Huberman Lab - The Science of Setting & Achieving Goals

Welcome to the Huberman Lab Podcast,

where we discuss science

and science-based tools for everyday life.

I’m Andrew Huberman,

and I’m a professor of neurobiology and ophthalmology

at Stanford School of Medicine.

Today, we’re talking all about goals

and the science of goal setting and achieving your goals.

There’s a tremendous amount of information on the internet

and in books and so forth about how to set goals

and assess your progress towards goals

and update your goals and so forth.

In fact, there are so many programs out there

that include so many different acronyms

that it can be a little bit overwhelming.

Today’s conversation about goals

is going to be quite a bit different.

Indeed, we are going to talk about setting goals.

We are also going to talk about

how to assess progress towards goals,

and we are going to talk about goal execution.

However, we’re going to do all of this

in the context of neuroscience,

because it turns out that there are not hundreds or dozens

or even several neural circuits in your brain

that control goal setting and movement toward your goals.

There is one.

And while it includes many different brain areas,

that one circuit is the same circuit

that’s responsible for pursuing all goals.

And it relates to some very basic neurochemical mechanisms

that are understood.

So while there’s a wealth of information out there

about goals and goal setting and goal achievement

and so forth, there’s comparatively little information

that’s been available to the public

about the neuroscience of goal setting and goal achievement.

So that’s what we’re going to focus on today.

I promise that we’re going to get into the neuroscience.

We’re going to touch on a little bit of the psychology

and how the neuroscience relates to what’s known

in the psychology literature.

And we are going to establish several,

in fact, four specific protocols that you can use

for goal setting, goal assessment, and goal execution

in an ongoing basis,

regardless of what your personal goals happen to be.

Before we dive into our conversation about goals

and goal setting and goal achievement,

I’d like to highlight some recent scientific findings

that I think are going to be interesting and actionable

for many of you out there.

In earlier podcasts, we talked about neuroplasticity,

which is the brain’s ability to change

in response to experience.

In fact, neuroplasticity underlies all forms of learning,

whether or not it’s language learning or learning music

or math or a physical skill,

all forms of learning involve the reorganization

of connections in the nervous system,

the brain and spinal cord and body.

One of the key principles of neuroplasticity

is this notion of making errors as a good thing

toward neuroplasticity.

It’s a little bit counterintuitive,

but what the scientific literature tells us

is that whenever we’re trying to learn something new,

if we make an error, we know it feels frustrating,

but that state of frustration actually cues up

particular brain areas to be more alert

so that on subsequent attempts to learn that thing,

we have a heightened level of focus

and a higher probability of learning the new skill,

regardless of what that skill is.

And I’ve talked about this before in various episodes

as encouraging people to embrace errors or pursue errors,

not as their own end goal,

but errors as an entry point

for making the brain more plastic.

And if you think about it, it really makes sense.

Why would the brain change at all

if it’s performing everything perfectly?

When you make errors, well, in the immediate seconds

and minutes after those errors,

you are in a better position to learn.

A common question I get, however,

is what should be the rate of errors,

which is really just a way of saying

how hard should the given task be

that you’re trying to learn or perform?

And it turns out there’s an answer.

There’s a recent paper that was published

in a great journal, Nature Communications.

This is a paper, a last author, Jonathan Cohen,

and the paper is entitled

The 85% Rule for Optimal Learning.

This paper we will make available

by a link in the show note captions.

But basically what this paper shows

is that when trying to learn something new,

you want to make the difficulty

of what you’re trying to learn

such that you’re getting things right about 85% of the time,

that you’re making errors about 15% of the time.

And the reason I like this paper

is it really points specifically to some protocols

that we can implement because people always say,

okay, you want to set a high goal.

You want to try and achieve something that’s really lofty,

but you don’t want to make the goal so lofty

that you don’t make any progress at all.

Other people say you really want to start

with really small goals

and make things very, very incremental,

only set out to do things that you know you can accomplish,

and that will feed back on your self-esteem

and all these positive feedback loops.

And then, you know, layer by layer, layer by layer,

you’ll eventually get where you want to go.

Well, it turns out that neither is true.

You need to set the level of difficulty

such that you’re making errors about 15% of the time.

And I want to emphasize about 15% of the time

because there’s no way to configure protocols

for sport or language or math or anything else

where you’re going to have exactly 15% errors.

So anyway, this paper,

the 85% rule for optimal learning,

again, we will supply the link,

but it really points to the idea of making things

pretty hard, but not so hard

that you’re failing every attempt

or even half of the attempts.

Failing about 15% of the time seems optimal for learning.

Hopefully that information will be useful

to any of you that are trying to learn something.

Hopefully it will also be useful to those of you

that are teaching kids or other adults.

If you’re teaching, keep in mind that you want to keep

the students reaching for higher and higher levels

of proficiency in whatever that is that you’re teaching,

and that 15% of the time they should be failing.

If it gets to 20%, that’s probably okay.

If they start failing about half the time,

then probably what they’re trying to learn

is too difficult for them at that point.

Now, of course, this is going to be controlled

by all sorts of external factors,

like whether or not they slept well the night before,

whether or not you slept well the night before,

and you’re being clear in your instructions to them, etc.

But I think the 15% rule, as we may call it,

is a good metric to aim for,

and it can serve both students and teachers.

In other words, it can serve both those teaching

and those that are learning.

Before we begin, I’d like to emphasize that this podcast

is separate from my teaching and research roles at Stanford.

It is, however, part of my desire and effort

to bring zero cost to consumer information

about science and science-related tools

to the general public.

In keeping with that theme,

I’d like to thank the sponsors of today’s podcast.

Our first sponsor is Athletic Greens.

Athletic Greens is an all-in-one

vitamin mineral probiotic drink.

I’ve been taking Athletic Greens since 2012,

so I’m delighted that they’re sponsoring the podcast.

The reason I started taking Athletic Greens

and the reason I still take Athletic Greens

once or twice a day is that it helps me cover

all of my basic nutritional needs.

It makes up for any deficiencies that I might have.

In addition, it has probiotics,

which are vital for microbiome health.

I’ve done a couple of episodes now

on the so-called gut microbiome

and the ways in which the microbiome interacts

with your immune system, with your brain to regulate mood,

and essentially with every biological system

relevant to health throughout your brain and body.

With Athletic Greens, I get the vitamins I need,

the minerals I need,

and the probiotics to support my microbiome.

If you’d like to try Athletic Greens,

you can go to slash Huberman

and claim a special offer.

They’ll give you five free travel packs

plus a year supply of vitamin D3 K2.

There are a ton of data now showing that vitamin D3

is essential for various aspects

of our brain and body health.

Even if we’re getting a lot of sunshine,

many of us are still deficient in vitamin D3.

And K2 is also important because it regulates things

like cardiovascular function, calcium in the body,

and so on.

Again, go to slash Huberman

to claim the special offer of the five free travel packs

and the year supply of vitamin D3 K2.

Today’s episode is also brought to us by Element.

Element is an electrolyte drink

that has everything you need and nothing you don’t.

That means the exact ratios of electrolytes are an element,

and those are sodium, magnesium, and potassium,

but it has no sugar.

I’ve talked many times before on this podcast

about the key role of hydration and electrolytes

for nerve cell function, neuron function,

as well as the function of all the cells

and all the tissues and organ systems of the body.

If we have sodium, magnesium, and potassium

present in the proper ratios,

all of those cells function properly

and all our bodily systems can be optimized.

If the electrolytes are not present

and if hydration is low,

we simply can’t think as well as we would otherwise,

our mood is off, hormone systems go off,

our ability to get into physical action,

to engage in endurance and strength

and all sorts of other things is diminished.

So with Element, you can make sure

that you’re staying on top of your hydration

and that you’re getting the proper ratios of electrolytes.

If you’d like to try Element,

you can go to drinkelement, that’s slash Huberman

and you’ll get a free Element sample pack

with your purchase.

They’re all delicious.

So again, if you want to try Element,

you can go to slash Huberman.

Today’s episode is also brought to us by Thesis.

Thesis makes what are called nootropics,

which means smart drugs.

Now, to be honest, I am not a fan of the term nootropics.

I don’t believe in smart drugs in the sense that

I don’t believe that there’s any one substance

or collection of substances that can make us smarter.

I do believe based on science, however,

that there are particular neural circuits

and brain functions that allow us to be more focused,

more alert, access creativity, be more motivated, et cetera.

That’s just the way that the brain works.

Different neural circuits for different brain states.

Thesis understands this.

And as far as I know, they’re the first nootropics company

to create targeted nootropics for specific outcomes.

I’ve been using Thesis for more than six months now

and I can confidently say that their nootropics

have been a total game changer.

My go-to formula is the clarity formula,

or sometimes I’ll use their energy formula before training.

To get your own personalized nootropic starter kit,

go online to slash Huberman,

take a three minute quiz and Thesis will send you

four different formulas to try in your first month.

That’s slash Huberman

and use the code Huberman at checkout

for 10% off your first order.

I’m pleased to announce that the Huberman Lab Podcast

is now partnered with Momentus Supplements.

We partnered with Momentus for several important reasons.

First of all, they ship internationally

because we know that many of you are located

outside of the United States.

Second of all, and perhaps most important,

the quality of their supplements is second to none,

both in terms of purity and precision

of the amounts of the ingredients.

Third, we’ve really emphasized supplements

that are single ingredient supplements

and that are supplied in dosages that allow you

to build a supplementation protocol

that’s optimized for cost,

that’s optimized for effectiveness,

and that you can add things and remove things

from your protocol in a way that’s really systematic

and scientific.

If you’d like to see the supplements

that we partner with Momentus on,

you can go to slash Huberman.

There you’ll see those supplements.

And just keep in mind that we are constantly expanding

the library of supplements available through Momentus

on a regular basis.

Again, that’s slash Huberman.

Let’s talk about the science and in particular,

the biology and neuroscience of setting and achieving goals.

Setting and achieving goals is not a uniquely human endeavor.

Other animals set and attempt to achieve goals.

A honeybee attempts to collect honey

and bring it back to the hive.

A herbivore will go out and forage for plants

and will also have a need to reproduce

at some point in its life.

So it will need to find a mate

and maybe even raise the young,

depending on what species that is.

Predators will have to hunt and kill and eat their food,

and they have to avoid getting injured in that process.

They also have to raise young, et cetera.

So humans are among the other animals,

or we could say the animals are among us

in the need to set goals

and to make efforts to achieve those goals.

Now, why do I emphasize this commonality of process?

The reason I emphasize this commonality of process

is that it turns out that there is one basic system

by which all animals, including humans,

set and attempt to achieve goals.

Now, humans are unique in our ability

to orient our mind toward immediate goals,

moderately termed goals,

meaning things that might exist on the scale of a week

or a month or even a year,

and very long-term goals, like a lifetime goal

or a goal that lasts a decade

or it takes a decade to achieve.

That’s what makes us unique.

And of course, we don’t have access to the mindset

or the thinking or the emotions of other animals,

but what we do know is that common neural circuits,

meaning brain areas that are present in animal species

and in humans are responsible for orienting our thinking

and our action toward particular goals.

Another thing that’s really unique about the human brain

is that we are able to have multiple goals

interacting at once.

So for instance, we probably all have fitness goals,

goals in relationships of different kinds,

friendships and romantic partnerships,

as well as maybe scholastic goals.

Maybe you’re in school,

you’re pursuing some kind of learning

outside of the school environment,

and or you have business goals or financial goals.

We are able to have multiple goals at once.

