The Neuroscience of Achieving Your Goals

We turned a Huberman Lab Podcast Episode into an essay

Buddhi Kumar / Unsplash

When it comes down to it, getting what you want out of life is just about setting and achieving goals. What you want to be able to do is call your shots: to pick a pocket on the pool table and sink the ball.

So why is that so hard and confusing? 

Well, there are a lot of facets to actually achieving your goals. It’s hard to set goal difficulty. It’s hard to balance between competing goals. It’s hard to know whether to stick with a goal or to change it. It’s hard to stay focused. It’s hard to follow through. It’s hard to stay motivated. It’s hard to know which goal-setting advice to listen to. 

We’re in desperate need of some cheat codes here. And that’s why living in the age of modern neuroscience is such a blessing. The best way to become a master shot caller is to understand your brain. Or, more specifically, the neuroscience of goal pursuit. 

That’s why we were so excited to see that one of our all-time favorite shows, the Huberman Lab podcast, covered this exact topic. In a recent episode called The Science of Setting and Achieving Goals Professor Andrew Huberman—neurobiologist and ophthalmologist at Stanford University—spent two hours breaking down goal pursuit strategies from the latest and most advanced scientific studies available. 

It’s packed with both interesting science and actionable takeaways to help you understand the neuroscience of goals—and how to achieve them. It’s the kind of thing that you wish was written down somewhere, so that you could refer back to it over and over again.

Well, that’s exactly what we did. We listened to it over and over again, tracked down all of the papers that were referenced, and turned the entire episode into this essay. 

In the rest of this piece we’ll go through Dr. Huberman's thoughts on the neuroscience of goals—the mechanisms that underlie all goal-related activity. And then we’ll show you how he boils the science down into actionable strategies that you can use to set and achieve your goals. 

Most of what you read here is informed directly by Dr. Huberman’s show—but there’s also some bonus material that we’ve tracked down to help fill in gaps, and give as much useful context as possible.

Let’s dive in!

Note on Every’s corrections policy: we’re writers and technologists not neuroscience experts. We’re doing our best to convey exactly what we heard from Dr. Huberman and read in the papers he cited in his research. If you find that we’ve missed something we want to know! There’s a feedback form at the bottom of this essay—please use it, and we’ll correct anything we might have gotten wrong. Thanks in advance! 

The Neuroscience of Goals

Dr. Huberman starts the podcast by keying on the most important point:

No matter who you are, and no matter what kind of goal you’re pursuing, there’s a single brain circuit that governs all goal related behavior. The brain circuit that Alexander used to conquer Greece is the exact same one that you use to get to the grocery store! (Although, depending on your driving skills, with less bloodshed.) 

That is fantastic news for us all, because it means that if you can learn to master this circuit, then you can see a stunning improvement in your ability to call and land your shots across the board: from small goals, to large ones. 

This circuit is composed of four key brain areas: the amygdala, the basal ganglia, the bilateral prefrontal cortex, and the orbitofrontal cortex. 

The Amygdala

Like all brain regions, the amygdala does many things, but you’ll usually hear it associated with fear and negative emotion. When it comes to goal pursuit, the amygdala appears to act as an emotional calculator—predicting how rewarding or unpleasant the outcome of different goals and tasks might be.

The Basal Ganglia

In addition to having the coolest name, the Basal Ganglia has two jobs, both of which involve controlling action. One job is to generate “GO” actions: Get out of bed. Go for a run. Say hello to the cute stranger. Start writing. Go, do, act. Job #2 is about “NO GO.”  Most goals also require you to NOT do certain things—to resist or suppress action. Stop eating the cookies. Do not open TikTok. Resist calling your colleague a moron.

The Bilateral Prefrontal Cortex

You’ll often hear your prefrontal cortex described as the CEO of your brain because it plays a big role in “executive functions” like planning and decision making. Like any good CEO, your BLPFC helps you make plans, think across different timescales, and override habitual behavior—essential functions for goal setting. 

