The Science of Accomplishing Your Goals
It’s good to have goals, no matter what size they are. Maybe you want to cook more frequently instead of ordering take out. Maybe you want to finally finish writing that novel. Or maybe you just want to get past a new level of a particularly tough video game.
Unfortunately, some goals are harder to keep than others. Anyone who has ever made a New Year’s resolution to go to the gym more often can tell you how tricky it is to keep up such momentum for more than a few days.
The human brain is wired to favor routine over novelty, even if that routine is unhealthy. For instance, people who were given either stale or fresh popcorn ate the same amount while watching a movie—even though participants admitted that the stale popcorn didn’t taste as good. The participants were so used to the routine of eating popcorn in the theater that the quality of the snack didn’t matter.
How can we fight our brain’s natural urge to stick to its usual routine if that routine is no longer working? How can we convince ourselves to eat fruit instead of chocolate, organize our apartment instead of watching television, or cook dinner instead of ordering pizza?
Here are three ways to trick your brain into helping you accomplish your goals:
1. Turn the goal into a habit.
Say that you brush your teeth every night before bed, but you want to start using mouthwash as well. Chances are when you brush your teeth you go into “autopilot mode” and don’t think about the specific steps involved in the process, such as getting your toothbrush from the medicine cabinet or squeezing toothpaste onto it. But you don’t always remember to use mouthwash: Sometimes you brush your teeth and immediately go to bed; other times you rely on a sticky note on your bathroom mirror. In this example, brushing your teeth is the habit and using your mouthwash is the goal.
A recent study published in the journal Neuron found that habits and goals are stored differently in the human brain. Specifically, a region known as the orbitofrontal cortex is responsible for converting wishful goals into solid, automatic habits via the neuralmessengers known as endocannabinoids, which are also responsible for modulating appetite, memory, mood and (as the name implies) the psychoactive effects of cannabis.
The best way to get your endocannabinoids to help you form a habit is by being consistent. Work toward your goal every day, even if you don’t feel like it. You can set aside a specific time each day, or a specific context. For instance, you can use mouthwash every day at exactly 9 p.m. (a specific time), or you could use mouthwash immediately after brushing your teeth (a specific context). The more regular the behavior, the more easily your brain can convert it into a habit.
2. Change your environment.
Sometimes a fresh environment is all you need to kick your brain into gear. In one study, scientists discovered that students who transferred to another college were more likely to change their daily habits than students who remained at the same place.
Environmental cues are essential when it comes to habit formation, in part because the brain is excellent at connecting an environment with a specific situation. As an example, someone who likes to snack while watching a movie might be unable to resist purchasing popcorn from the concession stand, even if they’re not hungry. According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, the best time to change a habit is on vacation—because your usual environmental cues are missing.
If you find yourself constantly giving up on your goals, take a look at your surroundings: Is it difficult to clean the living room because you’re so used to watching television in that space? Do you zone out when you visit your favorite coffee shop instead of finishing your screenplay? Try sitting in a different chair or working in your local library. Think about taking a vacation. Seeing new sights may make it easier to achieve your goals.
3. Use dopamine to your advantage.
When we get something we want—a promotion, an ice cream cone, or a kiss from a loved one—our brain releases dopamine. This chemical is often known as the “feel good” neurotransmitter because it does just that—it makes us feel good.
It’s possible to manipulate your dopamine levels by setting small goals and then accomplishing them. For instance, your brain may receive a spike in dopamine if you promise yourself that you’ll clean out the refrigerator, and then you do. This is one reason people benefit from to-do lists: The satisfaction of ticking off a small task is linked with a flood of dopamine. Each time your brain gets a whiff of this rewarding neurotransmitter, it will want you to repeat the associated behavior. This is why drugs that manipulate the dopamine system are so dangerously addictive and why so many people repeatedly play the lottery.
The next time you want to accomplish a big goal, try to break it down into bite-sized, dopamine-friendly pieces. If you want to go to the gym every day, check off each successful visit on a calendar. If you want to write a novel, make a deal with yourself to write for just 15 minutes every day.
These represent are only a few of the ways in which you can work toward your goals. A 2009 study found that another good way to accomplish your goals is to avoid telling other people about them, because letting another person know what you’re up to can give you a premature sense of completeness. Gamification, or turning chores and goals into games, is a great way to fight the procrastination bug.
When it comes to accomplishing your goals, there is always something standing in your way, such as money, work, or your brain’s neurochemistry. Thankfully, with these tips, it should be possible to fight at least one of these variables. Stay consistent, change your environment, and bask in the dopamine: You just might change your life. The sooner you get started, the sooner you can start reaping the rewards of your goals. As Stephen King once said: “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration—the rest of us just get up and go to work.”
This article was written by Ralph Ryback M.D., a board certified Harvard trained psychiatrist with an internship in medicine, who has taught at many institutions including Harvard Medical School.