And other animals do this,

but humans are unique in the ability

to juggle a lot of goals.

And actually one of the major challenges in pursuing goals

is that goal pursuit often interacts,

meaning if you can spend 100% of your time

chasing one particular goal,

that might be very effective for that goal,

but then we tend to fall back on some of our other goals.

You can imagine how this plays out.

If you’re working very, very hard,

you’re solely focused on business,

often your health will suffer.

If you’re solely focused on your health,

often other things will suffer.

And so we have to juggle both our goal setting

and our goal pursuits.

And today we’re going to talk about

a number of different ways to work with

what could very well be called these interleaving goals

by focusing on a common practice

or common set of mechanisms

that are present in all aspects of goal seeking.

What is that process?

Well, it turns out it’s a neural circuit.

A neural circuit is simply a collection of brain areas

that when active in a particular sequence,

give rise to a particular behavior or perception.

So for instance, when you feel happy,

it’s not because you have a brain area

that’s the happy brain area that is electrically active,

rather it’s going to involve numerous brain areas

being active in concert and to different degrees.

In the same way that the keys on a piano

together played in the appropriate sequence

represent a particular song.

You would never say that one key on the piano

represents that song, but that key is necessary.

Similarly in the brain,

we can say that a brain area might be necessary,

but not sufficient to give us a particular experience

or generate a particular behavior.

So when we think about goal seeking

and the pursuit of goals of any kind in the brain,

it doesn’t matter what the goal is.

It involves a common set of neural circuits.

And the neural circuit that I’d like to orient us

toward today, and we will return to it a few times,

involves learning a couple of names,

but you don’t have to worry so much about memorizing these.

Just more important is to understand the logic

of how it’s put together.

And I will explain that and make it very clear.

If you want to learn the names, that’s great.

One of the brain areas is the so-called amygdala.

The amygdala is most often associated with fear.

So you might say, wow,

how is that involved in goal-directed behavior?

Well, a lot of our goal-directed behavior

is to avoid punishments,

including things like embarrassment

or financial ruin or things of that sort.

And so the amygdala and some sense of anxiety or fear

is actually built in to the circuits

that generate goal seeking

and our motivation to pursue goals.

The other areas are the so-called eventual striatum.

The striatum is part of what’s called the basal ganglia.

The basal ganglia is a neural circuit

that can very simply be described as a neural circuit

that helps us generate go,

meaning the initiation of action and no-go,

the prevention of action type scenarios.

Let me make that even simpler.

The eventual striatum is part of this thing

called the basal ganglia.

The basal ganglia has sort of two circuits within it.

One circuit is involved in getting us to do things

like I’m going to get up tomorrow

and I’m going to run five miles first thing in the morning.

I don’t know if I’m actually going to do that,

but I’m just using that as an example.

Another circuit within the basal ganglia is a no-go circuit.

It’s the one that says, no,

I’m not going to go for the second cookie

or the third cookie.

I’m not going to eat that.

And then the go circuit would be the one

that’s responsible for instead eating something else.

Okay, so we have go and no-go circuits

within the basal ganglia.

So we’ve got amygdala.

So think of as kind of fear and anxiety and avoidance.

We’ve got the basal ganglia,

which are for initiating action and preventing action.

And then there is the so-called cortex.

The cortex is the outer shell of the brain.

And there are two sub-regions of the cortex

that are involved in goal-directed behavior.

One is the lateral prefrontal cortex.

Prefrontal cortex is involved

in so-called executive function, things like planning,

thinking about things under different timescales.

So not just what we want in the immediate term,

but what we might want tomorrow or the next day

and how our actions currently

are going to relate to the future.

And the so-called orbitofrontal cortex.

Orbitofrontal cortex has a large number of functions,

but one of the key functions of the orbitofrontal cortex,

it’s involved in meshing some emotionality

with our current state of progress

and comparing that emotionality

to where it might be when we are closer to a goal, okay?

So there are basically four areas,

one involved in anxiety, one involved in emotion,

one involved in planning,

and another involved in this go-no-go action.

So that’s a bunch of detail,

but if I wanted to make it really simple for everyone,

I would say there are four areas.

One is an area associated with anxiety and fear.

It’s the amygdala.

The second is involved in action and inaction.

Remember, go and no-go.

So that’s the basal ganglia.

The other one is involved in planning and thinking

across different timescales.

So that’s lateral prefrontal cortex.

And then the fourth one is involved in emotionality,

where we sit emotionally at present

compared to where we think we will be emotionally

when we reach some particular goal,

and that’s the orbitofrontal cortex, okay?

Again, you don’t need to know all those names.

You don’t need to know all the details.

Just understand that those different elements are involved

in the decision-making processes

that lead us toward particular goals

and have us update our goal-seeking, et cetera.

One key thing is it doesn’t matter what the goal is.

The same circuits are involved.

So whether or not you’re trying to build a company

that’s a billion-dollar company that’s going to go public,

or you’re thinking about planning a crafts day at home

with the kids or for yourself,

or you’re thinking about what movie to go see,

goal-seeking and assessing progress towards goals

all involve the exact same neural circuits.

It’s really remarkable.

It’s also very convenient for our discussion today.

What’s going on in these circuits

can basically be boiled down to two particular things.

The first is value information,

trying to understand whether or not

something is really worth pursuing or not, okay?

So placing a value on a particular goal.

The other component of this neural circuit

is associated with action,

which actions to take and which actions not to take

given the value of a particular goal

in a given moment’s time.

I want to say that again.

The other component of the circuit is involved in action,

whether or not you should act or should not act

based on your assessment of the value of a goal

at a particular moment in time.

And you’re going to hear me say over and over again

in this episode, the value information about a goal

is so key.

Here’s why.

There is basically one neurotransmitter

or rather neuromodulator system

that governs our goal setting,

goal assessment and goal pursuit.

And that is the neuromodulator dopamine.

Dopamine is the common currency

by which we assess our progress

toward particular things of particular value.

In fact, dopamine is the way that we assess value

of our pursuits.

And so as we take a moment and we shift our attention

to the psychology of goal setting,

the things that you’ve probably heard a bit more about,

about what sorts of goals are good

and how to set goals and how to categorize goals,

I want you to think about how dopamine

could possibly be involved in these different processes.

And the reason I want you to do this

is that all of the psychology of goal setting

and goal pursuit is wonderful

because it places things into different categories.

It allows us to parse our thinking

and organize our thinking.

But what’s not often seen,

in fact, I’m not aware of any literature out there,

scientific or literature in the popular press

or in popular books,

is an understanding of how the underlying neurobiology

can be layered on top of the psychology of goal setting

to allow us to set and pursue our goals more effectively.

And that’s what we’re going to do today.

We are eventually going to arrive

at a set of four practices

that when performed on a regular basis

will allow you to assess

what is the value of this next particular action step?

How worthwhile is it to do behavior A versus behavior B

in order to achieve a particular goal?

If any of this is vague now,

I’m going to make it all very clear for you.

You’re going to come away

with some very specific lists of takeaways

that you can put down on paper if you like,

and that you can use to set goals, assess goals,

and execute goals more effectively

using the neuroscience of the circuits I just described

and an understanding of the neuromodulator dopamine.

Let’s take a look at the psychology

of goal setting and goal pursuit.

This is an enormous literature,

meaning there are tens of thousands,

if not hundreds of thousands of scientific papers

about the topic of goal setting and goal pursuit.

There’s also a lot of information on the internet

about goal pursuit.

And in looking over this information,

one comes to appreciate pretty quickly

that acronyms are a big thing.

Acronyms seem to dominate the area of goal setting,

especially as it relates to things in the business sector,

but also in the relationship sector.

Now, acronyms are wonderful.

They allow us to organize our thinking into lists

and conceptually they can be very useful.

But as I moved through this literature,

I started to see some redundant themes.

And so what I’ve attempted to do

is distill out the redundant themes

that regardless of the person teaching

or the scientific laboratory

that happened to come up with these acronyms,

that they boil down to some common features.

So let’s talk about that literature.

And I think we’ll come away with an understanding

of some basic elements that are common to all goals.

Now, the modern science

or the modern psychological science

of trying to understand goal setting and pursuit

actually dates back to the 1930s.

And we have to be sure that members of our species

were focused on goal setting and goal pursuit

long before the scientific literature emerged.

It just stands to reason that

since the human brain hasn’t evolved that much,

we don’t think in the last 10,000 years

that people would be thinking about these things.

They just didn’t get them down into papers

that we could evaluate on PubMed and so forth.

But now we can, so we can look at those papers.

And what you find is that acronyms abound

in the psychology literature

about goal setting and goal pursuit.

So for instance, you’ll hear about the work of

Locke and Small, for instance,

these are the last names of various researchers,

the so-called ABC method,

that a goal should be achievable,

it should be believable,

and that the person be committed.

It’s sort of obvious once you hear about the ABC method.

Then people came along and expanded on that.

They talk about the so-called SMART method,

SMART being another acronym,

that it be specific,

that the goal be measurable,

that the goal be attainable,

that the goal be realistic,

and that it be time-bound,

meaning that you set up a certain period of time

in which a given goal should be performed.

And then people will come along and modify these.

This is the way that psychology research has done it.

I’m not laughing at it,

I’m just chuckling because it seems like the acronyms

get longer and longer and longer.

They developed the SMART-ER approach,

adding an ER to the acronym SMART, S-M-A-R-T-E-R.

They added ethical and rewarding,

which fortunately are good things, I believe,

ethical and rewarding.

What does all this mean?

Well, what it means is that any kind of goal pursuit,

any kind of goal setting really has to involve

a number of different states and neural circuits

in the brain and body.

At least that’s how I view this literature.

Why would I do that?

Well, let’s think about the very modern version

of the kind of acronyms that I talked about a moment ago,

dating back to the 1930s and extending into the 1990s.

You can find beautiful talks online

from people who have worked with

some of the biggest companies

and greatest high performers out there

to achieve incredible things.

And they will talk about generating

a sort of objective mindset for goal setting.

They’ll talk about goals needing to be significant.

There has to be a big goal, that it has to be concrete.

So you have to be able to describe what the goal is.

It has to be action oriented.

It has to be inspirational, has to be time-bound.

You have to have reasonable, realistic, verifiable measures.

You have to constantly up the ante.

If it’s starting to sound repetitive,

it’s because it is repetitive.

There are basically only three or four elements

to goal setting and goal pursuit.

Basically, an individual or set of individuals

has to identify a specific thing

that they’re going to attain.

In some communities, they talk about

knowing what right looks like,

meaning being able to define a very specific goal.

You can’t just say, I want to be a champion athlete.

You have to say what sport,

and you have to understand what the path to that is.

So any big goal, of course,

is broken up into a series of smaller goals,

but the whole thing starts with thinking

about the end in mind.

And in a few minutes, we will talk about

whether or not visualization of the end in mind

is actually beneficial or detrimental to achieving goals.

There’s actually great neuroscience

and psychology data on that now.

So I mentioned all these acronyms,

not as an attempt to disparage them.

I think they’re wonderful.

And I mentioned all that psychology literature,

not in an attempt to disparage it,

but rather to just say that goal setting is the first step,

assessment of whether or not one is making progress

towards those goals is a second, but necessary step.

And then there’s the business of goal execution.

And that brings us back to the neural circuit components.

Remember, this neural circuit involving

those four things earlier,

the amygdala, striatum, or frontal cortex,

and the prefrontal cortex,

they work together to divide the whole process,

as I mentioned before, into two general categories.

