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The Science Of Setting & Achieving Goals

Key Takeaways

  • The neurobiology of goals and goal setting should be layered on top of the psychology to help us achieve our goals more efficiently

  • Four parts of the brain are responsible for goals: the amygdala responsible for fear & anxiety, the basal ganglia responsible for action/inaction, the lateral prefrontal cortex involved in planning and thinking across timescales, and the orbital prefrontal cortex which helps us orient our emotions involved with goals

  • Regardless of the goal or its size, the same neural circuits are involved

  • The neural circuits involved in goals assess two things: (1) the value of the goal and whether it’s worth pursuing; (2) which actions to take towards that goal

  • Delayed discounting: the further out a goal is, the less effective the reward is in motivating behavior

  • We evaluate progress and how we feel about pursuit in peri-personal space; moving toward a goal involves orienting thinking toward extra-personal space

  • Imagining a goal has to be coupled to the pursuit of the goal – visualization alone is helpful in getting us started on pursuit of goals but not a good way to maintain the pursuit of a goal

  • Foreshadow failure: thinking about failure or what will happen if you don’t achieve a goal is actually the best way to motivate towards goal pursuit – in other words, use failure as motivation to lean into correct behaviors

  • “The brain and body are much better at moving away from fearful things than towards things we want.” – Dr. Andrew Huberman

  • Assess progress towards a goal on a weekly basis and give yourself a small reward to leverage the dopamine system and tell yourself you’re on the right track

  • Best practices in setting and achieving goals: (1) set goals that are challenging but possible (not too easy, not impossible); (2) plan concretely; (3) foreshadow failure; (4) focus on visual points to keep the attention and remove distractors

The Neuroscience & Psychology Of Goals

  • Humans are unique in their ability to juggle multiple goals setting & pursuits at the same time

  • Goal seeking and pursuit of goals originate from the same neural circuit, regardless of the nature of the goal

  • Amygdala: instills a little bit of the fear and anxiety factor associated with setting and achieving goals to avoid punishment or embarrassment

  • Ventral striatum in basal ganglia: a neural circuit that initiates “go” (action) or “no go” (inaction) in scenarios

  • Cortex (lateral & orbital prefrontal): involved in planning, time scales, how actions relate to the future, and meshing emotions with progress

  • The neural circuits involved in goals assess two things: (1) the value of the goal and whether it’s worth pursuing; (2) which actions to take towards that goal

  • Goal pursuits involve several different states in the brain and body

  • There are a few core elements to goal setting: (1) identify and define a specific thing to attain; (2) assess whether you are making progress towards that goal; (3) goal execution; (4) action steps

Peri-Personal Versus Extra-Personal Space

  • Peri-personal space: all the space in your body, within the surface of your skin, and in your immediate environment

  • Peri-personal space is what we have and how we feel in the immediate and present

  • Particular chemicals and circuits are involved in peri-personal space – a sense of breathing, consuming water nearby, etc.

  • Peri-personal space is modulated mostly by serotonin

  • Extra-personal space: everything beyond the confines of reach, at some other location in space and time

  • Extra-personal space is understanding what else is out there beyond our immediate, and understanding of how to get there

  • Neuromodulators and neurochemicals involved in extra-personal space is dopamine

  • We have to evaluate whether we are making progress and on the right track within a time period

  • To properly achieve goals we have to be able to toggle back and forth between peri-personal and extra-personal space

Anchoring Attention With Multi-Tasking & Visual Field Tips

  • There is a role for multi-tasking but it must be placed strategically in a time along with pursuit of a goal

  • Most people can maintain focus for about 3 minutes at a time before drifting, even momentarily

  • Leveraging multi-tasking: when we multi-task, there’s an increase in epinephrine/adrenaline which triggers action

  • Multi-tasking activity before jumping into focused goal-oriented behavior can be useful to get us into action

  • The visual system achieves an increase in alertness by communicating with the circulatory system that delivers blood, nutrients, and oxygen to the rest of the body

  • Looking at a goal-line allows people to achieve goals faster and feel like it took less effort

  • Leveraging gaze: look at a dot or line (on a screen or paper in front of you) for 30 seconds then move to work that requires focus; this increases cognitive ability to pay attention

  • To learn more about visual field and goals: Effects Of Narrowing Visual Attention On Goal Pursuit Behavior by Balcetis, Riccio, Duncan, et. al.

  • Visual perception of present or future is what allows us to anchor our goal-directed system and motivation to complete tasks that may not be useful in the moment (but useful in goal)

  • Visualization is helpful in getting us started on pursuit of goals but not a good way to maintain the pursuit of a goal – you’re better off thinking about how you want to avoid failure

  • Try space-time bridging: gradually move the focus from internal state to outside the body at a distance while taking three slow breaths at each step

  • Step 1: Close your eyes for three slow breaths, concentrating on your internal state;

  • Step 2: Open your eyes and focus vision on an area on the surface of your body (like palm);

  • Step 3: Continue with slow breaths and focus attention outside your body to about 5-15 feet;

  • Step 4: Move eyesight to the horizon or as far as you can and dilate pupils to take in as much as possible;

  • Step 5: Close your eyes and return focus to your internal state and take three slow breaths

How To Size Goals

  • The probability of achieving a goal fluctuates depending on whether the goal is easy, moderate, or impossible

  • If the goal is too easy: it doesn’t recruit enough of the autonomic nervous system to pursue

  • If the goal is moderate or just outside of ability: there’s twice the likelihood you’re more likely to pursue that goal

  • Set goals that are realistic and challenging – but not so lofty they’re impossible and crash the system

Pursuit, Specificity, Of Goals

  • Trying to pursue too many goals at once can be distracting

  • Setting 1-3 major goals for a year is enough

  • Having a concrete plan with specific steps is essential – “what does right look like?”

  • Weekly assessment of progress toward the goal is a good starting point

  • Space-time bridging:

Dopamine & The Reward-Prediction Error

  • Dopamine – the molecule of motivation – is the currency by which we assess value & progress toward goals

  • Possibility is deeply woven into the dopamine system

  • In the neurological system, the surprise, novelty, motivation, and reward release dopamine

  • Reward-prediction error = actual amount of dopamine released in response to something – the amount expected

  • If you tell a child they “might” have ice cream later, you’re effectively telling the dopamine they will have ice cream – if it doesn’t happen, there’s a big dopamine crash

  • Understanding the reward-prediction error allows us to make better decisions about how far out in the future to place milestones and assess progress

  • Pick an interval at which you will assess progress & give yourself a reward

  • Leverage dopamine release on a schedule of rewards that you can do consistently

  • Dopamine interacts with the visual system bidirectionally: using our visual system in a particular way recruits chemicals (like dopamine) to put us in a state of readiness and pursuit – and vice versa


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