Share Progress Not Goals

Don’t Share Goals

When we share goals we think it’ll help keep us accountable. We believe committing to a new career or a healthier life is easier if we have support from family and friends. And, if we start to fall behind, we’ll have people to encourage us.

Unfortunately, without asking for these supports you’re unlikely to get them. Holding someone accountable is taxing. It may even hurt a relationship. Offering encouragement may seem easy, but it can’t do much without a plan to support it.

Worst of all, if you share goals publicly, you may hurt your chances at goal attainment. This is especially true for identity goals. Those related to perceptions of you; a better spouse, or a budding doctor.

When we announce identity goals it shifts others’ impression of us. We look better in their eyes for improving ourselves. But, people taking note of our intentions elicits a premature sense of completeness, says Peter Gollwitzer.

He conducted a series of studies highlighting this effect in 2008. Each of which showed some degree of this effect hampering progress towards goals.

In one experiment, participants committed their time to studying clinical psychology techniques. Two groups were formed, one where goals were acknowledged, the social reality group, the other whose goals were ignored.

The social reality group with a strong commitment towards their identity goal spent less time working. On average they worked 8 percent less than the social reality group with a weak commitment. And, up to 30 percent less than those with a strong commitment whose goal went unacknowledged.

In another experiment, law students publicly or privately stated their intentions of becoming a jurist. Gollwitzer’s intent was to measure feelings of goal completeness after social recognition. As expected, participants whose goals were acknowledged felt closer to being jurists. A shocking outcome considering they hadn’t put in any effort.

These experiments show how sharing goals deters achievement. Not only do we assume others will view us as closer to goal attainment, but we trick ourselves as well. When we’ve felt a sense of satisfaction or accomplishment, we mitigate our own effort. Why put in the work when we’ve already experienced a sense of fulfillment?

Sharing Progress

While progress takes up the bulk of the goal attainment, planning and effort is haphazard. In fact its often completely dependent on the individual. Even if the goal itself is common, e.g. weight-loss or learning to manage finances. But what seems to matter across all intentions is progress monitoring.

In 2015 a group of researchers noticed a lack of consensus on progress monitoring. They undertook a meta study including 136 research papers. Each looked at the effects of progress monitoring on goal attainment.

Researchers found public progress sharing or reporting via electronics has larger benefits than private monitoring. It increased goal striving through commitment, accountability, public perception, and positive framing.

Progress Monitoring

Once a public commitment is made we’re more likely to act in accordance with it. This is due to our desire for consistency in self and others. While this seems to conflate with advice to not share our goals, I’d argue its essentially different. Stating a goal is nothing more than intention. Whereas progress shows a commitment to self and a change in behavior. A sticking point for consistency.

Personal accountability is a key aspect to public sharing. Progress monitoring is difficult because it forces individuals to own up to discrepancies. In private it’s easy to brush aside failures or setbacks. We understand our reasons and can make excuses. But in public we’ve got to address the self-deception. Excuses turn into calls-to-action that help rectify and adjust behavior. We become accountable to our progress rather than complicit in failure.

Acknowledgement of progress encourages further accomplishments through public perception. Each time we share our progress we receive some form of praise for our efforts. Encouragement from friends and family is something to strive for, a form of intrinsic motivation. This, in turn, creates a reinforcing loop. As we consistently progress the praise continues encouraging further progress until goal attainment.

Finally public sharing allows for positive framing of progress. While it helps track distance to a goal it also allows you to remark on how far you’ve come. Noticing the effects of hard work offers another venue for intrinsic motivation. We can pat ourselves on the back over accomplishments and embolden our work.

Focus on Getting Started

When you start working on a goal, crucial steps must be undertaken to complete it. But, when you share that goal with others it alters your social reality. You hear some praise about how ambitious you might be or how capable you are. This tricks your mind into believing part of the goal is already done. In response you feel as though you can put less effort in. “Your brain mistakes the talking for action”, as Derek Sivers puts it in his Ted talk on the subject.

Instead you should resist sharing your intentions. Focus on getting through the initial steps to get started and monitor your effort. Then share your progress to your heart’s content.