The first is assessing value,

knowing whether or not where one is at one given moment

relates to some external thing.

Are things going well or are things going poorly?

And knowing how to gauge that accurately.

And then action steps, goes and no-goes,

do more of this, do less of that,

do this, don’t do that, et cetera.

So now we are going to shift back to the neuroscience

and we’re going to talk about the practical applications

of the information I just described,

because I’ve given you a lot of kind of

academic information.

And as we do this, I’d like you to keep in mind,

what are some things that you’ve either accomplished

or that you’d like to accomplish going forward?

Because as we do this,

we can build toward a set of protocols that at the end,

you’ll be able to very quickly plug in

your particular goals and a route to those particular goals

that’s grounded in the science,

and I think are going to be very effective

in allowing you to reach those goals more quickly

and with indeed less effort.

In fact, let’s start with a tool now,

because as we move through all this information,

I want to make sure that people are coming away

with some practical things that they can implement

and indeed some things that you can even do

during the course of listening to or watching this podcast.

The first thing to do is to understand the difference

between peripersonal space and extra personal space.

Peripersonal space is all the space literally

that’s within inside your body,

the surface of your skin and in your immediate environment.

Peripersonal space is a key concept in neuroscience

because you have particular neural circuits

and particular chemicals that are geared

toward what are called consumatory behaviors,

meaning using things and consuming things

and enjoying things that are in your immediate

peripersonal space.

Let me give you an example of this for myself

just to make it concrete.

You can imagine similar examples for yourself right now.

Within my current peripersonal space is my interoception,

my understanding or perception of my internal body.

So how quickly I’m breathing, my heart rate,

the feelings on the surface of my skin, et cetera.

But also within the confines of my peripersonal space

is this coffee mug that if you’re listening to this,

you can’t see this, but I’m lifting up a coffee mug.

I’m going to take a sip of coffee.

That’s a consumatory behavior.

I have the coffee.

I don’t have to do much or motivate much to get it.

I have other things here, pens and computer, et cetera.

Okay, so things in your peripersonal space

and consuming those things is generally governed

by a set of neurochemicals that center around

the neuromodulator serotonin.

And there are a few others as well,

things like oxytocin, but mainly serotonin.

Contrast that with the so-called extra personal space.

Extra personal space is everything beyond the confines

of my reach.

It would be something in the next room.

It would be something down the street.

It would be something at some other location

in space and time.

And the neuromodulators and neurochemicals

that are associated with any kind of thinking

about anything in the extra personal space

are distinct from the neurochemicals and neuromodulators

that are involved in thinking about or making actions

towards the peripersonal space.

And the molecule that’s most associated with thinking

about or orienting toward the extra personal space,

again, things beyond the confines of my skin or your skin

is dopamine.

And this is a vitally important concept to understand

when you’re setting goals and seeking goals.

If we are to be good at goal seeking,

if we are to be good at setting goals and assessing goals,

if we are to achieve our goals,

we have to be able to toggle back and forth

between a clear understanding of our peripersonal space,

what we have and how we feel in the immediate present

and our ability to understand what’s out there

in the extra personal space and our ability to move

into that extra personal space.

And a simple way to conceive of all this

is that we evaluate our progress in the peripersonal space.

We evaluate how we feel about some pursuit,

even if we haven’t initiated that pursuit yet.

How we feel about a particular goal is truly a feeling

that we experience in the here and now,

even though the goal is in the future.

If we are going to evaluate whether or not

we made progress today or yesterday or not,

that’s an evaluation of how we feel

in the immediate peripersonal space.

However, moving toward any goal

involves orienting our thinking

towards the extra personal space.

And as we go through today’s episode,

I’m going to teach you a technique

or rather a neuroscience-based tool

that will allow you to continually transition back and forth

between the peripersonal space and the extra personal space

in a way that will allow you to update and evaluate

and better execute your goal seeking.

The whole principle behind this

is that human beings like other animals

have to make evaluations about whether or not

they are on the right track.

However, the important thing to understand

is that humans in particular

can do this over different timescales.

We don’t just pursue food because we are hungry.

We pursue food, excuse me,

for a particular meal that we might be having

with people tomorrow, right?

We can modulate the timescale

in a way that other animals don’t.

That’s how we adjust our goal seeking

to different timescales.

And in addition to that,

humans are exquisitely good at biasing our behavior

toward particular goals over very long periods of time.

But there are a lot of mistakes out there.

In fact, things that are outright wrong in the literature

and in particular in the internet

and in the kind of wellness and fitness

and cognitive fitness space

that send people down the wrong path.

And those things we will talk about in a few minutes,

but things like visualization,

that visualization and visualization of this big goal

is the best way to achieve your goals.

In fact, that’s not the case.

There’s a much better approach to doing all this.

So now I’d like to shift gears

towards talking about a few of the things

that most people get badly wrong

in setting and assessing and executing goals.

This is based on peer reviewed research.

So I think it’s very solid.

I know it is very solid.

And it runs counter to what many of us have been taught.

Let’s start with a simple one.

We’ve all heard that multitasking is bad.

Okay, we’ve heard multitasking is bad.

It doesn’t allow for focus.

If you want to achieve anything,

you want to accomplish anything, you should not multitask.

Well, turns out that’s wrong.

Turns out that there is a role for multitasking,

but the multitasking has to be placed at a particular time

within your goal seeking behavior in order to be effective.

Really nice studies done at Carnegie Mellon University

and the Davish Lab evaluated how long people are able

to focus in different environments,

how long they were able to stay concentrated on their work.

And it turns out that number is exceedingly low.

Turns out that most people,

whether or not they’re doing computer work

or whether or not they’re doing writing or accounting work

or anything of that sort can hold their attention

for about three minutes at a time

before they shift their attention off.

That’s ridiculously low when you first hear it,

but that probably reflects a basic state of brain function

that harkens back to a time when we were hunter-gatherers.

I doubt that we were maintaining focus solidly

for hours and hours and hours,

unless we were under some particular threat

or in some particular crisis.

Rather, you could imagine that people collected seeds

and nuts and berries for about three minutes

and then probably stood up, looked around

and then kept going, okay?

Or that they were hunting animals

or in some sort of pursuit, fishing, et cetera,

and focused, focused, focused.

Then every three minutes or so,

they might’ve looked up and, you know,

taken a look at the sky or looked around

to make sure that other people were there

or not there, et cetera.

It all stands to reason that that would be the case.

Again, the neural circuits haven’t evolved much.

Now, multitasking has been shown

to have a very interesting physiological signature.

When we multitask,

when we jump back and forth between things,

there is an increase in the level of the neurotransmitter,

also sometimes called a neuromodulator,

but basically same thing for sake of this discussion.

There’s an increase in the neurotransmitter epinephrine,

which is adrenaline.

And so there are really nice studies now

point to the fact that doing a bit of multitasking

prior to jumping into some focused goal-directed behavior,

whether or not it’s mental behavior or physical behavior,

it can actually be useful because it gets us into action.

So we’ve all been told that multitasking is terrible,

but if you, for instance,

find yourself cleaning up your house

and also checking your phone and doing a number of things

right at the point where you should be sitting down

to write or do some focused 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 that’s great,

but you don’t want to multitask

throughout any kind of goal-seeking or goal-pursuit behavior

because what’s also very clear,

and we’re going to talk about this in exquisite depth today,

is that visual focus,

and in particular, contracting your visual window,

bringing the aperture of what you see to a very fine point

can absolutely increase your clarity of goal-seeking

and the likelihood that you will pursue your goals.

I’ve talked about this a little bit before on the podcast

as a way of increasing focus for any kind of pursuit.

I’ve talked about a practice

whereby you can literally look at a dot or a line

placed on a wall or on your computer in front of you

for 30 to 60 seconds,

and then moving into some dedicated work

where you need to focus.

And indeed, just looking at a narrow piece

of the visual world, a small piece of the visual world

for some period of time

and forcing yourself to hold that gaze on that location

as best you can,

can increase your level of cognitive attention

and your ability to focus and stay focused.

And this is not magic.

It is the consequence of the fact

that most of your cognition follows your visual perception.

For those of you that are low vision or no vision,

meaning you’re blind or you have trouble seeing,

my lab does a lot of work with people

who are low vision, no vision.

They tend to use their auditory system,

their hearing as a way to anchor their attention

to particular things, okay?

But most people out there can see and see pretty well.

And visual focus is the way to do that.

Now, earlier we were talking about this notion

of peripersonal space versus extra personal space.

And I’m just going to seed a little bit

of the later conversation by saying

that when we focus on an external point,

we are in a process of extra reception.

It’s the focus on the extra personal space,

not the peripersonal space.

So when we focus on something,

say a line on the wall for 30 to 60 seconds

or at our computer for 30 to 60 seconds

and just look at it and then move into any kind of action,

whether or not it’s work action or physical action,

we are at its very core,

we are engaging in this pursuit of extra personal space.

We are placing our focus outside our body.

And therefore we are placing the brain

into goal pursuit mode.

Work at NYU, in particular in the laboratory

of a phenomenal researcher in their psychology department

by the name of Emily Belsetis, B-A-L-C-E-T-I-S,

Emily Belsetis has done really nice work on this.

They’ve done is they’ve had people

focus their visual attention

on a goal line of some sort,

and then to engage in some sort of behavior

that requires a lot of effort.

And they’ve done a lot of different experiments like this,

but I’ll just explain one.

They always include a control group

where people have to go through the same physical effort

or mental effort,

but they don’t focus their attention just on one location.

The long and short of these studies

is that when people have to focus their attention

on one location, like a goal line,

they are much more effective in reaching those goals

and they achieve them with the perception

that they expended less effort.

I’ll give you an example of one particularly nice study

from the Belsetis lab.

So this particular study involves physical exercise.

Although, as I mentioned before,

they’ve done similar studies

looking at cognitive type work.

And what they did is they had a group of people

exercise wearing 15 pound ankle weights,

and they had to basically move a certain distance

or run a certain distance to reach a goal line.

One group was focused on the goal line,

visually focused on the goal line.

The other group was not told

to visually focus on the goal line.

And what they found was that the group

that focused on the goal line

was able to achieve reaching that goal with 17% less effort.

They measured effort and it got there 23% quicker.

That’s a remarkable difference, right?

So same distance traveled with same workload

because everyone’s wearing the same 15 pound weights

on their ankles.

One group is simply looking at the goal line.

The other group is not told to look at the goal line.

Simply by looking at the goal line

does something to the psychology

and physiology of these people

that allows them to move forward with less perceived effort

and to do it more quickly.

That’s remarkable, right?

And in this case, they’re focused on the goal line,

but in a few moments,

we’ll talk about how one can use updating of goal line.

So incremental goal line,

starting with an intermediate goal

and then extending the goal line further and further.

But just sit back for a second and think about that.

Just by changing where a person looks,

they change their perceived effort

and their ability to do something more effectively,

more quickly than a group that is not deliberately focusing

their visual attention on one location.

That’s incredible.

And it’s so incredible in fact, you might say,

well, how could that possibly be?

Well, it turns out it has a very specific

underlying physiological reason.

And that has to do with changes

in our so-called autonomic nervous system,

the aspects of our nervous system

that prepare us for readiness and action

or that prepare us for resting and relaxing.

So what is special about focusing one’s visual attention

at a given location?

Well, it turns out that we have two branches

of our visual system.

So visual information all comes in through our eyes,

but then it can head down two different pathways.

One pathway is engaged

when our vision is brought to a common point,

what we call a virgin’s eye movement.

