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Type: 🍃 Leaf [Nomenclature present here.]

Source: The Science of Setting & Achieving Goals | Huberman Lab Podcast #55

Tags: #goals #productivity #Balance Q3: How Can We Set & Achieve Balanced Goals

Date: July 27th, 2022


Science of Setting & Achieving Goals

We’re not the only animals to do this. Honey bees need to set a goal of collecting honey back to the hive. Predators set goals to hunt and kill their prey.

But we humans are unique when it comes to two characteristics:

We can set goals that are immediate, short-term, mid-term, long-term, and lifetime goals. We can modulate our time scales.

We can juggle multiple goals at once: at home, at work, in our relationships, etc.

There are 4 neural circuits involved in setting and achieving goals:

  • Amygdala: associated with anxiety and fear. This is involved in our desire for avoiding punishment/loss.
  • Ventral striatum (basal ganglia): associated with action and inaction. This contains the “go” and “no-go” circuits that direct us towards practicing healthy habits and initiating actions. “I’m going to wake up early to run tomorrow.” OR “I’m NOT going to eat that cookie.”
  • Cortex (lateral prefrontal cortex (LPFC) and orbitofrontal cortex (OFC)): The LPFC helps us with executive and long-term planning. The OFC helps with meshing emotions into our current state of progress and measuring where we are to where we’d like to be.

It doesn’t matter what the goal is: the same circuits are involved whether the goal is to build a company or plan a birthday party.


The 4 neural circuits above all work together to perform two functions:

  • Placing value on a particular goal (which is done via the neurotransmitter dopamine ) at a particular period in time.
  • Deciding whether or not to act at a particular moment in time based on the perceived value of a goal


Peripersonal space and extra-personal space:

  • Peripersonal space is defined as the space surrounding the body where we can not only reach and manipulate objects by movement but can also be reached by external elements, including other individuals. For e.g. this includes interoception (how we perceive the internal state of our own body) and also the materials around us that we can easily access. This is associated with the neurotransmitter serotonin.
  • Extrapersonal space is everything beyond the confines of our reach. E.g. something in the next room, next block, etc. This is associated with the neurotransmitter dopamine


“If we are to be good at goal seeking, at setting and achieving our goals, we have to be able to toggle between a clear understanding of our peripersonal space – what we have and how we feel in the immediate present – and the extrapersonal space – our ability to understand what’s in the extra personal space and move into that extra personal space.”


Literature is littered with acronyms in the domain of goal setting and pursuit. Some of the common ones, dating from 1930s, include:

  • ABC method: Achievable, believable, and committed.
  • SMART: Specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound.
  • SMARTER: SMART + ethical, rewarding.

In terms of the sequence, it’s about first (a) goal setting, then (b) assessing whether or not you’re making progress towards the goals, and (c) goal execution.

Science-backed Tools for Achieving Goals

1. The 85% Rule for Optimal Learning:

Set your goals such that you fail/make an error about 15% of the time. If it’s way too high, such as 50%, it means what you’ve set out to accomplish is too hard for yourself.

This is controlled for external factors such as how well you’ve slept, your mindset coming into working on the goal, etc.


2. Focus visual attention to initiate goal pursuit and improve performance:

Before you begin a task, find an object that is outside of your peripersonal space and focus on it for 30-60 seconds. This has also proven useful for people with ADHD.


3. Using Aged Self-Image to Self-Motivate Yourself:

By seeing pictures of ourselves 30-40 years in the future, we’re more motivated to think long-term with our goals.


4. Visualizing Success is a good starting point goal, but visualizing failure is better for ongoing motivation:

Since the amygdala is part of our goal-setting & pursuit neural circuit, we have a strong aversion to loss.

So [[Emily Balcetis]] lab has found that beyond the beginning, visualizing failure in a goal — what would happen if you don’t wake up and run, or what would happen if you don’t sit to write every day — is more effective, sometimes even 50% more, than visualizing success. The brain and body are more effective at moving away from fearful things than towards the things we want.


5. Set goals that are realistic but challenging: As described in The Flow clearly. Rex Wright’s lab found that when people were given goals that were just immediately out of their reach, their systolic blood pressure increased 50% more than when they set goals that were too easy or too inspirational and out of reach.

This reminds me of a chapter from [[Where Good Ideas Come From]] where the author talks about something called “the adjacent possible.”

The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself. Yet is it not an infinite space, or a totally open playing field. The number of potential first-order reactions is vast, but it is a finite number, and it excludes most of the forms that now populate the biosphere. What the adjacent possible tells us is that at any moment the world is capable of extraordinary change, but only certain changes can happen.


