The Science of Goal Setting & Achievement
Books and articles are overwhelming on goals, but there are few materials on the actual science behind it. Here you will explore what it tells about goal setting and achievement. Enjoy.
Setting goals is not exclusively a human endeavour as animals do it too.
Honey bees, for example, set goals on how to gather honey and take it back to the hive. Some other animals plan on foraging for food and getting mates to produce offspring. Predators are not left out — they target to hunt lesser animals and plan on not getting hurt or hunted by bigger predators or men.
There is a basic system by which humans and animals set goals — a standard neural socket is found in both species and is responsible for thinking and orienting actions towards a particular goal.
However, only human brains have the unique ability to orient their minds towards both immediate objectives and goals with a long-term duration from a week or a month to life goals.
Another unique thing — the human brain can juggle multiple goals. You could be in school and pursue learning outside of the school environment.
Financial, health, physical or spiritual goals must be achieved simultaneously because you cannot afford to be fixated on a particular thing at a time. You have multiple destinations at once.
And actually, one of the significant challenges in pursuing goals is that goals often interact. If you try to spend 100% of your time chasing one particular goal, that might be very effective for that goal. But you will fall back on some of the other areas. You can imagine how this plays out.
Concentrating on one aspect will ultimately make another aspect suffer. For example, if one focuses on business and neglects their health, they will sooner or later have to deal with the consequences when they break down. It is called inter-living.
Neural circuits are an essential system by which humans and animals set goals and are responsible for inter-living goals. It is a collection of brain areas that give rise to a particular behaviour or perception when acting in a specific sequence.
Imagine a piano. Keys played in the appropriate sequence represent a particular song. You would never say that one key on the piano represents that song, but that key is necessary.
Similarly, in the brain, you can say that one brain area is required but not sufficient to give us a particular experience or generate a specific behaviour.
So when you think about goal-seeking and the pursuit in the brain, it doesn’t matter what the goal is. It involves a standard set of neural circuits.
You can plan to build a billion-dollar company, think about a craft day at home with your kids, or think about what movie to see. That all involve the exact same set of neural circuits! It’s truly remarkable.
You don’t need to know all the details and names. Just understand that those different elements are involved in the decision-making processes that lead you toward a particular achievement:
Amygdala is most often associated with fear. Because you strive to avoid punishment, including embarrassment or financial ruin, the amygdala and some sense of anxiety or fear motivate you to pursue goals.
Basal ganglia help you generate “go”, meaning the initiation of action, and “no-go”, meaning the prevention of action, type scenarios.
One circuit is involved in getting you to do things like getting up tomorrow and running five miles first thing in the morning.
Another circuit is the one that says, “no, you’re not going to go for the second or the third cookie”.
If you’re not going to eat that cookie, the “go” circuit would be responsible for choosing to eat or do something else.
The cortex is the brain’s outer shell, and it has two sub-regions:
The Prefrontal cortex is involved in executive function and things like planning. Thinking about stuff under different timescales, what you might want tomorrow or the next day and how your actions will relate to the future.
The Orbitofrontal cortex has many functions, but one of the critical functions in goal setting is meshing some emotionality with your current state of progress and comparing that emotionality to where it might be when you are closer to a goal.
“Value Information” and “Action”.
Again, you don’t need to know all the details and names. One key thing you need to remember is that the same circuits are involved in all goal settings. What’s going on in these circuits can be boiled down to two particular things — Value information and Action.
“Value information” is responsible for determining whether something is worth pursuing or not. This means that there are some goals that you will have to discard because they won’t be worth it in the end. So instead of expending time and other resources on them, value information accesses it and drops them while moving to other goals.
“Action”, on the other hand, assesses which action to take or not to take given the value of a particular goal at a specific moment in time.
They work together: you act based on your assessment of the goal’s value at a particular time, so the value information about goals is the key.
To assess your progress toward particular things of particular value and move you closer to achieving, you involve dopamine which governs your goal setting, goal assessment and goal pursuit.
Dopamine is a type of neurotransmitter. Your body makes it, and your nervous system uses it to send messages between nerve cells. That’s why it’s sometimes called a chemical messenger.
Dopamine plays a critical role in how you feel pleasure. It’s also a big part of your ability to think and plan. Dopamine sits at the heart of your motivational state, and its shortage inhibits an ability to pursue or go through a series of action steps to seek out goals.
Dopamine is released in the most significant amount, which places you into a more excellent state of motivation, when something happens that’s positive and novel, especially when you didn’t anticipate something would come.
If you anticipated something positive would happen and then that thing happens, you experience dopamine as part of the anticipation, but to a less amount.
And then, when you actually experience the reward, there’s the smallest increase in dopamine.
So again, the biggest increases in dopamine to positive and unexpected things. Lesser dopamine is released when you anticipate something good will happen and when that happens, you get some additional dopamine.
If that doesn’t happen, there’s a drop in dopamine below your initial baseline. That drop in dopamine is the chemical essence of what you call disappointment.
How to Approach Goal Setting
So what does this all tell you about approaching goal setting and achievement?
First of all, you have to identify a specific thing that you’re going to attain (cortex). You can’t just say that you want to be a champion athlete or an expert in X — choose a particular sport or business area. The whole thing starts with thinking about the end in mind (cortex, dopamine).
Any big goal, of course, is broken up into a series of smaller goals and steps (cortex) — understand the path to becoming a champion or an expert in a particular topic. You can’t be focused on the finish line all the time. Very few people can effectively do that long-term. So most goals should involve some milestones.
Here you should utilise the knowledge about how dopamine works — you can make strategic choices about where and how far out in the future to place the milestones to stay motivated and keep your dopamine level high.
Proper milestones and the right dopamine level or fear of not achieving them (dopamine, amygdala) will help with goal execution.
With the milestones, you will be assessing the Value Information and determining Actions, adjusting the path and following milestones accordingly (dopamine). Are things going well or things going poorly? If things are going well, there are action steps — “go”. Maybe “no-go” is a better choice if things are going bad? Do more of this, do less of that, do this, don’t do that, et cetera (basal ganglia).
An assessment of whether or not you would progress towards your goals and milestones is the next necessary step. And again, that’s how dopamine and amygdala play their roles here.
With the understanding of how neural circuits and dopamine work together, you can now make strategic decisions about what goals to set, how to approach them and where in the future put milestones to keep you motivated towards achievement.
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Thanks to Dr. Andrew Huberman, Professor of Neurobiology and Ophthalmology at Stanford School of Medicine, for sharing his knowledge in his podcast “THE SCIENCE OF SETTING & ACHIEVING GOALS”.