how to use brain science to reach your goals become a superhero and make this year the most amazing year ever

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child acting like a super hero

Do you use the power of a fresh start to evaluate your life and set goals for the new year?

Setting goals is surprisingly important for our happiness and satisfaction in life.

The pursuit of meaningful goals, or working towards something that resonates with us on a personal level, leads to feeling fulfilled and content.

We thrive when we’re challenged and excited. We thrive when we work hard towards something meaningful and are rewarded with a job well done.

But more than that, setting the right goals can make us a better person.

It’s like whipping off the glasses, putting on your superhero cape and conquering the world.


Setting goals changes our self-identity in very real and concrete ways because our brains can’t tell the difference between what we want and what we already have. That means our brains incorporate our goals into our current self-image, as if we’ve already achieved them.

Powerful stuff.

(But we still have to actually work towards achieving those goals otherwise it backfires and the failure feels like an actual loss).

I used to love setting goals, but the last couple of years it fell to the wayside because, you know, kids.

And I lost myself a little bit.

I looked back over 2015 and thought about what I’ve achieved this year and what the highlights were.

I could think of plenty of highlights for my children, but what about my highlights? What did I achieve?

How about you? What are your achievements and highlights for the year?

Mine were few and far between.

If you want to boost your happiness and make 2016 to be an amazing year, take some time this week to set some goals.

Here’s how to set the right goals and take the right action to achieve them.


You’ve probably heard of SMART goals a thousand times before, so I won’t go into depth on how to write a SMART goal here.

Having the right goals phrased in the right way can make all the difference between achieving them or not, so here’s a quick recap:

Your goals for the year should be:

  • Specific – ‘lose weight’ is not specific. Lose 10 kilos is.
  • Measurable – How do you know when you’ve achieved your goal? Can you measure it?
  • Achievable – While it’s good to dream big, your goals should also be realistic.
  • Relevant – Are your goals in line with your values?
  • Timely – Have you set a time frame for achieving your goals?


According to a study from the Dominican University in California, people who write down their goals accomplish significantly more than those who don’t.

Writing your goals makes them more concrete. There’s something magical about the act of writing that takes the ideas floating around in your brain and makes them real.

It’s an act of creation. It’s the start of turning dreams into reality.

It’s easy to forget your dreams as you get on with everyday living. But when you write them down and refer back to them regularly, they stay front and centre in your mind and you’ll be motivated to work towards them.

The downside of the Dominican study, in my opinion, is that the participants typed their goals into an online survey, they didn’t actually handwrite them.

The act of writing by hand is significant.

Studies on note-taking found that those college students who took handwritten notes understood and remembered lectures better and applied and integrated the information better than those who typed their notes (or those who didn’t take any notes at all).

The slower, more physical and more permanent nature of handwriting means you have to consider carefully what you write before committing it to paper.

You’re percolating, assimilating, summarising and rephrasing ideas and concepts as you write. You’re staying laser-focused on the really important stuff.

Remember, goal setting changes your self-identity. So choose your goals wisely, write them down and make them count.

You can absolutely jot down your goals on a piece of paper and stick it up on the fridge, which is what I did for years. Or you can use this free goal setting worksheet that I made up a few years ago.


use brain science to reach your goals

Writing goals is all very well and fun, but the magic only happens when we take action.

We’ve got to put in the work.

And that’s where our game plan comes into play.

There are two things you need to know to totally rock your action plan and ensure you reach your goals. You need to know:

  1. How to reverse engineer your goals
  2. How to work out the right positive action steps (because negative ones don’t work)

To reverse engineer your goals, you take your end goal and work out the smaller milestones along the way to reaching your goal.

For example, if your end goal is to save $5,000 for a holiday, then you need to save $416 a month or $90 a week to reach your goal.

Saving $90 a week seems more manageable than finding a spare $5,000, right?

Here’s what our reverse engineered goal would look like (it doesn’t include interest, consider the interest a bonus):

Savings Table

If your goal is to lose 8 kilos this year, that’s just 660 grams a month. Totally realistic and doable.

Notice how these goals are specific, measurable, achievable and timely (only you can decide whether your goal is relevant or not).

Once you’ve reverse engineered your goal, you need to work out exactly what positive actions you’re going to take to reach that smaller target.

Here’s a bad example of an action step:

‘I’m not going to buy lunches at work to save money’ .

The problem here is you’re avoiding an action rather than taking an action. And you will fail the first time you feel hungry at work.

Here’s a better action step:

‘I’m going to cook a little extra dinner and pack up the leftovers as soon as dinner is cooked so there’s an easy lunch in the fridge to grab in the morning.’

This is a positive action that you can take and it solves the problem of ‘what am I going to eat for lunch?’ ensuring you to actually save money.

But let’s back up the train a little.

Every one of our daily actions addresses a problem. For example:

Problem: I’m hungry at work, I buy food and can’t save.

Deeper problem: I eat out at work because mornings are hectic and there’s nothing to take to work for lunch.

See how our leftovers solution gets at the real problem here.

To reach our goals, we can’t just take any old positive action. We need to identify our underlying problems or motivations and take the right positive action that addresses those problems in a better way than we’ve been doing previously.

Here’s another example:

Positive action step: to lose 660 grams a month, I need to do 30 minutes of exercise a day.

Problem: I’m busy, when am I going to find the time?

Deeper problem: how am I going to find the motivation to prioritise self-care and time for me?

Better positive action step: I’m going to go for a 30 minute power walk straight after I leave work but before I get home and have to focus on house duties / wind down for the day (because once I get home, I’ve lost all motivation and have to cook dinner and help the kids with the homework and…). I’m going to keep a pair of sneakers in the car (or at work), so I have no excuse to go for a walk every day.