6. Don’t set more than 3 major goals per year: [[Andrew Huberman]] does not say why or cite papers, but mentions to not litter our mental space with more than 3 big, lofty goals per year.

Supermarkets use this against us by stocking the shelves with so many items that we always end up buying more things than we actually need.


7. Have SPECIFIC and concrete action steps for a goal: It’s not enough to set a big, lofty goal (such as a New Year resolution), without setting clear action steps. It was found in an experiment to improve recycling that when businesses set clear action steps on how to improve recycling, that gave a 100% better output than when businesses just asked people to be better at recycling.


8. A good frequency to assess progress for goals is weekly: This reminds me of [[Tim Urban]]’s famous talk on procrastination, and how he ends that by showing the 90,000-week chart.


9. Engaging in Time-space bridging to train our brain for goal setting and achieving: [[Andrew Huberman]] talks about a practice he conducts everyday wherein he moves his focus from a peripersonal space to an extrapersonal space, and back to the peripersonal space: (a) close your eyes and take a 3 breaths while focusing on the internal state of your body, (b) open your eyes and take 3 breaths while focusing on something in your body (e.g. your palm), (c) focus on something a little away from you and take 3 breaths, and finally (d) focus on the broader horizon of whatever is in front of you and not any particular object for 3 breaths.

He mentions that by doing this practice, he is training his brain to cut up time differently. In the above, (a) leads to thinking of time in seconds and minutes, while (d) leads to thinking of time on a longer time scale.

This helps when we think about goal setting for various time scales, measuring progress, and getting rewards.


Some Findings on Achieving Goas from Peer-Reviewed Research

The following are key conclusions based on peer-reviewed research (that are generally misunderstood):

Multitasking is not always bad

We generally hear any sort of multitasking is bad. This is not always true. Studies at CMU have found that we can hold our attention for 3 minutes on average on a task. And, when we tend to multi-task, we increase the amount of the neurotransmitter/neuromodulator epinephrine in our system (aka adrenaline). So it’s actually beneficial to engage in some multi-tasking before jumping into a task that requires our full focus. E.g. checking your email and messages before jumping into a task such as writing a proposal (although while writing, it’s not recommended to multi-task).

Focusing visual attention improves performance

Tons of research has also found that narrowing your visual focus while thinking about goals helps with performance. [[Emily Balcetis]]’ lab at NYU work with visual perception. In one experiment, people were divided into groups. Group A was asked to focus on a goal line while running towards it with weights, and group B was asked to look elsewhere. Group A expended 17% less effort and got there 23% faster on average.

This phenomenon is rooted in our autonomous nervous system: When we take in the world through our visual system — our eyes — the information can travels via 2 pathways: (A) Vergence eye movement: when we tend to intensely focus on a given point and observe all the minute details of it, OR (B) Magnocellular pathway: which takes into account a global set of everything happening around us. (B) is associated more with relaxation than A, which makes intuitive sense. And as a result, there’s a slight increase in arousal with (A) over (B), and an increase in your systolic blood pressure, which in turn leads to more oxygen availability, more epinephrine, and more dopamine, and more readiness.

This reminds me of the instance from [[A Climb To The Top]] when [[Kenny]] began running towards the top of Algonquin Peak the moment we ascended to the last mile of the stretch. Later, he described the experience as, “I saw the peak finally through the clearing, and a force overcame me that I had to get there fast. I don’t know what overcame me myself.” -> perhaps something to include in the [[Balance]] book.

Dopamine is the key hormone behind motivation and pleasure-seeking

Experiments have been conducted on rats wherein researched depleted the dopamine neurons in some of the rats, and later observed that although the rats still enjoy pleasure, their motivation to achieve pleasure is vastly reduced. Depletion of dopamine inhibits our ability to pursue the action steps that will lead to pleasure.

Utilizing dopamine prediction error to our advantage

We experience the highest increase in dopamine when something unexpected and positive happens. We experience a decent increase in dopamine when we anticipate something positive will happen, and in fact, it does end up happening (wherein we once again experience a slight increase). When we anticipate something positive will happen, and it doesn’t, our dopamine level goes below our initial baseline. For E.g. expect 10 friends to show up to a house dinner but nobody does. There are 2 conclusions to be drawn from this.

First, it’s important that we have a consistent, regular cadence (e.g. weekly) at which we measure progress. Pick a milestone that you can maintain consistently.

Second, it’s important that we think of ourselves as succeeding to continue producing dopamine towards a goal and reward ourselves cognitively by affirming that we’re on the right track. (while visualizing failure is a good motivator to lean into the right habits, we need to believe that we’re moving forward on a consistent basis)