Goals are a necessary aspect of life. They help give you direction and purpose whether you are setting goals for work, fitness, health, relationships, or simply improving your golf swing.
Setting goals can also change that way that you think.
According to years of research and studies, your brain does not know the difference between what you want to achieve and what you have already achieved.
Basically, when you set a goal, your brain already starts to believe that you have accomplished the goal.
How does this science behind setting goals help you achieve them? To find the answer, you need to understand more about how the brain works…
Dopamine Helps Keep Your Brain Focused
Dopamine is a critical component in setting goals. It is one of the neurotransmitters that carry signals between cells in your brain.
Serotonin is another neurotransmitter and one that people tend to hear more about. Serotonin helps regulate your mood, which is why it is often called the happy chemical.
Most antidepressants are designed as serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SRIs). They help regulate the serotonin levels to stabilize your mood.
While serotonin regulates mood, dopamine provides different functions. Its main function is to create a feeling of pleasure during specific types of stimulation.
When you kiss your partner, win a game, or eat chocolate, your body produces more dopamine. Your body also produces more dopamine when you achieve goals.
In a way, dopamine works as a motivator to help keep your brain focused on achieving goals. You know that when you eat your favorite food, you are going to feel happy. That is dopamine at work.
The way that dopamine encourages you to indulge in your favorite sweets is the same way that dopamine helps keep you motivated toward attaining your goals.
You can think of dopamine as a reward. When you achieve something that you want, your brain rewards you with more dopamine.
Unfortunately, if you fail to achieve your goals, you end up craving the reward even more.
Your Brain Takes Ownership of Your Goals
Besides dopamine, there are other things occurring in your brain when you set goals, including the endowment effect.
Ownership can apply to immaterial things, thoughts, and ideas. When you own something, it becomes a part of you. This includes your goals.
To understand how this works, you should know more about the endowment effect. In a widely referenced experiment, researchers at Cornell University demonstrated how the endowment effect works.
The researchers gave a group of college students coffee mugs. They then offered to give the students chocolate in place of the mugs. Almost all the students refused the trade. They wanted to keep their coffee mugs even if they claimed that they love chocolate.
The researchers then reversed the process. They gave chocolate to a group of students and then offered to trade the chocolate for coffee mugs. Again, the students refused the trade. Most of the students wanted to keep the chocolate.
When your brain takes ownership of something, you work to keep it. This is true for chocolate, coffee mugs, and goals.
How to Apply Science to Your Goal Setting
How does this science affect your goals? There are two main takeaways from the effects of dopamine and the endowment effect.
When you set goals, you start to trick your brain into thinking that you have already completed them. This is especially true when you spend time fantasizing about your goals. When you spend more time visualizing the outcome of the goal, your brain starts to think that the outcome already occurred.
Your brain takes ownership of the goals, which is an example of the endowment effect. If you fail to achieve the goal, you take something away that you already possess.
With a major goal, you get a major release of dopamine. You also set yourself up to potentially experience a major letdown. When you take away the goal, you keep your brain from receiving its reward.
As your brain thinks of setting and achieving goals as the same thing, you become devastated when you cannot achieve your goals.
Here are several ways to use this science to improve your chances of achieving your goals.
Focus on the Process Instead of the Outcome
When setting goals, it is easy to focus more on the outcome instead of the steps that you take to achieve your goals. Focusing on the outcome often leads to greater disappointment when you cannot accomplish your goals.
For example, you may want to lose 15 pounds of fat before your friend’s wedding. In the weeks leading up to the wedding, you focus on how you will look after losing the weight and how people will congratulate you on your weight loss.
Every time that you think about the outcome, you are releasing dopamine. You are rewarding your brain for an outcome that has not yet happened.
A significant study examined the different ways that outcome and process impact goal setting. In this study, three groups of people were trained to throw darts.
The first group was instructed to get a high score, which is an outcome-focused goal. The second group was given tips for becoming good dart throwers. They were instructed to focus on their form, which is a process-focused goal. The third group was instructed to focus on the process and then the outcome after improving their throws.
The first group performed the worst. They were too focused on achieving a high score instead of focusing on the skills that they needed to get a high score.
When setting your goals, you can focus more on the process. Think about the steps that you need to obtain your goals.
If you want to lose 15 pounds of fat, determine the steps that you need to get there instead of thinking about how you will look. You may need to cut down on starchy carbs or start eating more fruits and vegetables.
Fantasizing about the outcome does not help you obtain the outcome that you want. Actionable steps are how you achieve your goals.
Choose Obtainable Goals to Avoid Letdown
The goals that you choose should be obtainable. As mentioned, you set yourself up for a letdown when you choose goals that you cannot achieve.
If you have an ambitious goal, it helps to break the goal down into smaller milestones. Instead of thinking about your main goal, you plan the steps needed to obtain each milestone.
While you should choose obtainable goals, you should also avoid choosing goals simply to reward yourself. Instead of setting trivial goals, focus on goals that have real meaning. These are the goals that help drive motivation and ambition.
Prepare Yourself for Occasional Failure
Another way to use science to help achieve your goals is to prepare for failure. When you cannot reach your goals, you become disappointed. While you may never completely avoid this disappointment, you can prepare for it.
The first step is to recognize that you may fail. Let your brain know that the outcome is not always a reality.
If your brain believes that you have already achieved your goal, the disappointment that you face during each small setback can derail your entire plans.
When you are trying to stick with a fitness routine, it is normal to take a day off. Unfortunately, your brain may consider this setback a failure. The setback is keeping you from achieving a goal that your brain thinks is done. Instead of simply getting back on track the next day, you may give up on exercising.
Planning for these setbacks gives your brain a different perspective. Each time that you use planning to overcome a setback, your brain is rewarded.
For example, if you are worried that you may take a day off from exercising, come up with a plan to keep yourself motivated. Reiterate the reasons why you want to get in better shape as these motivators can help you stay on track.
Conclusion: The Power of Goal Setting Is Backed by Science
Whether you want to lose weight, land a promotion, or start a new relationship, remember the various ways that goal setting affects your brain.
Setting a lofty goal is sometimes essential to getting more out of life. However, it also increases the risk of experiencing major trauma if you fail to reach the goal.
You can avoid this pitfall by focusing more on the process instead of the outcome. When you focus on the outcome, your brain takes more ownership of the goal and starts to think that you have already accomplished it.
You should also set obtainable goals and goals that have meaning. When you set goals that matter, you gain the motivation needed to focus more on the process so that you can achieve a favorable outcome.
The bottom line is that your brain is hard at work when you set a goal. The way that your brain perceives the goal directly impacts your chances of achieving the goal.
Your brain wants you to accomplish your goals. It gives you more happiness and fulfillment. You just need to be careful to avoid making the same mistakes.