The Orbitofrontal Cortex

Your Orbitofrontal Cortex (OFC) helps you connect the dots between your behaviors and their results. It keeps track of, “If I do X then Y will happen.” 

The ability to understand the link between actions and outcomes is vital for identifying effective strategies, and to flexibly update and refine your strategy as you learn and get closer to your goal. 

Assessing Value and Controlling Action

Dr. Huberman tells us that if you zoom out a little bit, what you’ll find is that these four brain areas are responsible for two kinds of primary functions: 

  1. Assessing value
  2. Controlling action

When your brain is assessing value it is calculating the rewards and punishments associated with taking or avoiding a specific course of action and ultimately decides which actions are worth pursuing. 

For example, if we asked you to fight a tiger for ten dollars, you’d probably decide that it’s not a valuable goal. If we asked you to draw a tiger for one million dollars then you might reconsider. A huge part of goal pursuit is keeping your brain convinced that your long term goals are highly valuable uses of your time and energy. You also need to keep it convinced that shiny objects and distractions aren’t as valuable as they seem—so they don’t pull you off what’s most important. (For more on this see: Why You’re Not Doing Creative Work.)

After assessing value, the other most important function of goal pursuit is controlling action. When your brain is controlling action it is determining which actions you’ll need to take in order to accomplish your goals and which actions you need to avoid or resist. 

In practice, this might be where you map out the series of steps necessary to raise money for a new venture. Or it could be identifying the things you need to not do, like not checking email while you’re doing focused work or resisting soft drinks to meet your health goals. 

Once you’ve identified those steps, your brain needs to successfully initiate or inhibit those actions. For example, this is where you close TikTok and start working on your fundraise.

Making the Neuroscience Actionable 

Now that we understand the underlying mechanisms for goal-related activity in the brain, it’s time to look at what the science says about how we can most effectively use these brain areas to achieve what we set out to.

Dr. Huberman lists 8 specific actionable science-backed strategies for achieving our goals. They can be broken down into three main categories:

  1. Goal Setting: how do we set the right goals?
  2. Goal Execution: how do actually do the actions required to achieve our goals?
  3. Goal Persistence: how do we stick with our goals?

Ready?

Let's roll!!

PART I — GOAL SETTING 

The 85% Rule

So. You’re about to set a goal. One of the first decisions you’ll face is how high to set the bar. How challenging should your target be? Well, according to a 2019 study published in Nature Communications, you should set your goals so that you achieve them 85.13% of the time. 

In other words, you should be failing about 15% of the time despite your best efforts. Why? Because it’s at this level of difficulty that you unleash peak motivation, focus, and growth. 

Dr. Huberman explains that when you’re working at your edge of competence, you prime your body for action. Your systolic blood pressure increases (in a good way) and you start pumping out adrenaline. The resulting physiological state is colloquially known as “carpe diem bitches”. 

This state has been proven to have a huge impact on your odds of success. Dr. Huberman explained what happened when study participants set a goal at this optimal difficulty. They experienced “a near doubling of that systolic blood pressure” and “a doubling or more of the likelihood that they would engage in the ongoing pursuit of that particular goal.” 

For certain goals and skills, knowing how to use the 85% rule to achieve an optimal rate of improvement is straightforward. It’s working at a level of challenge where 85% of your code is clean, 85% of your darts, pucks, and balls hit their targets, and perhaps you get one word wrong in every sentence of a new language. 

But this rule also plays a key role in determining your success at higher-level goals on longer time horizons. Like when you’re planning a new project or starting a side hustle. Straying too far away from the 85% rule in these cases can cause you to abandon the goal setting process entirely. 

Whenever you think about setting yourself a goal, whether it’s changing your diet, improving a skill, or planning a project, think about the 85% rule. And rather than setting it and forgetting it, use it as a guideline to consistently check in with. On any given day, week, or quarter, ask yourself if you’re working at the edge of competence. If it’s too hard or too easy, try adjusting the target. 