So if we’re focusing very intensely on a given point,

regardless of how far away from us that point is,

our visual system engages a certain set of neurons,

neural circuits that are involved in resolving fine detail

and that can evaluate small changes

over small periods of time.

Just think of it as a very detailed camera

of the visual world.

And it tends to be very restricted.

The other pathway through the visual system

is a so-called magnocellular pathway.

And this is a pathway that’s involved

in taking in global information

about lots of things that are happening around us,

movement of things to our right,

movement of things to our left,

things that are happening down on the ground

and all around us.

And that pathway involves a sort of relaxation,

if you will, of the neural circuits

that are associated with alertness and attention.

When you walk down the street

and you’re not thinking about much,

provided you’re not looking at your phone,

you’re not focusing on one location,

you’re more or less in a relaxed state

compared to when you’re looking for a particular sign,

you’re looking for a bus or a train that’s coming

or a particular person.

And that should inherently make sense.

When your level of attention and alertness goes up,

there’s sort of a small but perceptible increase

in your level of arousal.

It’s not really stress necessarily,

but arousal of alertness.

And it turns out that the visual system

accomplishes this increase in alertness

by communicating with your circulatory system

and the system that delivers blood and nutrients

and oxygen to the rest of the tissues in your body.

So let’s talk for a second

about what focusing our vision

on a particular location does.

Because in this study from the Balsettus Lab,

what they found was focusing on a goal line

allows people to move more effectively toward that goal.

This is something you can leverage in all aspects

of all goal pursuits.

What happens when we focus on a particular location?

Believe it or not,

there’s an increase in a particular feature

of our blood pressure.

Now your body has, of course, arteries, veins,

and capillaries, and your heart pumps blood

first to the arteries,

and then to the other components of your vascular system.

And we have so-called blood pressure, right?

Blood pressure is just how much the fluid volume

is pressing on those arteries, veins, and capillaries, right?

So you can imagine a pipe

with very little fluid moving through it,

that’s low pressure.

You have a pipe with a lot of fluid moving through it,

that’s even more pressure.

You have a pipe with a lot of very viscous,

meaning very kind of sticky, thick stuff moving for it,

that’s even more pressure.

We have blood pressure,

and you’ve probably had your blood pressure measured.

There’s always two numbers, right?

You have a top number, which is the systolic blood pressure,

and then there’s the bottom number below the line,

which is the diastolic pressure.

So the important thing to understand

is that your blood pressure will rise when your heart beats

because there’s more fluid moving through those pipes

that are your arteries, your veins, and your capillaries.

And that top number is called the systole,

or the systolic blood pressure,

because that’s the pressure

at the time when your heart contracts, okay?

So the top number, which normally,

if you have a healthy blood pressure,

is somewhere in the range of 90 to 120 millimeters

of mercury.

Millimeters of mercury

is just the way that pressure is measured.

That top number, your systole or your systolic blood pressure

is what’s measured when the heart contracts, okay?

So that’s the amount of pressure when there’s a heartbeat

and it’s moving through your vasculature.

Now, between beats, right, the heart beats,

but then it relaxes,

your blood pressure’s going to drop to a lower value, right?

Because fluid isn’t being pumped through the system

at those moments.

And that’s the bottom value, the diastolic pressure.

And typically for healthy people,

that’s going to be 60 to 80 millimeters of mercury.

So you might hear about a normal blood pressure

being about, again, this is an approximate, 120 over 80.

What that means is at the point where blood

was being pumped through your arteries and veins, boom,

that it’s 120 millimeters of mercury.

But then when the heart relaxes for a second

before the next beat, then it drops to 80, okay?

So there’s high pressure, low pressure,

high pressure, low pressure.

The fluid is being pumped through the system.

Now, why am I telling you all this?

Well, it turns out that there are neural circuits

that link your visual system

and focusing on a particular point with that top number,

the systolic blood pressure.

And when you focus your eyes on a particular location,

that systolic blood pressure goes up.

And there are some other systems that are coordinated

with it in your brain and body

that start releasing adrenaline,

low amounts of adrenaline in most cases,

and that adrenaline further readies your body for action.

So bringing our visual focus to a particular location

does a number of things to the brain

and the whole system of the body to prepare it,

to place it into a state of readiness

that makes us more likely to lean into our goals,

into action.

And if we step back and think about this,

this makes perfect sense.

The brain and body need to be coordinated.

We can’t just think about a goal.

In fact, a deer or a lion can’t just think about a goal.

It has to think about a goal

and then has to feel some sort of activation energy,

some willingness or desire to move forward

in pursuit of that goal.

So imagining a goal has to be coupled

to the physical pursuit of the goal.

So our visual system in a beautiful way

brings together a focus,

literally a visual focus on a particular point outside us.

Then it recruits an increase in systolic blood pressure,

which creates a systemic,

a body-wide and brain-wide increase in fuel utilization,

in oxygen availability,

in our willingness to move forward as a body,

as a whole coherent system.

And then there are also neurotransmitter systems

like epinephrine, as we will soon see dopamine,

that get recruited as well

to place us into a continual mode of action.

This to me is a remarkable feature of our physiology.

And it gets right to the point

of some of the psychological phenomenon

that we were talking about earlier.

Let’s just recall what some of those are.

I won’t list them all,

but a goal has to be significant, they say.

Okay, all the psychologists,

all the popular stuff online says it has to be significant,

has to be inspirational,

and it has to be action-oriented.

Okay, so let’s say you look out

into the landscape of what’s available to you,

whether or not it’s just in your mind

or you look at a specific point,

you say, ah, I want to go to that particular restaurant

to eat that particular food,

and you orient towards it and you move towards it.

This is the way that your brain and body

are coordinating their actions together.

Conversely, when our visual system

is in a mode of looking at everything,

when the aperture of our visual system is very broad,

we know that there’s also a reduction

in our goal-directed behavior

and a reduction in the systolic blood pressure.

It’s as if our peripersonal space is sufficient.

We don’t need to get beyond our current state.

We’re not oriented toward any one thing in particular.

Okay, so I’ve now described some of the psychology

and some of the underlying physiology.

Now I’d like to mesh this within the context

of actual specific goal setting and goal pursuit,

because what many of you are probably thinking is,

okay, well, that’s some physiology, there’s some psychology,

but how do you actually apply this

towards setting and achieving goals?

Well, you do that by understanding

that your mental frame and your attention

are always either positioned to your peripersonal space,

focused on your immediate possessions and state,

or towards things outside you,

but that you also have the ability

to dynamically travel back and forth between those.

And so next, we’re going to talk about

what the literature says about things like visualization,

immediate and intermediate goals,

long-term goals, and how to best achieve those.

And then we’re going to move specifically

into the protocols that you can use.

It’s a protocol that I’ve specifically developed

for you, the listeners,

in order to incorporate all the signs into a best practice

that you can do anytime, any place,

to really identify what it is specifically

that you want to pursue,

and the best route to pursue and achieve that goal.

Focusing our visual attention on one particular point

is incredibly effective for all types of goal pursuit.

And if you’d like to read some of the scientific studies

or read a review of the scientific studies

that have looked at how narrowing one’s visual attention

can really enhance the effectiveness of pursuing goals,

I’ll put a link to this study.

The title of the study is Keeping the Goal in Sight,

Testing the Influence of Narrowed Visual Attention

on Physical Activity.

And this is a paper from Emily Balsetis’s lab.

Focuses mainly on physical activities,

but it mentioned some other things as well.

This is an article published

in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in 2020.

So it’s recent.

It’s an exceptional paper, in my opinion.

Really gets to the heart of how all this works

and some examples of where it’s been implemented.

So let’s apply this visual tool in a very simple way

to any type of goal that you want to pursue.

If you already know what goal you want to pursue,

maybe it’s a workout,

maybe it’s a cognitive work of some particular sort.

Again, the process is very simple.

You’re going to focus your visual attention on one point

beyond your peripersonal space.

So it could be on your computer.

It could be on the wall.

It could be a horizon.

It could be at a distance.

And you’re going to focus your visual attention there.

And with some effort,

you’re going to hold your visual attention

for 30 to 60 seconds.

You might blink, that’s okay,

but you’re going to try and hold your visual attention there.

So no moving your head around,

no diverting your attention to other locations.

Some people will find it very easy to do.

Other people will find it quite hard.

Your mind may drift cognitively, that’s okay,

but try and bring your visual attention

to that common point.

Several episodes ago,

I talked about how there are actually studies

looking at developing this kind of training

in students for ADHD.

And the data on that are actually quite encouraging.

So for people who have ADHD and focus issues

and attentional issues, this can be effective.

For people who don’t, this can also be effective.

Again, it places your brain and body

into a state of readiness.

And then the idea is to move into the particular actions

that bring you closer to your goal.

Okay, we haven’t yet talked about how to set goals

and how to assess progress.

This is simply how to pursue goals, okay?

But the visual component is important.

In fact, 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.

That practice is in stark contrast to multitasking

where by definition, your attention is moving

from place to place to place, right?

I mentioned that multitasking can be effective

in getting your system into somewhat

of an increased level of activation

so that you can pursue a more focused goal.

But the visual attention to a particular point

is going to be the most effective way

to bring your system into a state of readiness

and action for goal pursuit.

There’s another really interesting way

that you can leverage your visual system

toward long-term goals.

The Balsettus Lab has also done

some really interesting experiments

looking at people’s ability to set

and stick to long-term goals.

And the long-term goal that they looked at

was one related to saving money for later in life.

This is something that a lot of people struggle with.

A lot of people have a hard time investing money

or saving money for later in life

simply because as human beings,

we vary in the extent to which we worry

about what’s going to happen later.

There’s also a phenomenon of so-called delayed discounting.

Delayed discounting is the fact

that goals become less rewarding

when they exist further out in the future.

Okay, you may have experienced this

walking past a donut shop.

I love donuts.

I’m just going to admit it over and over again on this pod.

I love the smell of them.

I love the taste of them.

I try to eat them because I’m told

they’re not that good for me.

And indeed, I don’t think they are.

I occasionally cave and I eat one or many.

But in general, I try not to cave

to the immediately rewarding properties

of the smell and the taste of the donut.

But what we know is that if you smell a donut

or you smell a wonderful piece of food,

in the immediate term, it brings your level of focus,

your mental focus to the immediate phase.

And it feels very rewarding.

Like if you had it now, it would just be so good.

But if you actually extend that reward out to tomorrow

or the next thing you think,

oh, you know, today happens to be a Saturday

that we’re recording, but oh, you know,

on Tuesday morning, I’m going to get a donut.

It doesn’t have the same value

because the reward system doesn’t work as well

for long-term goals.

It’s not as salient.

It’s not as tangible a goal,

especially for something like a donut.

Whereas the kinds of goals that work

when you place them out into the longer term

and can create a heightened sense of motivation

tend to be things that are much more rewarding to us.

So delayed discounting simply says

that the further out in time that a given goal is,

the less effective that reward will be

in motivating one’s behavior.

And indeed, you see this with saving money for retirement.

You see this with all sorts of long-term investment.

The Balsetis Lab therefore did an experiment

where they looked at people’s tendency

to save money for later in life.

But the groups that they created in this study

were really interesting.

They had one group imagine what it would be like

to be 30 or 40 years older

and then to invest a certain amount of money

according to whatever it is

they thought that they would need.

And they measured the amount that they had set aside

and saved for later in life.

The other group actually viewed photos of themselves.

So picture images of themselves

that were artificially digitally aged

so that they could see themselves

30 or 40 years into the future.

