Great goals are like rocket fuel for your brain. Just like putting the right address into your GPS system, you will arrive at your desired destination faster and easier. So, what MAKES a goal great? Today’s blog kicks off our series on ‘hardwiring habits’.

  1. Goals we have in common

Having shared goals creates a strong sense of collaboration and safety on a team or group. When our brain experiences this sense of ‘we have something in common’, it brings with it a rewarding sense of certainty and connection about the motivations of others that is vital to trust, collaboration, and ultimately the effort that will be required for goal achievement. The potential role of goals then, in our increasingly dispersed and digital workforce is enormous. A lack of goal alignment fosters an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality that can have implications on end-to-end process flow, innovation, and business performance.

  1. Goals we remember

Goal achievement requires that we do and think in new ways. However, changing the way we think and behave goes against the brain’s preference to use existing mental pathways to conserve energy. The brain is always preparing for change, and always predicting and rehearsing possible outcomes. It will use its default and more hardwired set of mental maps, without persistent focus and attention on creating the new set of desired behaviors. Making sure we are constantly reminded of our goals, is critical in helping our brain learn and use new skills and adopt new behaviors. Visual and calendar reminders and daily skills practice is key to strengthen the new mental pathways that successful goal achievement requires.

  1. Goals we are asked about

We are motivated to succeed when we set and work towards goals with someone else. We have a socially wired brain that finds approval and recognition from others exceptionally rewarding. Sharing our goal progress with someone else, like a manager or friend, gives us an intoxicating boost to our sense of social status and strengthens our commitment to take even more action, to avoid a drop in status.* Managers who know how to have meaningful conversations about peoples’ goals influence engagement and performance enormously.

  1. Goals we can see and feel

Visualization is a powerful technique used by elite athletes and patients with brain injury for decades.  Research suggests that to reach your goals, write them down, along with the possible ways you could achieve them. Then, imagine yourself, in lots of detail, working towards your goal.  Imagination recruits the action centres of your brain, jump-starting it into action, according to Harvard Medical School’s Dr Srini Pillay. Using this technique regularly is said to help your brain create a line of sight to goal achievement outside of your conscious awareness.**

 5. Goals that are meaningful

Emotionally compelling goals is critical to success.  Research shows that the brain is more likely to engage in challenging scenarios if the goal itself is seen as meaningful and beneficial.*** The absolute worst goals then, are those we are given; i.e. a goal that benefits someone else. By setting goals that are inspiring and meaningful to us, encourages creative ways of undertaking them. This deepens our focus and processing level and activates our reward circuitry. All this provides us with a rich brain chemistry containing dopamine and serotonin, critical neurotransmitters that foster engagement, learning, and enjoyment. Reward yourself by setting goals you love!

* Bargh & Ferguson, 2004
** HBR, March 5, 2014.
*** Phelps, 2006