Research confirms time and time again that people who set goals are more successful.
While setting goals can help you make positive changes and achieve new milestones in your life, just setting the goals is not a foolproof way to achieve anything. You actually have to do things differently and work towards the goals you set.
That’s the hard part. How do you do that?
You put your brain to work assisting you in achieving those goals. That’s how.
You will be much more successful in achieving your goals if you understand how your brain operates and put it to work for you. Having the right mindset and knowing how to keep your brain motivated can dramatically help you in your efforts to accomplish your goals.
Here’s what you need to know about how to help your brain help you.
In Your Brain, Achieving Goals Is All About Dopamine
When you want something and get it — whether it’s a bonus, a snack, or a text message — your brain releases dopamine. Dopamine plays a key role in keeping you focused on your goals, motivating you to continue the efforts to attain them, and rewarding your attention and achievement by elevating your mood.
Dopamine is behind the feeling of desiring something. The attainment of the object of your desire causes dopamine to be released in your brain, and you feel good. It gives your brain energy, motivation, a rush, and a “switched-on” feeling. A surge of dopamine gives you a pleasurable jolt – kind of like that first cup of coffee in the morning.
Brain Biases Can Help or Hurt You
Your brain has innate preferences, called cognitive biases, which subconsciously tilt your thinking and behavior. They are not all bad, but some can actually be “demotivators.” These subconscious biases can make it all too easy to retreat back to the safety of your comfort zone and stay stuck when you are trying to move forward and reach new heights in your life. Understanding how your brain works will help you know what to expect, why it’s happening, and how to push past it.
Your brain is very efficient and always wants to conserve energy and avoid discomfort or fear whenever possible. It is going to take the familiar path of least resistance every time if left to decide on its own. Research shows that your brain inherently prioritizes and chooses routine over novelty. This makes sense because your brain’s most important job is always to keep you safe. The “known” is safer than “the unknown,” but it’s not going to get you to your goals.
So, when you are trying to change your behavior and work towards a new goal, brain circuits for habitual and goal-directed action battle it out in your head for control. Therefore, any goals that require radical behavioral or thinking-pattern changes are going to be met with resistance at first.
Your brain also has a natural tendency to focus on the short-term and prioritize closer rewards — even if they are substantially less.
How to overcome the bias hurdle
To overcome these biases, you can work with your brain by setting short-term, tangible goals that will lead to accomplishing your long-term, overall goals. Whether you want to commit to an exercise routine or earn a degree, your brain will stay more motivated and you’ll have more success if you break the larger goal down into smaller goals. And don’t forget to celebrate and internalize your accomplishments along the way to help keep the dopamine and motivation flowing. Each time your brain gets a hit of dopamine, it encourages you to repeat the corresponding behavior that propels you further towards your goals and success.
With conscious effort, you can override these tendencies and successfully change your brain and behavior.
How to Set SMART Goals
I read an article that said the average person sets the same New Year’s resolution ten times before they experience success. Yikes! So, to avoid this trend, you will want to set goals that help you succeed. When setting goals, you want to make sure they are:
Not too comfortable
A goal needs to be outside of your comfort zone. If you know exactly how you’ll attain the goal, you’re probably not reaching far enough. Staying comfortable leads to boredom and discontent and does not lead to growth. On the other hand, pursuing a difficult goal not only increases the likelihood of achieving it, but your motivation and satisfaction go up too. Playing it safe rarely reaps big rewards.
You don’t want to make impossible goals either that set you up to fail. Your goals should be risky, but not crazy or risky in all the wrong ways. Checking in with a spouse or close friend can help you identify if your goals are appropriate. Having ambition is a good thing, but being overly ambitious and jeopardizing everything else can be a train wreck.
A widely accepted goal-setting practice is to decide what you want to achieve and set a “SMART” goal. SMART goals are defined as:
Specific – A specific goal should answer these five questions:
- What exactly do I want to achieve?
- Why – specific reasons, purpose or benefits of accomplishing the goal.
- Who is involved?
- Where – identify a location.
- Which restrictions or limits are important to consider?
Measurable – A measurable goal will answer:
- How much or how many?
- How will I know when it is accomplished?
Achievable – An achievable goal will answer the question:
- How can this goal be accomplished?
Relevant – A relevant goal will answer yes to these questions:
- Does this seem worthwhile?
- Is this the right time?
- Does this match our other efforts/needs?
Time-bound – Goals include target dates. A time-bound goal will help to answer:
- When do I need to be finished?
- What can I do six months from now?
- What can I do six weeks from now?
- What can I do today?
The next phase, where many goal-setters fall short, is to plan the steps you need to take and then put your plan into action. Questions to consider include:
- What activities do I need to complete to achieve my goal and in what timeframe?
- What resources do I need?
- Who can help me achieve my goal?
Additionally, you will want to find a supportive friend or network to help you stay on track with your goal and touch base regularly to resolve issues and assist in staying focused on the goal. One study confirmed the importance of the above steps to achieve goals. The experiment showed that 76 percent of participants who wrote down their goals, actions, and provided weekly progress to a friend successfully achieved their goals.
Too Much Positive Thinking Can Be a Negative
Positive thinking is helpful and is the fuel of change. You actually have to believe that you are capable of writing that book, getting an MBA, or creating a successful online program to even be able to get started. Not only do you have to believe you can accomplish the goal, but you also need to deeply identify with the positive benefits that it will bring to your life. Starting your goal-setting process with positive thinking is essential to have the motivation and courage to take your first step.
However, after that, too much positive thinking can actually keep you stuck. Developmental psychologist Sasha Heinz, Ph.D., MAPP, is an expert in positive psychology, and she recommends a three-step plan to stop dreaming and start achieving.
- Think positive – To get started, you will need the dopamine push to feel motivated to act.
- Think pessimistically – This means to think realistically about the roadblocks and challenges in achieving your goal.
- Think Strategically – Now plan for how you will overcome the hurdles you identified. Gather the resources you need to move forward.