Science Backed Tools For Successful Goal Setting

Do you love a goal?

Maybe you are someone who finds it hard to set goals, and even harder to then achieve them?

Maybe you find goal setting frustrating or perhaps even demotivating?

In this article and our follow up we are going to share with you science backed tools and protocols for setting goals that will give you the very best chance of success. Everything we share has been proven to enhance goal setting and achievement based on research and academic studies.

Why Set Goals?

Goals are the roadmap that shows us what is possible in our life – Les Brown.

Goal setting makes a difference. It is shown that by having clear, specific goals you increase the level of performance output by over 18%, against either no goals to general “get better” goals. So there is specific evidence to say that those who set goals and adopt an effective goal setting protocol will outperform those who do not.

Goals inspire us to do things we would not ordinarily do, they trigger motivation that leads to effort towards a focus.

How Goals Work – neuroscience 101

Before we talk about how goals work and the best protocols to follow I want to share a little bit of insight into what is happening in key areas of the brain that are related to goal attainment. The aim being to give you a bit of information about the structures that support goals and to help make sense of why certain practices work and have an impact.

There are 4 parts of the brain that are of interest:

  1. Amygdala – the part of the brain that controls arousal and activation
  2. Basal Ganglia – this is the part of the brain that has a go / no go reaction
  3. Lateral Prefrontal cortex – this part of the brain measures space and time
  4. Orbital prefrontal cortex – this part of the brain is linked to emotional regulation and how we feel

If we take each part and explore it more specifically related to Goals.

The Amygdala

We widely associate the amygdala with the fight, flight or freeze reaction. It sits right at the stem of the brain and is the part of the brain that is most triggered by danger or fear. However, this part of the brain is essential for activation and arousal required to carry our physical and cognitive tasks. it directs our attention – when we are focussed on something the amygdala is aroused and sets in motion the the firing of certain neutrons and the release of chemicals that support action. This is where our motivation to take action comes from.

The Basal Ganglia

This part of the brain contains the so called go / no go switch. It controls the the actions processed through the brain by either switching them on or off. Obviously whenever we are going after goals there is a change in behaviour required – this can either be a GO – we do something new, or a NO GO that stops a previous action.

The lateral prefrontal cortex

Associated with space and time this is a critical part of the brain when related to goals. When we are in the process of achieving goals we have to have a reliable way of evaluating progress towards achievement. The lateral prefrontal cortex will provide feedback as to how far we have travelled towards a goal and gives us a sense of progress

The Orbital prefrontal cortex

Connected to our emotions this part of the brain will get involved in how we feel emotionally about the goals we set and our progress. When we fail at something and get frustrated this part of the brain will be active. When we feel positive or elated because we have achieved a milestone again this is the part of the brain that matters.

Goals need to be hard…

So let’s start to look at how we go about setting goals. Goals have to be hard in order for the Amygdala to notice them enough to create activation.

Goals that are too easy simply do not create the necessary focus and attention to create the level of arousal to go and achieve them. This is why we often find tasks that are so far into the future hard to start on because there simply isn’t enough of a need right now to create the activation necessary.

So the first science backed protocol is that our goals have to be challenging – hard to achieve. To the point that we should have a healthy level of concern about our ability to achieve the goal.

If you already know HOW you will achieve the goal and feel it is within easy attainment you are highly unlikely to achieve it – even though it is easy to do.

Equally we don’t want to set impossible tasks that you brain cannot imagine doing – again the activation will not occur if there isn’t even the slightest chance it is possible.

So challenging, hard goals are what we are looking for. You should feel some resistance when committing to a goal that is challenging – this is a good sign it is big enough.

Goals MUST be written down by hand

Goals must be committed to paper. There is something magical that happens when we physically write out a goal. There is still research to be done as to why this is but it is clear that for the first time in human evolution we now write with our thumbs (texting or note taking on a phone). So write it down.

What to write? This is the really fascinating part and it links to a truth I learned a few years ago.

“The purpose of setting goals is not the achievement of the goal, but who you become in the process of achieving the goal”

This who you become is strongly connected to this next science backed protocol. When writing a goal write it out using as many verbs as possible. Describe the goal as an active process that includes specific descriptions of the activities you will conduct when completing the goal.

This is super important. So for example if I had a goal to run a marathon (actually one of my current goals) I would write it by putting something like “I am running for 26 miles without stopping. I will be running at 9.09 per mile pace so that that will finish the marathon in under 4 hours”

Notice how when I write this I have a very specific and tangible target in mind – the more tangible you can make a goal the better chance you have of success. Even if a goal does not have a tangible finish line like a marathon, you can create tangibility by setting times doing the goal or times practicing the activity. For example when considering leadership it is hard to know tangibly that I have got better at it but I could set the goal to spend 15 minutes each day reflecting on my choices as a leader and planning how I can create more impact in the next 24 hours.

Using verbs helps your brain to focus on what you need to DO to achieve the goal rather than just the outcome.

When we write down our goals adding a duration or time commitment also adds to the likelihood of success. So for example if I take my big goal above and then was to create a goal for my training in the next week I might write something like “I will go running 4 times this week. I will run for 30 mins 3 times during the week, then on Sunday I will run for 3.5 hours”

Again the more specific we can be the better. If you have a goal of learning a new language you might express it as “I will attend a 1 hour workshop on conversational Spanish. I will also practice Spanish for 2 hours in addition to the workshop”

How many goals?

There are quite a few alternative thoughts on this topic. However the research shows that having 1 priority goal is the best protocol for success.

By focussing on 1 specific goal as our absolute priority we reduce the feeling of overwhelm and performance anxiety and we create a clear way to evaluate progress in our brains. The lateral orbital prefrontal cortex prefer the simplicity of one main focus point.

This does not mean you can’t do anything else but having one principle goal is the key. For example I am running a marathon as I said above. However I also like to do strength training and cycling / walking. I still do these things and commit the action but my 1 main priority is the marathon and the other actions become sub goals towards the one main goal.

So one big goal.

How long should I set a goal for?

Again this is open to some conjecture but the best science backed protocol shows that the most amount of success is when we set a goal for a 12 week or 3 month timescale.

This creates enough time for it to be big and meaningful but no so much time that activation doesn’t happen (too far off).

1 quarter is the sweet spot. So 4 big goals a year. Of course you can pull together quarters on the same goal but you should have a clear milestone as to where you want to be in the next 12 weeks if it is a longer goal.

In our business we do this and set quarterly goals as to where we want to be based on our 5 year plan and our annual targets

Most of the research and insight for this article is thanks to Andrew Hubermann at “The Hubermann Lab Podcast” – i strongly recommend you check out this podcast if you have a passion for neuroscience.

Check out next week where we will share tips on how to actually plan to achieve the goals you set…

If you think we can help your business and you would like to get a feel for who we are let’s have a chat.

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