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The Science of Setting Goals – and How to Achieve Them

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Setting goals is a fundamental part of the way we approach solving problems as humans. Yet, for how much goals form part of our daily lives at work and at home, most people know very little about the way our brain creates them – and more importantly, how our brains create an environment to achieve them.

This blind spot can leave us at a disadvantage when it comes to achieving our goals. Once we understand how a process works, we can then improve it. This holds true for most things in life.

By looking at the science of setting goals – how our brains work when it comes to setting an objective, working out how best to tackle it and then achieving it – we can discover ways to improve our success rate when it comes to achieving goals.

In other words, a little bit of knowledge about how our brains work can help us support the process of achieving a goal!

In this blog, we explore the science behind goal-setting – how your brain sets goals, how it works towards them, and how you can make achieving those sought-after goals that little bit easier.


How Your Brain Achieves Goals

The science of setting goals is intimately tied up with the myriad, complex ways that our brains work.

Made up of 86 billion neurons which are all constantly communicating with each other in complicated electrical circuits of information, we know a lot about how the brain works, but some processes are still a mystery.

Even if we don’t understand absolutely everything about the brain, neuroscientists and psychologists have still gained a good understanding of the physical and mental processes of goal setting.

Our brains generally achieve goals by combining two key processes: emotional investment and visualisation. 


Emotional investment

Creating emotional investment is one of the most important methods that the brain uses to help you work towards achieving a goal.

Setting goals essentially works because it tricks our brains into feeling, emotionally, that we have already achieved the thing that we set out to. Confused? Good. This might be veering into Inception-style, metaverse territory, but stay with us. 

Thinking in this way means that our brains feel we are personally invested in a project. In other words, we have an emotional connection to it. This makes us more motivated towards achieving it. In effect, we feel we have a stake in a goal, and an interest in completing it, so we’re more inclined to work towards it being achieved. Still following?

The way that the brain creates emotional investment in a goal is uniquely connected to the way that it formulates memories and behaviours, too. In fact, the two are very intertwined.

INC.com has a really useful article that breaks down the complex neuroscience behind how we work towards goals. It’s worth a read if you’re interested in finding out more about the neural processes that define our brain, motivation and goal-setting, but to paraphrase: the brain has two key parts that are involved in goal setting.

The first is the part of your brain that is responsible for dealing with emotions and for creating emotional responses – the amygdala. The second is the part of your brain that solves problems – the frontal lobe.

When it comes to goals, the amygdala assesses how much that goal means to you and determines how important it is. In other words, it assesses and builds emotional investment. The frontal lobe, in turn, examines what needs to be specifically done in order to achieve that goal.

With those bits of information ascertained, the two parts of the brain work together to help you develop the skills and behaviours that will help you achieve that goal, whilst minimising those that don’t.


 

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Visualization and memory pathways

Research carried out by neuroscientists has shown that visualisation is another important part of the process of setting and achieving goals and is uniquely tied to emotional investment.

When we think about something we want to achieve, we usually (unconsciously) imagine ourselves successfully completing the task. We imagine ourselves completing a task to the standard we expect and experiencing the rewards that come with that.

Although the motivation and emotional investment generated here is a key driver in helping us achieve the required goal, there’s also something deeper at play here – namely, the effect that visualisation has on the internal structure of our brain.

By visualizing something, and committing an intention to your long-term memory, you are actually changing the structure of your brain.


Brain 101

Time for a quick anatomy lesson.

The brain is made up of soft tissue and is roughly 60% fat and 40% protein, water and carbohydrates. It’s responsible for dealing with a huge range of functions, from processing information gathered from our five senses, through to controlling movement, memory and speech.

Two types of cells make up the brain: neurons, which are responsible for transmitting information to other cells, and glia cells, responsible for maintaining the neurons.

Neurons are connected to other neurons and other parts of the central nervous system in an incredibly intricate web.


 

 

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Neurons look a bit like wavy blobs, with long fingers (see above). They have a cell body that’s called the soma and have various bits that stick out from this that are known as dendrites and axons. Dendrites are the part of the neuron that receives messages and axons are the part of the neuron that take information away, connecting to other nerve cells in a thin strand.

Neurons share information with other neurons by using a small gap called a synapse that’s located in various points around the cell between the dendrite and axons. Synapses are essentially the points where neurons communicate with each other – where messages are passed on. Synapses on different neurons never touch. Instead they line up, facing one another.

