How to Win Your Inner Creative Battles and Reclaim Ownership of Your Mind

How to Win Your Inner Creative Battles and Reclaim Ownership of Your Mind

Note from Jonathan: Sometimes it seems like your mind just runs wild with abandon. And to make matters worse, it seems like everyone and everything around you is constantly fighting your attention.

So, how do you win the battle for your mind? Enter Tom Morkes, a man that jumps out of helicopters for a living and spends his time geeking out on neuroscience and how it affects human behavior. Tom is a Trailblazer graduate, a PTE lifetime member and an incredibly smart guy with a lot of wisdom to offer in this post (there’s a special call to action you should really pay attention to at the end). But don’t take my word for it.

Read this post thoroughly, bookmark it and read it again. Then use it to win the battle for your mind.

Take it away, Tom…


Did you know there is a battle being waged for your mind? It’s an inner creative war — a war of nerves and neurons — and you’re the leader of the insurgent force trying to create your life’s work.

If you want to win, you’ll need to understand:

  • the battlefield on which you fight
  • the enemy forces arrayed against you trying to destroy your creative vision
  • how to fight an unconventional war against these forces so you can start, finish and ship your great project.

In other words, you must learn to fight like a Brain Map Insurgent.

A warning: This war is a lifetime of creative battlesThere are no shortcuts, tricks, or magical genies. Only you can do the hard, creative work, day in and day out, to create your life’s work.

You may (and probably will) experience obstacles, setbacks, and failure.

Still here?

Good. Let’s get started.

The Warzone

Your brain is composed of billions of neurons.

These neurons form complex networks where they send signals back and forth to communicate important information. They’re responsible for how the brain functions, how we experience touch, taste, and other senses, and — most importantly — how we experience pain and pleasure.

Everything we do affects the brain. Whether we perform physical or mental actions, learn a new movement, or experience anything through our senses, we are literally changing the neural pathways in our brain.

The actions we perform more often, the movements we practice more consistently, and the senses we employ more frequently control more brain map territory.

Since there is only so much territory to go around, our brain is in a perpetual state of conflict.

The Enemy

The Enemy is the Army of Bad Habits you’ve accumulated over the years, building and expanding its empire one brain map territory at a time.

For most people, the Army of Bad Habits controls most of our brain map space.

Instead of losing weight through consistent, healthy eating, we binge on ice cream and give up altogether (I‘ve already broken the diet once, so…); instead of writing every morning, we sleep in (I’ll catch up tonight…); instead of bootstrapping that business to profitability, the first batch of products is imperfect and we scrap the project and move onto something else (that other business idea seems easier and more lucrative anyway…).

If you don’t fight back, the Army of Bad Habits will dominate your life and keep you from creating your life’s work.

If you thought this inner creative war didn’t exist, think again.

The Brain Map Insurgent

The Brain Map Insurgent is the entrepreneur, artist, writer, creator, designer, warrior, or leader who understands success requires discipline; who recognizes that to create your life’s work means forming the right habits; who does the hard, creative work, day after day, because it does matter.

Without good habits, our desires, goals and projects fail before they start. And that is exactly why you must win this war: because your desires, goals and projects do matter.

But you are outnumbered and outgunned.

The only way you can win is to fight unconventionally.

Unconventional Warfare

“If we stop exercising our mental skills, we do not just forget them: the brain map space for those skills is turned over to the skills we practice instead.”
The Brain That Changes Itself

This is not a conventional war. It’s impossible to define the “frontline” of friendly forces; there are no defined boundaries.

The warzone is one vast battleground of neural trenches, and the Enemy controls just about everything. Each day, with every choice you make, you either claim neural territory, or the Enemy roots itself deeper into its already vast network of neural trenches.

You’re either becoming stronger or weaker; same with the Enemy. There is no neutrality in the brain.

The Battle for Self-Control

This war manifests itself as a battle for self-control.

Every time we repeat a bad habit, it gains more control over brain-map territory.  The territory expands and the territorial lines strengthen. Thus, the bad habit is reinforced and becomes stronger.