And it turns out that people in that second group

simply by perceiving their own image

in the future invested far more money into later life.

They set aside more money.

Somehow it bridged the gap

between their immediate experience of life

and the longer arc toward what it was going to be like

in 30 or 40 years.

So very powerful result in my opinion,

because what it says again

is that our visual perception of the future

or our visual perception of the present

is what allows us to anchor our goal-directed systems

and our motivation to take on things

that in the immediate term might not seem that useful.

So you can imagine all sorts of variations on this.

You can imagine that every time I want a donut,

I’d see a vision of myself

or an actual physical picture of myself

as a consequence of having eaten many donuts every day

for the next 10 years.

I don’t know what that image would look like

because I’ve never seen it.

That’s not an experiment that I necessarily need to do

because I’m not that motivated to eat donuts.

But I have to confess,

I’m somebody who I think I’m pretty good

at managing resources.

But I think if I were to see an image of myself

at 70 or 75,

there’s so many things that are associated

with visual images, like what our body must feel like,

what our needs are probably going to be like

in that state or in that age,

what sorts of things we may or may not

still be able to do at that age.

And that anchors back to immediate goal-directed behaviors,

such as setting aside money for retirement,

such as investing in one’s health practices.

And indeed, there’s a study that has looked at

how people will invest in exercise and healthy eating

if they just think about the future

and what they might be like in the future

versus seeing images of themselves in the future

if they were to go down a healthy or unhealthy route.

So again, the point is that the visual system,

what we see is principally important

in defining what we do in the immediate term,

even if what we see relates to something

in the far off distance.

I think these are phenomenal studies

and they get right down to an important issue

that’s been kicked around over and over in the literature

and in the discussion about goal-seeking,

which is visualization.

We hear keep the big goal in mind, focus on the big goal.

So now we’re going to address

what does the science say about visualizing big goals?

If you’re somebody who’s interested in business,

or let’s say you’re focused on relationship,

is thinking about the perfect relationship

and what that would look like

and the family that you would have and where you would live,

is that effective in generating the kinds of behaviors

that will lead you to that?

Is it effective to think about the big win at the end?

Well, it turns out it is,

but you have to be very, very careful with when

and how you implement that visualization.

Because if you do it correctly,

it can really serve your goal-seeking well.

And if you do it incorrectly,

it can undermine the entire process.

So does visualization work?

Well, turns out that visualization of the big win,

the end goal, so the Superbowl win,

or eight gold medals in the Olympics,

or graduation from the university of your choice,

or making a certain amount of money,

or finding the partner of your choice, et cetera.

That visualization is effective

in getting the goal pursuit process started,

but it actually is a pretty lousy

and maybe even counterproductive way

of maintaining pursuit of that goal.

Meaning continuing to engage the sort of actions

that are going to get you to eventually achieve that goal.

I think this is going to be surprising to people at first,

but if we think back to our discussion

about the physiology of the blood pressure system,

it’ll make sense.

Good scientific studies have been done

where people are told to imagine

or even script out their long-term vision

and goal for themselves.

What is the big goal?

And they’re taught to, or told to,

imagine it with a rich amount of detail,

to think about how it’s going to feel in their body

and the big win.

And basically what happens is,

if you measure people’s blood pressure

or other metrics of physiology,

you see an increase in that systolic blood pressure.

There’s a kind of a ramping up of the readiness

and excitement for that goal.

But that increase in blood pressure quickly wanes.

And over time, that visual of the long-term goal

becomes a poor thing to rely on

in order to generate the actions

that are required to reach that goal.

In fact, there’s a much better way

to maintain ongoing action toward a goal

that also involves visualization,

but it turns out it’s not about visualizing success,

it’s about visualizing failure.

The Balsettus Lab and other labs

have looked at whether or not people make progress

toward goals of different types,

whether or not they’re thinking about the goal,

they’re thinking about that goal line

and what they want to achieve,

that long-term goal

and all the wonderful things associated with it,

or whether or not they’re thinking about all the ways

in which they could fail and root to that goal, right?

This is not typically what we are encouraged to do.

Typically we are told, don’t imagine failure,

push failure out of your mind, only focus on success,

you know, fake it till you make it,

or it’s a phrase that I absolutely hate, frankly,

because it’s not even clear what that means.

And it’s not even clear what the ethical form of that is.

I think it means continue despite any anxiety

or fear that things won’t work out.

But if you look at the literature,

the scientific literature,

what the Balsettus Lab and other labs have shown

is that there’s a near doubling,

near doubling in the probability of reaching one’s goal

if you focus routinely on foreshadowing failure.

You think about the ways in which things could fail

if you take action A or you take action B,

and instead, therefore you take action C.

You’re supposed to think about how things could fail

if you don’t get up and run each morning,

if your goal is say a fitness goal.

So let’s use that as an example,

because even though I realize people are in pursuit

of many things, not just fitness,

fitness goals and physical goals are a very concrete thing

that we can all get on the same page about

because they’re related to actions.

Let’s say somebody sets a goal of running five miles

four times a week minimum, and as many as seven,

four times a week minimum before 8 a.m.

Okay, in a previous podcast on habits,

I talked about the benefits of not necessarily

setting specific times that one will do things,

but setting time blocks that one will do things.

So you say before 8 a.m., you’re going to run five miles

and that’s going to happen up to seven days a week, okay?

One version of this would be, okay, sit back in a chair

and think about how great you’re going to feel and look

if you’re doing this every day,

how your health is going to improve,

how everything’s going to, your blood markers of lipids,

et cetera, are going to improve.

Okay, fine.

That’s the visualization goal of visualizing the end point.

Turns out that is far less effective

and maybe even counterproductive compared to thinking about

what’s going to happen if you don’t do this,

the negative health outcomes that are going to occur,

the disappointment you’re going to have in yourself,

the fact that you’re going to wait until 7.30,

that’s not long enough for many people to run five miles.

You got to put it on your shoes as it can be pouring rain

or even hailing or snowing outside.

And now you’re not going outside unless you’re somebody

who’s particularly motivated to do that, okay?

So foreshadowing failure turns out to be the best way

to motivate toward goal pursuit.

In fact, as I mentioned before,

there’s a near doubling in the likelihood

that people will reach goals of any kind

when they’re constantly thinking about how bad

it’s going to be if they fail.

If we think back to the neural circuit associated

with assessing value in our goal pursuits,

this makes perfect sense.

The amygdala, that center of the brain that’s involved

in anxiety and fear and worry,

well, the amygdala is one of the four core components

of our goal setting and goal pursuit circuitry.

And there’s no bypassing that.

There is no one listening to this or watching this

whose amygdala is not involved in their goal setting

and goal pursuit behavior.

And so while I’d love to be able to tell you

that all you should think about is rainbows and puppies

and all the wonderful rewarding things

that are going to happen when you achieve your goals,

the truth is you should be thinking mainly

about how bad it’s really going to get if you don’t do it,

how disappointing yourself you’re going to feel,

how it will negatively impact you,

if not in the immediate term, in the long-term,

if indeed your goal is to reach your goal.

So I want to emphasize that I’m not interested

in encouraging people to flagellate themselves.

I’m encouraging people to achieve their goals.

And it turns out the best way to do that

is by foreshadowing failure.

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.

Part of the reason for that almost certainly has to do

with increases in systolic blood pressure

and increases in readiness in your system

when you imagine failure.

The brain and body are much better at moving away

from fearful things than towards things we want.

I wish I could tell you that wasn’t the case,

but there is a true asymmetry in the way we are built.

In fact, the brain and body can engage

in what’s called one trial learning.

When something bad happens,

we eat a food that makes us sick,

we have an interaction with a person or place

that we really don’t like,

it only takes one trial to really, one event,

one time to reorient or rewire our neural circuitry

so that we have a bias toward moving away

from that thing in the future.

When things go well, unfortunately,

that doesn’t often occur.

If things go really, really well,

it might orient our brain and body

toward wanting more of that thing

and we’ll have neural circuitry changes

that will lead us to engage in that particular behavior

or interaction again,

but it is never as effective as these avoidance circuits.

So again, foreshadow failure.

If you’re going to visualize in a positive way,

do that at the very beginning of some goal pursuit,

maybe intermittently every once in a while,

you imagine the big win of scoring perfect on an exam

or winning the championship or the great relationship,

but most of the time, if you want to be effective,

you should be focusing on avoiding failure

and you should be really clear

about what those failures would look like and feel like.

Now let’s talk about goal setting.

Going back to that prominent literature,

the psychology and popular literature again,

we can hear some of these themes start to emerge.

The goal should be significant, we are told.

It should be inspirational.

It should be aggressive yet realistic.

Well, okay, that’s all fine and good,

but let’s get semi-quantitative about this.

Let’s at least get biological about this.

How inspirational does it need to be?

Does it need to be the kind of thing

that is so inspiring to me that I can’t sleep at all?

Well, that wouldn’t be good because I believe,

and I know many of you have heard me say

many, many times before, regular deep sleep,

80% or more of the nights that you go to sleep

is going to be crucial to your cognitive

and mental functioning and your ability

to achieve your goals in the long-term.

That’s absolutely clear.

So it’s got to be inspirational and exciting,

but what does that really look like?

And what does that correspond to?

And how do we actually make that happen?

Well, once again, there is a mismatch

between what the real data show

and what we’re most often told.

Turns out that, again, work in Balsettos’ lab,

but also other laboratories has addressed

whether or not the probability of achieving a goal

goes up or down, depending on whether or not

one visualizes or sets a goal that is easy,

moderate, or impossible.

Okay, an impossible goal would be, for instance,

if I say, you know, I’m going to jump

from my front driveway all the way up to the road.

The road’s quite a distance away.

It’s more than 20 meters away.

It’s just not going to happen.

It’s not going to happen in this lifetime.

It’s not going to happen in any other lifetime,

not unless it involves some elaborate technology

that I’m not aware of, a jet pack or something like that.

It’s just not going to happen, right?

An easy goal would be something like,

can you jump or could I jump, you know,

two feet in front of me?

Obviously, yes.

Okay, now I’m using a trivial example here,

but this could be translated to any kind of goal,

school goal, physical goal, et cetera.

Turns out that when people set goals,

whether or not they are nutritional goals,

eat more of this or eat less of that,

whether or not they’re fitness goals, you know,

run more, lift more, or some other goal,

swim less, swim more,

whatever it is their goal happens to be,

some learning goal, some relationship goal,

some attempt to modify their behavior,

turns out that if the goal is too easy,

it’s too within reach,

it doesn’t recruit enough of the autonomic nervous system

to make pursuit of that goal likely.

Now that might be surprising.

At least it was surprising to me.

You think, well, something is really, really easy.

You know, there’s a very low bar to achieve it.

People are probably more likely to do it,

but it turns out that’s not the case.

When we hear that a goal needs to be inspirational,

what do we mean?

When we hear that something’s too easy

to recruit our action, what do we mean?

Well, Balsettis Lab measured systolic blood pressure

and found that when goals were too easy

for people to attain,

they didn’t get that increase in systolic blood pressure

and recruitment of the other neural and vascular systems,

meaning the blood systems and the nervous system,

that would place them into ongoing effort.

And so they quickly gave up.

Also, if a goal was too lofty,

if it was too far from their current abilities,

it didn’t recruit enough systolic blood pressure.

Even if people could get very excited

about something mentally,

it simply didn’t place their body into a state of readiness

because it wasn’t tangible that they could actually

perhaps really achieve it.

