Achieving your goals isn’t just about hard work and discipline. It’s about physiology. By understanding how the brain processes success and failure, you can jump-start your productivity to create a winning streak and put an end to failed New Year’s resolutions.
The more times you succeed at something, the longer your brain stores the information that allowed you to do so well in the first place. That’s because with each success, our brain releases a chemical called dopamine.
When dopamine flows into the brain’s reward pathway (the part responsible for pleasure, learning and motivation), we not only feel greater concentration but are inspired to re-experience the activity that caused the chemical release in the first place.
This is why the cultivation of small wins can propel you to bigger success, and you should focus on setting just a few small achievable goals. While your ambitions can remain grand, setting the bar too high with goals can actually be counterproductive. Each time we fail, the brain is drained of dopamine making it not only hard to concentrate but also difficult to learn from what went wrong.
Why We Learn More From Success Than Failure
Ever find yourself destined to repeat the same mistakes over and over again? According to a study completed by researchers at MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, that is exactly how our brains are wired to work. Their findings determined that our brain cells only learn from experience when we do things right and failure doesn’t register the same way.
In the experiment, monkeys viewed two images on a computer screen, one that presented a reward if the subject reacted by looking right, another when it looked left. The study showed that the brain response when a monkey received an award for looking the right way improved its chances of performing well on the next trial.
The study makes important discoveries not only about the way we learn but the brain’s neural plasticity or ability to change in response to experiences. When behaviour is successful our cells become finely tuned to what the animal was learning at the time while a failure shows little change in the brain or improvement in the monkey’s behaviour.
Set Goals Your Brain Likes
Collecting wins, no matter how small, can chemically wire you to move mountains by causing a repeated release of dopamine. But to get going you have to land those first few successes. The key to creating your own cycle of productivity is to set a grand vision and work your way there with a few, achievable goals that increase your likelihood of experiencing a positive outcome.
“Your vision is your destination, and small, manageable goals are the motor that will get you there,” says Dr Frank Murtha, a New York-based counselling psychologist with a focus on investor psychology, behavioural finance and financial risk taking. “Without the vision you’re on a road to nowhere. Without the goals, you have a destination but no motor. They work in tandem, and you need both.”
Create a Road Map for Your Subconscious Mind
Kick off goal setting by preparing a short vision statement of where you want to go. “Vision creates a picture for the subconscious mind. Our subconscious is what makes us such good problem solvers compared to a computer,” says Dr Richard Peterson, a psychiatrist and neuroeconomics researcher who has written two books on financial risk taking.
“We can see 1 000 dimensions of a problem and sort it down to the most important very quickly.”
The subconscious is not only responsible for 90% of the decisions we make in day-to-day life, but is also the part of the brain that is largely in charge when we are performing creative tasks or charting unknown territory. The very act of giving your emotional brain a detailed portrait of your end goal also ensures that, even inadvertently, you will take the steps needed to steer yourself toward it.
Articulate your vision with words and a picture or two; the more detailed the better. Post this where you can see it regularly.
Work Your Way There With Short-Term Goals
To rack up those first few wins, you’ve got to set only a few short-term goals at a time. Each should ideally take no more than three months to achieve. The goals should be realistic and specific, and incorporate your strengths. Writing them down, ideally in a place where you will see them every day, will help you stay focused.
If success releases the production of dopamine, failure can do the opposite. Setting over-reaching goals, or too many goals at once, can be counterproductive for those seeking to harness the power of the brain’s reward centre. If you set four goals and achieve only two of them, it’s human nature to focus on what went wrong; even the successes you were able to accomplish fail to drum out what you weren’t able to achieve.
Remember, success begets success.