The electrical messages that travel through the neuron trigger the release of chemical molecules known as neurotransmitters. These molecules transfer information between synapses, allowing a message to continue down a dendrite or axon to other nerve cells. The message is then carried out to wherever it needs to be in the body. You sneeze, move your leg, say hello or blink as a result.

There are 7 types of neurotransmitters that are active in these types of situations: acetylcholine, dopamine, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), glutamate, histamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin.

Dopamine and serotonin in particular are the neurotransmitters that are relevant when it comes to goals. Dopamine is considered a ‘reward’ chemical that your brain releases when you’ve achieved (or you’re close to achieving) a goal. It creates feelings of motivation, satisfaction and productivity. Serotonin helps to create feelings of happiness, calm and focus. The presence of neurotransmitters explains why you feel great when you achieve a goal.

Synapses – the points where neurons communicate with each other – are intimately tied up with how the brain sets goals, and understanding how can help you improve your chances of success. 


Neurons and visualization

When you visualize a situation, neurons don’t differentiate between information that is imagined and information that is real – to them, it’s all the same. It’s just information. This essentially means that during the process of visualization, your brain directs your neurons to act as if the information is real and to carry out a particular action, as social scientist Frank Niles Ph.D. puts it in his fascinating article about goal setting.

This response tells axons to create new connections between the synapses in different neurons, physically changing the structure of your brain. The result is a group of interconnected cells that work closely together to create behaviours and long-term memories – a group known as a neural pathway.

The neural pathway created by visualization prepares our mind and body to work in a repeatable way that’s supportive towards us achieving the goal we visualised.

To our brain and its neural pathways, our goal is already a physical reality – not something that needs to be achieved. Paradoxically, this improves your behaviour, skills and outlook when it comes to achieving that goal.


How to Work With Your Brain to Achieve Your Goals

Whilst it may seem like you need a degree in neuroscience to really understand the mechanics behind goal-setting, there are several strategies that you can use to help you achieve your goals and support the formation of new neural pathways in your brain.

Here are some of them:

1.   Set challenging goals

Research from the Journal for Experimental Psychology has shown that goals need to be challenging enough to provoke you into building an emotional connection – and as we now know, building emotional investment is essential when it comes to helping your brain work towards a goal.

Set a goal to be too easy and you’ll likely get bored. Set a goal to be too hard and you’ll likely get burned out and frustrated. The trick is to set a goal that’s challenging but not impossible.


2.   Make sure they’re SMART

As well as making sure your goals are smart, in the sense that they’re well thought through, making sure that they use the SMART framework as a base can help to improve your chances of success.

SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-limited.

Specific: The goal is focused on a specific achievement, and is clear enough that you can break it down into smaller sections to achieve it.

Measurable: Your goal can be measured in such a way that your progress can be tracked easily.

Achievable: Your goal isn’t impossible and is well within your capability to achieve if you put your mind to it.

Relevant: The goal is related to your current situation or future plans and will improve your performance overall.

Time-limited: Your goal has a deadline, so that you can work towards this date and not spend forever trying to achieve something fruitlessly. A deadline will help you focus on completing the task.


3.   Separate a big goal into several smaller goals

Sometimes staring at a massive goal can be particularly overwhelming. You can be held hostage by fears about not knowing where to start and then get bogged down in small details. Before you know it, you’re paralysed by terror and indecision. All of this can affect your productivity and your motivation when it comes to achieving that goal.

There’s a simple tactic you can use to combat this: break your massive goal down into smaller ones.

By turning one big goal into a series of smaller goals, you’re more accurately reflecting the reality of how we actually achieve bigger goals. After all, we usually don’t just set a massive goal like, ‘I want to retrain to be an HR Director’ and then do one task and find that we’ve achieved it. Usually there are several smaller goals involved in the process that combine to create a bigger goal overall.

Setting smaller goals is also a great way to keep motivated when you’re slogging away at a long-term goal. These types of goals allow you to get a quick boost of dopamine every time you complete them, allowing you to maintain your motivation for the longer struggle.


When you understand the fascinating science behind how goals are created in the brain, you can take the relevant steps to improve how well you can achieve them. Remember that visualization is key! Good luck.


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