On the flipside, you have good habits you want to strengthen (workout more, eat healthier, learn a new language, write every day, etc.), but these good habits are fewer and weaker than your bad habits, so it’s impossible to gain brain map territory by force.

If you try to use your willpower to win a battle with the Enemy, you will lose every time.

Fighting Like a Brain Map Insurgent

Most of us want desperately to build good habits, but we’re fighting decades of bad habit.

By now, our maps are almost entirely controlled by our bad habits. Trying to re-conquer the territory is a serious undertaking, something that takes more than a day and more than good intentions.

To take back territory, you need to play by the rules of the Brain Map Insurgent:

1) Start small and “prep the battlefield”

Don’t try to regain control over every territory at once. It won’t happen. You’ll lose focus and your bad habits will crush you.

Instead, focus on one specific area you want to improve.  Use the power of concentrated effort to break through enemy lines in order to gain a foothold before you move onto something else.

Once you decide to focus on one habit, make sure you “prep the battlefield” (as in, setup your environment so it’s easy to do the good habit and hard to do the bad habit).

For example, if you want to eat healthier, start by getting rid of junk food in your house. That includes ALL the junk food in your house (sorry, no hiding snacks). Next, go shopping for healthy food and only buy what you want to put in your body.

When you’ve prepped the battlefield like this, you’ve made it easy to eat healthy (the healthy food is right there in your kitchen), and hard to eat unhealthy (you have to go out of your way to find unhealthy food).

For the first few weeks, focus all your effort on gaining control of this territory before moving on to something else.

2) Be consistent

The only way to break through Enemy lines and expand friendly territory is through consistent, daily action for a minimum of three weeks. A minimum of 21 days is the amount of time it takes for the neural pathways to strengthen and for the action to become muscle memory.

Creating good habits requires a minimum of 21 consistent days of positive action.

After three weeks, it doesn’t mean the new muscle memory becomes effortless habit. It simply means you’ve developed strong synapse connections, allowing you to more easily repeat the activity without expending conscious energy (think autopilot).

Because this action is easier to do automatically, you allow yourself more emotional energy to devote to creating other good habits.

A habit never becomes fully automatic. If not practiced, it will degrade. So make sure to keep performing the new habit you just created. Be consciously aware of your choices for as long as you care to grow in a positive way.

3) Expand topographically

Brain maps are topographical, meaning the portions of the body’s surface that are close together are mapped close together in the brain.

When we perform an action that requires multiple motor movements (or multiple sensory inputs), the brain maps these neural pathways close together. Running, for example, requires multiple inputs from various body parts, but the composite action is mapped locally on the brain.

You can apply this knowledge by leveraging actions to create habit. 

Have you created a habit of waking up early?  Expand on this good habit by sitting down for 10 minutes to write before work. Your brain will associate early rising with writing, making the action into a habit easier than if you tried it from scratch.

After 21 days, expand topographically again: Wake up a bit earlier, or write a bit longer.

The key is consistent, small change that builds on itself.

By expanding topographically, you harness the power of your brain’s plasticity and use it to your benefit.

The Habit of Starting and the Art of Instigating

Understanding the brain, how neural pathways strengthen and weaken, and how focus and repetition expand brain map territory is the science behind The Art of Instigating and its principle habit: starting.

Starting is the quintessential success habit.

There are very real neural pathways that develop your brain map territory and the habit of starting (like the habit of working out or eating healthy) requires that we practice every day to maintain and expand that territory.

Every successful person in history developed the habit of starting; they made instigating a way of life.

If you don’t develop the habit of starting (beginning before you’re ready, trying again even after a setback, starting even when you’re scared) you won’t be successful — period.

The habit of starting is the key attribute to fighting like a Brain Map Insurgent, winning your inner creative battles, and creating your life’s work.

Your life’s work isn’t built in a day. You create your life’s work one day at a time, one habit at a time, one choice at a time. Click to tweet.

Don’t wait.

Start now.


