The Science of Setting and Achieving Goals

Written by Calin Drimbau, Co-founder and CEO of broadn, 2022-09-11

This post is part of our 'Entrepreneurial toolkit' series. In this series, we put together a curated list of resources on a topic that is top of mind for entrepreneurs. We'll share some key insights from the selected clips, but we highly encourage you to listen to the clips on broadn so that you can hear the experts themselves sharing ideas, opinions, and advice.

The entrepreneurial journey often starts with a big audacious goal or a desire to change something in the world. But, even if your ambitions aren't grandiose, to begin with, to achieve any goal in life, you need to have a combination of the right mindset and the right set of tools and techniques that will allow you to push forward and generate "traction."

The latest science on setting goals shows that anyone can get better at setting goals, and there's no shortage of tools and techniques to help you get there.

How to get started with goal setting?

When most people think about goal setting, they think about the SMART framework. A goal should be Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Relevant, and Timed. Gregg Clunis argues that while this is an excellent place to start, the model's downsides are that specific goals usually have adverse side effects. For example, every time you don't hit that particular target, there is room for you to feel disappointed, even if you've made significant progress.

He proposes an alternative model through which we can look at goals, inspired by his conversation with behavioral scientist Ayelet Fishbach, author of the book "Get it Done: Surprising Lessons from the Science of Motivation." Ayelet argues goals should be aspirational (which usually means they also need to be abstract) and shouldn't be negative (i.e., to stop something).

What’s in your control?

James Clear, the author of the NYT Best Seller "Atomic Habits," argues that three pillars influence your outcomes in life: luck, the choices you make, and your habits and behaviors. Only two of these are in your control, the choices that you make and your habits. Your choices set your trajectory, and your habits are how you capitalize on that.

Don’t forget about yourself in the pursuit of goals

Former venture capitalist, now executive coach Jerry Colonna, points out that we don't pay attention to "who" we are. We often don't even pay attention to "how" we are, what state of mind we're in or what feelings we're experiencing. He argues that our fascination with outcome and output and our focus on "what's next?" prevents us from being genuinely observant about how we're feeling in the present or allows us to think about "who we want to be" in the future.

The neuroscience of goal-setting

Dr. Andrew Huberman breaks down what happens in the brain while setting goals. Fear is heavily involved in our goal-directed behavior through the amygdala. We're wired to avoid punishment and embarrassment. 

Another part of the brain involved is the basal ganglia, which has two circuits, one that gets us to do things and one responsible for us "not taking" actions. Finally, the cortex is involved when we're in planning mode but also when we associate emotions with the goals we set. 

All of these brain areas are involved in goal-directed behavior. In addition, the neuromodulator dopamine also plays a crucial role in assessing the value and reward we get when we set and achieve goals.

Prioritization is key

To get anything in life, you need to prioritize and execute. Classpass founder Payal Kadakia talks about the power of small steps in helping us achieve our dreams.

Break up with perfectionism

Excellence does not require perfection. Aiming high, not pursuing perfection, is what gets results. When you clarify the goal, you realize perfect is not the target.

We don’t have time. We have intentions

When you think you can control time, you become disappointed as you learn how little control you often have. Embracing goal setting from the reality of the finitude of time can help you accept the only thing you can do is to align your intentions in the proper order of priority.

Energy management instead of time management

Tools like time blocking and the Pomodoro technique work because they're energy management techniques, not time management tools. It is about managing your energy throughout the work period, not about controlling the time.

The fear-setting framework

Goals often take the form of changes in our lives that we're fearful of making. Visualizing the worst-case scenario in detail can help drive change. Start by listing the problem you're grappling with in the form of "What if I …?". After that, imagine all the worst things that can happen if you take action and then figure out how to prevent these from becoming true or at least minimize the chance of them happening.

Understand your “why”

Obsessing about goals can lead performers into depression. Simon Sinek encourages us to think about why we're doing what we're doing before jumping into action - understanding our why can help us push through the challenging moments and create a more powerful driving force behind what we do, above and beyond achieving any finite goal.

You can’t get it done without having fun

Tammie Bennett argues we should let go of attachment to results and focus on showing up and doing our best. Having fun and approaching goals with a sense of adventure will enable us to enjoy our journey much more.

The Puddle Theory framework

Dividing big goals into small steps will enable us to get started quicker. We take action faster if we see a goal as achievable and enjoyable - a reminder to do what is in front of us and do it well.

Bring a positive attitude to the game

Your attitude is the only thing in your control in a particular environment. Bringing a positive attitude to a situation puts you in the best position to win in that situation. When you fixate on an outcome and don't achieve it, you experience emotional hijacking, which leads to a loss of energy.

Conclusion

All of us can become masters at setting and achieving goals. To get there, we need to understand all the forces at play, what helps us get traction towards our goals, and what gets in the way. Being intentional about how we use our time, priorities, and habits can set us up for success. Still, it's also essential to understand why we want to achieve these goals, what sits behind our desires, and make sure we don't suck out all the joy from the process.

We hope these ideas inspire you to take action or approach goals differently.

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