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What do lizards, procrastination, and Permaculture principles have to do with your brain? Part 5

This is Part 5 in a series about using Permaculture principles to train your “lizard-brain.”[i]

In Parts 1 and 2 we met the lizard in your brain, found out what drives it, and learned how it influences your behavior.

In Parts 3 and 4 we explored some ways to re-cast the lizard brains role in your life from foe to friend, using Permaculture principles.

In this, the 5thand final part, we’re going to tackle the feeling of overwhelm that the lizard brain swamps you with when you contemplate starting a large or intimidating project.

How the lizard uses overwhelm to try to keep you safe

Your lizard brain is constantly on the look-out for problems to solve. Things like saber-toothed tiger ambushes.

The lizard doesn’t know that vigilance against saber toothed tigers is no longer necessary. It’s still on duty 24/7 and it sees potential threats everywhere it looks.

So, when you picture something important in your life that you want to change / create / develop, your lizard goes on a spree of identifying every potential threat, every little detail that could possibly derail your project.

Result: You feel like it won’t be safe to start till you know how to deal with every detail.

Paralysis of analysis

“Paralysis of analysis” is a version of overwhelm that the lizard can conjure up in the blink of an eye. Let me share an example.

Recently my husband Alain suggested that we plant an ice cream bean tree out the back of our house.

It would look nice, he said and once it got big it wouldn’t block the view because we’d see under it. It would make a nice shady place to sit and look at the hills.

If you are familiar with ice cream bean trees (Inga Edulis) you know that this grows to be a very big tree. My lizard came alive immediately at the thought of planting one.

These will grow into huge trees. Better plant them in the right spot.

With the lizard at the helm, what do you suppose was my supportive, to-the-point response to Alain’s simple suggestion?

We really should sit down together and plan out everything on the whole property before making a decision about where to plant such a big tree.

Have you read the Holistic Decision-Making articles I sent you, yet? And I wish you would read the Holistic Management book from cover to cover so we could discuss it.

We need to identify the functions we need, and what Permaculture elements we are going to use to achieve them.

Each element should serve at least 3 to 7 functions you know. And each function should have multiple elements that can meet that function and we need to know the relationships between all the elements before we can put any elements in place…’

I’m afraid it’s true. I babbled on like that and somehow, I think I ended up talking about chickens somewhere near the end of my pronouncements.

Long before I finished, Alain’s eyes had glazed over. The possibility of ever planting that ice cream bean tree receded into the dim, un-mappable future.

As you can see, overwhelm by paralysis of analysis is one of my favorite forms of procrastination.

Luckily, I’ve begun to learn a few antidotes.

Just start

I think that by far the most powerful antidote to paralysis of analysis is to just start.

Go for “something,” instead of waiting for “everything.” Go for “started,” instead of waiting for “complete and perfect.”

To illustrate, let me share how we “just started,” on our food forest.

In contrast to the ice cream bean tree instance, for our food forest project I was able to somehow stop thinking for long enough to allow us to start digging.

We did not do all the recommended steps of assessing drainage, planting cover crops, building the soil, and identifying species for all the 7 layers of a food forest and what functions they would all serve.

If we had, we’d still be stuck in the planning stages.

So, instead of trying to do our food forest exactly right, we just started. We sheet mulched, worked out approximate spacings, dug holes and planted fruit trees.

We planted the windbreak species after the fruit trees were in – and starting to lean over, all in the same direction.

Some of the spacings don’t at all resemble what we thought we worked out at the start and some of the trees will have to wait till they fruit before they can be re-identified because I forgot to label them and I lost the map of the planting.

In prolonged heavy rain there is a hollow area that fills with water for short periods. Luckily it drains quickly after the rain stops.

Despite all those short comings, now we have a something. Which is a whole lot better than, ‘We haven’t started yet.’

Young Food Forest

Learning just in time

Now that we have a something, I go there often to work at planting the missing supporting species, to harvest pumpkins and sweet potatoes and cut their rampant vines down out of the young fruit trees, and just to relax and admire our achievement so far.

Being there in our young, imperfect food forest, relaxing and pondering how we can improve on it, puts me and my lizard brain in the midst of it – perfect for turning the lizard loose to see what it comes up with.

Which leads us to the topic of “just in time learning.”

“Just in time learning,” is an expression I heard or read recently, which seems to sum up what happens after you start something.

My experience has been that so long as you take action, you can trust that you’ll learn what you need to know just when you need to know it. Not before.

Turning the lizard loose

Once you’ve gotten past the initial resistance to starting, the lizard can play a valuable role in helping you identify how to adjust course as you go along.

Remember that knack the lizard brain has for constantly scanning the environment, looking for threats?

Your lizard brain excels at picking up information from your surroundings that gets missed by your rational human brain. This allows you to develop understanding in intuitive, non-linear, leap-of-insight ways that would elude you if all you had was a thinking mind.

Observation inspires ideas, and the lizard is a master of observation. Start something, then be still in the midst of what you’ve started, to allow the lizard to show you what the next step could be.

It’s like closing the loop;

You begin, as Bill Mollison admonished, with protracted and thoughtful observation. But not too much, or you’ll never act.

Next you use your rational mind and get yourself started somehow, on some action.

Then it’s time to observe and interact: relax, turn loose the non-rational, non-linear parts of your brain and be open to what comes up. Inspiration may come in the shape of ideas that are defined by words or in sudden impulses or leaps of understanding.

Just be sure that when you turn the lizard loose, you are in the middle of your food forest or other important project and not in front of a jar of cookies or a screen with an internet connection.

End notes

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



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

Download a free copy of her eGuide, Ditching the Supermarket.


Kate Martignier

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


  1. Ok, first of all your new recaptcha is a huge disincentive to posting a comment!

    With regard to this series of articles, I think it sums up the need for critical thinking skills that move beyond polarisation. The suggestion that you should trust your intuitive ‘lizard brain’ is not borne out by the consequences of doing so. To suggest that if you had followed a permaculture planning you would have never acted is to demonstrate a poor understanding of the process, and not an argument for abandoning it. Observe the problems apparent in the consequences of an ‘intuitive’ approach and consider how all of these could have been avoided with proper planning. This article argues against itself.

  2. Hi Meg,

    I’m finding the commenting software a bit awkward too.

    In response to your comment, I’m sorry this hasn’t quite hit the spot for you. Perhaps I missed something in relation to the importance and value of careful planning.

    I did not mean to suggest that we should abandon planning. It is an essential part of the process, but the value of planning is not brought to fruition if it is not accompanied by purposeful, sustained action.

    This Series has been about how to make it easier to take action, rather than being delayed or bogged down in analysis and all the other forms that procrastination takes.

    For me, the ideas I’ve talked about in this series have made it easier for me to act on the things I want to act on rather than staying stuck, or veering off in directions I didn’t plan to go in.

    This has enabled me to begin to attain some results – which then allow the plan to be updated and adjusted according to the results, and so the process continues.

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