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
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.
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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
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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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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,
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.
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?
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
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
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.
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