16 Dec 2020 • 5mins • Thomas Dibble

There’s a lizard in your brain. And it’s keeping you from saving


Did you know that, up in your head, there’s a lizard controlling your emotions and instincts? A lizard brain, that is. It’s all snug in your amygdala (that’s an almond-shaped collection of cells near the base of your brain. Science.), and drives your most basic desires – like want, need, lust, fight and flight.

What is the lizard brain?

Way back in 1954, neuroanatomists (brain scientists) discovered the “limbic system” – the primal bit of our brain. It’s the part that yells “Duck!” when you see a miskicked football, makes you pull your hand back from a boiling kettle and reminds you where you left the housekeys.

It’s not entirely benevolent, though. It’s also the bit of your brain that makes you splash out – even when you had every intention of saving. It’s the reason why you have to buy yet another pair of shoes, and order a takeaway on the third day of your diet…

When it comes to smashing saving goals, your lizard brain can be an absolute demon. It can feel like it’s determined to derail your best efforts.

Why's it called a "lizard brain"?
The primal instincts deep-rooted within our limbic system form a tiny (but super powerful) part of our brain. But in smaller animals, like lizards, it’s the most dominant bit, and leaves little room for anything else. Almost every decision a reptile makes is driven by its limbic system – so “lizard brain” is kind of fitting, right?

Why does the lizard brain derail my saving?

We make two types of decisions: fast and slow.

Lots of things drive fast decisions, like where you are and how you’re feeling. These are the choices your lizard brain controls. They’re instinctual. They’re picking your favourite packet of crisps at the local shop, taking that shortcut to work, spending instead of saving.

Put simply, more often than not, we’re on autopilot and our lizard brain’s steering. And it craves stimulation and instant satisfaction. It’s always there, whispering in your ear, telling you it wants a shop-bought coffee even though you could make a brew at home. It lusts.

That longing can make forming new, good habits tricky. As psychologist (and Yolt pal) Wendy Wood points out, being able to resist short-term temptation can be tough – even when you have a clear long-term goal.

Fun fact: We make almost all of our spending decisions without even thinking about them. Not so fun fact: The lizard brain thrives on impulse and desire. Know what this means? That it could be in control of your wallet up to 95% of the time.

Your lizard brain is what tells you that you’ll start saving next payday. And if you listen to it? It’ll pop back up, and say “Oh, a sale! Don’t worry about it. We’ll start saving next month.” Ad infinitum.

Being able to understand your decisions is important in the effort against your lizard brain. If left to its own devices, your lizard brain could make saving seem impossible.

Luckily, it can be defeated.

Tame your lizard brain in 5 steps

Beating your lizard brain can seem scary – the trick is to take it slow. New habits aren’t formed overnight. They start with small steps – five of them.

Give these tricks a go and see if you can’t overcome you lizard brain.

1. Realise you're not alone
Each of us has a little lizard companion, piggybacking off our brains. There’s no point in denying it – it’s biology. But realising you’re not alone (figuratively and literally) could help you start planning how to overcome its impulses.

Bonus tip – Name the beast
Because it’s a little abstract, your lizard brain can be hard to picture. Want to kick that critter to the curb? Try giving it a name. It could help you imagine it more clearly – and being able to visualise “Derek” may help you spot when he’s in control.

As the old saying (doesn’t) go: Better the lizard you know.

2. Understand your triggers
Food (consumption) and money (status) are two big lizard brain triggers – because they’re tied up with survival. Being able to spot these triggers can be a good place to start taming it.

When you feel a strong urge to do something rash, eat something you probably shouldn’t or make it rain, try counting to 10. Better yet, take the night to mull it over.

By putting friction between you and your wants, you have a better chance of beating your lizard brain.

3. Introduce new habits
New, healthy habits could replace your lizard brain’s cravings.

The trick is to start small. Don’t do too much all in one go, as it probably won’t stick. Try to make your new habit as automatic as possible. If your lizard brain craves coffee in the morning, pop some java in a thermos at night and leave it by the kettle.

Remember, small steps lead to big change.

4. Pick your battles
Your lizard brain isn’t going to go down easily. It’s in control of your most basic instincts, and it’s used to getting what it wants.

So don’t be too hard on yourself. Don’t judge yourself if you slip up every now and again. The key is consistency. Stick with it, try again and eventually you’ll have your lizard brain licked.

5. Call in back up
Still struggling? If one of your goals is to save more money, look for simple ways to help you turn pennies into pounds.

While your lizard brain may pop up every so often, with Yolt’s smart saving tools it’ll never be in charge again. You can control your spending with your prepaid Yolt Card, save while you spend with Jar Boosters and set yourself Goals to visualise your progress (and hold “Derek” to account).

Isn’t it time you took back control from your lizard brain?