About the Author: Tom writes about instigating, jumping out of helicopters, and creating your life’s work at tommorkes.com. And just for Paid to Exist readers, Tom is giving away an exclusive compilation of books and guides for free (access the private link here). Tom is a West Point graduate, Iraq War veteran, and has lead troops in combat. Every team is waiting for someone to take point, to lead, to be the first to jump out of the helicopter. They’re waiting. Are you ready?

Be Your Own **** Boss

Get everything you need to finally leave your job for good. Including a detailed field guide, daily steps to freedom right to your inbox, and detailed case studies.

Learn more

The first few weeks of the Job Escape Kit has already produced some outcomes I’d never thought I’d see in my whole career.” ~ Nick Burk

Comment & Add Your Voice

Dustin Lee February 21, 2013 at 8:44 am

Brilliant post, Tom. Your insights about building our neural pathways was a huge reminder for me.

Until I was 23 years old I hadn’t ran more than a mile ever. And I liked it that way (I hated running). Sometime around my 23rd birthday I noticed that my metabolism dropped and I began to gain weight. One morning I looked at the scale and was shocked at how much weight I gained. I made a commitment to run (walk, crawl) at least 3 miles everyday.

For that first month it took everything in me to go those 3 miles every day. It was so hard that I started to think maybe my body just wasn’t suited to run. But one day, a few months later, as I ran out the door for my run (I was up to 5 miles) I realized that it had become nearly effortless.

I didn’t have to fight myself to do it anymore. It felt as easy as making a sandwich or turning on the tv. Looking back, I couldn’t even remember why it seemed so hard to get motivated.

Thanks for the awesome post!

Reply

Tom February 21, 2013 at 10:19 am

Dustin, I really appreciate the kind words. Thanks so much!

Isn’t it crazy how easy things become if we just take on the challenge one day at a time, one action at a time?

That is awesome you got back into running that way. Keep it up!

-Tom

Dustin Lee February 21, 2013 at 11:35 am

Yep, but you’re absolutely right. You have to devote 100% of your effort to the new habit when you start.

Ev`Yan February 21, 2013 at 10:13 am

Awesome post, Tom! Filled to the brim with knowledge & interesting things to ponder. Thank you for what you do. :)

Reply

Tom February 21, 2013 at 10:20 am

Thanks so much Ev’Yan! Thank you for the opportunity – it’s great to give back to this awesome community at Paid to Exist :)

– Tom

Alan February 21, 2013 at 11:17 am

Hey Tom,

Spectacular post. Right on point with your message and tone of “The art of instigating”. Loved it. Hahaha.. Take that “Army of Bad Habits”.

I can’t agree with you more on the benefits of “One day, one habit, one choice” at a time. In my world and work that really is the key. Connecting the functions of the brain during these activities of “Starting” is wonderful insight for those seeking more proof that this stuff really works. Keep up the good fight Tom and I look forward to what you have up your sleeve…

Best,
Alan

Reply

Tom February 21, 2013 at 12:54 pm

Alan, thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment.

I definitely think this message is congruent with your work on the 365 effect. Little by little, one action at a time; that’s the only way to create real, lasting change.

Thanks again for the comment Alan!

– Tom

Christy February 21, 2013 at 11:17 am

Fantastic post. Loved it! So much good information here.Now I am going to read it again.

Reply

Tom February 21, 2013 at 12:56 pm

Thanks so much for the comment, Christy! It really means a lot :)

– Tom

Jonathan February 21, 2013 at 11:19 am

Boom. You said it best Tom. One choice at a time. Slowly, deliberately, consciously you can shape your life exactly the way you choose.

The first step is to decide.

Thanks for being a stellar member of our tribe Tom.

Reply

Tom February 21, 2013 at 12:59 pm

Jonathan, thanks so much for the comment – and the opportunity to write for Paid to Exist! Really glad you liked the message.

Glad to be a part of it!

– Tom

Lehua February 21, 2013 at 11:43 am

Very insightful post, Tom! Glad to see your work on Paid to Exist! :)

I especially loved the part about “prepping the battlefield.” Such powerful imagery, and easy to remember! Bookmarking this for sure.