So it turns out that when goals were moderate,

when they were just outside of one’s immediate abilities

or that one felt that, yeah,

that would take a lot of effort,

but it’s within range or maybe in range,

like maybe I can do it, maybe I can’t.

Then there was a near doubling

of the systolic blood pressure in the good sense.

It didn’t go into the unhealthy range

and a doubling or more of the likelihood

that they would engage in the ongoing pursuit

of that particular goal.

So here we’re talking about goal setting.

What we’re saying is set goals that are realistic,

but that aren’t so realistic

that they’re easy.

The goals need to be realistic and truly challenging.

Don’t set goals that are so challenging and so lofty

that they crash that blood pressure system

in the other direction

and make you or anyone feel unmotivated.

In hearing this, it makes sense,

but I don’t think I would have predicted it

had they not done this very controlled study.

I would have thought the loftier the goal,

the bigger the goal,

the more that it recruits the autonomic system

and the more that people are likely to lean into the energy

and effort to pursue and attain that goal.

I also would have thought

that if a goal is really easy to achieve,

that it would engage the systems of action

in the brain and body enough

that people would sort of get into motion

and pursue that goal,

but neither is the case.

Again, set goals that are difficult to achieve,

but that are not so lofty

that they collapse your system

and that you feel overwhelmed.

And the important thing here

is that how we perceive a goal,

whether or not we think it’s within reach or not,

of course will vary depending on whether or not we are rested

depending on whether or not other aspects of our life

are going well.

I mean, we can think that we are hot on the heels

of a lifetime goal and everything’s going well,

and then there’ll be some crisis, interpersonal crisis,

or there’ll be a health crisis and you’ll be shut down.

And then that goal seems very, very hard to attain.

So we will talk about how to update goals

under different contexts in a few minutes.

But of course, this is going to be an averaging.

This isn’t something that you do just once.

But the takeaway again is very simple.

Set goals that are moderately hard to hard,

but not so hard nor so easy

that they don’t engage your brain and body properly.

Moderate goals are best if you want to achieve your goals.

Now I’d like to talk about three particular areas

of scientific study that point to goal pursuit,

goal assessment, and goal achievement.

Previously, I told you that it’s great to foreshadow failure

that that’s a great way to get your system

into a state of activation.

I also told you that you want to set goals

that are challenging, but possible.

And again, here I’m paraphrasing

from the work of Emily Belsetis.

I want to be very clear.

There are a few other things that one can do

in order to bias the likelihood that you will succeed

in trying to achieve your goals.

First of all, limit your options.

Trying to pursue too many goals at once

can definitely be counterproductive.

Now I realized that life is complicated.

We all have multiple goals that we’re trying to pursue,

but if we have particular goals that are important to us,

we have to be careful to not get distracted by other goals.

And many people run into this problem.

So setting one or two or maybe three major goals

for a given year is going to be more than enough

for most people and is actually going to be challenging

for most people.

Now, of course we have daily goals and monthly goals

and yearly goals, but if we have big lofty goals,

we need to be careful not to contaminate our mental space

and our visual space with too many goals.

And why do I say visual goals?

Well, what various department stores

and supermarkets have discovered

is that the greater the number of things

in our visual attention,

the more that we can draw our attention and our goals

off a line of pursuit.

What does that mean?

Well, let’s think about it in the practical context.

This has actually been done.

Big department stores have figured out

that if they stock their shelves chock-a-block

with many, many options of food or clothing items

or objects or anything like that,

people simply buy more stuff.

People are very prone to orienting their attention

to whatever’s in front of them.

You put a lot of stuff in front of them,

their attention drifts.

You put fewer things in front of them,

their attention is more narrow.

In a later episode, we’ll talk about designing a workspace

that’s optimized on the basis of this.

It doesn’t mean being in a room with nothing

except just your desk and a computer

doesn’t have to be that sparse,

but visual sparseness actually can help us

orient our focus and our behavior.

When we have a lot of things in our visual environment

or a lot of things in our cognitive environment,

it’s the same thing.

And so if you’re going to try and pursue a fitness goal,

a relationship goal, an academic goal,

and a long-term life financial goal all at once,

that’s four things.

And you’re going to have to come up with systems

that allow you to isolate those goals in a very rigid way.

And if you do have multiple interleaving goals

and overlapping goals and simultaneous goals,

in a few minutes, we’re going to talk about a process

that will allow you to use your visual system

to align towards each of those goals sequentially

in a way that makes it much more likely

that you’ll achieve them.

So now let’s talk about specificity of goals.

We’ve all heard that the more specific a goal is

and the more specific we are about when

and how we are going to execute that goal,

the higher probability that we will actually

achieve that goal.

And indeed that’s the case,

but there’s an additional feature that’s not often discussed

that is vitally important.

And in fact, maybe more important

than having a specific time of day

or a specific end point in mind.

There’s a really nice study that was done

looking at recycling.

And this is something that a number of groups,

businesses, households, and individuals

are trying to do more of.

They’re trying to lower carbon footprint

or contribute to the world in some general way

by throwing away fewer things

that could potentially be recycled.

So this has been studied in the context

of the work environment where a business decides

and lets everybody know that there’s going to be

a greater effort toward recycling cans or bottles

or bottles and cans, et cetera.

And then the way these studies were done

is that the janitorial staff was swapped out temporarily

for researchers that actually measured

the number of recyclable items that showed up in the trash

and not in the recycle as a function

of the total amount of trash.

Why did I say as a function of the total amount of trash?

Well, it’s a way of controlling for differences

in beverage consumption from one week to the next.

Anyway, the point is they were able to very carefully

measure how much people are recycling before

and after this call to action to recycle more.

And what they found was if they said,

we are going to try and recycle more,

try not to put cans and bottles in the trash.

There of course was an improvement in recycling,

but it was pretty modest.

Whereas when there was a very concrete plan

and everyone knew what that concrete plan was,

for instance, to place all bottles and cans

into the recycle, not the trash,

or to limit the amount of trash by 50%

or to eliminate all recyclable items from the trash.

So when they made it very concrete,

exactly what the action steps were,

there was a remarkable, I mean,

close to a hundred fold or more improvement

in recycling behavior that lasted many months

after this call to action was made.

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.

I’ve heard this before described as,

what does right look like?

What is the actual outcome that one would like to achieve

in terms of action steps?

So not necessarily feeling states.

It wasn’t that they all sat around and said,

how great we’re all going to feel about ourselves

and the world when we accomplish this goal.

It was very concrete statements,

very concrete plans about action steps

that would deliver one to one’s goal.

Somewhat straightforward and intuitive,

but nonetheless worthwhile.

What it suggests is that for all of us,

if we have certain goals that we want to achieve,

we need to be exquisitely detailed

about what the action steps are that we’re going to take

and to constantly update those action steps

so that we have a higher probability

of meeting those action steps.

Some of you may be asking,

how often should one assess progress?

Well, that of course will depend on the given goal

that you’re trying to pursue.

But in the studies that I’ve been referring to here,

the assessment of progress and the updating

of concrete plans was done weekly.

So it seems like weekly is a good starting place

to address how well one performed in the previous week

and then based on that performance

to update the action plan for the upcoming week.

So weekly seems like a good solid rule of thumb

for setting particular action goals

and assessing one’s progress

towards the immediate and longer-term goals.

Any discussion about goals and goal pursuit

would be incomplete without a discussion

about the molecule dopamine.

Dopamine is often thought of as the molecule

of pleasure and reward,

but actually it is the molecule of motivation.

This is best illustrated by a classic set of studies

that have been carried out in both animals and in humans.

The animal study can be described the following way.

Two rats, each in a separate cage.

You can provide those rats with the opportunity

to indulge in something that they like,

like food or mating or heat if it’s cold in the environment

or a cool spot in the cage

if it’s warm in the environment and so forth.

And what you find is that rats will very readily approach

the rewarding thing.

They will mate, they will eat,

they will pursue something that is of pleasure.

Now, if you are to take one of those rats

and deplete its dopamine neurons,

you can eliminate its dopamine neurons

or block dopamine in the brain.

What you find is that those animals

will still enjoy pleasure.

They will consume the food, they will mate, et cetera.

However, their motivation to achieve pleasure

is vastly reduced.

In fact, if you place the item of pleasure,

the mate, the food, et cetera,

even just one rat’s length away from that rat,

the rat without dopamine will not even move one length

of its own body in order to achieve that pleasure.

And there are naturally occurring experiments in humans

that mimic that result very accurately.

There are certain conditions in humans

where there’s a depletion of dopamine.

And what you find is that the depletion of dopamine

does not inhibit an ability

to experience pleasure necessarily.

It inhibits an ability to pursue

or go through the series of action steps

in order to achieve pleasure.

So dopamine really sits at the heart

of our motivational state to seek out goals

and to seek pleasure.

And this is true for immediate goals

that take place within a timeframe of minutes

or a timeframe of a day or the timeframe of a week

or the timeframe of a lifetime.

Dopamine is the common currency by which we pursue goals.

Now, dopamine does a number of things

that are very interesting.

I’m going to describe a few of them

as they relate to goal-seeking behavior.

First of all, there’s a fundamental feature

of how our brain releases and uses dopamine

that’s called reward prediction error.

And the simplest way to think about

dopamine reward prediction error

is that dopamine is released in the greatest amount

and places us into a greater state of motivation

when something happens that’s positive and novel.

Now, an important thing to understand about dopamine

is that it’s not always released on the same schedule.

There are a couple of different ways

that dopamine is released and when it is released

relative to your anticipation of a reward is key.

If you don’t expect something positive to happen,

you’re just going about your day

and something positive happens,

dopamine and a lot of dopamine is released.

I had this happen recently.

I had no idea that I was going to be receiving something

in the mail, but I went to the mail, I looked in the mail

and I got something very positive

and I was really, really excited about that.

This is a real event that happened just today.

However, if we anticipate something positive

is going to happen and then that thing happens,

we experience dopamine as part of the anticipation.

So even before we get the reward,

there’s an increase in dopamine.

It’s not as high as it would be if something really novel

and unexpected and positive happened,

but we do get an increase in dopamine.

And then when we actually experience the reward,

we experienced the positive thing,

there’s a smaller increase in dopamine, okay?

So again, the biggest increases in dopamine

are response to things that are positive and unexpected.

Lesser dopamine is released

when we anticipate something good will happen.

And when that happens, yes, we get some dopamine

and we also get some dopamine

when the positive thing happens.

Think about anticipating a great meal with friends.

We have some dopamine churning, friends come over,

then we have the meal

and we also get some dopamine from that,

but not nearly as much as we would

if it all happened as a part of a big surprise.

Then there’s also the case in which we predict

that something good will happen.

When that happens, there’s an increase in dopamine

just as it was before.

But then if that thing doesn’t happen,

for instance, our friends don’t show up for dinner,

then there’s a drop in dopamine below our initial baseline.

That drop in dopamine is the chemical essence

of what we call disappointment.

Now, this dopamine reward prediction error, as it’s called,

can be leveraged toward trying to reach our goals

because it tells us where we should set our milestones.

We can’t be in a mode

of simply being focused on the finish line.

Very few people can do that over long periods of time

in a way that’s effective.

Now, earlier I talked about a study

where people were focused on a finish line visually

and they were moving through space

with these ankle weights on,

but that was a very short-term goal, okay?

So if a goal is within minutes

or maybe even within an hour

or is in with our immediate visual environment,

maybe we can do that.

But most goals of the sort

that most people are pursuing, fitness goals, academic goals,

business goals, relationship goals, et cetera,

involve some milestones.

