To Achieve Your Goals, Learn How To Hack Your Brain

A well-formed goal needs to engage your brain on both the "why" and the "how"—but you can’t focus on both at the same time. Here's how to apply the latest findings from neuroscience to your own to-do list.

During the Major League Baseball playoffs over the next few weeks, you’ll likely hear a comment about a pitcher having a bad outing. You’ll hear commentators say he’s throwing but he’s not pitching. They mean the pitcher is going through the mechanics of delivering the ball to the plate, but his motion isn’t coming together as a cohesive whole to achieve his goal of getting outs. This usually means the athlete is overly focusing on the goal of the pitch—aiming it to a location, getting a strikeout, "not giving up a home run." Often pitching coaches will advise the pitcher to focus on one concrete detail of their mechanics, such as their release point. This helps the pitcher subconsciously assimilate all the other details of his motion—the position of his fingers on the ball or the angle of his arm—to deliver a perfect curveball.

It turns out that the wisdom of baseball coaches applies to everyday goals like the ones we set at work, and offers insights about how goals are represented in our brains. Along with recent results from neuroscience research, those insights help us improve how we pursue our goals and ultimately increase our chances at success.

As with pitches, we can think about goals in different ways that can affect our success or failure. Are you merely typing words on a page or are you authoring a novel? Are you sitting attentively in a meeting or are you being an empathic supervisor? Psychologists Charles Carver and Michael Scheier would answer that you’re actually doing both at the same time. This is because both actions—typing words and authoring a novel—are embedded within the same goal hierarchy that contains multiple and different aspects of the goal. Motivation is represented at higher levels of the hierarchy and mechanics are represented at lower levels; asking why moves you up in the hierarchy, and asking how moves you down. With the pitcher, finding his release point is the way, but striking out the batter is the will. To succeed at most goals, both pieces are required—without a will, there’d be no need for a way, and without a way, there is no means to achieve the end—and, critically, the two must remain connected to one another to sustain goal pursuit through to success.

Researchers Robert Spunt at CalTech and Matthew Lieberman at UCLA recorded the brain activity of participants watching videos of people engaging in various everyday tasks like brushing their teeth or reading the newspaper. Critically, the subjects alternately thought about how the people were doing the tasks or why they were doing them. Thinking about how engaged regions on the left side of the brain involved in planning motor movements and tracking one’s location and others in space such as the premotor cortex and the posterior parietal cortex. Thinking about why engaged separate regions that are active when thinking about the states and intentions of others such as the right temporoparietal junction, the precuneus, and the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex. These two regions have little overlap, and some evidence even suggests that they are inversely related—when one set is active, the other set is suppressed.

These facts about the brain reveal practical tips for people seeking to better their own goal pursuit or to help others improve theirs. A well-formed goal needs to have a will and a way connected in the context of a goal hierarchy, but our brains can’t focus on both at the same time. The best we can do is to start at the top and work our way down by asking how until we reach a task we can easily accomplish. However, it’s important not to lose the connection between the levels of the hierarchy so you can readily switch back and forth between them. For example, if you get stuck on a task, move back up the hierarchy by asking why. Or, alternatively, if you are frustrated in why you’re not achieving a goal—whether it is delivering your PowerPoint presentation on deadline to a conference organizer, writing your presentation in a loud office with many distractions, or getting ahead of the batters by throwing strikes—you can move down the hierarchy and ask how. Addressing a key how can get you unstuck, moving you toward your why.

Leaders can play a crucial role here by identifying when employees are stuck at one level in the hierarchy and help them shift gears. For a pitcher, the coach might have to remind him that the goal is to record the out and not necessarily throw the perfect pitch. One brain may be forced to choose a will or a way, but two can have them both.

—Elliot Berkman, Ph.D., is assistant professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and a professor at The Neuroleadership Group. David Rock, Ph.D., cofounded the NeuroLeadership Institute and is the author of four books including the 2009 business best seller Your Brain at Work, and is also the founder and CEO of the NeuroLeadership Group, a global consulting and training firm with operations in 24 countries.

The NeuroLeadership Summit in New York City, October 15-17, will present a new model for thinking about goal setting. "Focus Your Aim: A Social Cognitive Neuroscience Model for Goal Pursuit," will be held from 9:00-10:30 a.m. Eastern on Tuesday, October 16. You can also access our presentation live through a free streaming webcast of the conference.

[Image: Flickr user Marco Barbieri]

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4 Comments

  • Thank you for this article. The key point for me in helping others to get unstuck is to concentrate on 'why' as the fundamentals and then to formulate strategies how to implement the change. The first is critical.

  • James Wieland

    Would you then use the intention, or motive, of a person to define how important the task they are doing is? In other words would a mother who cares for her children perform cooking better if it is for her children rather then herself?

  • Harry @ GoalsOnTrack

    Great insight. Knowing why and focusing on the current step at present is the key.

  • zen-samantha

    Excellent.  The key to understanding the brain, or getting unstuck, is often lead by way of asking "how" at the right time to move and remind you about your "why."  If you know your "why" the task at hand is easy to accomplish as it is essential to achieving your goal.