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The Neuroscience of Achieving Your Goals
Eight Specific, Actionable, Science-Backed Strategies
In January 2022, Dr. Andrew Huberman published his “The Science of Setting & Achieving Goals” podcast episode. At two-hours long, it’s a treasure trove of facts and insights about the brain circuitry and the positive strategies that make the pursuit of goals a success. In May 2022, writer Lewis Kallow from the Every newsletter took it upon himself to listen to it over and over again, track down all of the papers that were referenced, and turn the entire episode into a potent 5,000 word essay. The insights are that powerful.
My aim here is to distill the distillation into a pocket-sized, impactful primer. Should you want the wonk and crave the nooks and crannies of the science, go to the sources. Much kudos to Huberman and Kallow for their labor and expertise.
The Brain Circuit
There is one brain circuit or pathway that handles all goal work, whether setting, pursuing, or rewarding goals. This circuit consists of the amygdala, basal ganglia, bilateral prefrontal cortex, and the orbitofrontal cortex. Altogether they assess the value and control the output of an intended action.
The amygdala predicts how positive or negative the emotional experience of completing certain goals might be. The basal ganglia govern the action of a goal — either do it or don’t. The prefrontal cortex is the CEO of the brain, and the orbitofrontal cortex helps clarify the interplay between our actions and the results of those actions, connecting the dots between our behavior and their impact.
Strategies for Achieving Goals
Using the architecture of our brilliant brains, we can devise adaptive and effective strategies for setting, executing, and sticking with our designed goals. Here’s eight specific, actionable, science-backed strategies:
The 85% Rule
You’re setting a goal for a new project. The question emerges: how hairy should the goal be? Too small and it’s not inspiring; too big and it’s disarming. Science shows that you should set the goal such that you could anticipate achieving it 85% of the time. That’s the magic number for motivation and grit.
Make a Plan
Once you have that sizable goal set, it’s mission-critical to create a clear, specific plan. Think SMART goals — the more detailed the better for your brain.
Imagine the Worst
There’s some good reason to do positive visualization when goal setting. Imagining the goal’s success with clarity and specificity lays a flag in the future for your present self to work towards. But science shows that can also make us lazy because it feels good to imagine that positive future, which then drops our energy. Instead or in addition, imagine just how bad it will be if you don’t achieve the goal, and again, be specific about how bad and why.
Outsmart Your Obstacles — aka “foreshadowing failure”
Here’s a journaling practice to map and avoid obstacles to your success. Every day, take five minutes to a) write a few goals to achieve during the day, b) list the obstacles you imagine coming up, and c) describe tactics for overcoming those obstacles should they come up.
Procrastinate with Other Tasks
This is a priming the pump strategy. Before you go about tackling the big goal for the day, pick two or three small tasks to complete — organize your desk, water the plants, do the dishes, whatever. Those little successes grease the brain with adrenaline and motivates the bigger work to come.
Focus Your Eyes to Focus Your Mind
We’re still a hunter-gatherer species. Going after a goal follows the same circuitry as hunting. Engage the goal pursuit pathway of the brain by simply focusing your vision on a single point for 30-60 seconds. See what happens.
“The neurochemistry of long-term goal pursuit feeds off the belief that you’re on the right track.” (Dr. Andrew Huberman)
A Pat on the Brain // Reward Your Effort
Take the time at the end of the week to note to yourself, “what progress did I make on my goal over the past week?” It could be simple and quick or a proper journaling exercise; whatever works for you. Once you’re used to the practice, you can use it to get adaptive, figure out what works and what needs shifting. But the bottom line: the pat on the brain is a dopamine hit that keeps the momentum on the goals. Celebrate progress.
Build a Spacetime Bridge
“This behavior, or this practice, rather, is teaching us to use our visual system and thereby our cognitive system, and thereby our reward systems, to orient to different locations in space, and therefore to different locations in time. And that is the essence of goal directed behavior.”
Here’s the 5 step process, to be repeated 2-3 times. The whole practice can be completed in 3 minutes:
Close your eyes. For three slow breaths, focus all of your attention on a sensation within your body.
Open your eyes. Look at a part of your body. Keep 90% of your attention on your internal sensation still. Direct 10% attention to the part of your body you’re looking at. Do this for three slow breaths.
Look at something outside of your body. Breathe in slowly for another three breaths. Keep just 10% of your attention on those breaths. Direct 90% focus at the external thing.
Now look at something which is as far away as you can possibly see, to the horizon or out of a window. Focus 100% of your attention on what you’re looking at for another three breaths.
Lastly, expand your vision as wide as possible. No focus, just softening and widening the gaze so that you can see everything in your periphery. Do this for three breaths.
Happy Goal Pursuit!