Peer pressure isn’t always a bad thing.

The Dominican Uni study also found accountability to be a powerful motivator for achieving your goals.

Those in the study who regularly checked in with a friend and gave them a progress update on their goals were way more likely to achieve their goals.

Sharing your goals at the beginning of the year is not enough. You need to regularly update your partner with your latest progress.

I have a friend who is a naturally great accountability partner. If I even mention I’m working on something, she’s sure to ask me how I’m progressing next time I see her.

And because it sucks to say, ‘well, I haven’t done anything towards that goal actually’, it keeps me motivated to get off my butt and do the work.

So find a friend who is also setting goals for the year and make a pact to check in with each other once a month.  Support and be supported and you’ll both be sure to reach your goals.


how to use brain science to reach your goals

Hang on, what?

Forget reward charts or special treats for reaching milestones, the best reward system is inside your brain.

And it’s called dopamine.

(Although if you’re looking for an excuse to treat yourself, a little chocolate never hurts!)

Ok, so I took a little creative licence with the title, but it’s a long article and I thought you might need a little wake-up.

Dopamine is a complex little character, but it’s commonly known as is the brain’s pleasure neurotransmitter. Dopamine spikes when we partake in something pleasurable.

But interestingly, it also spikes in moments of high stress.

In fact, dopamine fires before we feel pleasure or experience something stressful. Dopamine’s role is to motivate us to reach for that triple chocolate cheesecake reward or avoid something bad.

You can hack your internal reward system to achieve your long-term goals and the secret lies in small wins.

Every time you enjoy a small success, your brain releases dopamine, which motivates you to re-experience the activity again, driving you to the next small win.

Even though long-term goals are big and exciting (like a holiday), they aren’t motivating enough because they’re not firing up the dopamine train.

We need to repeatedly achieve small mini-milestones (and therefore drip-feed our brains dopamine) to chemically wire ourselves to stay motivated until the big goal is reached.

The brain can be trained to feed off bursts of dopamine sparked by rewarding experiences. [source]

This is exactly what we do when we break down our bigger goals into smaller, positive action steps. Planning your action steps and then transferring those smaller, easily achievable actions to your daily to-do list (and of course actually doing them) gives you the YES! moment you need to stay motivated.

I think of this as the double-tick strategy to success.

When I worked as an accountant, my colleague would put a double tick on her bank reconciliations.

She explained that seeing all of those debits and credits balance nicely to zero was the most satisfying part of bookkeeping and demanded two ticks, not just one.

Think of the double-tick as an accountant’s way of fist-pumping the air.

And that’s exactly what it feels like when you tick the action step off your daily to-do list that takes you one step closer to reaching your goal.

There’s a rush of euphoria just screams two ticks (sometimes even a big black line with a Sharpie).

And maybe a fist pump.

This is what it might look like for our like for our $5,000 savings example.

We reverse engineered our goal to $90 a week and saw how that adds up over the course of a year.

But we can break that down even further, taking very specific positive action steps that result in the following savings:

weekly savings

And there’s that satisfying double-tick as we transfer the $90 into our savings account.


The problem with to-do lists is they don’t actually get the work done.

Don’t get me wrong, to-do lists are essential for being proactive with your time. But YOU still have to do the work.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written a killer to-do list, imagined how amazingly productive I was going to be, and then promptly picked up a book and passed the whole day in an alternate reality.

The main cause of resistance is overwhelm – the feeling that working towards your goal is just too darn hard.

It’s too hard to get up early to exercise. It’s too hard to prepare lunch the night before.

The more we think about it, the bigger and harder things become and before we know it, we’re flicking through Facebook to get our dopamine hit the easy way.

There are two tricks to overcoming resistance:

  1. Reduce resistance by making it as easy as possible to take action
  2. Allow yourself to take just the first small step only

We only have so much willpower before our prefrontal cortex stops dead in its tracks, stamps it’s foot and demands Haagen-Dazs.

Instead of using our willpower like a full-forward barging through the opposition for the whole game, we want to keep it on the bench for the times when we really need it.

We don’t want to fight the opposition, we want to eliminate it. We want to watch that intimidating frontline flutter off in little pink tutus at the flick of a finger.

When it comes to saving money, the best way to reduce resistance is to pay yourself first and automate your savings.

When it comes to getting more exercise, you might have a sticky note on your bathroom mirror to remind yourself to do 20 Kegels and squats while you’re brushing your teeth.

Or if you want to eat healthier, you get rid of every unhealthy food in your kitchen, so you have no choice but to eat healthily.

In other words, you want to change your environment to set yourself up for success and reduce resistance.

The other trick to overcoming resistance is to just start.

Promise yourself you only have to take the first small step. That’s it.

Just sit up in bed. That’s all.

Or just cut up some carrot sticks.

Or promise yourself you only have to spend 5 minutes on a task. Just 5 minutes of jump rope. Or 5 minutes of decluttering. 5 minutes of piano practice.

It doesn’t seem like much, but something happens when you take the first step. Your brains says ‘well, I’ve come this far, I may as well get out of bed.’ Or ‘I may as well do another 5 minutes.’

And your dopamine reward system is also kicking in. Your brain starts saying ‘yay, you made it out of bed. Let’s see how good putting your shoes on feels!’

Goal setting for ourselves is important for our wellbeing, but actually reaching those goals is even more important.

Make this year the most amazing year ever and achieve superhero status by setting goals and working towards them.

use brain science to reach your goals

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