Setting new year resolutions is easy, but achieving them is hard. How come?
Well, achieving a goal usually means that behaviour has to change. And changing behaviour can be challenging, especially if it is a long-term habitual behaviour such as smoking or having a drink at 5pm.
The interface of neuroscience and psychology
In his Author Manuscript 'The Neuroscience of Goals and Behaviour Change,' Elliot T. Berkman writes:
Setting goals is easy; achieving them is hard. But why?
This question has long stumped humanity and will certainly not be answered in this article. A full explanation of why it is hard to accomplish a goal or change old habits may never be possible. However, all hope is not lost.
Research at the interface of neuroscience and psychology has made significant strides in uncovering the machinery behind goal pursuit. This knowledge, in turn, provides clues about the various ways that behaviour change can go wrong and how to improve it.
Behavioural change can be broken down into two parts. 1) motivation (the will) and 2) the way.
First, what is a goal?
Berkman states that 'a goal is any desired outcome that wouldn't otherwise happen without some kind of intervention'.
In other words, you have to do something different if you are to achieve your goal or new year resolution.
It doesn't matter how badly you want the achieve your goal if you don't have the knowledge of skills it won't happen. The goal is just wishful thinking. So the first part is the plan or the way.
Do you have the knowledge and the skills to achieve your goal? How are you going to go about reaching that goal?
This is the cognitive part of the process. You plan how to get there. What do what I need? What do I need to know? So, you have made a start. You find out what you need and get it even if you have to pay someone who has the knowledge and skills.
Now you have acquired the knowledge and skills you need to reach your goal.
You have mapped out what you need to do and broken it into small steps. You feel good. You have a plan, but that was the easy bit. So far though you haven't needed a lot of motivation.
What happens (or doesn't happen) next often brings us undone. It is the hard bit. The doing part. Yes, we're talking about changing your behaviour.
To change a habitual behaviour is difficult and requires a lot of motivation. It comes down to how badly do you want the holiday? How badly do you want to give up that bad habit?
How desperate are you to stop lighting up that cigarette or having a wine or beer? These sorts of behaviours are harder to change because you have done it so many times. They are habitual.
The question is now about motivation.
The more difficult and new the task is the more motivation you will need.
The brain's natural motivation network
Now we know why rewarding yourself works
We have been told many times that we should reward ourselves after we have had success, no matter how small. The reason that this works is becoming apparent in the latest neuroscience research.
When a particular behaviour in a given context, it is rewarded, that behaviour and context are paired and tagged with reward value for later repetition.
The key to launching this reward learning and consolidation cycle is finding ways to increase the subjective value of new behaviour.
A promising route to increasing motivation, then, is identifying the value inputs to a new behaviour (i.e., the reasons why the behaviour is or is not valued) and learning ways to modulate them.
How badly do you want to achieve your goal?
How are your New Year Resolutions going? Do you need to boost your motivation?
Your plan of action
When you set your New year Resolution, did you have a plan of action to make sure you could achieve your goal?
If you haven't it isn't too late.
Neuroscience has confirmed what many have known instinctively. That is rewarding yourself when you complete each small step works. Now we see what happens when we do that.
A few easy questions for you to ponder.
Neuroscience proves what many already knew
Neuroscience research has demonstrated that we have a pathway in the brain called the reward pathway, also known as the reward network.
When we focus on a specific goal, envision that goal as a reality, and link it with intense emotion, we actually light up our reward pathway.
When we do this feelings are generated that make us feel that we have already achieved the goal.
The Brain's Reward Pathway
Can the brain tell the difference between imagined and real events?
Research suggests that the brain cannot tell the difference between an imagined experience and a real one.
When a particular behaviour in a given context, it 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 subjective value of new behaviour.* https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5854216/
More about the WAY
Let's return to the WAY. If you haven't set out a solid plan detailing the knowledge and skills you need to reach your target, then do it now. Stop here and think about your goal and write down what you have to do.
Break it into gettable chucks and put a reasonable timeline on them. This will get your unconscious self working for you (and not against you) because the brain like tangible tasks or steps laid out.
Engaging your Reward Pathway
When you have your plan, you're ready for the next step. Setting your brain's reward pathway alight.
Forbes contributor Christine Comaford reports: The more we activate our reward network, the more good feelings we experience and the more likely we are to achieve the outcome that we want.