So understanding what we know about reward prediction error,

we can make better choices

about where to place the milestones,

how far out in the future to place milestones.

So then the question becomes how often

or at what intervals should one assess progress?

And it turns out this is very subjective,

but that there’s a way to make it objective.

Now, in a previous episode of the Uberman Lab podcast,

I had a discussion with the great Robert Sapolsky

and we were talking about how the brain

can subjectively change whether or not a given behavior

or experience is positive or negative.

And the example that Robert gave is a really phenomenal one.

It’s a study that’s been done in rats and also in humans

where it took a rat, they had a rat run on a running wheel.

Rats turns out like to run on running wheels.

And the blood pressure of that animal,

the health metrics for that animal, the lipid profiles,

many, many things improved, okay?

The rat was exercising and it got healthier

and presumably happier, we don’t know.

We could have asked it, but we wouldn’t know.

It doesn’t know how to tell us,

but we can measure blood lipids,

we can measure blood pressure and all sorts of things.

And indeed when that rat exercised or when people exercise,

they generally get healthier.

Except in that particular experiment,

they had another animal where every time rat number one ran,

rat number two was forced to run.

It was on a running wheel and it was forced to run,

not because it wanted to, but because it was forced to.

And what was remarkable is that the physiological effects

of being forced to do something

were in the complete opposite direction as they were

when those same behaviors were undertaken voluntarily.

In other words, the rat that was choosing to run

got healthier and the rat that was forced to run

became unhealthy.

Blood pressure went up in a direction

that wasn’t effective and useful.

Blood lipids got worse, stress hormones went up,

et cetera, et cetera.

And you see the same thing in humans.

Now, what this says is that our subjective understanding

of why we are doing something is fundamentally important

for the effects that we will get from that behavior.

And indeed the effects of that behavior will have on us.

So this has two major implications.

First of all, in terms of reward schedules,

we can decide to use any reward schedule that we want

for a given behavior.

We can decide that the milestones for a,

let’s say a plan of getting in really terrific

cardiovascular shape over the next year,

we can decide to assess every day and ask ourselves,

how good was our progress?

And if we made progress,

then we’re going to reward ourselves.

We could do that every third day.

We could do it every week.

We could do it every five minutes

if we actually have the time to do that.

The reward schedule,

the dopamine system is highly susceptible

to the subjective effects,

the so-called top-down effects of when we decide

that something is going to be good for us.

If we analyze it on a given timeframe,

well, then it’s going to be good for us.

So what I suggest people do is pick a particular interval

at which they are going to assess progress.

And if you’ve been making regular progress towards a goal

that you reward yourself.

And the reward indeed is all cognitive.

It’s all mental.

It’s telling yourself, yes, I’m on the right track.

Now, some people will say, wait,

but I want to know exactly how often I should do that.

You need to do that at an interval

that you can maintain consistently.

Okay, so you’re not going to reward yourself every minute

or every step of every jog that you take,

unless you can do it every minute of every step

of every jog that you take.

For that reason, I think that daily

or ideally weekly assessments are going to be best.

I think that checking in at the end of a 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

to assess once a week.

So that’s one point that pick a milestone

that you can maintain consistently

throughout the pursuit of a goal.

The second thing is that the subjective effects

that were described by that Sapolsky study

or that Sapolsky described rather,

are absolutely essential

for all aspects of goal-seeking behavior.

We cannot underestimate the extent

to which the dopamine system

and our sense of whether or not we were on the right track

is under our cognitive control.

If we constantly place ourself

into a mode of thinking that we are failing,

well, then indeed,

we are not going to churn out much dopamine.

Now, earlier I said we need to predict

and visualize failure,

but that is not the same thing

as thinking about ourselves as failing.

We need to predict what the outcome would be if we failed,

but then encountering that

and in behaving in a certain way

and thinking in a certain way

and pursuing our goals in an effective way,

maybe checking in on that each week,

we definitely need to reward ourselves cognitively

for the correct and successful pursuit.

What this means is that anticipate

and think about failure as a mechanism

of generating motivation and indeed fear and anxiety

so that you lean into the correct behaviors

and you lean away from the incorrect behaviors

to reach your goal.

But then weekly or so,

whatever you can maintain consistently,

you absolutely want to reward yourself cognitively

by telling yourself, I’m on the right track.

I got another week where I accomplished

whatever it is that I’m trying to accomplish.

A concrete example that I’m following now

is this 150 to 200 minutes of zone two cardio per week,

because that’s shown to be very effective

in improving mental and physical health metrics.

So once a week, I’ll check in with myself.

If I reach that 150 to 200 minute threshold,

then I’ll reward myself simply by checking off a box

and saying, okay, I’m on track, I’m on track, I’m on track.

This dopamine system is critical to re-up,

to remind ourselves that we are on track

if indeed we are on track,

because dopamine itself provides a state of motivation

and readiness to continue

in the regular pursuit of our goals.

Dopamine, the molecule is actually used

to manufacture epinephrine and norepinephrine,

which are other molecules in our brain and body,

which put us into that readiness and action state.

They’re actually the molecules that help generate

that increase in systolic blood pressure

that puts us into a state of readiness.

So you can think about dopamine as a self-amplifying system

provided that you are leveraging the dopamine system

on a consistent schedule.

Now, by also following a consistent schedule of self-reward,

you set yourself up for any positive unanticipated rewards

that may happen.

So for instance, if you’re checking in with yourself weekly,

telling yourself that you’re doing well, if indeed you are,

and then out of nowhere, for instance, you’re out on a run

or you’re doing something, I’m using fitness as an example,

but you’re doing something,

you find yourself performing particularly well,

that’s a unexpected dopamine reward

that will further amplify the system.

Now, I know many people out there,

having heard me talk about dopamine before worry,

well, can I release too much dopamine

and then the whole system will crash

and then I’ll run out of motivation.

In general, that doesn’t happen

unless people are using pharmacology, supplements

or prescription drugs or illicit drugs to increase dopamine.

This is why I’m a big fan of things like cold showers

and cold water exposure, which has been shown to lead

to long lasting 2.5X increases in dopamine.

Or in some cases, supplementation with things

like L-tyrosine, which are precursors to dopamine.

Or in some cases, caffeine,

which can increase the number of dopamine receptors

that we have so that whatever dopamine we have

floating around can be more effective

in activating these motivational states.

But things that really increase dopamine

and then cause it to crash can be problematic.

One way to conceive of dopamine

is as a sort of dopamine wave pool.

You’ve probably seen these wave pools

where some pressure is pushed into the pool

and then you get these waves going.

If those waves are consistent enough,

but they, and they’re of high enough amplitude,

the waves can continue to go up and down and up and down.

But if it’s a giant wave,

if you get a huge blast of dopamine,

well, then a bunch of the water sloshes

out of the wave pool.

And then you basically have to take some time off,

reset that dopamine level.

That’s what happens in addiction.

When people start pushing in a lot of drugs

or other things into the system

that increase dopamine too much.

So today we’ve almost exclusively been talking

about behavioral tools.

It is possible to incorporate supplements

and things of that sort that can increase dopamine

as a way to getting into ongoing motivational states.

But I caution people about relying on those too much.

Really what you want is you want a situation

where your own positive feedback,

your own understanding that you are reaching

the milestones that you’ve set out for yourself,

that you’re achieving those.

And that is what’s causing these waves

or these increases in dopamine

that will further amplify your motivational states.

Another very interesting aspect of dopamine

that I’ve not talked about at all on this podcast before

is actually how the dopamine system interacts

with the visual system.

We’ve talked a lot about how harnessing

your visual attention to a particular point is great

and can help serve your ability to both set

and achieve goals.

Really wonderful work that was done by Wolfram Schultz,

who’s one of the great pioneers in this area of dopamine

and dopamine reward prediction error,

showed that for people that have normal levels of dopamine,

their visual search,

meaning how they scan visual environments,

tends to be pretty constrained.

They might move their eyes around

a particular visual environment searching somewhat.

For people that lack dopamine,

they actually have very little movement of their eyes.

They don’t actually tend to look very far

into the horizon.

They don’t have that very focused vergence point

that we’re talking about that kind of,

I guess, for lack of a better phrase,

that kind of eye of the tiger focus on a goal.

Rather, their eye movements are depleted

and they’re not actually evaluating horizons

off in their future.

They’re not focused so much on the extra personal space.

And this actually can be restored in some of these

that took place in Parkinson’s patients

and other people who have dopamine depleted,

that when dopamine is restored pharmacologically,

their visual focus is re-enhanced again.

Now, there are a lot of details to this study

that don’t map perfectly onto everything

that I’ve talked about.

But the point is this,

when we are focused on a particular point in visual space

or its particular goal or horizon,

all those systems, our blood pressure, epinephrine,

and indeed dopamine get recruited

to put us into a state of readiness and willingness

to go pursue things in that extra personal space.

When our visual attention is very diffuse,

all of that relaxes and we tend to be more comfortable

staying in the place that we are in our peripersonal space.

And the effect works in the other direction too.

When dopamine is increased,

our visual attention for particular things

out in space increase.

So the way it works is reciprocal.

When we use our visual system in a particular way,

bring it to a point of focus,

it recruits chemical and neural systems

in our brain and body that put us into a state

of readiness and pursuit.

And when we increase certain chemicals

in our brain and body like epinephrine, like dopamine,

then we also allow our visual system to be in a state

of looking out at particular locations in our visual world.

So the system works in both directions.

And some people leverage this by using things like caffeine

or taking things like L-tyrosine to increase dopamine.

And again, it works both ways.

There’s no right or wrong way to do it.

I’m a particular fan of using behavioral tools

always prior to using supplementation

or any kinds of other tools,

because behavioral tools have a very unique feature

that supplementation and other chemical tools don’t,

which is that behavioral tools used over time

engage neuroplasticity.

As we start to practice using our visual system

to harness our attention to particular locations,

and in that way move toward particular goals,

we get better and better at using those systems.

In fact, the systems for focus and motivation

themselves have plasticity.

So we get better at being motivated and focused

when we place our visual attention at a given location.

Using chemical assistance of a safe kind,

of course, check with your doctor,

but things like L-tyrosine or caffeine or those combined,

yes, it will increase dopamine and will increase our ability

to engage in visual focus somewhat.

But those compounds alone don’t modify the circuitries

in the way that we want.

So I always say behavioral tools first,

then nutritional tools, then supplementation tools.

And then if it’s right for you and safe,

maybe you advance into some of the other

more sophisticated tools.

I’d like to just briefly recap

what I’ve covered up until now.

And again, emphasize that much of what I’ve covered

has been based on the beautiful work

of Emily Balsettis and colleagues.

I do hope to get her as a guest on the podcast, by the way.

First of all, set goals that are challenging but possible.

Those moderate goals, not super easy, not super difficult,

but moderately challenging goals

seem to be the most effective in moving people

towards their goals over the short and long-term.

Second, plan concretely.

You need a concrete set of actions

that you’re going to follow in order to reach your goals.

Third, foreshadow failure.

This is a somewhat surprising one to me.

I would have anticipated that imagining success

is the way to go.

It turns out that imagining success and visualizing success

can be useful at the outset of a goal

and maybe every once in a while in pursuit of that goal,

but that it’s not terrific for putting you

in constant pursuit of that goal.

Rather, foreshadowing failure,

visualizing failure and all the terrible things

that it’s going to bring seems to be more effective.

And that maps very well to what’s known

about the neural circuitry

and the involvement of the amygdala.

Focus on particular visual points

as a way to harness your attention

and to remove distractors.