Remember Your Motivations, They Drive You

Motivation is a “part of popular culture as few other psychological concepts are”. Those are the words of Martin Maehr and Heather Meyer, spoken almost two decades ago. Since then the fervor to understand motivation has only increased. But for some perplexing reason, we still discuss motivation and our motives as though they’re a brand new topic.

We view motivation as a limited source of energy. We can’t start our list of errands or head to the gym because ‘we’re just not motivated’. But, this isn’t how motivation works. It comes from our motives, our reasons to change or act in the first place. Everything we do has a motive behind it, but we forget the importance when we aren’t focused. Even lounging around the house comes from our motivation to relaxation. When we need to work we don’t need divine intervention, we need better a better understanding of our reasons to act.

Your motives drive you
Motives Drive Action

Our focus on motivation as an external source impinges it’s effectiveness. This external view is called extrinsic motivation and it’s only a fraction of what motivates us. Extrinsic motivators, like money and recognition, are reasons to act thrust on you by others. Whereas intrinsic motivation stems from the delight and fascination with the activity itself. Almost all the work you do involves a mix of each. But, unless you’re completely aware of the why behind your actions you might end up assuming things about yourself that aren’t true.

Intrinsic motivation is internal, long-lasting, and self-sustaining, but slow to develop. It’s also far more subjective. Depending on the context this can be a positive or negative. These characteristics support positive habits and make it a pain to drop negative ones. Extrinsic motivators are short-term, restricted, quick fixes with broad impact. They may undermine intrinsic motivation and often require rewards to increase over time.

Within either type of motivation are the incentive and aversive salience attention modifiers. These properties regulate the intensity of your behavior.

When we discuss motivation, we focus on positive incentives. We want to know what we get out of acting or behaving in a certain way. In psychology this is called incentive salience or approach behavior. the two factors, wanting and liking, compose incentive salience. The wanting factor determines our desire to consume or attain. It shifts our focus from simple objects or outcome to one that occupies our attention. The liking portion is the immediate pleasure we get after consumption.

Influenced by perceived value and required effort both factors can vary over short periods of time. As we work through decisions motivation fluctuates, sometimes rapidly, entirely in the unconscious.

Other times we use our conscious mind to figure out the best possible outcome. Like, how we want to unwind for the weekend.

You’re stressed, you decide your best option for Friday night is to kick back with a bottle of wine. Your first glass is fantastic. A preferred brand, you’ve been looking forward to all week, and the taste is exceptional. It’s possible you’re even more eager for the second glass than the first. But, once your second is empty you’ve got to decide just how deep into the bottle you want to go. After all you’ve got a hike in the morning and it’s been awhile since you drank. After a quick appraisal the third glass seems less appealing. It’s incentive salience has decreased and your aversion to another glass has increased. You decide to cork the bottle. Better safe than sorry.

Aversive salience, the impact of alcohol in our example, that caused avoidant behavior. We weren’t demotivated to drink another glass, we had legitimate reasons not to. The effects were associated with an undesirable outcome.

It’s difficult to account for all the factors that ultimately drive us towards action or inaction. It’s this lack of understanding around our motivations that make it tricky to deal with. Of course it’s hard to get up and go to the gym; your home is comfortable, you want to relax, and the gym doesn’t seem fun. Each of these are powerful motivators detracting from hard work, they’re averse and need to be recognized.

When we fail to understand our reasons to act we’re easily swayed. Our attention shifts from one salient distraction to the next until we’re finally reminded of our task. At that point, it’s impossible to tell if we’ll get back on track.

To detail what we know about motivations impact on behavior Dan Ariely designed an experiment focused on the importance of meaning. In his experiment participants built Bionicles that were subsequently taken apart for later use. For each Bionicle built, participants earned a small amount. Completing the first netted 3 dollars, the second $2.70, the third $2.40, and so on until they either gave up or the amount paid out reached zero. This was dubbed the meaningful experiment.