Christine has a short video that will help you visualise and reactivate your brain's Reward Network. There is a link to Christine's article and video at the end of this article.
When your reward network (or pathway) is activated, then you experience pleasurable feelings.
When you recall a memory of a pleasurable event, you also experience the feelings that were generated by that event. The idea is to link those feelings with your current goal, thus triggering your reward network.
The reward pathway is connected to areas of the brain that control behaviour and memory. It begins in the ventral tegmental area, where neurons release dopamine to make you feel pleasure. The brain begins to make connections between the activity and the pleasure, ensuring that we will repeat the behaviour.
Drugs and addiction
Sometimes this pathway is helpful, but other times, it can be devastating. For example, certain drugs can trigger the reward pathway, and over time, addiction can develop.
How your blood pressure affects your ability to achieve your goals
Emily Balcetis, a social psychologist from NYU, suggests that the answer is in your brain—and your blood pressure?
Emily recently explained how properly 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 thus more excitement in the body and sympathetic nervous system. But if the goal is seen as impossible our system writes it off…
Tips for getting what you want. Consider two types of goals.
Without Why goals, it is difficult to maintain momentum. Your 'Why' is your vision, your dream outcome.
Without a Why you are doomed to fail.
These 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.
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%.
How do we bring our goals closer?
In her article on '4 Scientific Reasons Why Visualization Will Increase Your Chances to Succeed'
Emilie Pelletier tells us how we can bring our goals closer closer through visualisation..
There are key principles to make your mental simulation optimal. Visualisation, a strong emotion, linking the future to a past successful event. And then repeat exercise often.
Try Emilie's exercise.
1. Close your eyes and set an intention: mentally say what you want to achieve (your goal) in an affirmation.
2. 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".
3. Always incorporate strong positive emotions. This is key; without a strong emotion, the event visualised won't seem real enough to be recorded as a memory.
4. Repeat the process often. Try to visualise daily until you notice desirable changes in your behaviour, skills, confidence, etc.
I hope this will convince you to add visualisation to your daily routine. Click here to read Emilie's full article. You can Read the full article here.e
The missing link?
Is activating your Brain's Reward Network by visualising and linking your goal to a strong emotion the Missing Link?
Have your goals been too easy, too hard or impossible to reach?
Take a few minutes and relax in a quiet, peaceful and comfortable space.
Think of a previous achievement or experience you have had that left you feeling on top of the world. A time when you were feeling great, happy, content, fulfilled and full of joy.
Let the feelings of joy, happiness and success flow throughout your body. Immerse yourself in the emotions you are experiencing. Let them flood your entire mind and body.
Now, think of your goal. Picture what you want to achieve. Think of all the benefits you will enjoy when you reach your goal.
Hold the feelings and consider how you will know when you have reached the goal. What proof will you have?
Now you have your dream, how will it affect the most important people in your life? What will they say, and feel? Do you want them to enjoy those feelings?
What does it feel like?
What can you see?
What can you hear?
What do you now have that you didn't have before?
What changed to enable you to get what you want?
The more you do this exercise, the stronger the emotional connection becomes, the closer and more tangible your goal. A close tangible goal is a getable goal.
If your goal is too far in the distance, it will be harder to achieve. When it is close to you, you are empowered and highly motivated to get what you want.
This video explains the Reward Network
The video offers a deeper understanding of the brain and how the Reward Pathway works. It also explains how we become addicted to drugs etc.
When a particular behaviour in a given context, it 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 subjective value of new behaviour. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5854216/
Elliot T. Berkman's Author Manuscript 'The Neuroscience of Goals and Behaviour Change'.. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5854216/
Forbes contributor Christine Comaford reports: The more we activate our reward network, the more good feelings we experience and the more likely we are to achieve the outcome that we want. Christine Comaford https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9BPjPLWNfHk
David R Hamilton PHD asks the question, 'Does your brain distinguish real from imaginary?' https://drdavidhamilton.com/does-your-brain-distinguish-real-from-imaginary/
Christine Comeford's short video shows you how to activate your brain's Reward Network. (The vidieo is poor quality video, but you may find the content helpful.) 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?
More videos and articles to help you set and achieve your goals.
A short video describing Locke and Latham's Goal Setting Theory
Read the article about Locke and Latham's Goal Setting Theory
More about SMART GOALS .
The Power of Visualization – Advice I Give Myself.