Goal-setting is touted as the key to success by everyone from life coaches to MBA programs. They’ve been named as the root cause of terrible corporate behavior as well as the driver of some of the greatest innovations of our time. How can the same technique wind up with such dramatically different results? The answer lies in how the human brain works.

Goal-setting is a surprisingly complex psychological tool. In this post we’re going to look at the powerful effects goal-setting has on the human brain, and how you can use this knowledge to set goals that contribute to better, smarter growth.

What happens in your brain when you set a goal

1. A shift in identity

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Setting a goal has a powerful effect on how we see ourselves as people. When you set a goal, you are shifting your self-identity in a very real way. Why does this happen? Because the human brain can’t tell the difference between what we want and what we have.

The human brain can’t tell the difference between what we want and what we have. ow.ly/G2NKX pic.twitter.com/spi03nx31C

In other words, our brain absorbs the desired outcome into our self-image immediately, establishing it as an essential part of who we are. If we haven’t yet achieved the goal, then our newly attained self-image no longer matches our reality. This sets up a state of constant tension around our self-image that our brain starts trying to resolve by working to achieve the goal.

How to put this to work: Don’t embark upon goal-setting lightly. Setting a new goal will have an immediate affect on your (or your employee’s) self-identity, you need to make sure you’re setting an appropriate, well-thought-out goal.

2. The brain as rewarder

Our brains have intricate reward and punishment mechanisms in place. With every achievement along the path to meeting our goal, our body releases dopamine into our brains, creating a sense of pleasure. This chemical mood elevation keeps us focused and motivated. We physically feel good when we’re taking steps towards our goals.

How to put this to work: Break long-term goals into short-term goals, with multiple measurable steps. This sets up a regular reward system of dopamine-induced motivation. Remember that humor is your friend here – breaking down a goal to a degree where the first steps are so simple that they are laughable can be just the ticket to keep your brain on track toward hitting a major goal.

3. The brain as punisher

Of course if you fail to meet your goals, your brain will become an equally cruel punisher. Failure to meet a goal means the dopamine supply gets cut off, and it hurts. Our brain was treating the goal like a valued possession, so failing to meet it triggers feelings of loss, anxiety, fear, and sadness.

How to put this to work: Be aware that missing a goal will have negative psychological impact. If your team failed to hit a goal for reasons beyond their control, communicate that. Or use the failure to open a dialogue about new things you’ll be trying to hit your goals in the future.

4. Reward without the work

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When we set a goal, our brain will (typically) pitch in to help. However, there is one sneaky exception — talking about a goal and soaking up too much praise pre-achievement can backfire.

Receiving praise and compliments simply for being a person with a goal will make you feel really good. Psychologists call this creating a new “social reality.” The goal provides false reassurance and lulls your brain into feeling as if it has already achieved the goal. This takes away your chemical motivation to take steps towards meeting your goal.

How to put this to work: Guard against the social reality effect by making sure all goals are measurable, and regularly tracked in a way that visually represents your goal versus actual performance numbers. This way, the praise will contribute to your motivation instead of hijacking your brain’s natural tendencies.

Setting goals means diverging from the easy path

Setting a goal has an immediate, intense effect on brain chemistry. Because of the tension that goal-setting creates, it’s naturally more comfortable for the brain to prefer the inertia of a “let’s just do our best” approach. This insulates us from the potential pain of failing to meet a goal, but also prevents us from experiencing the satisfaction (and growth) that comes with making progress toward a goal.

In the next posts in this series, we’ll discuss the reasons companies often fail at goal-setting, how to set good goals, and examples of online businesses that have used goals to achieve impressive results.

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