In the second condition participants built the same models but the experimenters reused them each time. If they agreed to build another they received a second, but if they decided to build a third for $2.40 they were given the initial model to reconstruct. This was called the sisyphic condition after the Greek myth of Sisyphus. Punished for his hubris and forced to push a boulder up a hill only to have it roll down as he neared the peak. This condition was meant to emulate Sisyphus and his unending, meaningless work.

Meaningful and Sisyphic Motivation Choices
Different Models Can Break Motivation

In the meaningful condition individuals built 50 percent more models than the sisyphic. A staggering amount of effort for a small difference. These individuals weren’t changing the world or helping the impoverished, they played with toys for pocket change. There was no opportunity to ascribe meaning, but the differentiation mattered substantially.

In another version of the experiment nothing was built or paid for, participants only heard the description of each condition. They understood meaning is important. But, they underestimated the magnitude. They expected the meaningful condition to build 15 percent more, less than a third of the total amount.

Ariely didn’t stop with the first few experiments. He knew some participants were fond of Legos and wanted to understand how that would change their behavior. In the meaningful experiment attachment to Legos correlated with effort, but, in the sisyphic experiment, attachment was meaningless. In Ariely’s own words, “this manipulation of breaking things in front of people we basically crushed any joy they could get out of this activity. We… eliminated it.”

In his final experiment participants had intrinsic and extrinsic incentives, but a change in process sapped their motivation. What we perceive as motivating; joy, effort, and money, lose potency without meaning. Understand what your goals and actions mean to you before blindly chasing them.

Your motives decide the intensity and frequency surrounding your behaviors. If you want to stay motivated you need to understand what’s motivating you and what keeps you in place. Leverage this knowledge and make changes that facilitate your goals.

Further Reading:
Motivation is Meaningless

A Guide to the To-Do List

The to-do list has been around for ages, and for good reason.

Short term memory holds 5-7 items, varying by individual and what we’re hoping to retain. Unfortunately the average human has countless priorities and decisions to consider from the moment they wake up.

These tasks occupy space in working memory and are quickly forgotten when more pressing or demanding matters start to occupy our attention. Things like driving or or attending to a screaming child can make it incredibly difficult to facilitate working memory.

There’s no reason to commit any one off task to long term memory. So we either keep it active in our working memory or write it down. Writing it down frees up space in our working memory and gives you a real world space to store your tasks.

But, not all to do lists are the same. Below are several common mistakes people make when planning their schedules. Avoiding these should increase your completion rate and help you stick to your goals.

Coffee should really be listed twice

The most common pitfalls

  • Too many to-dos
  • Poor time management
  • Lack of priority
  • Uncertain Outcomes

Too Many To-dos

Your to-do list should serve as an extension of your memory, not a replacement. You list should be limited to items that can be accomplished in the time they’ve been written for. There’s no benefit to include tomorrow’s work today. Schedule an alarm or put it on the calendar if you truly need a reminder. Don’t let extraneous work creep into today’s focus.

In fact the more tasks that go incomplete, the more likely you are to trigger the Ovsianka Effect. The act of tricking yourself into believing that work you set for yourself really wasn’t the useful or worthwhile.

Poor Time Management 

The more time you have to finish a task the less likely you are to get it done. A bit of a paradox but easily explained. We’re lenient on ourselves. If we estimate something will only take an hour and have four to finish it in, we’ll try and put it off. We pretend that spending those first few hours relaxing will set us up for serious productivity. In reality, it’s all but impossible to pull ourselves away from whatever we’re engrossed in. We have to fight mind, body, and soul just to get off the couch to get get going. It’s better to work first and relax later.

As an added bonus once you’ve completed that work you’re completely free to enjoy the day as you like. There’s no transitioning away, no guilt from forgetting to do something. Just you, being completely present.

So minimal. So unrealistic.

Lack of Priority

If something needs to get done you shouldn’t bury it at the bottom of your lists. Put it front and center and do it first. If the task itself seems to daunting you need to break it down into manageable chunks.

Humans prefer work that improves over time. As we transition away from our most difficult tasks we feel a sense of relief that what’s ahead of us will be even easier. On top of that we get a rush of accomplishment from squaring away our biggest task straight away.

