How Goal-Setting Works In Our Brain
We all know setting goals helps us achieve tasks. In fact, goal-setting can be one of our most powerful tools in terms of changing our habits and shaping our lives. They motivate us to go after the things we want, help us overcome obstacles we find difficult, and even make things we thought were out of reach become attainable.
But goals do more than help us make things happen. They shift our perspective on what we believe is possible. And that happens because goals can actually restructure our brain, creating new neural pathways that allow it to work more efficiently, which helps us focus our energy into making new behaviors habits.
A Deeper Look at the Brain
Just as our skin will heal from a cut or a scrape, our brain also has the power to heal and restructure itself through a process called neuroplasticity. This incredible process means our brain can not only reorganize synaptic pathways after a brain injury, such as a stroke, but they can also adapt and change our behavior in response to new information.
This process is incredibly effective when it comes to goal setting because our brain loves direction. Goals give it a purpose and it will actively seek out information in our environments to better ensure we achieve our goals. This in turn creates new neural pathways, as often, we need to change our behaviors in order to achieve our goals.
In a study of multiple sclerosis patients done at the University of Texas, researchers found that patients who set aggressive goals regarding their health and wellness, had not only fewer symptoms, but their symptoms were less severe. Focusing on their goals healed their brain. That’s the power of neuroplasticity.
The Importance of Meaning
Setting a goal is one piece of the process, but research shows that the more a goal means to us, the more likely we are to achieve it. This is because our brain routes a lot of information through our amygdala. It evaluates and determines the level of emotional significance to events which it then loops to our frontal lobe for higher-level cognitive processing. So having goals rooted in meaning will always get a boost in importance.
It’s easy to understand the process in terms of our own experiences. For example, saving money so we can go on the vacation of our dreams is probably a lot easier than paying off debt. Though debt can be stressful, imagining ourselves on vacation can have a much larger emotional significance tied to it, which will give it a higher priority in our brain. This in turn helps our brain filter out everything that will stand in our way while alerting our attention to the situations, information, and behaviors that will help us achieve the goal.
It may feel like some goals we set because we have to, not because we want to, and that can hinder our ability to reach them. In order to attach the emotional significance, one of the first things we need to do is find a solid emotional reason for wanting to complete that goal. Getting a good annual review at work might be something we want to do logically, but if we don’t attach emotion to it, this long-term goal is difficult to focus on and prioritize. However, if we decide that getting a good review will lead to a raise, and that will help us buy our dream home, the emotional significance of that goal is now elevated.
Every time we have to fill out a report or complete a mundane task, we can envision that house and our motivation will increase. But more importantly, the higher our emotional attachment to a goal, the more our brain will actively work to minimize obstacles and difficulties. In short, the more it means to us, the more likely we’ll achieve it, no matter what.
How the Brain Works on Achieving the Set Goal
In large part, goal-setting comes down to our amygdala and our frontal lobe. It’s combining logic with the heart that creates the powerful drive, otherwise known as motivation. But the third aspect of our brain that guarantees goal-setting success is our reward system.
Our brain is designed to reinforce behavior by releasing the neurochemical dopamine whenever we engage in activities that keep us alive. Eating food, drinking water, even falling in love, as we’re more likely to survive when we build relationships. But this reward system is also tied to learning. When we learn something new, our brain rewards us with a dopamine surge that boosts our mood and makes us feel happy. Because dopamine is so potent, our brain craves more of it, creating motivation for us to seek more.
This process is known as the reward loop and we can use it to create habits. Once we’ve attached emotional significance to our goal, we can use the reward system to break them down into smaller goals. Our frontal lobe is designed to evaluate and assess the logistical breakdown of our goals, which will allow us to visualize and plan each minor goal within our larger one. Each step should have a defined measure for success and a specific way we want to celebrate that success. These external rewards will activate our internal reward system, giving us even more motivation to continue to the next step.
No matter what our goals are, our brain is hardwired to help us achieve them. By understanding the power of neuroplasticity, finding a way to connect emotion to logic, and creating a system of external and internal rewards, we can overcome any and all obstacles for whatever goal we strive towards.