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8 Tips For Setting And Achieving Goals With The Brain In Mind

Written by: Zoryna O'Donnell, Senior Level Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


As we are approaching the end of 2021, many people use this time to reflect on the past 12 months and to start thinking about the year ahead.

Some may even go as far as writing a list of their New Year’s resolutions in December only to abandon them just a few months down the line. In fact, as many as 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail by February, according to a U.S. News & World Report published in 2015.

Could it something to do with the fact that the word “resolutions” itself is not particularly inspiring? It implies the loss of carefree indulgence, sweat in the gym or while pounding streets in the bleak light of winter and the bitter disappointment of realising that we need to work even harder and longer to achieve the results we want.

Word “goals” works much better because our brains like goals. Research shows that goal-setting changes the way our brains function and makes them more effective. In his article on goal-setting, Jeoffrey James, a Contributing Editor at INC.COM, explained this phenomenon as follows:

  • Amygdala (the part of our brain that creates emotion) evaluates the degree to which the goal is important to us.

  • Frontal lobe (the part of our brain that does problem solving) defines the specifics of what the goal entails.

  • The amygdala and frontal lobe work together to keep us focused on what will help us to achieve our goal and cause us to ignore and avoid what doesn't.

So, let’s forget about the New Year’s resolutions. Instead, let’s focus on setting and achieving goals with the brain in mind.

Tip No.1 Make your goals as attractive and desirable as possible

When we strongly desire a goal and are emotionally attached to it, our brains perceive any obstacles to achieving this goal as less significant than they might appear otherwise and thus we are more likely to achieve such a goal.

Tip No.2 Set ambitious goals

An 11-year goal-setting research showed that, in 90% of the studies, specific and challenging goals led to higher performance than easy goals, "do your best" goals, or no goals. This is because goals affect performance by directing attention, mobilising effort, increasing persistence, and motivating strategy development.

Interestingly, this research also indicated that we should set our own ambitious goals in order to achieve greater performance and success. Apparently, our brains don’t work as effectively when our bosses or other people set goals for us.

Tip No. 3 Pave the road to your ambitious goals with small wins

Every time we succeed at something, our brains release dopamine - an important brain chemical that influences mood and feelings of reward and motivation. When dopamine enters our reward pathway (the part of our brains responsible for pleasure, learning and motivation), we not only feel good, but also want to re-experience the activity which caused the release of dopamine in the first place. This process is known as the reward loop. We can use it to our advantage.

Another important chemical produced by our bodies is serotonin, a key hormone that stabilises our mood, feelings of well-being, and happiness. Serotonin also plays a role in our confidence and self-esteem. To increase the level of serotonin in our bodies, we need to challenge ourselves regularly and accomplish goals, even the smallest ones.

Creating a sequence of short-term achievable sub-goals, or small wins, to act as milestones on the way to our ambitious goals will make the process of achieving them more enjoyable and more likely to build up our confidence and self-esteem to ensure our overall success and wellbeing.

Tip No.4 Write your goals down if you want to achieve them

Writing things down involves two levels: external storage (our notes) and internal encoding - a biological process by which everything that we perceive will travel to our brain’s hippocampus for processing and storing in our long-term memory (or discarding the bits which our brain perceives as insignificant). Writing, especially when it is done by hand, improves the encoding process.

In addition to this, due to what is known as the “generation effect”, people tend to remember better material which they generated themselves (for example, goals that are written down) than material generated by others.

So, when we write down our goals, we benefit from the “generation effect” twice: firstly when we are generating our goals (creating attractive and desirable images of the future success in our mind), and secondly when we write them down because we are reprocessing/regenerating those wonderful images. This really helps to anchor our goals into our brains.

Tip No.5 Own your goals

We tend to value something more once we feel we own it. This phenomenon is known as the “endowment effect” and is a direct result of humans having a loss aversion bias (one of almost 200 known biases). Once we have had something good, we don’t want to let it go. So, we can use the “endowment effect” to our advantage by visualising our goals (and using all our senses as we are doing so) as if we have achieved them already. Regular visualisation of our goals in this way will trick our brains into rewarding us for achieving our goals with a release of dopamine and serotonin, the “feel good” chemicals.

Tip No.6 Plan for success

Peter Gollwitzer, a professor of experimental psychology at New York University, who studied how people stuck to their long-term goals despite distractions and temptations, developed a simple but highly effective success strategy known as “implementation intentions”, or “if-then planning”. Interestingly, Gollwitzer’s research on if-then planning revealed that the more difficult the long-term goal, the greater the power of this tactic.

So, let’s look at how we can use it to help us achieve our goals.

If-then planning involves creating clear strong goals, identifying obstacles (IF) and appropriate resources and responses (THEN) – one goal at a time.

There are 6 simple steps to implementing this strategy:

Step 1 – Set your goal. Make sure it is as specific and appealing as possible.

Step 2 - Create mini-goals. Each major goal should have a series of smaller milestones (remember Tip 3?).

Step 3 - Generate ideas. Think about possible ways to achieve your goal and the obstacles that might stop you. Do you need a certain daily ritual? Do you need to read something? Do you need to remember something? Do you need to stop doing something? Reflect on the habits and behaviours which are crucial for achieving your goal. When are you doing (or not doing) them? What creates the impulse to do them (or put them off)? Are there certain people who “cause” you to do (or put you off doing) them? Are there certain circumstances and situations where you are more likely to do (or not to do) them? Getting clarity on such things will help you create good if-then statements.

Step 4 - Put your ideas and obstacles into if-then plans. We know that it is easier to substitute an unhelpful routine than to stop it entirely. So think of the replacement actions and habits which will help you achieve your goal. For example, if you tend to reach for a chocolate bar when you are feeling low, you could substitute the chocolate habit with an exercise habit. For this, you could create an if/then statement such as: “If I feel like reaching for a chocolate, then I will go for a 30-minute walk.”

Step 5 - Set a fixed start date. Don’t allow procrastination to set in and derail your intention to succeed. Set a date when you will start implementing your “then” actions and continue refining your process and your statements along the way.

Step 6 - Use flops to refine the if-then plan. Flops do happen to all of us from time-to time. Don’t let them get you down. Respond to each falling off the wagon by adding more ideas for your if-then statements. What caused that flop? Was it a specific trigger you initially missed? What can you do differently next time to achieve the result you want? Evaluate the damage and then climb back on the wagon!

Why does ‘if-then’ planning work so effectively? It does so because it eliminates choices, heightens our awareness of obstacles and opportunities, automates responses, conserves willpower and outsources decision-making. In other words, it creates a habit of achieving goals.

Tip No.7 Hold yourself accountable.

Holding yourself accountable means understanding that you are the only person in charge of your destiny. It also means taking responsibility for your own choices in life and accepting the outcomes of these choices rather than viewing yourself as a victim of circumstances.

If you find it difficult to hold yourself accountable, get yourself a coach who will help you set and achieve your goals. But remember: YOU have to do the work!

Tip No.8 Celebrate successes (even small ones).

To help motivate yourself for success, create a reward system for accomplishing short-term and long-term goals. Make sure that these reward help support your progress toward even more ambitious goals and more success.

Adopt an attitude of gratitude. Thank yourself for every step which brings you closer to achieving your goals. According to positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. It helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their physical and mental health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships. So, count your blessings. Pick a time every week to sit down and reflect on what went well and what you are grateful for. This will release plenty of the “feel good” chemicals and will help you to build your self-esteem, confidence and motivation for success.

Remember: Achieving even the most ambitious goals is easier when you do it with the brain in mind.

Follow Zoryna on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn. You can also visit her website to learn more.


Zoryna O'Donnell , Senior Level Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Zoryna O’Donnell is a change consultant, coach, mentor, trainer, public speaker and author. She aims to help organisations and individuals to exceed their expectations of what is possible for them to achieve by unlocking the power of their brains and minds, enriching their soft skills and increasing resilience. Zoryna does this by using insights from applied neuroscience, psychology, behavioural science and other relevant disciplines.

She is a creator, principal coach and trainer delivering a number of high-impact coaching and training programmes, including the Leading Change with the Brain in Mind™ Programme and the Breakthrough Leadership Development Programme™ - accredited by The Institute of Leadership and Management, one of the most prestigious leadership authorities in the world.



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