You’re so right about starting being the most important choice of all– it’s more important than getting things right. Failures will come. Mistakes will happen. It’s all about pulling up our sleeves and being willing to “get dirty”… the great work will come when we’re deep in the trenches ourselves, and when we fight the enemy head on.

Thanks again for the powerful post.

Reply

kevin Howard February 21, 2013 at 11:56 am

Tom,
You are knocking this stuff way out of the park. Outstanding!
Tony Robins will be walking over YOUR bed of coals just to get some fresh material. But please, don’t let him talk you into a funky razor sharp goatee…his is more than enough!

Reply

Tom February 21, 2013 at 2:12 pm

Haha, thanks so much Kevin!

I really appreciate the kind comment – and totally agree his goatee is enough for the two of us :)

– Tom

Jeff February 21, 2013 at 12:14 pm

Excellent post, Tom. Starting is definitely the key…many reasons to NOT do something…guarantees failure. Starting and “doing” opens the door to the possibility of success.

Reply

Tom February 21, 2013 at 2:15 pm

Jeff, thanks so much for the comment. Totally agree; the only way to guarantee failure is to never start.

– Tom

Tom February 21, 2013 at 1:02 pm

You’re exactly right, Lehua! It’s all about getting in the trenches and doing the work.

Thanks so much for the kind comments – so glad you liked it!!

Keep up the good work at Phoenix Zen!

– Tom

Reply

Michael February 21, 2013 at 2:33 pm

Amazing! Thanks for the share. Added to my bookmarks bar and going to reread!

Reply

Tom February 21, 2013 at 4:32 pm

Thanks so much Michael. Glad you liked it!

– Tom

Chris Vesce February 21, 2013 at 3:48 pm

Tom – great post! Day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year! That’s the commitment it takes to be a champion, back to the trenches!

Reply

Tom February 21, 2013 at 6:18 pm

Chris, that’s what it’s all about.

No excuses – play like a champion.

Thanks for the comment!

– Tom

Mary February 22, 2013 at 6:00 am

Love this! You break it down in such a great way that there’s no excuse not to start creating good habits. Also loved that you brought in the science behind it. Most interesting!

Reply

Tom February 22, 2013 at 8:33 am

Mary, thanks so much for the kind words!

jennifer blanchard February 22, 2013 at 7:36 am

Hey Tom–great post! It’s so crazy to see you here on PTE, because I recently (and randomly) came across your blog via Google Alerts (I have one set up for the term “creative entrepreneur”). We have a lot of similarities in what we’re up to in the world. I’d love to connect with you sometime (I’m also a Trailblazer grad).

Reply

Tom February 22, 2013 at 8:39 am

Jennifer, that is funny. I actually subscribed to inkybites a few weeks ago :)

Sounds great – would love to connect!!

Keep up the good work!

-Tom

Bill February 22, 2013 at 8:00 am

Tommy,
Well said. It’s simple, but certainly not easy – which is why articles like yours are so important to staying on target.

Reply

Tom February 22, 2013 at 11:19 am

Bill, I totally agree.

Thanks for the comment!

Sarah | Holistic Hot Sauce February 22, 2013 at 10:38 am

So glad to see you here Tom fighting the good fight!

I’m loving this idea of changing those entrenched brain patters. I’m on week 2 of writing after my morning meditation (instead of my usual knee-jerk pattern of opening up email and social media and disappearing down that rabbit hole!) Good to know that in 2 more weeks I might hit a bit of autopilot on this one. And I know that’s just winning the first skirmish…. I think I’ll need the full 66 days for a true habit reset!

Day, by day, by day…

Reply

Tom February 22, 2013 at 11:22 am

Awesome Sarah! Love the idea of winning the skirmish. That’s exactly what it is…and there will, of course, be more to follow, but the key is the one right in front of you.

Totally agree with you: day by day…

Thanks so much for the kind comment Sarah!

– Tom

Dan February 22, 2013 at 1:02 pm

Hey Tom,

That’s awesome stuff. Truly powerful and motivational. This and the blogs on your website are fantastic reads for me when I need inspiration to get working on my dream. Keep it up.

