We’ve all set goals: Lose weight. Save for retirement. Stop procrastinating.
But what most of us don’t realize is that setting ambitious behavior-change goals often backfires, diminishing our chances of success in the future. What I’ve learned as a behavior scientist is that reaching for certain targets can actually shut down motivation and suck joy out of our lives.
Goals are typically outcome-oriented, which means we either succeed in our attempts to achieve them — or we fail. And for outcome goals that take a long time to reach, our efforts can feel like a prolonged struggle against the risk of failure. This doesn’t exactly put us in a great frame of mind for reaching our dreams.
Goals and Your Brain
To better understand why setting outcome-specific goals may not be the best way to approach making important changes in our lives, let’s consider two participants in a weight-loss study I conducted years ago.
“Sarah” was a high-performing executive manager and a master of setting and completing goals at work. She wanted to lose 15 pounds by summer. She made a so-called SMART goal — one that was specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound. Then she executed: She counted calories, cut out junk food, and exercised five times a week.
“Marcus” had a stressful, sedentary engineering job. He was prediabetic and a self-proclaimed sugar addict whose office was well supplied with doughnuts and vending-machine food. Marcus decided to kick his sugar habit gradually, using the same testing and experimentation methods he used to solve engineering problems. He set a process goal and created a spreadsheet for tracking his behavior to figure out how to wean himself off sugar.
They both lost weight, but here’s the kicker: Sarah gained hers back, and Marcus kept his off. Why? It’s all about how our goals work with our brains.
Researchers have identified that the area in the brain called the habenula is essentially responsible for recording our failures. If we “fail” at something, the habenula inhibits our motivation to try again by suppressing dopamine-releasing neurons. This useful tool is thought to keep us from wasting our time (or endangering ourselves) by repeating unsuccessful behaviors.
When we measure goals in terms of success or failure, and then don’t “succeed,” the habenula kills our incentive to give things another go. This keeps a lot of dieters, would-be novelists, and aspiring entrepreneurs stuck at square one.
Another function of the brain that affects our ability to meet outcome-oriented goals is implicit memory, a part of the unconscious that keeps track of patterns. Let’s say you have a rigid and somewhat harsh goal, like waking up at 5 a.m. to go running in the freezing cold. Your implicit memory may log something like “Not comfortable! Painful experience!” Over time, implicit memory encourages you to stop that unpleasant behavior. And because this happens unconsciously, you may realize it only weeks later when you notice you’re not running very often anymore.
This is likely what happened to Sarah. Though she succeeded (at first) through a lot of no-pain–no-gain workouts and food deprivation, she was eventually compelled to let those unpleasant behaviors go.
Think Like a Designer
Marcus succeeded because he approached his goal like a designer. Designers do something called iteration, which means they tinker and experiment in a structured way to home in on a solution.
Marcus set his sights on figuring out what worked for him, learning how he responded to certain motivations and situations, and structuring his shopping and eating behavior accordingly.
For example, when he noticed he was gravitating to the office doughnuts, he designed a solution — keeping an apple at his desk to minimize temptation. When that wasn’t enough, he moved the box of doughnuts to another department as a gift. He delighted in his solutions and derived satisfaction from his process.
Through my years as a physician, researcher, and entrepreneur, I have observed that people like Marcus succeed because they’re focused on the process of solving a problem and the joy that comes from figuring something out.
We can all be designers of our goals, habits, and behaviors. Most of us already are, though we may not realize it. We design every time we put our keys by the door so we can grab them on the way out. We keep our toothbrushes by the bathroom sink. We post reminders on the fridge. When we try a new wine we like, we take a picture of the label, so we can remember to buy it again.
By our very nature, we are always experimenting with solutions for a number of problems to make our lives better. This approach succeeds because it works for — and with — our brains. We are wired to enjoy success when we focus on the process, not the outcome.
So next time you find yourself setting a goal, try designing a process instead. Reframe your goal as an interesting problem to solve. Identify behaviors that may solve the problem, and then tinker, noting what works and what doesn’t, and adjusting accordingly. Then track your successes and celebrate small wins along the way.