Removing distractors and getting your body and brain

into a mode of activation,

getting that healthy increase in systolic blood pressure

that puts you into forward motion

towards your goals is absolutely key.

So that’s a brief summary of what I’ve covered up until now.

There were other things too, of course,

the dopamine system and the power

of subjective top-down control

in regulating that dopamine system.

But I want to be sure to include a tool

that’s been especially powerful for me,

that’s grounded in the neuroscience research

and in the psychology research.

And as I describe this tool next,

I think you’ll see the ways in which it meshes nicely

with the work that Emily Balsettis and colleagues have done.

This is something that I’ve personally been doing

for many years based on my understanding

of the visual system and the understanding

that indeed we can move our cognition

and our perception from a place of interoception

and focusing on our peripersonal space,

that space within us and immediately around us

and on the things that are immediately accessible to us,

that we can shift from that mode

to this mode of exteroception,

of focusing on things outside the confines of our skin

and that are beyond our reach,

that are literally goal-directed behaviors

and goal-directed thoughts.

And this is something that in the past,

I talked about a little bit

and I’ve talked about something called spacetime bridging.

And we haven’t talked too much about the time domain

of the visual system today,

but spacetime bridging is simply a way

of using one’s visual system to focus

on the peripersonal space and interoception

and then gradually in a deliberate way,

stepping one’s focus into the extra personal space

and then back to the peripersonal space

in a way that gives you a lot of flexibility

and control over that ability in your daily life.

So I’m going to first describe the tool

and then I will explain more about the underlying science

and the underlying mechanism.

Here’s how you would do this.

You could do this indoors or outdoors,

although ideally you would do it in a location

where you could view a horizon.

It could be through a window

or ideally outdoors without a window.

Could be done any time of day.

At night, it might be a little more challenging,

but it goes the following way.

What you first do is you would close your eyes.

This could be done seated or standing,

but you would close your eyes

and you would focus as much of your attention,

including your visual attention on your inner landscape,

on your interoception.

So that would be your breathing, your heart rate,

maybe even the surface of your skin,

but really focusing internally.

Now, how can you focus your visual attention internally

if your eyes are closed?

Well, you do that by imagining your inner landscape, okay?

So you don’t have to imagine your heart beating

and so forth, but what you’re trying to do

is eliminate perception of the outside world.

You’re eliminating exteroception

and you’re focusing all of your cognitive attention

and your perceptual attention

on what you’re experiencing within the confines

of your skin or at the level of the surface of your skin

and inside your body.

And you would do that for a duration

of approximately three slow breaths, okay?

So close your eyes.

You would do breath one, breath two, and breath three,

concentrating all your attention on your internal landscape.

Then you would open your eyes

and you would focus your visual attention

on some area on the surface of your body.

So for me, the way that I typically do this

will be to focus on, say, the palm of my hand.

So I’ll focus my visual attention on the palm of my hand.

And I then do three breaths again,

focusing on my internal state,

but now I’m splitting out a little bit of my attention

from interoception to exteroception.

I’m focusing on something outside me.

The ratio or the split of attention is about 90-10.

About 90% of my attention is focused internally,

but I’m also focusing some of my attention externally.

Most people can do this pretty easily.

Then there’s a third, what I call station.

I now move my visual attention to outside my body,

to some location in the room,

or if I’m outside in the external environment,

something in the range of five to 15 feet away.

And I’m trying to move 90% of my attention

to that external object.

So now I’m really biasing my perception

and my attention towards exteroception.

As I breathe, I’m paying attention to those three breaths.

So that’s why there’s still 10%

that’s focused on my internal landscape

because I want to pay attention to those three breaths,

but I’m focusing as much of my attention

outside of myself,

maintaining just a little bit on my internal state

so I can measure the cadence of those three breaths.

Then I move my visual attention to yet another station,

which is further away, typically a horizon

or something as far off in the distance

as I can possibly see.

Again, for the duration of three breaths.

And at that point, I’m trying my very best to move 99,

if not 100% of my attention to that external location.

And then what I typically will do

is I will try and expand both my vision

and my cognition to a much broader sphere.

This is that magnocellular vision

that we talked about before,

where I’m not focusing on a particular location

on the horizon,

I’m trying to dilate the aperture of my field of view

so I can see as much of the visual landscape

as I’m in as possible.

If you’re in an internal, excuse me, if you’re in indoors,

then that might be the ceiling, the walls,

and the floor of the environment you’re in.

If you’re outdoors,

it would be to expand your visual focus

as broadly as you possibly can,

again, for the duration of three breaths.

Then I would return immediately to my internal landscape.

I would close my eyes

and I would do three more breaths

focusing entirely on my interoception,

on my internal landscape,

or what we called before my peripersonal space.

And I would then repeat that.

Peripersonal space, 100%.

Focused on my hand, 90%,

10% on my peripersonal space or my internal landscape.

Stepping out to another location

where it’s mostly exteroception,

maybe a little bit of recognition of my internal state.

Then to the horizon,

then to this broader visual sphere,

then back into my body.

And I would work through each of those stations

maybe two or three times.

The entire thing takes about 90 seconds to three minutes,

depending on how many breaths you do.

I said three, but you could do one or 10,

it doesn’t really matter.

Or it’s also going to depend on, for instance,

how slowly you’re breathing,

because your breathing might be faster than mine

or vice versa.

What is all of this doing?

Why do I call this space-time bridging?

And why is this useful for goal setting?

The reason I call it space-time bridging

is that the visual system is not just about analyzing space,

it’s actually how we batch time.

It’s how we carve up time.

And the simple way to state this

is that when we focus our visual attention

on a very narrow point,

that’s close to our body and our immediate experience,

we tend to slice up time very finely.

We’re focused on our breathing.

We’re focused on our heartbeats.

In fact, our breathing and our internal landscape

and our heartbeats become the sort of second hand,

if you will, on our experience.

We are carving up time

according to our immediate physiological experience.

Whereas when we focus our visual attention outside our body,

not only do we engage

that exteroceptive extra personal space system

and we start to engage the dopamine system,

the goal-directed system,

but we also start batching time differently.

When we focus our visual system

into a broader sphere of space

or into a space beyond the confines of our skin,

we start carving up time.

Our frame rate changes.

Now, this is useful in the context of goal setting,

goal assessment, and goal pursuit

because with the exception of a very few isolated examples,

almost all goals involve setting some goal

that’s off in the future

and then carving up the time between now

and the achievement of that goal into milestones

that range in duration.

And the rewards,

even if we try and just make them every week,

are going to come at some unexpected intervals.

And that’s actually can be helpful for reinforcing behavior,

intermittent reward that’s intermittent and random

is the most effective reward schedule we know.

But the problem is always how do we keep our cognition

in line with the long-term goal

while also being focused on these more immediate goals?

And so this particular practice

that I call space-time bridging,

but we could give it a different name.

I’m sure there are better names.

Maybe you can suggest some in the comment section on YouTube

that are more accurate or more mapped to it better.

But 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 at different locations in time.

And that is the essence of goal-directed behavior.

That is the essence of setting a goal.

It’s about thinking about what you want.

Then it’s about setting milestones

that are intermediate to that goal.

Then it’s about assessing

whether or not you’re reaching those milestones.

And then it’s of course about updating your goals

if you need to update your goals.

All of that is an enormously confusing batch of challenges

if you think about it all at once.

But if you break it down into these elements

that the visual system can help you find

and move towards those milestones,

I think there’s ample evidence to support that,

and that your control over your visual system

is indeed yours,

that you can deliberately set it to different locations.

And then you make a practice

of stepping through these different stations

on a regular basis.

Again, I do this each morning.

I do this once a day.

Rarely have I done it twice a day.

Rarely have I missed a day.

But by doing that,

you can be very effective in teaching the systems

of your brain that are related to goal-setting and reward

to map to different timeframes.

So I found this to be a very effective protocol.

The Balsettis work has mainly focused on visual tools

that are of a single horizon.

Here, I’m talking about multiple,

what I call stations or horizons.

But what’s very clear is that an ability to move

from different visual stations

and to do that in a deliberate way,

in a focused and conscious way,

clearly maps to an ability to conceive of different goals

over different periods of time.

And I do believe 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.

Per usual, I covered a lot of material today.

We talked about some of the neuroscience and psychology

and popular understanding of goal-seeking behavior,

how to assess goals, et cetera.

Talked about the beautiful work of Emily Balsettis

at New York University and her work

on the use of the visual system to better achieve goals.

And indeed things like visualization

and why forecasting failure can be more effective

than forecasting success.

As counterintuitive as that might seem,

that’s what the data point to.

And we talked about the importance

of setting concrete plans and really what that means

and what intervals at which to assess progress

and what intervals at which to assess reward

and how the dopamine system is involved.

And in addition, I described this practice

that one can incorporate as a daily or semi-daily practice

of so-called space-time bridging,

of using the visual system and your ability

to deliberately step your visual system

from stations that are within your body,

so-called peripersonal or interoceptive space

out into the world further and further

and then back again in sequence

as a way to harness and cultivate

and build up these systems that link vision,

space, time, reward systems, and so forth.

Ultimately, as you set out to accomplish your goals,

there are going to be a number of basic steps

that everyone will have to follow.

You’ll have to clearly identify

what the long-arching ultimate goal is.

You have to identify what the milestones will be.

You might not know all of them at the outset,

but you ought to have some idea about the intervals

at which you are going to set those milestones

and set your reward schedule for assessing progress

in route to those milestones and your ultimate goal.

My hope is that you’ll be able to incorporate these tools,

if not all of them, perhaps just one of them

or two of them in pursuit of whatever particular goals

you happen to be focused on at this point and in the future.

If you’re enjoying and or learning from this podcast,

please subscribe to the podcast

on YouTube, Apple, and Spotify.

That’s a terrific zero-cost way to support us.

In addition, on YouTube,

you can leave us comments and feedback.

You can also leave us suggestions

about guests that you’d like us to include

or topics that you’d like us to cover

in the comment section on YouTube.

And on Apple, you can leave us up to a five-star review.

There’s also an opportunity to leave us a written review.

Please also check out the sponsors

mentioned at the beginning of the podcast.

That’s perhaps the best way to support this podcast.

And as mentioned at the beginning of today’s episode,

we are now partnered with Momentous Supplements

because they make single ingredient formulations

that are of the absolute highest quality

and they ship international.

If you go to slash Huberman,

you will find many of the supplements

that have been discussed on various episodes

of the Huberman Lab podcast,

and you will find various protocols

related to those supplements.

If you’re not already following Huberman Lab

on Instagram and or Twitter, please do so.

There, I teach neuroscience and neuroscience-related tools

that sometimes overlap with the content of the podcast,

but oftentimes is unique from the content of the podcast.

Also, if you haven’t already done so,

please subscribe to the Huberman Lab

Neural Network Newsletter.

The Neural Network Newsletter

is a monthly zero-cost newsletter

where I very succinctly spell out or list out protocols

for things like sleep, learning, neuroplasticity,

and other topics as well.

You can go to, click on the menu,

go to newsletter.

It’s a simple signup.

We will not give out your email information to anybody.

All our privacy policy is there.

Again, at zero cost and the tools that are there

very cleanly spell out a number of the protocols

that you can hear about on the podcast.

And in closing, I want to thank you once again

for joining me in this discussion

about the biology, science, and in particular,

the neuroscience of goal-setting, goal assessment,

and achieving goals.

And last, but certainly not least,

thank you for your interest in science.

comments powered by Disqus