Goal Setting: How To Programme Your Brain

When we want to get something done we set ourselves specific goals and deadlines in order to get where we want to be. We set ourselves these goals because we know what we need to achieve in order to progress. Whether it is in our careers, our lifestyle, or our fitness, goals create a specific psychological reaction that make us all the more motivated to accomplish the goals we have set ourselves.

The Psychology of goal setting

Our brains are very complex machines, but they are also very simplistic in some of their processes. The hidden secret of goal setting lies in the fact that our brains cannot differentiate between what we want and what we have. Instead, it absorbs the information of what we want and projects it into our self-image. When our reality doesn’t match up to our self-image, we are all the more like to motivate ourselves to change the reality of what we see in the mirror to the self-image we have in our brains.

As well as this self-motivation, our brains also have a unique reward and punishment system in place to help motivate us, which is stronger than any system that we can put in place for ourselves. When we achieve a goal, our brains produce dopamine, creating a sense of pleasure in our achievements. When we fail at attaining a goal, this dopamine production cuts off, and this is not pleasant! The pain caused by the lack of dopamine makes us all the more motivated to keep working towards our goals and get that dopamine back into our systems.

However, there is a very common pitfall when we are setting our goals, and this is the social element of them. The more we talk about our goals, the more praise and encouragement we receive. This creates an almost pre-achievement reaction in our brains, which get lazy and presume that we have already achieved the goal we have set. There are some very easy ways to combat this, but more on that later.

Although this seems like a very basic behaviour regulatory system, it actually plays into a much greater theory of psychology: neuroplasticity.

What is Neuroplasticity?

In very basic terms, neuroplasticity is the theory that with the right thought processes can create links and developments in the brain to develop us into better businessmen, better athletes, even better at speaking languages. Decades of research concluded that the human brain is fixed once it reaches adulthood; nothing can regenerate. The theory has been researched and studied for a number of decades following several instances of people appearing to recover from neural injuries and strokes. It began to look like, with enough work, we can develop our brains to work for us, rather than assuming that they are in charge.

Famous Faces

The theory and study of neuroplasticity began in the 1960’s with Paul Bach-y-Rita and Michael Merzenich. Bach-y-Rita is famous for his working in helping blind people see through vibrations on their skin. The theory was initially tested with a blind person lean against a sheet of metal. On the other side of this metal there were 400 plates, which vibrated as an object moved. The test subjects claimed that they were beginning to ‘see’ things in a three-dimensional way. Eventually, when brain mapping was developed, it was found that this technology had ‘rewired’ the brain to connect these vibrations with the visual cortex. The brain had moulded itself in such a way that the subjects could ‘see’ things, just in an unconventional way. This technology was then used to develop the cochlear implant, which now helps deaf people hear.

In 1980, Ian Robertson began work at Edinburgh’s Astley Ainslie Hospital, working with stroke victims. What he found there was that the repetitive occupational psychology and physical therapies were helping people to really recover, and it appeared that is was creating connections in the brain, which had previously been lost.

So, how can this help you?

The theory of Neuroplasticity holds an important place in many areas of psychology. The idea that we are in control of our brains and our functions is vital when we want to achieve something. If we simply accept that our brains are in control and there’s nothing we can do about it, we are falling down the rabbit hole of unsuccessful goals. The key to goal setting is all about mind set.

How to set a good goal

As I said before, pre-achievement is a common pitfall of goal setting, but it is very easily fixed. There are five important guidelines to follow when setting your goals to make yourself as motivated as possible and get your brain on board.

  • Make Your Goal Measurable

This very quickly eradicates the pre-achievement pitfall. If you have direct measurements of what you want to achieve, rather than vague ideas, you cannot skimp on what you’re working towards. Whether it’s losing 5 pounds, writing 300 words of a book, real measurements are key to a good goal. The praise you get for setting the goal will be nice, but you won’t feel a sense of achievement until you’ve hit that measurement.

  • Set Short Term Goals As Well As Long Term Goals

Part of what demotivates us in our goals is taking forever to reach a goal. One simple trick to keep yourself motivated and achieving is splitting your long-term goal into several smaller ones. If your goal is to lose weight, aim to exercise 3 times next week; if your long term goal is to write a novel, aim to write a page or two a day. These smaller goals will keep you achieving and keep you motivated to work to your long-term goal.

  • Have Some Difficult Goals And Some Easier Goals

Another demotivator is constant difficulty in achieving our goals. Although the harder goals create a higher dopamine hit, they also make working towards the ultimate goal boring and difficult. Set yourself some smaller, fun goals that you enjoy doing so that you can take a break from the hard stuff. You’ll still be working towards your long-term goal, but it wont feel like as much work.

  • Set Positive Achievements

Rather than working to decrease the negatives, work to increase the positives. We are much more likely to work for something that we want and we enjoy, rather than constantly criticising ourselves and feeling bad about our current achievements. Keep goals positively orientated and you will find yourself much more motivated.

  • Write Them Down

Writing down our goals keeps us accountable for what we want to do. If we are constantly looking at reminders of our goals then we are less likely to get demotivated and stop working towards them; but this doesn’t just apply to our goals. Take progress pictures of weight loss, write down how much you have achieved so far; reminding yourself of how far you have come can really help you to push farther and achieve more.

Your phone as your coach

There are hundreds of apps available for your phone to help you achieve your goals, but how many of them really work? Goal setting can be complex, as no two goals are achieved the same way, but we’ve found and reviewed three glorious little apps to help you become the person you want to be.

  1. Goals On Track

Goals on track allows you to track your goal, the purpose of your goal, the start date and the desired achievement date, then create a sort of action plan of smaller goals in order to achievement. The app visually tracks the progress you have made towards your goal, so seeing how far you come can help to motivate you farther.

  1. Strides

Strides has a very pretty, very simple layout, that looks almost like a dashboard. The app allows you to track in three different kinds of ways: Targets, habits, and average tracking. This allows the user to develop habits on order to achieve their goals, as well as track smaller goals in relation to their long-term goal.

  1. Coach Me

Coach.Me is a great app for those who achieve goals better with plans. Users can create their plan and share it with the community, and even join into other users plans. This social aspect of the app creates much more responsibility on the user, as others can see the progress they are making. However, if you prefer to be selective about who you share your goals with, this app can be quite daunting.


A contribution by Francesca Forsythe, Keele University, for PsychLiverpool.

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