Neuronarrative

Musings on the complicated business of thinking

10 Things You Should Know About Goals

Your brain is a goal-setting machine, and research is illuminating why.

Setting and reaching goals is a mainstay topic in research across a range of disciplines, including psychology, neuroscience, marketing, and communications. Below is a survey of 10 recent findings about goals, chosen from these and other topic areas, that throw some light on the ups and downs of goal achievement.

1. Giving up a goal takes a psychological and physical toll.

First a word of caution – goal achievement is risky business. If setbacks start accumulating, and you begin doubting whether you can reach your goal, you’re on your way to what psychologists call an “action crisis.” This is the crucial point at which you experience an internal conflict about whether you should keep going or give up. Research has shown that experiencing an action crisis increases production of the stress hormone cortisol, which is your brain’s way of sounding a body-wide alarm in response to the internal conflict. The problem is, the extra cortisol doesn’t help your performance, and may contribute to giving up sooner. It also increases blood pressure, which takes a toll on your blood vessels.

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2. Being more specific can help you reach your goal.

We like flexibility in our lives, but some recent research (PDF) from consumer psychology suggests that being more specific and less flexible may be more effective in goal achievement.  The premise is simple but not easily accepted: specific steps, accomplished in strict order, seem harder to do at first, but ultimately lead to greater goal achievement than an ambiguous plan.  The problem is that more ambiguous, flexible plans seem much more appealing upfront.

3. Our brains may have an internal guidance system for reaching goals.

Research from neuroscience suggests that our brains use the neurotransmitter dopamine as an internal guidance system to reach goals. An animal study showed that the dopamine signal in the brain gets stronger as the goal gets closer. It’s sort of a “Marco Polo” effect that influences choices made to direct action toward a goal, and adjusts expectations about how close or far away the goal really is.

4. Your inner voice is a potent goal-achievement tool.

Reacting impulsively can thwart goal achievement, and research shows that your inner voice is an effective way to control impulses. A study suggests that simple things like telling yourself “Keep going, you can do it” while you’re exercising really does help keep you moving, and sidetracks the impulse to give up because the activity is getting harder.

5. Fist power could keep you from choking.

study earlier this year showed that clenching your left (but not right) fist can prevent you from choking under high pressure situations, as you might experience on your way to achieving a physical performance goal. The effect was studied across three experiments with athletes as test subjects, and the results were consistently significant. The researchers believe that left fist clenching primes the right hemisphere of the brain, aiding automatic skill performance (the opposite of conscious deliberation, which is thought to be controlled in the left hemisphere and actually contributes to choking).

6. Sharing your goals with friends improves your chances of reaching them.

More research from this year indicates that writing down your goals, sharing them with friends, and sending your friends regular updates about your progress can boost your chances of succeeding. The study showed that people who merely thought about their goals and how to reach them succeeded less than 50% of the time, while people who wrote goals down, and enlisted friends to help them by sending regular progress reports succeeded closer to 75% of the time.

7. Overmotivation can undermine goal achievement.

Motivation is essential to goal achievement, but overmotivation can lead to exactly the opposite. When your brain is in a hyper state of arousal about wanting something, the neurotransmitter dopamine floods your brain’s reward circuits. Research shows that when this happens, your chances of failing increase no matter how hard you try. Mental focus and precision are deluged by the flood.  The trick seems to be to find the happy motivation balance that keeps you moving forward without tripping on your brain’s in-built foibles.

8. And so can fantasizing.

Even though it’s tempting, research suggests that fantasizing too much about your dream job or any other major goal can undermine success. It's all about expectations. Realistic thinking fosters more realistic expectations; fantasizing blows expectations out of proportion, obscuring vision of what must actually be done to reach a goal.

9. And so can overthinking.

Although an incredibly powerful organ, the brain can get in its own way (in many ways) – and, ironically, thinking too much is one of them.  A study indicated that there’s an interesting connection between memory and performance. Once the right skills for a given task are internalized (like the many parts of a perfect golf swing), thinking about them when trying to perform doesn’t help, it hurts.

10. Finally, try to stay optimistic.

While easier said than done, keeping an optimistic mindset appears to enable people to deal with stress more effectively—a key to goal achievement. Looking on the bright side actually is good for you, and an effective way to help reach your goals.

You can find David DiSalvo on Twitter @neuronarrative and at his website, The Daily Brain. His newest book is Brain Changer: How Harnessing Your Brain's Power to Adapt Can Change Your Life.

David DiSalvo is a science and technology writer working at the intersection of cognition and culture.

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