Make A Plan

You’ve probably heard that your goals should be specific rather than vague. 

“I will have a magical date night with my spouse every 2 weeks” is much more effective than “Don’t get divorced”

It’s true. A specific goal is better than a vague goal. But in the quest to set the perfect goal, we often miss one crucial detail—all goals are surprisingly useless without a certain type of plan. 

Dr. Huberman describes a set of findings which reveal the difference that the right plan can make. One study found that office workers who just set the goal to recycle more… did not recycle more. Like at all. The goal by itself was worthless. 

But people who set the goal of recycling more and also devised a concrete list of action steps fared much better. In fact, they quickly became the Michael Phelps of recycling. Dr. Huberman explains:

“So when they made it very concrete, exactly what the action steps were, there was a remarkable, I mean close to 100 fold or more improvement in recycling behavior.”

Not only were the action planners dramatically more successful than their “wing it” counterparts, their recycling behavior was still going strong many months later. AKA — lasting change. 

So what did their plan look like? It was pretty simple. They were instructed to write down where, when, and how they were going to recycle. For instance: place used plastic cups (how) in the appropriate waste basket (where) just before leaving the office for the day (when). 

But this doesn’t just apply to recycling. It’s also exactly why people in charge of get out the vote efforts always ask potential voters if they have a plan to vote—and map one out with them if they don’t. It works! (More science on that here.)

Another excellent example of this principle in action is Amazon’s famed goal setting process. A key part of the company’s success recipe is their obsession with detailed action plans. Once a team has been set a high level goal by the executive branch, that team then needs to submit a six page document explaining how they plan to achieve their objectives. 

The bulk of these 6 pagers are the “strategic priorities” section — a description of each activity you plan on doing and the specific action steps you will take. Bezos and Co. realized the power of an action plan and shaped the entire company around them.  

Here’s Huberman with the take home — 

“The takeaway from this is quite straightforward. It means that having a concrete plan is essential. You can't just say, I'm going to become a better recycler or I'm going to do things that are better for the environment, or I'm going to become more physically fit. It has to be a specific set of action steps that get right down to details about what success would look like.”

PART II — GOAL PURSUIT 

Alright. So you’ve got your challenging goals dialed in, and you’ve built an action plan to achieve them. Now it’s time to take action and get to work. Let’s take a look at some of the best psychology and neuroscience to help you blaze through your to-do list. 

Imagine The Worst

Most of us have been taught that the best way to psych ourselves up to achieve our wildest dreams is to think about how amazing it will be when we get there. To imagine how it’ll feel when you sell your company or you see your beach body staring back at you. 

It turns out that positive visualization is effective—but mostly at the beginning. Having a compelling and desirable goal is great at pointing you in the right direction. But a number of studies have found that, once you get past that initial direction-setting, getting all gushy about your amazing future can make you actively less likely to chase after it.

Why? Positive visualization makes you feel great now. And if you already feel great now, why bother chasing after your goal? For this reason, it’s actually associated with a drop in systolic blood pressure. This drop translates to lower energy and a reduced willingness to exert effort. 

In order to take consistent action and stay motivated with your goals over the long run, it might be useful to experiment with going somewhere slightly darker. Dr. Huberman explains that it’s actually very motivating to think about what it will be like if you fail. 

The prescribed practice to put your inner demons to work is as follows:

“And the more specific you can get, by writing down or thinking about or talking about how bad it will be if you don't achieve your goals, the more likely you are to achieve those goals.”

This is one recommendation that we’re onboard with only if it’s done with great care. Especially if you already struggle with anxiety—you probably learned early on that worrying can help achieve this motivating effect, and might be overusing it. 

So experiment! See if it works for you. Don’t discount other forms of positive motivation. And if you want a more in-depth explainer on how and when worrying might be effective vs. harmful in achieving your goals we recommend checking out, Will Worrying Make You Better.

