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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