are familiar with the idea of designing areas for things like access, efficiency, and productivity.

But have you ever thought of designing your environment to influence your own behavior?

You have a lizard brain, but YOU are not a lizard.

You ALSO have a rational human brain, which you can use to design your environment so it brings out the best in your lizard brain.

Let’s begin by considering how you could reduce the unhelpful distractions in your environment – the ones that prompt your lizard to steer you off in directions that you don’t want to go in.

Reduce unhelpful distractions in your environment

To a certain extent, you can simply remove distractions that you know are not helpful.

For example, there is no TV in our house. There are no manufactured, addictive foods in our house.

Why? Because they provide immediate, short term gratification (very compelling to the lizard) but are of no long-term value for our lives.

Another example is my computer. This is a tricky one, because the computer can serve in my life as either an essential tool,  OR as a compelling, time-wasting distraction.

So, I employ a few techniques to keep myself on track while I’m using the computer – like organizing my browser to display only the sites I use for my work, having a clear plan before I start the session, and opening email only after I’ve accomplished the things I had on the plan.

And when I finish my early morning writing session and the sun is up, bathing the world in light and telling me it’s time to be outside, I hide my laptop. I shut it down, unplug it, put it in its bag, and hide the bag out in the garage. Inside a sweet potato storage tub.

Why? Because otherwise, throughout the day when I’m tired, frazzled, or faced with any task that doesn’t appeal, my default would be to open the computer and take up where I left off on that writing project.

Or worse yet, open the computer and follow where the internet leads. That would give me instant (temporary) comfort, but the longer-term consequences of a life lived like that are not so comfortable.

By making it so painful to get the computer back and restart it, I’ve set things up so that it’s easier just to hang out the washing.

My rational brain may be temporarily out of action, but all will still be well: the lizard takes over the control panel, weighs up the relative ease of the available options, and propels me to pick up the washing basket.

The easy option.

… We stick to good habits (or repeat bad habits) because the environments that we live in … are designed to promote these behaviors. Change your environment and your behavior will follow.”

James Clear, Why Stores Place Candy by the Checkout Counter (And Why New Habits Fail)

There will always be some distractions that you cannot control. But as the designer of your own life, you can purposefully reduce the unhelpful distractions so that there are less of them leading in the wrong direction.

You can also set up “useful distractions,” or prompts, that lead in the right direction.

Set things up to prompt you in the right direction

“Useful distractions” are not really distractions at all. They are things that you put in place to catch your lizard’s attention, to help you stay on track or bring you back if you’ve strayed.

Here’s a super-simple example, one I’m sure you’ve already experienced. Let’s say you’ve forgotten to return a library book, or an item you had borrowed from a friend.

When that happened, did you berate your poor memory, wallow in misery, and reach for the cookies (which, by the way, would just be the lizard trying to make you more comfortable)?

No, you didn’t wallow. You just took that book or item and placed it where you would fall over it the next time you left the house.

Now, the item has the proximity it needs to alert the lizard at the right moment, to prompt you to pick it up as you go out the door.

In a sense, you’ve put returning the item on auto-pilot – with no more conscious mental effort from your rational brain, the lizard can be relied upon to make sure happens.

In Part 4 of this Series, we’ll expand on this idea of making use of proximity to positively influence your own behavior.

You’ll see that by designing your environment to give maximum proximity and immediacy to the things you care about, you can strengthen your good habits and allow some of your undesirable habits to wither away.

It’s similar to the way in which Permaculture Zoning is used to raise the efficiency and productivity of a garden or property layout.


References for Part 3 : 

Why Stores Place Candy by the Checkout Counter (And Why New Habits Fail)

How to Optimize Your Daily Decisions

How to Stick With Good Habits Even When Your Willpower is Gone


End Notes :

[i]Please refer to my endnote in Part 1 of this Series, about my use of the term “lizard brain”.

[ii]Your lizard brain can be trained to be less hypervigilant and reactive, and your rational mind can be developed to be more in control of things more often, by using practices such as mindfulness and meditation.

Byline : 

Kate writes about thinking differently, and living a more natural and sustainable life, at

Download a free copy of her e-Guide, Ditching the Supermarket.

FEATURE PHOTO by Christo Goosen from

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Kate Martignier

Kate writes at – an exploration into thinking differently and living a more natural, connected, and sustainable life.

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