Science//

Use The Neuroscience Of Goal-Setting To Turn Your New Year’s Resolutions Into Realities

The New Year is the time for resolution-making and goal setting, whether you realize it or not.


While for many of us the New Year is the time for resolution-making and goal setting, whether you realize it or not, everything you do — all year long — starts with a goal. And, how you approach goal setting determines how you experience life each and every day. The better you are at goal setting — whether your skill is innate, deliberately practiced, or newly learned — the greater fulfillment and happiness you will experience, and conversely, the less able you are, the more frustration, anger, and even depression you will experience.

The neuroscience linking goal-setting techniques to our life experience is strong and can help us turn our resolutions into realities. More effective techniques for setting are possible with an appreciation of how our brains deal with goals, specifically, how our brains focus our attention and reward our achievements, and how our conscious communicates with our subconscious.

How and why goals work

There are far more environmental stimuli than our brains can possibly attend to, so, for cognitive economy, our brains act as subconscious prediction machines. This means that our attention system — the mechanisms through which we experience the world via our senses — selectively limits the stimuli we actually notice and process to those that, at a subconscious level, our brains expect us to experience based on stored information about the outcomes of our prior decisions, actions, and experiences.

Thankfully, our brains also notice anomalies to our subconscious predictions. These anomalies are the only stimuli our brains process in real time, consciously. Anomalies represent goal-relevant stimuli, which include any features in our environment that could either pose a threat (prevention goals that move you away from harm) or an opportunity (promotion goals that move you toward things you want).

The amygdala is the part of our brain involved in pointing out these anomalies. The amygdala is well-known for its role in processing negative stimuli and triggering our fight-or-flight response when activated to keep us from harm, and for this reason, is often called our brain’s fear center. But this view is overly simplistic; the amygdala is activated in response to ALL goal-relevant stimuli, both positive are negative.

The amygdala is particularly responsive to subconsciously held hot goals. A hot goal is linked to affectively meaningful outcomes; that is, when achieved it leads to happiness or satisfaction, when obstructed, leads to frustration or anger, and when abandoned, leads to disappointment or sadness. These are the signature emotions of the brain’s goal-activation system.

Whose goal is this anyway?

“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” Albert Einstein

Ever find yourself doing things that have nothing to do with — even contradict — the goals you believe you have? It’s like watching yourself in slow motion saying or doing something that you know you will later regret. When this happens, something pretty straightforward is going on in your brain. Goals reside at both conscious and subconscious levels and, at times, the motivations arising from the two levels are at odds.

When our conscious and subconscious goals disagree, our subconscious will tend to win out because our attention system and amygdala get their instructions from it, focusing our attention on features of our environment that are motivationally-relevant to our subconscious rather than conscious goals. Indeed, if our currently-active goal is subconscious, despite the fact that we may be unaware of the goal, our brain will nevertheless deliver a dose of dopamine each time it perceives progress towards it — even if it is a goal that results in decisions and actions we’ll later regret.

While our conscious may try to help decide which impulses take precedence, conscious goals that have not been communicated to our subconscious are worthless to us, cognitively speaking. So, if you’re getting great results in some areas of your life, your conscious and subconscious are likely in sync, but if results aren’t so great in other areas, it’s important to learn how to get your conscious and subconscious on the same page.

Do you speak the language of your subconscious?

Given the influence our subconscious has on our patterns of attention, decision, and action, making a conscious effort to systematically program our subconscious, rather than leaving it to chance (we’re constantly programming our subconscious, whether we realize it or not), is vital to effective goal-setting.

The challenge is that our conscious and subconscious speak different languages. Our conscious minds naturally gravitate to abstract thoughts and values, whereas our subconscious speaks the language of our senses, responding most strongly to things like clear, highly-specific, directive words, counterfactual thinking, self-reflection, visualizations, and emotions.

It is often suggested that using the power of positive thinking to align our conscious and subconscious goals is the key success. While this advice points us in the right direction, it’s like learning a few words and basic phrases in the language spoken in a country you are visiting — being able to communicate a few basic needs to locals can make for a better trip, but it’s far from the experience you’d have if you developed fluency.

Setting goals that engage our subconscious


We’ve designed a process that takes advantage of how our brains deal with goals by incorporating activities that can help you set hot goals and get them by (re)programming your subconscious to instruct your attention system and amygdala to focus on goal-relevant stimuli.

1. Complete the statement: “My goal is …”

2. Draw out the affective outcomes of your goal.

  • Ask yourself “What will happen if I achieve my goal?” repeatedly until you run out of answers.
  • Consider the counterfactual question “What will happen if I don’t achieve my goal?” repeatedly until you run out of answers.

3. Develop specific measures for your goal.

  • Ask yourself “How will I know when I’ve achieved my goal?” repeatedly until you run out of answers.

4. Imagine you have achieved your goal. How do you feel?

  • If you answer “awesome” or “amazing” continue; if not, use the previous steps until you find a goal that really excites you.

5. Upload your goal to your subconscious.

  • By what date do you realistically think you will achieve your goal? Envision yourself on this date.
  • Where are you?
  • What are you doing?
  • What it different about your life now?
  • How do you feel?
  • More detailed/sustained visualizations create stronger emotional links with your goal.

Your 2017 Goals

Our New Year’s wish is that you will use this approach on your goals to achieve more (and more) of them and set yourself a path to fulfillment, happiness, and success in 2017 … and beyond.

Jill McAbe Individual and Team Performance Expert, Creator of MINDCODE™, a Neuroscience-based Vision, Goal and Strategy Development Process.

Joel Baum is a professor of strategic management at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, and author of EPINETS.

Originally published at medium.com

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