On the other side, if we try and check off our easy tasks first we may end up tricking our brain into believing we’ve earned a break. While you probably have, you end up exposing yourself to interruptions. Not only will you have to shift back from play to work, but some overwhelming distraction could completely derail your day. Leaving you with the task of finding more time to complete your daunting work.

Unclear Outcomes

If you’re trying to include tasks that’ll take multiple days or weeks to accomplish you’ll only be setting yourself up for failure. With unclear goals the work you end up doing becomes difficult to track and could upset your pacing.

Your daily goals or new routines should be concise. Allowing you the opportunity to reflect on whether you’ve done enough or have the ability to fit a bit more in each day.

Instead of “clean the yard” break it down into chunks. Clean up after the god, mow the lawn, water the plants, and weeding. Doing so helps arrange your work day and keep track of time. On top of that knocking off multiple items feels good and looks more accomplishing.

How do I do it?

My best results come from organizing and planning my work early in the morning or, ideally, night before. This adds a natural flow to my day, checking off my priorities as I go means my time is well managed and there’s never a question if I have time for a longer break in my day.

At most I put 7 tasks on my todo list. And I commonly get to five or six, though recently I’ve been completing everything. And yes, I’m bragging. I think it’s important to give yourself a pat on the back. It’s one of the best parts of accomplishments. And, there’s probably a fair amount of science agreeing with me.

Further Reading

Lifehacker – Master the Art

NYMag – A Neuroscientist on the Calming Powers of the Todo List

TheMuse – 8 Expert-backed Secrets to Making a Todo List

The Power of Habit

Book: The Power of Habit – why we do what we do in life and business.
Author: Charles Duhigg
ISBN: 9780385669764
The independent habit loop consists of three pivotal moments.

  • Cue
  • Routine
  • Reward

For Pepsodent and Claude Hopkins, this understanding was enough to make the product a bestseller and Hopkins a millionaire. His explanation on the “right human psychology” only goes a touch deeper and is focused on cultivating a routine out of a cue and a reward. His ideal for success is finding a simple, and obvious, cue followed by a clearly defined rewards. The routine, and thus the habit, will build itself if given these two simple starting points.

Apparently, Hopkins could have made himself even richer. Researchers and marketing professionals later found a pivotal third rule associated with habit formation. One that would make Febreeze a household name.

In order to truly build habits a few cognitive steps must be undertaken. Mainly, that the brain needs to build an anticipation for the reward. That is, before the reward is given the brain registers like is has. The expectation becomes so strong and consistent that actually receiving the reward only serves as fulfillment of the expectation and is no longer considered an explicit reward for the proper behavior.

This process is most evident in a monkey named Julio and a research named Wolfram Schultz out of MIT. Through his researcher he was able to discern how habits and rewards were triggered in the brain. For Julio, who had been part of the experiment long enough to create a habit, his reaction to a cue was immediate and his brain registered the reward before he physically reacted.

The monkeys who had not been habituated were able to be distracted from the simple call and response game that provided Julio’s reward. They had yet to crave the juice that sent Julio into a tizzy. When researchers tried to distract Julio, they failed. His cravings were so strong that secondary rewards weren’t worthwhile.

This helps to explain why habits are incredibly powerful, they create neurological cravings. Incredibly difficult to resist and easily triggered without a change in lifestyle.

Schultz provides an excellent example using an all-to-tasty treat we’re tempted with often at the office,

“There is nothing programmed into our brains that makes us see a box of doughnuts and automatically want a sugary treat, but once our brain learns that a doughnut box contains yummy sugar and other carbohydrates, it will start anticipating the sugar high. Our brains will push us toward the box. Then, if we don’t eat the doughnut, we’ll feel disappointed.”

It’s exactly in these moments we’re prone to experience cognitive dissonance. We may have committed to cutting sugar for our health, but that act isn’t a habit. It’s a far off goal we’re hoping to achieve, often through sheer force of will. Once we’re in the same room as the doughnuts we’re triggered and our brain wants to be satisfied. Once/if we follow through our brain hits a mental crossroads. We committed to avoiding the exact action we fell prey to. We end up feel twinges of regret and have to jump through some mental gymnastics in order to overcome our internal pain.