Outsmart Your Obstacles 

Worrying aside, Dr. Huberman tells us that there’s one other way that being a downer can supercharge your success. Taking the time to identify potential obstacles ahead of time and then planning out how to defeat them can make you happier and more productive. 

One study found that people could triple the amount of daily progress they made on their goals using an obstacle-focused journaling technique. There were three steps involved:

  • Step one was to write down a few goals they wanted to achieve throughout the day ahead. 
  • Step two was to write down any obstacles that might come up which could potentially derail their success. 
  • Step three was to describe what they’d do to overcome those obstacles if and when they came up. 

This three step process is referred to as “foreshadowing failure.” But here’s the cool part: the group that did all three steps were compared to a group who just did the first step of writing their goals down. The group who took the extra time to plan for failure were up to three times more likely to achieve their daily goals and, not insignificantly, they were substantially happier at the end of each day!  

But in order for this to work, you have to do it in order: Goals. Obstacles. Solutions. And so a powerful daily practice would be to just take a few minutes in the morning to outline your big wins for the day. Then jot down what might get in your way. And then make a note of what you’ll do if and when those things happen. 

Here’s an example:

🎯 Goal — finish book proposal 

✋ Obstacle — I might get tempted to watch reruns of The Office 

🚀 Solution — throw TV remote on roof 

Procrastinate with Other Tasks

Another counterintuitive finding that Dr. Huberman addresses in the episode is this: procrastination isn’t always bad. Done right, it can actually nudge you into goal-mode. 

Imagine you’re about to sit down to do some deep work on a high priority project. Instead, you tidy up your desk a bit, send a quick message, and water your house plant. 

To the untrained eye, you’re procrastinating. You lack self discipline and need to listen to David Goggin’s audiobook on repeat. But Dr. Huberman cites some evidence that you may in fact be a productivity ninja with an intuitive understanding of your own neuroscience. 

There are several recent studies which have shown that a little bit of multitasking before a work session can actually help you get going! 

Here’s why some pre-task multitasking can work:

“It probably reflects some adaptive mechanism where you use action and somewhat varied multitasking action in order to generate adrenaline in your system, because adrenaline just gets you into action.”

Now if you get completely sidetracked and end up organizing your closet in reverse alphabetical order, then you might have taken things too far. And once you’ve actually started your activity, the usual rules of focused combat apply: lock your smartphone in a high security bank vault and try to stay on task. 

But you might have spotted a theme developing here. A lot of these goal-oriented techniques work by amping up your adrenaline and thereby activating your CARPE DIEM mode. 

Focus Your Eyes to Focus Your Mind

Dr. Huberman tells us that the following strategy is one of the most powerful productivity hacks in all of neuroscience: 

Focus your visual attention on a single point for 30-60 seconds. 

And… uh… that’s it. 

Just pick a point on the wall, or on your computer, or in the distance and… stare at it. You can blink but don’t move your head and don’t look away at anything else. 

No, really, that’s it. Not only is this the simplest strategy to get yourself started on goal related activities, it’s quite possibly the most important. He says: 

“I would argue that the visual system and harnessing your visual attention to a narrow point is going to be the most effective way to get your brain and body into a mode of action to pursue whatever goal it is you're trying to pursue.”

Dr. Huberman discusses a study that had two groups of people race to cross a finish line. They found that people who focused on the goal line were 23% faster and used 17% less perceived effort compared to those who did not stare at the goal line! 

It almost seems too simple to be true, but there’s a hefty amount of neurobiology backing this up. It’s all about how it changes your sense of space. 

All goals, by definition, are beyond your reach, right? Your target exists in some other place or time. The iced frappuccino you’re craving is down the road at your local coffee shop. Your dream salary, beach holiday, and quest for world domination all exist in the future. Even the act of planning a goal requires you to shift your imagination from the present to the future. 

Dr. Huberman defines all of this as “extrapersonal space”—anything that exists in some distant time or location. The opposite of this is “peripersonal space”—everything in your immediate surroundings. This includes you, your internal sensations and anything nearby (e.g. a coffee cup within reach). 

