You Are Not Alone.

Setting Goals is Easy;

Achieving Them is Hard. Why? 

This question has long stumped humanity and will continue to do so. But, all hope is not lost.

Thanks to  the interface of neuroscience and psychology new discoveries are here.

Exciting New discoveries

Research at the interface of neuroscience and psychology has made significant strides in uncovering the machinery behind goal pursuit. In turn, this knowledge provides clues about the various ways that behaviour change can go wrong and how to improve it. Elliot T. Berkman' The Neuroscience of Goals and Behaviour Change.

 3 steps to reach your goal

The 3 step process starts with thinking it through.

  • What is the goal?.
  • Will reaching it change your life for the better?
  • Will it help others improve their lives?
If you haven't written your goal down stop here and do it now. 

Now the detail, the plan.

  • Do you have the knowledge and skills to achieve your goal?
  • If not, how will you get what you need?
  • Do you need external help?
  • When do you want your goals to be real? Give yourself a target date. 
  • The missing link can make the difference between success and failure.

These questions are common sense, and they do need some work, but so often they aren't fully developed.

Now you have your goal clear, and in black and white, you're hot to go. Yet motivation without a plan will not work either. Defining what you want is essential, and creating a plan for how you're going to get there is too. So we explore SMART goals.

What is a SMART Goal?

S = Specific. Keep your goals simple, sensible, and significance. 

M = Measurable. The goal needs to be something you are invested in, something you really want. Measuring your progress will help keep you motivated, on track and steadily moving towards your ideal outcome.

A = Achievable. You must be able to actually achieve the goal. If it is impossible your brain with dismiss it and you will never reach it.

= Relevant. If you haven't got the resources to reach the goal, are you simply wasting your time?

T = Time. When are you going to reach your goal? What small steps will you take and by when?

However, even SMART goals can be improved.

This is traditional and valuable advice, and many people apply the SMART goal process successfully. But still, so many of us fail to reach the goals we set. How come? 

5 more ways to improve chances of success

Locke and Latham's research supports SMART goals. However, they add another five goal-setting principles that improve your chances of success:

  • Clarity
  • Challenge.
  •  Commitment
  •  Feedback
  • Task complexity
Summary of Locke and Latham's Key Points
  • Set clear, challenging goals and commit yourself to achieve them.
  • Provide feedback to others on their performance towards achieving their goals, and reflect on your own progress.
  • Consider the complexity of the task and break it down into smaller, easy to do chunks.
If you haven't completed you plan, stop here and do it.

Your brain's reward system

OK, you have named what you want and have a plan to get it. But is this enough? For me, the short answer is No. Not by a long-shot. You need more. You need to activate the missing link, the brain's Reward Network.

When you activate your brain's Reward Network, you bring into play the missing element. Clarifying and planning how you're going to reach your goal has involved the rational brain. Now it's time to get your emotional brain active.

Why engage your brain's Reward Network?

OK, now you know what you want and have your plan, and you're ready for action. But there's a problem, another roadblock. Achieving a goal usually means that you have to change behaviour, and changing behaviour is challenging.

Changing habitual behaviour is extremely difficult and requires a lot of motivation. It comes down to how badly do you want the holiday? How desperate are you to stop lighting up that cigarette, stick to the diet, go to the gym or to have a wine or beer? How badly do you want to stop procrastinating? Or whatever it is you need to change.

Habitual behaviours are harder to change because you have done it so many times. They have become a habit. It is argued that habits can be equated with unconscious behavior and non-habits with conscious behavior. Source

Now I know you have strong will-power but you've tried to reach some goals before. Did it work for you? For me the answer is no because having a plan and a heap of willpower wasn't enough.

I learned how to trigger my brain's natural motivational Reward Network also known as the reward pathway.

Advice has been around for decades.

Give yourself a pat on the back when you have a success not matter how small. The reason that this works is becoming apparent in the latest neuroscience research.

When a particular behaviour in a given context is rewarded, that behaviour and context are paired and tagged with a reward-value for later repetition. Source

How do you engage your Reward network?

 The key to launching this reward learning and consolidation cycle is finding ways to increase new behaviour's subjective value.


A promising route to increasing motivation is identifying the value inputs to the new behaviour. (i.e., the reasons why the behaviour is or is not valued) and learning ways to modulate them. In other words, what is in it for you?

Visualisation works because it triggers your reward network. 

So, how are your goals going? Are you on track, or do you need a motivational boost?

If I know why something works, I find it easier to put it into practice.

How the Reward Network works

Neuroscience has confirmed what many have known instinctively for decades. That is rewarding yourself when you complete each small step towards your goal works. But how can you fire-up your brain's reward network?

Now you're ready, so use The Reward Network and reach your goals!

Have you ever wondered why diets don't work? Why you can't stop binge eating?
You may be tempted to think that you just lack will-power and self-control and need to work harder. But understanding the neurobiology of binge eating can provide you with some answers.

The brain is incredibly complex. Consisting of approximately 86 billion brain cells that operate like a spider web of networks, research shows three key networks that are likely involved in eating. Dr Carmel Harrisons article Why Can't I Stop Binge Eating? 

A video video by Carole Yule offers an excellent explanation of how your brain's Reward Network works. (It starts with a black screen and takes a few seconds before it gets interesting but stick with it. 🙂 

Focus + Goal + Emotion = Success?

Although nothing in this world is guaranteed recent neuroscience research has demonstrated that we have a brain network called the reward Network, also referred to as the reward pathway.

When we focus on a specific goal, visualize that goal as a reality, and link it with intense emotion, our reward network leaps into action.

