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From the desk of Nick Mills….

“I’ve been thinking a lot about setting realistic goals that can actually be achieved. What I’ve learned in my study of neuroscience reveals that there’s a lot we can borrow from the latest research to help break the habits that get in the way of us getting where we want to be.”

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1) Goals need to be aligned with the ‘true you’

Gollwitzer and Oettinger have undertaken research at NYU that shows when we set goals related to our own interests and personal values, or when we align them with learning new skills and connecting more closely with friends and our communities, this leads to positive well-being and higher life satisfaction. Such goals are more likely to be achieved than those with less positive associations. Goals such as making more money and becoming famous are not only vague; they don’t give us enough clarity to succeed. They also don’t address the social needs that we have in life such as personal connection and community.

When you set goals that are aligned with the ‘true you’, you are more likely to experience intrinsic motivation, a required ingredient for success. Intrinsic motivation refers to behavior that is driven by internal rewards. In other words, the motivation to engage in a behavior arises from within the individual because it is inherently rewarding. This contrasts with extrinsic motivation, which involves engaging in a behavior in order to earn external rewards or to avoid punishments.

A good example is one most of us have experienced — wanting to lose weight. If you align your weight reduction goal with desiring to eat well and exercise regularly because it makes you feel better, sleep better, and engage with others in more positive ways, you are more likely to succeed than if you set a goal that is about getting to a particular number — kilos or dress size or BPI, for example.

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2) Find clear ways to implement your intentions

The notion of implementation intentions is something I’ve learned from my studies of neuroscience. It turns out that how we set goals is as important as the goal itself. Gollwitzer and colleagues stress that we need to set goals that incorporate when, where, and how implementation will start, as well as what course subsequent goals will take.

One way to do this is by framing “If-then” statements: “If situation Y is encountered, then I will initiate behavior Z in order to reach goal X!”

When attempting to change habits and behavioral patterns, developing “If-then” statements prepares you for situations that could derail achieving your goal. We know that under duress we tend to revert to habit. This is because we have well-worn neural pathways in our brain. MK McGovern has shown that habits are sequences of actions that are learned progressively and are more often performed unconsciously. Since the brain cannot handle every little detail about the things we do, habits are the brain’s way of helping us simultaneously memorise and repeat the things we do on a regular basis.

It isn’t really that difficult to re-train the brain to replace the old, bad habit with a new, desirable one. It does take practice, though. As Aristotle said: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”  By preparing for situations that trigger stress and lead to a reversion to your old habits, you are better able to figure out how and when to effectively activate your newly-acquired habit. “If-then” statements operate as a prescription for the desired behaviour ahead of time and not after the bad habit kicks in.

I’ve been experimenting with this notion in my executive coaching practice. For instance, I can be reactive and anxious when under pressure to complete a tight deadline. I would like to remain calm at all times. While it’s a noble goal, I have had a difficult time attaining it in all crunch situations.

On the other hand, if I clarify the situation that causes me stress, and set an intention about how I will behave in that situation, I am much more likely to achieve the goal. It turns out that the executive function of our brain is set to a default mode. When under stress, I feel anxiety in the pit of my stomach. So, I’ve found it effective to set a goal like this: When I realise that I am close to a deadline and feel the wave of anxiety in my stomach, I will pause, take a few breaths, and ask myself, “What is the best way to get this done?” Simply pausing breaks the cycle of reverting to the default mode. As time goes on, I find I’m better about anticipating the stress before it happens. I can feel the new habit forming.

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3) Break goals into manageable activities

For my goal of mastering three to five coaching skills related to neuroscience, I have set aside 15 minutes three times a week, on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings, to read either a chapter in one of the neuroscience and coaching books I have on my shelf or one of the articles I have stored on my computer ‘reading list’. I plan to add notes to a coaching practices journal that I keep.

For my goal of writing more, I’ve designated time in the mornings when I’m not traveling. I find I’m fresher then and new ideas flow. When I am traveling, I’ve found that being ‘trapped’ on a plane is actually a gift of time.  Without the distractions of phone calls and email messages, I’ve discovered I can get a lot of work done. Not only that, I tend to do some of my best writing and ‘idea generation’ on planes.

I was confused why this should be the case, but then I read about a study that reveals that modest ambient noise (around 70 decibels) triggers the part of our brains responsible for abstract and creative thinking. This explains why so many of us find it easier to work and learn when sitting with our laptops in coffee shops or other bustling places (like planes!).

Because such goals are designed to tap into what motivates me intrinsically, and because I have anticipated what might go wrong and set myself up for success, and because my way of getting there is to proceed via a series of  manageable activities, I find that I am well on my way to getting where I want to be.