If you’re just chilling at home and you’ve got everything you need, your peripersonal space is “sufficient” and you’ll probably feel quite relaxed. When you’re relaxed, your gaze will typically be soft and roam around. 

But when you need to go get something and you shift into goal pursuit mode, your focus tends to shift toward a specific target. Maybe it’s some place, person, or food in the extrapersonal distance that you’re trying to obtain. Your visual focus literally becomes more narrow, which is associated with an increase in energy and alertness. 

By switching up your visual focus, you can reverse engineer these different states. By staring at a target, you trigger your goal pursuit mode. You shift yourself into extrapersonal space. You’re signaling to your brain and body that it’s time to hunt and gather. 

“We are placing our focus outside our body, and therefore we are placing the brain into goal pursuit mode.”

Not only that, focused visual attention is associated with the increased levels of systolic blood pressure and adrenaline which we’ve been harping on about. So staring at a fixed point is a super simple way of simultaneously shifting yourself into extrapersonal space and jacking up your physiology. A goal pursuit double whammy. 

So, the next time you sit down to get some work done, try having a staring competition with your coffee cup. If a concerned passerby asks you what you're doing, just smile knowingly and say… "neuroscience".

If you want to learn more about how to train your attention in this way, we recommend checking out: You can only respond to what you notice.

PART III — GOAL PERSISTENCE 

Things are really starting to come together here. 

You’ve got challenging goals with action plans. You’ve got strategies to pump yourself up to get started. Now there’s just one essential component left to cover: showing up consistently for the long haul. 

Some goals take a long time. What you need to develop next is persistence. Persistence is the difference between you writing the first chapter versus finishing the entire novel, between taking a few Spanish classes and achieving fluency, between surviving the first year of your startup or taking it all the way. 

Success means supplying your goal circuitry with an abundant stream of energy over long timescales. Fortunately, Dr. Huberman tells us about that too.

Give Yourself A Pat On The Brain 

Adrenaline is what makes you feel like putting in effort, kicking ass, and taking names, right? Well, Dr. Huberman tells us that adrenaline is made from dopamine. No dopamine = no adrenaline. 

And nothing will keep your dopamine levels topped up like the feeling that you’re making progress. The neurochemistry of long-term goal pursuit feeds off the belief that you’re on the right track. 

This leads us to two dopamine-related protocols that Dr. Huberman recommends to make you motivated over the long haul.

Have A Weekly Check In

Take some time to review the progress you’ve made on your goals once a week. Nice and simple. 

This review can act as your “dopamine milestone”—a pit stop where you signal to your brain that things are moving forward. It's a chance for you to stop off at your neurochemical fueling station and top up your motivation tank. 

If you’re not used to weekly reviews, then it’s probably better to start small and just focus on building the habit before trying to dial in the perfect process. You can start with something as simple as opening your notes app on a Sunday and writing—“What progress did I make over the past week?” 

Once checking in becomes second nature, you can get more sophisticated with it as you see fit. You can use it as an opportunity to update your action plan, reflect on what held you back during the week, or track specific metrics like Dr. Huberman’s “minutes spent doing zone 2 cardio” or Cal Newport’s “hours spent doing deep work.” The key is to just send some kind of signal to your brain that things are moving in the right direction. 

Once a week is the general guideline from Dr. Huberman, but he adds a caveat that you should go with whatever works for you—whatever interval you can keep up and find most useful. 

I think that checking in at the end of the week, looking back on the previous week, and assessing how well you performed in pursuit of a given goal, how many times a week you ran, or how many times you studied, or how many times you did something that you wanted to do or avoided something that you didn't want to do. I think that's a reasonable and tractable schedule.”

Reward Your Effort

The next tip is one of Dr. Huberman’s most interesting pieces of advice: you might be able to think your way to higher dopamine levels. All you have to do is develop a bias for progress. 