Reply

Tom February 22, 2013 at 6:09 pm

Dan, thanks so much for the kind words. Keep me posted on what you create!

– Tom

Seph February 22, 2013 at 5:36 pm

Hey Tom, keep doing what you’re doing. It’s so easy to make excuses and slip into bad habits. Your dedicated work is beneficial to every aspiring Artist, and Entrepreneur. Tom has more work on this topic in his ebook The Art of Instigating. It’s a great read, and it’s free @ tommorkes.com. Check it out if you haven’t already.

Reply

Tom February 23, 2013 at 1:37 pm

Thanks Seph – appreciate the shout out. You’re the man!

– Tom

Rebekah February 22, 2013 at 6:00 pm

Excellent advice, thank you. Happy to have found this. I’ve been slowly doing this myself, and it is not easy, but glad I’m on the right track. :)

Reply

Tom February 23, 2013 at 1:37 pm

Thanks so much Rebekah. Keep at it – you’re definitely on the right track if you’re working at it every day!

Kathy February 22, 2013 at 8:23 pm

Hey Tom,

Thanks for the tremendous post! This is a great reminder of how important it is to continue developing good habits everyday. I recently got back from a trip and two days of poor habits have snowballed into a week’s worth. This post is just what I needed to start reestablishing the good habits I had started putting in place. Also, thanks for the advice on starting with small changes. I often sabatoge myself by trying to change everything at once.

Reply

Tom February 23, 2013 at 1:40 pm

Thanks for the comment Kathy.

Focus on one small habit at a time…one month at a time…and you’ll be excited and surprised by the dramatic change that can happen in a few months to a year.

Belinda February 22, 2013 at 11:16 pm

Sorry to be a downer with this, but why all the war metaphors? I think a big problem with using war metaphors is that you give the negative behaviors way too much power, and by creating a “battle” you only increase the required effort needed to “conquer” it. I think a better approach is to deflate those negative thoughts and actions and drain them of their power over you. One thing isn’t necessarily good or bad, it’s just a thing. A thing you can either do or not do. If you have an alternative in place, a more healthy alternative to the impulse you know you may have, then it becomes much easier to take the healthier route before the negative impulse even has a chance to kick in (therefore no “battle” to fight). Do you see my meaning? I know people like to get pumped up for new self improvement techniques they haven’t tried, but many people who struggle with confidence and self doubt may be harmed by this War approach. It’s too much like being in an abusive relationship, and if you are constantly in battle and trying to conquer this thing you fear, you are more likely to never conquer it. Deflate it. Remove it’s power, have an appropriate alternative in place and ready to go, and get your own power back. Or should I say “Get your empowerment back.” This way you have less of a risk of judgement stomping on your confidence. “That old habit? Oh, it’s nothing. Let’s go do this other thing instead.”No wars needed. Just do it.

Reply

Tom February 23, 2013 at 1:49 pm

Thanks for the comment Belinda.

Interesting view point.

My writing isn’t for everyone. For a lot of us, doing something new, creating something from scratch, starting a new habit IS a conflict – a conflict of between what we MIGHT be versus what we are.

Whether a habit is good or bad isn’t necessarily the point as much as this: you are either the person you want to be, taking the actions you want to take, or you’re not. And if you’re not, and you want to be somebody more empowered as you might say, then yes, there is necessarily a conflict (between what IS and what COULD BE).

I choose the war metaphor because the striking parallel between the way the brain wires and rewires itself at the neuron level.

Again, the writing is definitely not for everyone, but I appreciate the comment and conversation nonetheless.

Good luck with everything!

-Tom

Reply

Ben February 23, 2013 at 10:00 pm

I love the article Tom,
That is what i’ve started to work on in the last few months. Creating the daily habits that allow me to be successful. I’ve realized that i’ve let a few be forgotten because they were more difficult than others. It’s time to start them again anyway despite how I feel at the time.

Thankyou for the reminder.

