Have you ever felt frustrated because you set out to achieve a goal you haven’t been able to reach? Perhaps it’s to exercise X amount of days a week for the next 3 months. Maybe you want to eat a healthy meal 1 x per day towards a goal of losing 10 pounds. Formulating and implementing goals in your day to day life is much more scientific than you may have realized. Berkman (2018) explores this very topic: how do we set goals that will render the best results? Let’s look at the neuroscience of goal setting and what exactly the Will and the Way means.
Four Behavior Types
Berkman describes four types of behavior including Complex-Routine, Simple-Routine, Simple-Novel and, finally, Complex-Novel. The Complex-Novel behavior is identified as high in motivation as well as high in skill. Here is where goals lie. How do we activate this behavior?
The two areas Berkman discusses that are involved in achieving goals (changing behavior) is the Will and the Way. In other words, he states that the cognitive factors (Way) and motivational factors (Will) combined will bring about the best achieved goals. He describes goals as “things we want but have difficulty achieving even when we know they are achievable”. Goals are identifying new behavior that we want to engage in which requires a lot of brain power. Let’s look at the Way first.
What Is the Way?
Berkman states that the Way is within the executive functioning part of the brain. It has three main features: “it is effortful, operates consciously, and engaged in service of novel goals as opposed to rote or overlearned ones.” In other words, it takes a lot of effort as you are working that part of the brain towards your goal—you can get fatigued. It also requires you to be consciously focused on one thing at a time. Finally, it is the part of the brain that can focus on creating new behaviors rather than other parts of the brain that only focus on behaviors that have now become habit.
There are a few lessons to learn from the Way as it relates to setting goals:
Lessons of The Way
- Do One Thing in the Moment. Executive functioning is challenging and requires a focus on that one thing in that one moment. This means it requires prioritizing what your focus will be. It also means sacrificing other enjoyable activities in order to reach your goal.
- Set the Most Important Goal First. Executive Functioning is a sequential operation and so working on the most important goal first is essential for the best outcome.
- Have Designated Time. It is critical to set aside undistracted time to work on these goals because, as Berkman and his team found, “our cognitive bandwidth is precious and operates most efficiently in (mental solitude).”
What Is the Will?
Berkman describes motivation as “the strength of the desire to attain a particular outcome, irrespective of how pleasant or unpleasant the experience of actually attaining it is.” To do this, Berkman speculates that you must increase the reward learning circuit through finding subjective (your personal) value in that new behavior. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex part of the brain is the region where motivation is processed. When you find something to be of value, your brain processes that subjective interest and seeks out to replicate this same experience. This is also the same part of the brain that is active in processing self-concept and personal values. Self-concept, as defined by Berkman, is “exactly the set of places, things, and actions in the world that hold value.”
By this definition then, increasing motivation is to find the inputs that are subjectively valuable to the new behavior. When we increase the value of the new behavior and decrease the value of the old behavior—we create behavior change.
There are a few lessons to learn from the Will as it relates to setting goals:
Lessons of the Will
- Reinforce Small Steps. As motivation is part of a powerful system of reinforcement behavior, it is important to reinforce the small steps you achieve towards your goal. Therefore, break down your long-term goal (ex. I want to run a half marathon in 3 months) into short-term goals (In the next month, I will run 25 miles per week) that can then be broken down into even smaller bite-sized steps each day or hour (5 days each week, I will wake up at 6am and run 5 miles). By doing so, Wax (2020) discusses how our brain releases dopamine causing our reinforcement system to want to replicate that behavior. Thus, we are beginning to create habit and that morning wake up time and 5-mile run becomes less challenging and more rewarding.
- Explore Self. Use the already strong, innate connection the brain has between the motivation system and the part of the brain that brings about a sense of identify of self. This means:
- Make goals relevant to identity focused behaviors (in the above example, running may be a healthy outet or it may be a goal that you have always wanted to accomplish)
- Explore your core values and how these are linked to your behaviors now.
- Always remember, your identity is not a fixed idea.
Now that we know a little about the scientific mechanisms of our brain and how goals work, let’s look at some Dos and Don’t’s to how this applies to your goals in treatment.
Do’s and Don’ts:
- Do explore your own sense of self, your core values (you can find a free quiz here: https://personalvalu.es/personal-values-test)
- Do ask yourself “when I wake up tomorrow, what would be different in my life” in order to begin exploring your primary goal
- Do break down that long-term goal into short-term goals and daily/hourly REALISTIC steps
- Do prioritize and set aside time to work towards your long-term goal daily
- Do implement a daily, mindfulness practice that will strengthen the part of your brain that allows for focus (you can find some examples here: https://positivepsychology.com/mindfulness-exercises-techniques-activities/)
- Do recognize that your brain cannot differentiate between past, present and future and practicing grounding techniques can help bring your mind and body back to the present moment (you can find some examples here: https://drsarahallen.com/7-ways-to-calm/)
- Do ensure these goals are SMART:
- Specific (direct, detailed, and meaningful)
- Measurable (can be tracked)
- Attainable (realistic and you have the tools and/or resources to attain it)
- Relevant (aligns with your values)
- Time-Based (has a deadline)
- Don’t be discouraged if your plan is not followed exactly. Each day, each hour, each minute is a new opportunity!
- Don’t see these goals as rigid, but rather fluid– which means they can adapt and change to your needs.
I hope this information has put a new perspective to the saying: “you can do anything you put your mind to.” Your mind is a powerful tool to help you achieve the goals you set out for yourself!
Contributed by Staff Clinician Rebekah Tchouta, LMSW.
If you’re interested in learning more about setting and achieving your goals of sobriety and a healthy life, call us now at 800.556.2966 for more information about Centered Recovery.