Your Brain on Goal Setting


Now that we’re about a week past what many behavioral scientists have dubbed “quitting day” (that is, about 2 weeks into the new year, by which time a disastrously high proportion of people have abandoned their new year’s resolutions) it’s a good time to discuss what we know about goal setting and whether it’s useful. 

Goal setting seems simple, but it can actually be incredibly counterproductive if done poorly. Ineffective goal setting can result in demotivation and lower self-esteem. If we repeatedly set goals that we fail, it reinforces insecurities and makes people less confident in their ability to achieve future goals. So, should we ditch goal setting altogether? 

Before we shed them altogether, let’s look at what we know about the brain that might suggest they’re worthwhile, and perhaps more importantly, if there are specific concepts that will make us more effective at setting successful goals.    


The Dopamine Reward

Both setting and achieving goals gives us a dopamine brain reward. Most of us can appreciate that it feels good to achieve a goal, but many people don’t immediately recognize that setting goals also gives us a dopamine reward. But think about the immediate feelings of motivation and accomplishment you get when you first declare a goal – that’s the initial brain reward and it can help you feel confident and motivated. 


Once goals are set, we know they encourage neuroplasticity (remodeling of the neural pathways in your brain). When done properly, goals help us to feel more confident at doing things and help us to take more notice of stimuli that can help us work towards our goals. That is, they promote strengthening of the neural pathways that promote productive work towards achieving goals. The brain literally rewires to boost motivation, self-esteem, and confidence.

Teamwork between the Amygdala and Frontal Lobe

In order to realize these benefits, we have to set goals in the right way and that necessitates acknowledging two specific elements of goal setting. It would be logical to believe that goal setting is purely an academic process. By engaging analytics, planning, and problem solving, many assume we are primarily relying on the executive functioning power of our frontal lobe. But it’s not quite that simple. We can’t ignore the critical role the amygdala plays in successful goal setting. 

The amygdala is the emotional center of the brain and, along with a filtering system called the Reticular Activating System, it has some key roles in deciding what our brain pays attention to. If we fail to consider that when setting goals then our rewiring will be far less efficient. In order to be successful with goal setting, we need the amygdala and frontal lobe to work together, and that works best when the thing we’re trying to work on means something… more specifically when we have an emotional attachment to it. The stronger the emotional attachment, the higher the motivation.

Goals have to be something we care about. I know that sounds obvious – but it’s helpful to know why in terms of a structural perspective in the brain because many people still get it wrong. It’s common for people to set goals (especially new year’s resolutions) for things they “think they should want”… and often there isn’t enough meaning. Many new year’s resolutions are based on loose social motivation and aren’t actually goals individuals have a strong emotional attachment to achieve. That matters. A lot. Without the attachment and motivation, we won’t see or create as many opportunities to progress towards goals because the amygdala will not filter information in a way that makes us look for those opportunities. Put simply, we don’t properly strengthen the neural pathways that help us succeed. 

There’s an important implication here for leaders. It can be fairly ineffective to set goals for someone else. If you try to dictate what someone’s goals should be, there’s a good chance they’ll lack the emotional attachment that is required to drive the neural rewiring. It is more effective to act as a mentor and help encourage or guide an individual to set their own goals (i.e. motivational interviewing) rather than determining their goals for them.  

Are SMART goals really smart? 

You all know the SMART goals acronym (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, timeline). Is this actually an effective way to set goals from the perspective of neuroscience? The key benefit you can get if you find the right balance using the SMART method is the potential for promoting intermittent dopamine rewards. These brain rewards should help you maintain motivation and build confidence to continue working on your goals. The key parts are “achievable”, “realistic” and “timely”. If you don’t believe you can achieve the goal it’s not very motivating. If the goal is too easy, it’s not very rewarding. Finding the balance in setting goals which are challenging, but realistic is important. If goals are big or will take a long time to achieve, then establishing milestones is important, as it makes each shorter step more realistic and timelier which promotes intermittent dopamine rewards as you achieve each step towards the larger goal.   

Adopting a Growth Mindset

Often overlooked is a person’s perspective for growth and working on goals. Someone who inherently believes they aren’t good at certain things and have little capacity to improve will struggle to reach goals regardless of how they are established. Similarly, if the focus of goals is purely on the outcome (something for which we have little control) as opposed to progress (where we have a higher level of control), we risk not getting the dopamine reward if the outcome doesn’t meet our expectations. Elements of a growth mindset such as believing in our ability to learn and improve, to celebrate progress rather than the outcome, and to see barriers as learning opportunities rather than failures are all necessary for being successful in getting the most brain benefits from goal setting.   

Goal setting can be very effective. For some changes in the brain can have a profound impact on helping them to focus on what matters, and to maintain motivation and confidence. But it’s not a given. We all know of people for whom setting goals seems likes a waste of time, and for some, if done poorly, can reinforce a failure mentality. Leverage what we know about the brain and neuroplasticity, and hopefully you can move on from new year’s resolutions and set more meaningful and productive goals for remainder of the year ahead. 

If you are interested in trying to help your high-performance teams improve their health, resilience, and performance through the powers of neuroscience and effective coaching, check out HBD International’s custom leadership development or health and high-performance programs.