Charles Duhigg provides a powerful, modern day example of the habit loop. One we all know too well, social media. When our smartphones or computers send us an alert our brains anticipate the reward. The instant gratification that comes with clearing a notification from our phone and the reward of whatever content we find, regardless of it’s worth. The strategy is brilliant for developers who want nothing more than individuals constantly checking their phones. Each vibration and notification leads to an expectation that, if left unchecked, creates a pull strong enough for the most disciplined individuals.

But, even this phenomena can be stopped. It might be difficult to get used to, but removing push notifications, or silencing your phone, can be enough to remove the cue. Once you’ve built another reward system in it’s place, let’s say 25 minutes of concentrated work you track in a notebook, overcoming your current phone addiction becomes a process of planning and follow-through, not willpower.

Researchers at the New Mexico State University worked to understand the mechanisms behind habitual exercise. They found that many individuals who self-reported to exercising consistently had no unifying reason for working out. Participants had more time in their day, wanted alternative coping strategies for stress, or merely did it on a whim. But, the reason they kept exercising, were due to specific expected rewards.

In a single group 92 percent of respondents stated that the reason they exercised consistently was due to the fact that it made them, “feel good”. They started to crave the neurochemicals our brain produces during a workout. A second group responded, with 67 percent agreement, by saying that exercise gave them a feeling of “accomplishment”. Their bodies started to yearn for the sense of completion that came with tracking their performance. This basic self-reward was enough to initiate the habit loop.

Citing the work done by Alcoholics Anonymous to curb the addiction felt by countless addicts, J. Scott Tonigan references the fourth and fifth step or the program; “a searching and fearless inventory of ourselves” and admitting “to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs”.

He says,

“It’s not obvious from the way they’re written, but to complete those steps, someone has to create a list of all the triggers for their alcoholic urges. When you make a self-inventory, you’re figuring out all the things that make you drink. And admitting to someone else all the bad things you’ve done is a pretty good way of figuring out the moments where everything spiraled out of control.”

People who can notice themselves shifting off their true course, whether it’s learning something new or committing to a diet have to work hard and keep a constant inventory of their cues to notice the subtle adjustment their minds make in order to weasel out of work.

We run to certain habits to cope with anxiety and stressful moments in life. It can be difficult to nullify these habits because the cues associated with them are not often pronounced. They only occur when we’re already in time of need and working through a positive change during a time of stress is difficult. In order for some alcoholics to overcome their urges, they had to figure our new coping strategies for anxiety induced moments in their lives. Once they had they were able to break the habit loop and have been sober for years since.

Awareness training is the technical term for describing cues for habitual behavior. This can be difficult to implement in longstanding habits. Often people are so stuck in their routine or are so accustomed to defaulting an action that they’ve forgotten what provoked the habit in the first place.

Finding cues for longstanding habits is the act of recognizing patterns in your daily life, whether you overeat due to boredom, stress, or joy, each habit has a cause. Identifying these causes is the first step to freedom.

Nathan Azrin, one of the developers of habit reversal training, “It seems ridiculously simple, once you’re aware of how your habit works, once you recognize the cues and rewards, you’re halfway to changing it. It seems like it should be more complex. The truth is, the brain can be reprogrammed.” But, you must be deliberate in action.

I believe the following is the most important quote from the book, and really should have been on one of the first few changes. I’ve been struggling with certain habits for years and I often fall back into grooves I thought I had replaced. While I’m in a much different space than I was a few years ago I can constantly feel a tug to revert to a much easier form.

“It is important to note that though the process of habit change is easily described, it does not necessarily follow that it is easily accomplished. It is facile to imply that smoking, alcoholism, overeating, or other ingrained patterns can be upended without real effort. Genuine change requires work and self-understanding of the cravings driving behaviors. Changing any habit requires determination. No one will quit smoking cigarettes because they sketch a habit loop.”

Researchers from the Alcohol Research Group (ARG) in California identified a not-so-scientific explanation for individuals who were able to stay on track regardless of the stressful events in their lives, belief. As they interviewed recovering alcoholics the results were clear, identifying triggers and replacing routines were crucial, but what kept them aloft they said, was God.