-Ben

Reply

Tom February 24, 2013 at 7:35 am

That’s it Ben – one small action at a time. Don’t feel the need to change everything at once…much more effective and more powerful to change one small thing at a time :)

– Tom

nXqd February 24, 2013 at 3:44 pm

Tom,
you remind me again : Words are so powerful that it can create action and it can be the beginning of something big and beautiful :)

Reply

Tom February 27, 2013 at 11:44 am

Thanks so much for your comment – that really means a lot to me, so sincerely thank you! :)

Courtney March 1, 2013 at 12:31 pm

Great Article Tom!
It is rare to see someone with such great writing skills write so well on the importance of the brain and our neural system! I am in the fitness world and what you wrote, “After three weeks, it doesn’t mean the new muscle memory becomes effortless habit. It simply means you’ve developed strong synapse connections, allowing you to more easily repeat the activity without expending conscious energy (think autopilot).” is so true.

It is such a great reminder to us all that we really do have the power to do whatever we set our minds to. Whether is it losing weight, cultivating mass, and/or doing our lives work, success starts with disciplining yourself to create habits!

Thank you for reminding me of the steps it takes to reach my goals! Start small, be consistent, then expand!
Great post!

Reply

Tom March 1, 2013 at 5:04 pm

Courtney, thanks so much! I really appreciate the insight from your line of work. It is really that simple – it’s just not easy :)

Thanks for commenting!!

– Tom

Akshay Nanavati March 4, 2013 at 2:09 pm

Tom, awesome input. This is a fantastic read. And thanks for your service as well. I was in Iraq in 07/08 myself with the Marines, so I know first hand what you must have been through and nothing but respect for coming from that and building a life like the one you are creating now. To echo your habit building formula of at least 21 days, I read about a study where NASA had astronauts were convex glasses where the world looked upside down for 30 days to test whether they could handle being disoriented for so long. In about 25 days all the astronauts started seeing things the right way up. Their brains had shifted the neural pathways, just like you said. It’s a pretty amazing study and a testament to the habit building formula you mention here. Thanks for sharing Tom.

Reply

Tom March 20, 2013 at 4:17 pm

Akshay, thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment. It’s always great to hear from someone else who has served!

That is an incredible study. If you want some really mind bending stuff, check out ‘The Brain That Changes Itself’ – a book about neurology that inspired this post. Think of this post as a condensed version of that book, but if you’re into that kind of stuff, it’s incredibly fascinating.

Thanks again for the great comment and thoughts Akshay!

– Tom

Mike April 7, 2013 at 9:01 pm

Great article Tom! This is an amazing way to look at the subject of self-improvement. I don’t know about you guys but I hate when people say to just be happy with what you have.

As humans, we are always meant to grow, achieve, and get stronger (be it physically, mentally, spiritually, socially, etc).

The biggest problem I have is holding a habit I want to work on such as learning a new language but I’m going to give this 21 day rule a shot and see how it works.

Reply

Tom May 12, 2013 at 4:02 pm

Mike – thanks a ton for the comment. How did the 21 day experiment go for you?

I’ve found it successful in my life as long as I focus on just that one habit and keep it REALLY small.

Let me know!

– Tom

Reply

Chris H. May 19, 2013 at 4:58 pm

Tom,

AWESOME article — best description of what is going ever… Love IT!

I now TOTALLY understand why I have so many problems “changing” or modifying things I don’t like about myself.

Many, many Thanks!
chris

Reply

Tom June 23, 2013 at 12:56 pm

Chris – changing our habits is a tough fight. It takes time. It takes persistent practice. Don’t give up – keep grinding it out (and use the techniques in the post to help you conquer just one habit at a time).

Good luck!

– Tom

Kelly Niven June 30, 2013 at 9:58 am

Hi Jonathan,

Great post. Have you read Steven Pressfield’s, War of Art. It’s amazing and your post reminds me of the key messages in this book. I feel like I am winning the war at home but I am on holiday at the moment and all the old habits have re-surfaced and it makes it harder to win the creative battle. In fact I have resorted to reading chick lit and have zero inspiration to write. I have not read chick lit in years!!!!!

Kelly

Reply

Leave a Comment

Sites That Link to This Post

Previous post:

Next post: