4 Principles for Planning Goals - Based On How We're Wired

Planning goals should take into account how we are wired.

4 Principles for Planning Goals - Based On How We're Wired

Our brain is wired to pursue goals. Therefore, we function naturally when we strive toward some desirable goal. In fact, all animals have goals they need to achieve regularly (hunting, survival, etc). But we are unique in our ability to look at short-term and long-term goals, and we can also have multiple goals at the same time.

Neuroscientist Andrew Huberman says that we have neural circuits responsible for orienting our actions and thoughts toward specific goals. Parts of our brain are designed with emotions that push us toward objectives or away from what we don't want, and some parts are intended for planning and thinking.

And because we can think long-term and not just react to what comes at us, we can create plans for achieving goals. But while we are goal-oriented biologically, making plans doesn't always come naturally.

We will review four principles for creating goals that utilize how we are naturally wired.

1) Get specific and focus

In a study to examine the effects of focused attention on performance, two different groups with ankle weights had to run to a finish line. One group was told to focus on a specific point of the finish line, and the other wasn't instructed to concentrate on anything. The group that was told to focus on a specific point achieved the goal with 17% less measured effort and 23% faster.

Huberman says that focus changes our nervous system to engage in action. When your visions focus on a common point, you increase alertness, and your eyes recruit internal mechanisms that put you in the mode for action. Conversely, when your vision drifts, your body won't gear up for action as much, and you will have a reduction in goal-directed behavior.

The more precise you can get about your goals, the more likely you will align yourself biologically and psychologically with pursuing and achieving your desired results. SMART goals are a common technique in organizations to help with designing goals. SMART goals have to be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. These constraints help clarify and focus the goal on improving your chances of achieving it.

The greater the number of options in front of you, the more difficult it is to focus your attention.

2) Set goals that are difficult but not too difficult

Lev Vygotsky was a Russian developmental psychologist, and he believed the best challenges were in our "Zone of Proximal Development." The Zone of Proximal development is the zone just outside your zone of competence.  

The term "proximal" refers to skills you are "close" to mastering. And, when you're in "the zone," you're expanding your skills in a way that's intrinsically rewarding because you're succeeding.

Huberman says that if the goal is too easy, it doesn't recruit enough of your autonomic nervous system to make the pursuit of that goal likely, and you don't get an increase in blood pressure to help with the ongoing effort. But, on the other hand, if the goal is too lofty, it also doesn't recruit enough of the autonomic nervous system to make the pursuit of that goal likely.

Huberman also says there is research that shows when a goal is moderate and just outside of one's immediate abilities, there was a near doubling of the likelihood of someone engaging in the pursuit of that goal.

Set goals that are difficult but not too difficult.

3) Visualizing failure and success

According to Annie Duke, author of Thinking in Bets, research shows that we do better when working backward from an identified goal. She cites research that found that imagining an event as if it has already occurred increases the ability to identify reasons for future outcomes by 30%.

You should also imagine adverse events happening as well. According to Psychologist Gabriele Oettingen, 20 years of research shows people who imagine obstacles in the way of reaching goals are more likely to achieve success.

Huberman says that visualization of failure helps improve the chances of hitting a goal by double. Visualize what will happen if you don't do the things you are supposed to do and how failure would occur. The more detailed you can get, the better.

Huberman believes this is partly due to how parts of our brain motivate us to avoid what we fear. He thinks the brain and body are much better at moving away vs. moving toward things.

But to improve your chances, visualize both success and failure. Peter Senge, author of The 5th Discipline writes that we have two fundamental sources of energy that can motivate organizations - fear and aspiration. So visualizing both can help you maintain motivation and avoid missteps in achieving your goal.

4) Create milestones for measuring feedback and progress

Delayed discounting is a concept that describes our tendency to prefer immediate rewards instead of rewards that are further out. The further out in time a goal is, the less motivating that goal will be. So by breaking up your goal into smaller milestones, it will help motivate you to continue.

Huberman says that our subjective understanding of how we are doing is important. We need to see ourselves as being successful or on the right track, which will help maintain motivation and action. Milestones will give you the necessary feedback to keep going.

Performance expert Anders Ericsson writes, "Generally speaking, meaningful positive feedback is one of the crucial factors in maintaining motivation. It can be internal feedback, such as satisfaction of seeing yourself improve at something, or external feedback provided by others, but it makes a huge difference in whether a person will be able to maintain the consistent effort necessary to improve through purposeful practice."

Break up your goals into smaller milestones, weekly or monthly, to make sure you see yourself on the right track.

We are built to pursue goals, and when you consider how we are wired when planning goals, you can align how you naturally function with what you want to achieve, improving your chances of success.