Backed up by science - The Neuroscience of Goals and Behavior Change

Rescorla & Wagner stated; When a particular behavior in a given context it is rewarded, that behavior and context are paired and tagged with reward value for later repetition  Reinforcement learning is why behaviors that are rewarded are likely to be repeated in the future.  See references

The reward network triggers feelings as if we have achieved the goal.

Forbes contributor Christine Comaford reports: The more we activate our reward network, the more good feelings we experience and the more likely we will achieve the outcome that we want. 

When your reward network (or pathway) is activated, then you experience pleasurable feelings.

Bring success from the past into the present.

When you recall a pleasurable event, you also experience the feelings generated by that event. The idea is to link those feelings with your current goal, thus triggering your reward network.

Your Reward Network is connected to the brain that control behaviour and memory and these reside in your unconscious.
It begins in the ventral tegmental area, where neurons release dopamine to make you feel pleasure. The brain makes connections between the activity and the pleasure, ensuring that we will repeat the behaviour. Source.

Preparing your body for action

Emily Balcetis, a social psychologist from NYU, suggests that the answer is in your brain—and your blood pressure?

Emily Balcetis, a social psychologist from NYU, suggests that the answer is in your brain—and your blood pressure?
Emily recently explained how correctly set goals boosts our systolic blood pressure (SBP), which is the measurement of our body being geared up and ready to act. If the goal is easy to achieve, we get a nice spike. If it's moderately hard but seems like a feasible challenge (harder than easy) we get a larger spike and more excitement in the body and sympathetic nervous system. But if the goal is seen as impossible our system writes it off… See References.

'Tips for getting what you want. Consider two types of goals. '… See References.

Why goals

Why goals are your vision, your dream outcome: Without 'Why' goals, it is difficult to maintain momentum, and you're doomed to fail. What will getting this goal give you?

How goals

How goals are small steps that help you keep track of your progress and moving towards getting to where you want to be. This is your plan. This is the how you will get there.

Psychology of reaching your goals

And now for the psychological aspects of goal setting. 

When you break your goals into smaller achievable chunks, you activate the neural pathway releasing the chemicals we need to jump-start our actions.

Why and how goals create ideal conditions in your mind and your body that maintains persistence, keeping you moving towards your goal.

Great, but how do we bring our goals closer?


Emily Balcetis explains the importance of your thumb

Hold your thumb up in front of your face and look at it. Notice how everything else is out of focus? This is how you need to see your goal. The only thing in focus is your goal.

By keeping your eyes focussed on the prize, your dream outcome will feel closer.

In 2015 Emily stated that 'when goals look closer, any progress we make towards achieving those goals actually feel easier, so we psych ourselves up and not out. And the goal feels 17% easier.  Emily's research also found that we can actually increase the speed at which we achieve the goal by 23%.

Adopting good goal setting strategies can turn your dreams into goals and your goals into reality. Angelina Phebus

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How to visualise

There are 4 key principles to make your mental simulation (visualisation) optimal.

  • Close your eyes and set an intention: mentally say what you want to achieve (your goal) in an affirmation. (I recommend that you also state your goal aloud.)
  • Imagine the situation or future event you would like to work on. Make the scene as real as you can, like a simulation, using your five senses. (See it, say it, feel it, smell it and taste it). The more vividly you can imagine the scene, the better it will be recorded in your mind as a "memory".
  • Always incorporate strong positive emotions. This is key; without strong emotion, the event visualised won't seem real enough to be recorded as a memory.
  • Repeat the process often. Try to visualise daily until you notice desirable changes in your behaviour, skills, confidence, etc.

Activate your Brain's Reward Network. You never know, it could be the missing link that empowers you to achieve your goals.

Imagine how happy you will be when your goal is a reality.


Elliot T. Berkman's Author Manuscript 'The Neuroscience of Goals and Behaviour Change'.


When a particular behaviour in a given context is rewarded, that behaviour and context are paired and tagged with reward value for later repetition (Rescorla & Wagner, 1972).

The key to launching this reward learning and consolidation cycle is finding ways to increase the new behaviour's subjective value. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5854216/

The Neuroscience of Goals and Behavior Change

When a particular behavior in a given context it is rewarded, that behavior and context are paired and tagged with reward value for later repetition  Reinforcement learning is why behaviors that are rewarded are likely to be repeated in the future (Rescorla & Wagner, 1972).

Forbes contributor Christine Comaford reports: The more we activate our reward network, the more good feelings we experience and the more likely we will achieve the outcome that we want. Christine Comaford https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9BPjPLWNfHk

Emily Balcetis, a social psychologist from NYU, suggests that the answer is in your brain—and your blood pressure?

Does your brain distinguish real from imaginary by David R. Hamilton PhD   


Do you ever feel like you're working hard but not getting anywhere? Maybe you see little improvement in your skills or achievements when you reflect on the last five or 10 years. Or perhaps you struggle to see how you'll fulfil your ambitions during the next few years. Mindtools

Christine Comeford's video shows you how to activate your brain's Reward Network. (Poor quality video, but good content.)

Brain Reward: How the Brain Responds to Natural Rewards and Drugs of Abuse. 

Natalie Ledwell shares 9 Visualization Exercises To Add To Your Daily Routine - Visualization - Mind Movies.

Setting Meaningful, Challenging Goals. Locke's Goal-Setting Theory

Andrea Henkels: The Power of Visualisation 

This video explains how the brain's Reward Pathway works.

Why some people find exercise harder than others | Emily Balcetis

Science paper. The key to launching this reward learning and consolidation cycle is finding ways to increase the new behaviour's subjective value. 

Alan Cox

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