Being scientists the group at the ARG didn’t stop at this line of reasoning. They were determined to discover what it was about the belief in God that enabled so many to stay the course, even in moments that should have pushed them back towards addiction.

Their work led them to an interesting, albeit mundane, conclusion. It wasn’t God, but the act of belief itself that enabled these individuals to change. Once they understood what believing truly meant it spilled over into other areas of their life, they had reached about where they felt as though they could change through their own fruition. Believing you can overcome the causes of your addiction gives you someplace to turn when you start to bottom out. Without a mechanism to cope with stress, you’ll be driven back to what you know.

Change seems real when we can see it in other people’s lives. Research has shown that an element of change in our own lives involves community, whether they be large or small. Belief in an element is easier when others believe with us.

We know that habits can not be forgotten, only replaced. And, that there are no hard-and-fast rules that apply to all individuals when changing habits. The Golden Rule of habit change allows for new routines as long as we keep the same cues and rewards. Belief makes these changes long-lasting, even in the face of adversity. Where the belief comes from, whether in God or in ourself is less relevant, as long as we have someplace to look towards when we struggle.

A sense of community helps to embolden change, this is just as true for habits.

Paul O’neill was hired as the new president of Alcoa aluminum manufacturing in 1987, there he was tasked with turning around one of the largest companies in the world. One that many investors saw at a risk of losing its position. When it came to transformation O’neill was not the typical CEO, his focus was worker safety. He believed that if his workers were as invested in the company as the company would soon be in them, they’d see a miraculous turnaround.

Less than a year after his first speech to investor’s Alcoa’s profits had skyrocketed to all-time highs.

O’Neill, “I knew I had to transform Alcoa, but you can’t order people to change. That’s not how the brain works. So I decided I was going to start by focusing on one thing. If I could start disrupting the habits around one thing, it would spread throughout the entire company.”

O’Neill’s view on habits and structure in an individual’s life are called “keystone habits”. These habits have a larger sphere of influence on how people function, work, play, eating, living, and spending. Keystone habits start a chain reaction, that if stuck to, change everything.

A standard keystone habit is exercising. Individuals who exercise see a bevy of positive changes in their lives. They lose weight, change to healthier diets, have more energy, feel happier, are less stressed, and have a reduced risk for cardiovascular disease. Each of these benefits ripples further into other aspects of life, creating more positive relationships with friends and family, positive body image, and less money spent eating out. The benefits go on and on. Potentially multiplying until the person you see before you is completely changed from what once was.

Other examples of keystone habits include, eating dinner as a family and making your bed everything morning.

None of these habits actually cause their associated benefits, but the initial lifestyle change cultivates other good habits.

Keystone habits define us. They make decisions easy. Almost to the point that they aren’t decisions at all. If a certain action is ingrained in our day to day lives, going against it can make us feel out of place. Like we’re living our lives incorrectly. Our brain runs on habits and structure, they keep us safe, focused on our immediate goals, and working towards our next reward.

This issue comes when we let our habits become so invasive that we’ve lost choice to the detriment of our health, relationships, or productivity.

Possibly my new favorite quote, not that I’ve ever had one.

“Not sharing an opportunity to learn is a cardinal sin.”

Karl Weick, organizational psychologist, on small wins and habit formation.

“Small wins do not combine in a neat, linear, serial form, with each step being a demonstrable step closer to some predetermined goal. More common is the circumstance where small wins are scattered … like miniature experiments that test implicit theories about resistance and opportunity and uncover both resources and barriers that were invisible before the situation was stirred up.”

This book has a focus on willpower that runs roughshod over the entirety of work done by Walter Mischel and instead focuses on later work done by Mark Muraven. I’ve written enough about self-control and willpower elsewhere, but it should go without saying that willpower is the bedrock of strong, productive habits.

In a study on rehab patients a psychologist looked to figure out what methods would provoke individuals to follow their PT exercises. Her answer was a journal used to track the daily lives of these individuals.

