Why Goalsetting Doesn't Always Work

If you are like most people, you have probably fallen short of achieving your goals. It is understandable, but it is also painful. We all want to get shit done, so why is it so difficult?

The answers provided here are not new, but you will find them incredibly helpful.

You see, the difference between the average man and a savage like David Goggins is not that Goggins is wired differently, it all comes down to brain chemistry.

Humans are no different from lab rats. We go after the reward, not the goal. The goal is just a way of getting there. Thus, if your goals are misaligned with what your brain finds rewarding, good luck getting what you want.

Your first instinct will be to procrastinate.

Let me explain.

The number one reason people don’t achieve their goals is because they get distracted. Perhaps they spend too much time on Facebook or drink one too many, but these are not just distractions, they are silly rewards that nib away at your time and effort.

Those silly rewards trigger the release of dopamine, the chemical signature that tells the brain what behaviour is worth repeating. This unthinking system — the dopamine cycle — doesn’t perform a cost-benefit analysis on rewards. Instead, it acts on repetition.

You only need to look at the life of a typical addict to see how true this is. They can’t seem to get themselves clean. Why? Because their brain is only interested in things it finds rewarding, and for the addict, it’s called getting high. Everything else is secondary, including the very things that can make their lives better.

So what happens when an addict sets goals?

Their brain fails to create excitement, and nothing gets done. You don’t have to be an addict to know this; we have all been there.

Here is another example:

Ever wondered why the most common success mantra is “follow your heart?” It is for the same reason! When your goals align with what excites you, fulfilling them becomes incredibly fun.

Another piece of advice with cheerleaders on every corner of the internet is “don’t be afraid of failure.” But guess what? You are not afraid of failure, and humans, in general, are not afraid of failure.

What you are fearful of is missing out on a familiar reward. The part of the brain that rewards your efforts doesn’t want to waste any of the precious molecules, even if it means not becoming the best version of yourself. That’s how efficient the brain is at doing what it is supposed to.

When you think about it, this is incredible; here is why.

You probably know someone foregoing their entire future watching Netflix or pursuing other time-wasting indulgences. It’s crazy that someone would do that, but surprisingly it is not them being stupid, it is their brain doing what it's supposed to do.

In this case, their brain is just following a simple rule: If you repeat a behavior, you get a reward for it and are likely to repeat it again and again.

What does this mean? It means that incredibly and perhaps unbelievably, you too can have the same insane work ethic as Elon Musk or our friend David Goggins. You only need to switch gears and show your brain that work can be rewarding too.

If you are still not convinced, think of the countless nature documentaries you have watched. The lion goes for the kill at the risk of injury, sometimes death and still gets a failure rate of 75%! That’s way more than the failure rate of most jobless graduates.

But does the lion ever give up? Is it ever depressed? Does it ever go on a two weeks vacation to recoup? No, because its reward system has never been short-circuited by any form of instant gratification. It only knows that rewards come after serious effort.

You too can train your brain to see the world in the same way. After all, humans are not that different from animals. The good thing is that training your brain is super easy.

The first thing you need to do is catalogue your distractions. Find the activities your brain finds rewarding. For me, it was Youtube videos and news sites like the BBC and CNN. For you, it might be collecting pigeon facts. Who knows.

After figuring out what your brain craves, create a system to replace them. The system needs to be as deliberate as possible and with a trend towards long-term goals.

In their book titled Switch, Chip Heath and Dan Heath offer a simple way of changing any behaviours it involves understanding the habit loop.

The habit loop looks something like this:

All habits start with something called the cue or the urge to do something. The cue initiates the routine associated with the habit. For example, for Facebook addicts, the routine is taking out the phone and opening the Facebook app. The reward is what you find on the site.

If you are mindful of the cue, you can interrupt it and replace the routine with something else like 1-minute meditations or sipping water. But don't forget that the goal is to eliminate all forms of instant gratification because as long as they exist, they drain commitment towards long term goals.

After you have calibrated your reward systems, now pursue all the goals you want. It helps to find completing tasks rewarding.

Use simple rules like:

If you do that consistently good things will come your way. Did you hear about the guy who started a rocket company and is planning on making humans a multi-planetary species? That could be you too.

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