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Why you love setting goals more than pursuing them, according to science

A variable that often gets overlooked is how our brains are wired to both welcome and resist change.

Why you love setting goals more than pursuing them, according to science
[Photo: marchmeena29/iStock]

A recent paper published in the journal Frontiers In Psychology said it best: COVID-19 caused many people to experience grief over the loss of their normal routines, and in some cases these feelings snowballed into a loss of meaning in life. The researchers go on to propose a new buzzphrase, “life crafting,” as a way to renew meaning and proactively create the future we want for ourselves and our families.

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Life crafting probably isn’t breaking news to you because you’re ambitious, driven, and an achiever. You’ve accomplished big things in the past. So why does setting a goal for yourself still feel like a coin toss at times?

We know that the SMART-est goal in the world means nothing without action. But there’s another variable that often gets overlooked, and that is how our brains are wired to both welcome and resist change. Here’s what goes down in your noggin when you set out to do something awesome—and why it matters.

Why you’re so goals-obsessed

Stoicism and early 20th-century publications like Think And Grow Rich gave us fleeting tastes of positive psychology, but the self-help movement didn’t really take off until about 45 years ago. From Tony Robbins seminar commercials to Oprah Winfrey on the airwaves to Werner Erhard’s EST, self-actualization soon became part of our lives, and millennials soon calibrated their ambitions from the belief system that you can be, do, or have anything you want in life. Being locked down at home for over a year seems to have only accelerated our craving for self-help; the global personal development market is now projected to surpass $56 billion by 2027.

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Honestly, it’s hard not to think about goals these days; every time I log on to social media to escape, I’m bombarded by friends and peers broadcasting their latest achievements. Back when we traveled freely (Remember those days?), one-third of millennials confessed that the primary motivation for documenting vacation photos was to make friends and family jealous. Of course, we have goals and aspirations on the brain—it’s being shoved in our faces constantly.

So you set a goal and then you fixate on it. You become attached to how the path toward your goal will play out, and when obstacles rear their ugly heads, you feel resistant to sticking to it. Two decades before he wrote Thinking, Fast And Slow, psychologist Daniel Kahneman was serving us research on The Endowment Effect, which says we’re more hesitant to give something up when we feel it belongs to us.

This is your brain on goals

The act of setting a goal releases the neurotransmitter dopamine and motivates you to take productive action. A popular study published in Nature noted that dopamine not only spikes when we set a goal for ourselves but also when we’re close to achieving that goal. The bigger the reward, the more powerful the spike. This is probably why we’re able to power through in a race or a project once we see light at the end of the tunnel. Dopamine bookends the goal-achieving experience, and its absence during the middle phase—which is where you take all the life-changing action—leaves you less motivated from the jump. 

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Setting goals is the easy part. Our problems arise when we become challenged to regulate our behavior and keep implementation top-of-mind. Perhaps this is my diet talking, but…self-regulation blows. It initially requires a steady stream of willpower, which is scientifically challenging. Research confirms that burning down willpower makes you more susceptible to temptation down the road. That’s why you should use your dopamine honeymoon to create structure and a plan of attack. 

How to maximize your chances of success

Science and history would suggest we’ve been conditioned to crave self-actualization. But if you’re reading this article, chances are that you welcome this conditioning and still have aspirations and dreams you want to pursue. So here are a few things to keep in mind as you feed your ambitions.

Normalize slow, steady progress

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Warp-speed progress is the norm these days, but if we’ve learned anything from that wild data set on The Biggest Loser contestants’ post-show weight gain, it’s that extreme transformations rarely keep for the long term. Pencil habit-building tasks into your calendar each week, then be incredibly boring and actually do what you said you would do. Then treat yo’ self to reap the benefits of positive reinforcement.

Prioritize behaviors over benchmarks

Mainstream productivity advice to “Cut big tasks down into bite-sized ones” is actually a double-edged sword. If your week-to-week behavior is all goalposts and no practice, you’ll have to keep leaning on willpower to make it all work. Bionic behaviors will outperform even the shiniest goal-setting journal, and once you develop initial momentum the process becomes increasingly easier.

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Put yourself on the hook

If you’re smart, ambitious, and excited, you’re probably capable of accomplishing big things all by yourself. That doesn’t mean you should. Check your ego at the door and seek out containers that keep you inspired and accountable; as the Pygmalion Effect notes, the expectations others have of how we show up can influence our end behavior.

Hustle culture has left us with more stars in our eyes than ever before. But if we’re not careful, our goals can devolve into unrealized fantasies and leave us feeling blasé about change. Anticipate the challenges along the way and you’ll have an easier time converting dreams into reality.

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Nick Wolny is a former classically trained musician and a current online marketing strategist for small-business owners, experts, and entrepreneurs.


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