Priming: The Easy Way to Program Your Brain

Read the following words: kitchen, cooking, pot, spoon, chicken.

  • Now try to guess the following word: SO_P.

Okay, now read these: bathroom, washing, towel, clean, hands.

  • Now fill in the blank: SO_P.

There’s a high chance that you read the first word as soup and the second as soap. That’s because the previous five words primed your brain to think of words that are in some way related to the ones you read before. I could leave some _____ spaces here and you would still know which word goes in there.

So what is priming? From Wikipedia:

Priming is an implicit memory effect in which exposure to one stimulus (i.e., perceptual pattern) influences the response to another stimulus.

This means that exposure to certain input (visual, auditory etc.) programs your brain, without you being aware of it, for certain behavior in the future. The more you are exposed to certain influences, the more they affect your life.

Priming in your environment

Suppose you wake up in a cluttered, untidy apartment. Seeing that clutter every day is going to prime you with thoughts like disorganized, not clean, falling behind, stress, overwhelm. You go to the bathroom to brush your teeth. You have a cheap toothbrush that hasn’t been replaced for months. This primes you with thoughts like low quality, cheap, ugly, dirty, not enough time. On your way to work, you check social media or the news and get primed with thoughts like murder, terrorism, unemployment, injustice, poverty and all sorts of advertisement.

You can see that this doesn’t look like a start of a very good day. Your senses are constantly processing everything that happens to you, even if you’re not aware of it. Over time, this can have a devastating effect on your health, motivation and productivity.

How can that be changed? Design your environment in a way that motivates and uplifts you. Clear all your clutter (or at least move it somewhere you won’t see it every day) and clean everything spotless. Establish a system for regular cleaning. Add something that smells nice, too. Invest in high quality items that you’ll see and use regularly. Go over your apartment or workplace like you normally would and try to take note of what’s in your visual field most of the time, and make the adjustments you can.

Think improvement, not perfection

You don’t have to change everything at once or go into too much detail. Start with the easiest and most influential changes and add more once you have some experience with the new changes.

We recently bought a new vacuum cleaner. It’s of much higher quality than any other I have owned before. Everything about it is better and more functional. It’s so strong I think I could sit on the damn thing and fly away to Fiji. Every time I vacuum I get primed with quality, ease, improvement. 🙂

Obviously, you might not be in a financial position to improve the quality of everything you own. That’s okay. Just invest in a few most common items that could have a big impact. Buy a quality toothbrush, the best coffee available, good shoes etc. Making one major upgrade is better than a ton of minor improvements. This way you’re primed with excellence and improvement at least part of the time, instead of being primed with a house full of compromises everywhere you look.

Intentional positive priming

Since I work in software development, I spend most of my workdays staring at a computer screen. What’s in my visual field is essentially the same for 6+ hours a day. How can I add some positive priming in this situation? I took a post-it, wrote the word FOCUS on it and stuck it to my monitor. Super simple. Even when I’m not consciously aware of it, it’s having a profound priming effect on my brain, because it’s processing the visual input all day long.

Adding a bunch of post-its to your environment might prime you for “clutter”, so be careful with that. Today I’m buying a photo frame which I’m going to put on my desk and stick this into it:


If you watch TV regularly, put something like this next to it. If you want to travel, pick a location and print out a bunch of pictures of that place and post it somewhere you can see it often.

How long does it take for priming to show effects?

A while. Your brain programming doesn’t change instantly when you change the input. You have to be patient. It seems to have an exponential effect. This means that the change is subtle in the first few weeks. You might notice a small shift in your thinking and behavior, some new ideas popping up in your head, but you probably won’t attribute it to priming.

After a few months it will seem like you’re making significant steps forward every week. It’s like your thoughts, feelings, beliefs and behaviors have effectively been infected with a new thought virus. You’ll look back and wonder at how something changed so much without it looking like you were putting in any significant effort. The thought of going back to how things were before will be less tolerable for you.

Some people want to achieve their goals and behavior change with daily affirmations, and they swear by them. In my experience, these are like a drop in the ocean compared to the input your senses process every day. I recommend you try with priming. Print out your affirmation and put it somewhere you’ll see it every day, multiple times.

Key takeaways

  • Your brain is a brilliant supercomputer, and you are leaving most of its programming to chance. All input programs your brain. Take advantage of it by providing it with continuous positive input every day.
  • Removing negative influences is essential. Your positive seeds won’t grow in bad soil. People are also influences. Whiny, negative, toxic people prime you with negative messages.
  • Clean and enhance your environment to support you and your brain.
  • Buy the best quality items and tools, even if it’s one at a time.
  • Daily personal conditioning requires persistence and patience.

You can make most of these changes in minutes or an hour. Then give it some time and watch your behavior change for the better, automatically. 😀

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