Goals: Goldilocks, arousal and dopamine

"Most men break their resolutions within five days. Women tend to last a week longer."

Happy New Year! I heard the above today and I am inclined to believe it. Why do people find it so hard to maintain the discipline and motivation to achieve their goal? 

The answer is in your head. So following on from my last article I am going to share a couple of other tips, based on brain science, that are beyond traditional goal setting structures such as GROW (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GROW_model) and SMART (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SMART_criteria). You can copy and paste the links if you want to know more about these. They are important so if you’re not aware of both please click on them.

Goldilocks goals

Goals need to be “just right” as Goldilocks would say about porridge. A goal that is easy generates a physiological small “geared up” spike in our body. A goal that is moderately hard generates a bigger spike that lasts longer whilst one we perceive as impossible we write off with a “run away” spike in our body. It is important to set goals in the Goldilocks zone – not too easy and not too hard. It has to be relative to your level of skill as well. 

I talk about arousal, fight-flight, hormones and sympathetic nervous system referencing James P Henry's research with clients and this is what “Goldilocks” is referring to. We want to trigger the optimal response with our goals and to do this we need to achieve a balance that is high skill and high challenge. High challenge and I lack the skills will make me anxious (over arousal and high cortisol). Low challenge and I have the skill will make be bored (low arousal and low DHEA).

Memory: recall relevant positive experiences

There has been much research, going back to 1986 to Richard Suinn’s “Seven steps to peak performance” around how bringing to life the feeling of accomplishing a goal (e.g. winning races) makes accomplishing future goals more likely. I get clients all the time to recall positive relevant memories and envisage the same thing happening again. Neurologically your brain fires the same signals in the moment or imagined events.

Using memory triggers coupled with positive language doesn’t guarantee success but does prepare the soil for it by changing your physiology in the right way.

Proximity: move the goal closer

Our brain associates three types of distance with a goal: psychological, social and spatial. My final tip is to move the goal closer psychologically. 

Have you ever noticed that as you progress through to a goal it seems closer, becomes easier and the final part seems to be achieved faster? This is actually true for both experiencing and when we envisage and imagine achieving goals. Studies have shown that by doing either, the medial pre-frontal cortex (MPFC) lights up. The outcomes are that planning and envisioning gets stronger, the ventral striatum (where we experience reward) fires up and we get a nice dopamine hit that causes pleasant feelings associated with achieving the goal, even if it is in the future. NLP performance coaches deliberately encourage this activation, and anchor it, using a neurological alignment technique. It might seem a bit Jedi but there is science behind it!

The statistics for this are quite compelling: the goal seems 30% closer (therefore more achievable), 17% easier and 23% faster (less limiting inhibitors/beliefs and the addictive nature of Dopamine motivates us). 

I am always surprised just how powerful our brain is and how many of us are unaware of this. Think of all that untapped potential.

“What about long term goals or really big ones, they look insurmountable?”

Our brain is really powerful both ways as it can just as easily go into self-preservation mode and we talk ourselves out of goals to mainly through a fear of failing. I’m going to share in my next blog how to eat that elephant so to overcome this.

I hope you found this post useful. I’m interested in your views and experiences so please feel free to get in touch.

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