GeneralPeople Systems

What do lizards, procrastination, and Permaculture principles have to do with your brain? Part 4

This is Part 4 in a Series about using Permaculture design principles to train your “lizard-brain” – a name I’ve used to refer to the oldest regions of your brain whose function is to keep you safe and comfortable.

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.

In Part 3 we talked about “designing your distractions” so that instead of leading you astray, they lead you in the direction you want to go.

Here in Part 4, we’ll look at how you can expand on the Permaculture Zoning concept, to design almost everything in your environment so it points you in the right direction even in your most directionless moments.

Proximity, immediacy, and Permaculture Zones

Zoning, in Permaculture design, is a method of locating things on your property based on the frequency of human use and plant or animal needs. The idea is to place things that you visit more often, or that need more frequent attention, in close proximity.

But Permaculture Zoning can have an added layer of meaning in that proximity and immediacy are major reasons why something would register on your lizard’s radar.

In planning out where to put things, you can do more than just design the layout of your kitchen, garden, or work area. You can also, in advance, purposefully influence your own behavior.

This is useful for those times when, for example, you say to yourself, ‘Today, I am absolutely going to make sure I sit down to a nice garden salad for lunch.’

And then you find yourself standing over the kitchen sink eating baked beans from a tin.

If there are no baked beans to be found in your house, your harvesting basket is sitting by the kitchen doorway, and your salad garden is easily accessible from the kitchen, you’ll have significantly tipped the scales in favor of the salad.

Eat From Tin or Eat from Garden

It has nothing to do with will power in the moment when you stand, tired and hungry, in the middle of the kitchen looking for food.

It has everything to do with how you planned and located all the things that will catch the attention of your lizard brain when your rational human brain is ADHTS (Absent Due to Hunger, Tiredness, or Stress).

Design for the moments that the lizard takes over, and you stumble onto the easy path

There are no voids (empty spaces) in nature: weeds come crowding to fill them.

Similarly, something is going to come crowding in to catch your attention whenever you are low on executive functioning power.

When you are tired and your focus falters, something either super-compelling (like a screen with an internet connection), or something with immediate proximity (at eye height or right beside your path), is going to distract you.

Unless you already possess super-human powers of focus, the question is not, “Will you be distracted?” but, “What will distract you?”

The idea here is to take the time, when your rational brain is fresh and, on the job, to design the path of least resistance so it still leads in the right direction.

I shared one example of this in Part 3 of this Series when I described how (and why) I hide my computer away in the mornings after I finish my writing sessions.

Here are a few more examples:

  • Are you regularly sitting up late watching movies, so you’re too tired to get up and work on your important project early in the morning?

Maybe you could set up a loud, obnoxious alarm that goes off in the bathroom at bedtime. You have to go to the bathroom to turn it off – and while you’re there you may as well clean your teeth, take a shower, get into your pajamas.

  • Do you like eating annual veggies, but the job of starting seeds regularly is getting pushed aside? Do you have packets of seed in your seed storage tub that are more than three years old?

Consider putting that seed storage tub at eye height, front and center, in the fridge – instead of at the back on the bottom shelf.

Your spouse may be mad when they can’t find the lettuce. But when you start lowering the grocery bill with salad greens from the garden, you’ll earn forgiveness.

  • If its transplanting the seedlings into the garden that’s getting neglected, maybe you could find a spot to place the seedling tray where you will literally trip over it as you pass by the veggie garden on the way to collect the mail / get the eggs / hang up the washing.

Or take it a step further, and set up a small bench with seedling trays, seed starter mix, tools, and buckets of soil amendments – right beside the annual veggie garden area.

Now whenever you go near the garden, everything you need to keep it ticking along will be right at hand. You can take out a lettuce, and right away pop a handful of compost and a celery seedling (or whatever) into the same spot.

Seedlings placed in the pathway toward the veggie garden – where they can’t be missed.

Tools as prompts 

Proximity works for tools, too. The presence or absence of a tool can influence your behavior significantly.

If a tool isn’t where you need it, even for a small job, you must go get it – which provides the perfect opportunity for the lizard to divert your attention to something more interesting along the way.

If you get diverted, you may not get back to that small job until after it’s become a big, painful job.

To illustrate my point, here’s how I trained my lizard brain to get on board with an unappealing but necessary habit: regularly trimming our goats’ feet.

Trimming a goat’s feet is a boring, thankless job that my lizard felt justified in leading me away from at every opportunity. Besides, I never had the right tools on hand to do it.

Well, one day when my rational human brain had the upper hand, I put a small pair of hoof cutters in my tool pouch and hung a goat collar and leash next to the goats’ feed bin.

Now, I always had the tools I needed on hand – and the proximity of the tools changed the whole picture. Soon, it became so satisfying to look at the goats’ neat, healthy feet, that I almost wanted to trim them when they didn’t need it.

Tool pouch, with orange handled goat-hoof trimmers

Be creative with where you store your larger tools

The same principle applies, of course, to large tools that you can’t carry in a pouch – you need them on hand. So where to put them?

I know. You’re going to say what my husband always says: put them away, where they belong!

That’s a very good idea, but you could also try this: when you finish using a tool that doesn’t fit in your pocket, ask yourself, ‘What project that requires this tool is the most important one for me to work on next?’

Identify your next most important project, and put the tool there, at the site of that project.

If this project is truly important, hopefully you placed it in Zone One or Two. So now (since you pass through these Zones often) you’re going to see those tools sitting near that project, often. Prompting you to at least spend five minutes making a start on it.

There’s magic in making a start.

Start with the important things; tell the lizard you’ll indulge the distraction later

Start your day, your hour, your outside time, your morning time, whatever it is, with something important.

Making a start on what’s important increases its proximity powerfully – by putting you in the midst of it. Being in the midst of it alerts the lizard that this is something to pay attention to.

Making a start breaks down resistance, increases satisfaction, and gets some momentum going. It’s often easier to keep going with something once you’re “in it” than to break it off and get started on something else.

As the satisfaction grows, the lizard will get on board and want to keep you involved in the source of the satisfaction.

We’ll talk more about making a start, coming up in Part 5 of this Series.

References to Part 4


Other articles by Kate :



Kate Martignier

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

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