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The Psychology behind achieving goals

Achieving goals might be more mental than physical. In this Vision article we look into the psychology behind achieving goals. Read more here.
Fitness and Training
Fitness and Training

By Tobias Norman at Wahroonga

The Psychology behind achieving goals

Achieving your goals on a consistent basis is something most people strive for and seem to miss the mark on frequently. Through my years of experience as being a personal training at Vision whilst also studying Psychology at Macquarie University, I thought it would be important for me to share my knowledge on how goal setting and achieving works neurologically. The brain is complex and we can sometimes shoot ourselves in the foot, stopping us from reaching our fitness goals, even though we want to achieve them so badly. In this article we will look at the science behind goals, how to structure our days to give us the best opportunity to succeed, then we will finally look at what some successful people around the world do to achieve their goals.

Success, what happens in our brain?

Our brain loves short term goals and short-term rewards, we are naturally geared towards this tendency due to the release of dopamine, the feel-good chemical which creates a sense of pleasure and is plays a massive role in our sense of motivation and the impact of rewards. There are many chemicals that govern how we function in this world, with roughly 100,000 chemical reactions occurring just in your brain every second… yes, there is a lot going on up there. Back to dopamine, why is dopamine so important for you when you're looking to achieve your goals? It's because dopamine is the main driver in our 'Reward process', it's the chemical that makes chocolate taste good, its why we love to sleep in just that little bit longer and it's even the reason why people love to go for a run. It's what makes things in this world feel amazing and so great to experience. However, this is why it can be so dangerous for us… because it can be so addictive for the wrong reasons.

This chemical release process for dopamine is an ancient one, designed through millions of years of evolution, it's what created motivation for our ancestors to get up and go hunt for food, otherwise yourself and your clan would die. Without this release of dopamine, we wouldn't have the motivation to even do the most basic of tasks. This ancient survival mechanism was great, in a time when food and recourses were scarce, when receiving the amazing hit of dopamine could take weeks to achieve. However, we now live in a society where we have access to any resources, any type of food at any point in time we so desire, and as a result we have multiple hits of dopamine a day, usually coming from food… so naturally we build an addiction to something that would take a long day's hunt to receive, in a matter of seconds. We've all fallen victim to the amazing feeling of a hit of dopamine, however, instead of working to increase our chances of survival it is doing the exact opposite.

How Habits are formed

Repetition of an action which I repeated daily, weekly and monthly, will eventually cause the creation of a Habit. We do many tasks in our day to day life that are habitual, routines such as the steps you take to get up in the morning; turn off your alarm, have a shower, get dressed, have breakfast, clean your teeth and then drive to work. For many this sounds like a regular morning, a process which is automated and usually done without thought. A Habit. The same goes for when you're driving whilst safely talking to someone on the phone, I bet you could do this for 5 minutes straight without out even realising you're driving and changing lanes without your consciousness mind being used. In this example your consciousness mind is focusing on your phone call, what your friend is saying and figuring out what to say back, whilst your unconsciousness mind automatically drives the car for you. It can be an out of body experience sometimes but this is what habits are, they are tasks you have done so often that your brain doesn't even need to think about them anymore to do them. This is exactly what happens with our food and even our food choices. Since we choose the same bad foods each and every day because the dopamine release creates such an amazing feeling, we start to form a habit in our brain, a piece of coding if you will, which will automatically start playing the second you're in the environment it was created in over many, many weeks and years. Thanks to the power of dopamine, you now by the force of habit will always chose; chocolate when you get to isle 3 in Coles, decide to have regular coke instead of water, sit on the couch and watch TV instead of doing the hour walk you promised yourself and your trainer and so on and so on. Without you even realising, you're making the wrong choices because your brain is making life easy for you by playing out the same script each and every day, so you can put your conscious thought towards the important things in your life, letting your unconscious mind worry about what's not important. Then, like it happened out of nowhere, we find ourselves stuck in the constant loop of destruction, feeling like we have no control. Well the great news is that you have control, it won't be easy, but you can reprogram your brain so that you can gain control of your life choices again, you now get to decide how your movie plays out.

So how can we work against this dopamine addiction?

By using the same process of Habit which got you into the position you're in now. Goals, rewards, dopamine and habits are all closely linked to each other, with a cascade effect occurring when you change any one of those variables. If you can imagine how long it took you to develop a bad habit you currently have in your life, the same goes for developing a new one. This is why people fall flat on achieving their new goals, they don't understand or appreciate just how long it takes to develop new habits which will have a positive impact on your life. So, let's use the dopamine reward system we discussed earlier to our benefit, by receiving small hits of dopamine each day but now it's for things that will make us healthy or lose weight, whatever your goal may be.

Example case, a client wishes to lose 3 kilos in 9 weeks. Okay, this seems like a very achievable goal, however, we have to address how this client is absolutely addicted to chocolate and eats an entire block each and every night. This is the habit we have to focus on reducing in order for our client to achieve their goal, however there is a rule that you must follow, if you take away one habit you must replace it with a new one which also gives you a hit of dopamine. This rule exists because the brain is always seeking ways to make us feel good, so if we take away a catalyst for making us feel good, e,g. eating a block of chocolate each and every night, and fail to replace it with something which produces a dopamine hit, the brain will automatically create cravings which will draw you back to the feel good habit of eating chocolate. This is why going cold turkey on any addiction never works, with nothing to replace the old and destructive habit, the brain will take us back to it so we can feel good again. Just like in Indiana Jones: Raiders of the lost Ark, just as we slowly reduce the old habit, it must be replaced by a new habit otherwise the boulder of cravings comes crashing down, pushing us right back to where we were.

Set small goals daily and make sure you celebrate when you achieve them



*Disclaimer: Individual results vary based on agreed goals. Click here for details.

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