If you want to stay motivated over the long run then you must reward yourself mentally when you take action on your goals. And the way you do that is by throwing yourself an internal party when you put effort into your priorities. You really have to pat yourself on the brain when you make an effort. 

We can personally attest to the power of this one. Every time we finish a deep work session, we take a moment to induce a feeling of achievement. It’s gradually made our work more rewarding over time and it’s become way easier to get started. 

Obviously, we still need to care about outcomes. And it’s natural to get down about how far away we are from our goals, or the fact that the quality of our work isn’t good enough yet, or to get discouraged by the obstacles in front of us. 

But in order for us to keep showing up and to keep swinging over the long run, we have to practice feeling good about the fact that we turned up to bat. Dr. Huberman says:

“If we constantly place ourselves into a mode of thinking we are failing, well, then indeed, we are not going to turn out much dopamine.”

So, the next time you make an effort on something important — take note, and then take pride. Celebrate progress, not perfection! 

Build A Spacetime Bridge 

Last but not least, spacetime bridging is the daily practice that Dr. Huberman uses to keep his goal circuitry “tuned up”. It’s a short, daily exercise which is designed to teach your visual, cognitive, and emotional systems how to seamlessly transition between focusing on different time scales and locations. Remember, goal-oriented behavior is processed by your brain in relation to different places in space: far away goals are like locations that are many miles away, and short-term goals are like things that are closer to your personal space.

According to Dr. Huberman, Spacetime Bridging builds your brain up to be able to seamlessly transition focus between goals at different time scales. This, in turn, improves your ability to set, plan, assess, update, and execute them. 

Here’s the 5 step process: 

  1.  Close your eyes. For three slow breaths, focus all of your attention on what you can feel within your body. Examples of internal sensations might include your breath, your heartbeat, or the feeling of your feet touching the ground. 
  2. Open your eyes. Look at a part of your body. For example, the palm of your hand. Keep 90% of your attention on your internal sensations still. But direct 10% of your attention to the part of your body you’re looking at. Do this for three slow breaths. 
  3. Now look at something which is outside of your body. If you’re inside, it might be an object on the other side of the room. If you’re outside it might be something 5-15 feet away.
  4. As you breathe in slowly for another three breaths, keep just 10% of your attention on those breaths. Direct 90% of your focus at whatever external thing you’re looking at. 
  5. Now look at something which is as far away as you can possibly see. Ideally, you can see a horizon or out of a window. Focus 100% of your attention on what you’re looking at for another three breaths. 
  6. Finally, expand your vision as wide as possible. Rather than focusing on anything in particular, you’re trying to soften and widen your focus so that you can see everything in your periphery. Do this for three breaths. 

Dr. Huberman says that he moves through each of these stations 2-3 times. The whole thing can take about 90 seconds to 3 minutes depending on how slow your breaths are. The exercise is performed once a day. 

“This behavior, or this practice, rather, is teaching us to use our visual system and thereby our cognitive system, and thereby our reward systems, to orient to different locations in space, and therefore to different locations in time. And that is the essence of goal directed behavior.”

Moving between these stations on command is the foundation of setting, planning, monitoring, and executing goals. You’ll also train your ability to launch from your peripersonal space into that extrapersonal, goal-oriented mode of pursuit. 

“I do believe this can be greatly beneficial in allowing one to set particular goals and then move through the milestones to those goals and to constantly update one's pursuit and reward in reaching those milestones and eventually, the overall goal.”

The Final Word

There you have it. 

That is the neuroscience of goals, and the eight science-backed strategies that Dr. Huberman recommends to achieve them. If you want to learn more about this we wholeheartedly recommend you check out the entire episode that we used to create this essay here:

The Science of Setting and Achieving Goals

And if you want to learn more about some of the topics covered in this essay, here are a few ideas on what to read next:


This post was written by Lewis Kallow of Super Self. It was edited by Dan Shipper and Katie Parrott.

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