The idea that we need to set goals and stick to them has been driven into our collective heads since grade school — and if we’re lucky, someone may have even taught us how to set those goals. One thing most of us were never taught, no matter how comprehensive our education, is the science behind goal-setting.
How can science help you set and achieve your goals, and how can you apply these techniques to your life immediately?
The Principles of Goal-Setting
If we break it down, there are five primary principals of goal-setting: clarity, challenge, commitment, feedback and complexity.
- Clarity: Your goal needs to be clear. Have a defined end point or you won’t even know if you’ve actually reached your goal. This doesn’t mean you can’t break it down into smaller steps to increase achievability, but you need to have a clearly defined end to your goal.
- Challenge: Don’t make it too easy! Your goal needs to challenge you to step outside your comfort zone and improve yourself. If it’s too easy, you won’t grow and there’s no point in setting the goal in the first place.
- Commitment: Is this goal something you picked for yourself? Don’t let someone else pick your goals for you — it’s harder to stay committed if you do.
- Feedback: Do you have someone who can offer you feedback on your goal progress? Listen to them! If you don’t have someone to give you feedback, find someone who is willing to monitor your progress and let you know when you’re off track.
- Complexity: Is your goal too complicated to achieve? If so, can it be broken down into smaller, more easily achievable pieces that will eventually make up the whole of your goal?
These five principals were first postulated by Locke and Latham, two scientists who studied the science of goal-setting and released their findings in the 1990s.
What have we learned since then?
Goals Become Habits
Sometimes you have to trick your brain into taking steps forward toward your goals. It’s easier to achieve your goals by turning them into habits. Creating habits requires doing the same thing every single day until it becomes automatic. How can you turn your goals into a habit?
You need to turn the act of working toward your goals into a habit by constantly moving toward your end goal. A recent study found that habits and goals are stored differently in the brain, and the orbitofrontal cortex is responsible for turning your goals into habits. Endocannabinoids, the brain chemicals that are also responsible for the psychoactive effects of marijuana, also help to modulate your memory and behavior, forming habits over time.
The thing you need to remember here is to be consistent. If you can constantly move toward your goal, you’ll find that each day it becomes easier until you can’t go a day without working toward your end goals.
Trick Your Brain With Dopamine
Dopamine is your brain’s feel-good chemical — when you get something you want, whether it’s food, sex or something less tangible, your brain releases dopamine. You can actually get addicted to this feeling, which is why rewarding risky behaviors like gambling become so addictive — when a gambling addict wins a match, they get that flood of dopamine. They feel good, and enjoy feeling good, so they go back for more.
This is another science behind achieving your goals — you can use that dopamine response to make it easier for you to achieve your goals. Instead of setting one big goal and working toward that, break your goal down into smaller steps that are more immediately achievable. As you check off each step on this list, you’ll get that rush of dopamine as a reward. Doing this enough tricks your brain into realizing that moving toward your goal is what it needs to do to keep getting that positive response.
It’s a Part of You
Setting a goal is about more than just coming up with a plan and then carrying it out. When you set a goal, you’re taking ownership of an idea.
Research at Cornell University found that when you take ownership of something, tangible or not, it becomes a part of you and is then treated as an extension of yourself. This is caused by the endowment effect — when you take ownership of something, it becomes part of your personal identity, and loss causes dopamine shutoff. Instead of getting that rewarding feeling when you accomplish something, you get a profound negative response.
This trend toward ownership of the intangible causes you to fiercely defend the steps you need to take to achieve achieve your goals as fiercely as you would fight to defend yourself from a physical attack. It’s part of you, and if you don’t achieve your goals, it can feel as though part of you has died.
What should you take away from all of this? Simple — your goals are all in your head, and it’s up to you to trick your brain into realizing this. Goal successes are rewarded with dopamine, and failures are not. Break your goals up into smaller steps and take pleasure in checking off each one. Work toward your goal every single day — if you can turn your goal progress into a habit, it will be much easier to continue.
The new year is infamous for people setting goals that they’re unable or unwilling to keep. Instead of setting an unrealistic New Year’s resolution this year, try setting an achievable goal, broken into smaller parts. You’ll be surprised how much easier it is to stick to your resolution if it’s actually achievable!