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