She found those who kept record of their day regained their ability to walk twice as fast. The reason for this was simple. They were tracking their pain points each day, and making plans to overcome them. Instead of trying to tackle each individual problem as it arose, they’d make if-then goals to help them succeed. They used these inflection points to make it past the worst of the pain, say standing from a seating position, and slowly moving onto their next task.

Data from YMCA showed that retention was driven by emotional factors, such as whether employees knew members’ names or said hello when they walked in. These cues are driven by social habits, not the unformed habits from working out. It’s easier to build a program based on what people already know, instead of what they hope to gain.

Developing heuristics doesn’t mean they’ll always follow suit.

Stress induced extinction bursts can be devastating on the road to recovery from conditioned behavior. Angie Bachmann suffered an through a burst after her father had passed away. Even though it had been years since she had last gambled, the overwhelming stress aligned with her standard triggers and she was driven back into the world of gambling.

Probably the most disgusting bit I’ve found in this book details how a slot machine manufacturer hired a video game executive to design new slot machines. These machines were made to provide as many “almost wins” as possible. These near misses at riches drive our brain into thinking that we’re actually close to winning a jackpot, if only we persist. Not only is gambling itself addictive, casinos do everything they can to make it as difficult to move away from as possible.

“Historically, in neuroscience, we’ve said that people with brain damage lose some of their free will, but when a pathological gambler sees a casino, it seems very similar. It seems like they’re acting without choice.” says, Reza Habib.

Habits are what allow us to set building blocks for success. At first, our new assignments are difficult, but with persistence and grit we’re able to continue down our new path. We build muscle memory and strengthen our skill set. Each time we run through a habit loop we become more effective, more able to complete the tasks we set for ourselves. Belief in our own ability is key to making the initial steps happen, with belief we can energize our willpower and start down the path to refinement.

To further assist us in our goals it’s important to experiment. Failures are crucial when success is an option, but when we do fail we should learn from those failures. We look at our stumbling blocks and correct what we do on the next go round. Start tracking and analyzing data so you can have a better understanding of outcomes. Think about what triggered you to want to make a change. How can you harness that feeling to prevent relapse?

Stress & Long-term Goals

An argument with your significant other or extra traffic during your morning commute could be impacting your long-term goals more than you know. A research study from the University of Zurich demonstrated that even acute stress sabotages efforts of self-control.

Lead author Silvia Maeir noted that self-control is sensitive to agitation at multiple neural pathways, and that optimal self-control requires a precise balance of input from various regions of the brain, rather than a simple on/off switch. She emphasized that this work is only the beginning of understanding the complexity of underlying mechanisms.

The studies participants, who were chosen specifically for their eating habits, were tasked with dunking their hand in ice water directly prior to making a series of 70 dietary choices.

What habits qualified them for such a task? Each participant reported as attempting to be physically active and restrictive with their food intake, but frequently consumed junk food (my kindred spirit)

Over a three hour period the participants ran through two more sets of food options, for a total of 210 choices. This method allowed the researchers to measure levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, at different times. For the final trial of each set participants were made to eat their selection as a part of the experiment.

After reviewing the results Maeir and her team found that stress may impair the brain’s ability to make decision through two distinct avenues,

  1. One that relates to the characteristics of the stimulus. In this case, taste and smell.
  2. The other linked to goal design. In this case, diet restrictions

These results, coupled with previous work done by Hariri et al, furthers the idea that both the amygdala and the ventral striatum (part of the brains reward system) may be linked to the influence of stimuli on valuation and choice. The amygdala is behind instant reactions and choices, while the ventral striatum helps negotiate risk, reward, and decision making.

Maeir’s work went beyond showing how different areas of the brain interact with self-control in relation to goals.

Measures of participants perceived stress level (PSL) indicated that larger differences in taste often led to self-control failure. And, as PSL rose, participants had a harder time selecting the healthiest of choices compared to their low PSL peers.

Several studies have reached the conclusion that acute stress draws attention to the here and now. Understandable as the evolution of stress primed it’s function as a reaction to immediate danger or threats. In these moments our goal should be the removal of stressors. Often this would require additional effort and time we don’t have. It’s no wonder we end up giving into instant gratification without time to pause and reflect.