Goals! Why they are so hard to achieve

Goal concept

 Seven simple steps to success

Well! January is gone and with it all those good intentions that you made at the beginning of the New Year (aka New Year resolutions). They’ve disappeared until December when you will drag them out again and faithfully assure yourself next year will be different.

But wait, wasn’t that what you promised yourself last year and even the year before?

You start off so well but before February has even risen above the horizon, your good intentions have vanished. Then you are left asking yourself, “What is wrong with me? Why am I so weak-willed? I’m such a failure.” It’s a feeling most of us recognise. And it isn’t limited to New Year resolutions. How many of us set goals, written them down, only to find that we’ve given up before the ink has dried on the paper?

I can assure you that there is nothing wrong with you. In fact you’re pretty normal. In 2007, Professor Richard Wiseman, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire, undertook a study of 3,000 people who made New Year resolutions, all of whom were confident that they would achieve them. Result? Only 12% actually achieved their goal. That means 88% of the lesser mortals (people like you and me) had failed, many ditching their good intentions by 23 January. Does that make you feel better? Probably not. If you didn’t want to change you wouldn’t be making those promises to yourself in the first place, would you?

Your brain – your best friend and your worst enemy

smiley-vector-illustration-zombie_MJJv7vn__LSo why is it so hard? The answer is your brain. It is both your best friend and worst enemy.  By understanding how the brain works, you will be able to make the changes you want or need, at any time of the year. Not just 1 January (you name the year!) Our brain is capable of change. Neuroscientists call this ‘plasticity’ but we need to play a different game to what we normally play in order to get our brain to cooperate.  So keep reading. I will explain what the brain is doing to thwart all those changes you want to make and give you tips on how to overcome them.

Our brain is designed to keep us safe

Amygdala 2Our brain expects things to remain the same and is very clever at maintaining the status quo. This is because the familiar equates to safety. Your brain is programmed to detect danger (a throwback from much earlier times). Your fight or flight response is located in the amygdala, one of the oldest areas of the brain. It ‘remembers’ what experiences are rewarding and what are not.  Imagine walking down a dark street. You have walked down this street on numerous occasions, but this time an unexpected noise and sudden movement startles you. The amygdala triggers your emotions faster than your conscious awareness, so even if it is only a startled cat that you have encountered, you already have adrenaline coursing through your body, you’ve broken into a sweat, and your heart is pounding. In other words you feel fear. Now, all you want to do is to get away from the area as quickly as possible; to feel safe again.

It’s the same with change. Even if you are trying to fix behaviour that you know is not good for you, our brain will try and get back to what it is familiar and comfortable with.


Making change requires willpower. The part of the brain that operates willpower is located in the prefrontal cortex, located right behind your forehead.

It is also responsible for staying focused, handling short-term memory and solving abstract problems (a huge task on its own). Asking it to take on a heap of changes is simply asking it to do too much. Research suggests that willpower is inherently limited. It’s like a muscle in our body and worked too hard will become tired, but can be strengthened with exercise.

You wouldn’t expect to run a marathon if you haven’t trained for it, but that is what you are asking your brain to do. Willpower takes energy. So constantly using it will tire you out. As a result trying to change too much, too soon, becomes all too hard. It is so much easier to go back to the old behaviour.

Habitual behaviour

Most of our daily lives are taken up by habits. We work on autopilot, even with behaviours that don’t serve us (think of that cream bun you eat with your morning coffee every day). There is a good reason for this. Our brain has an efficient technique for

Neurons Illustration. Neuron is an Electrically Excitable Cell That Processes and Transmits Information by Electrical and Chemical Signaling.

managing repeated behaviour. Neuroscience refers to this as the use of neural pathways. The more we repeat an activity, the stronger and thicker those neural pathways become.

Remember when you were learning to drive a car. There were a number of skills that you repeated over and over. At first you were very nervous (that was your amygdala at work) but finally driving a car became automatic. You developed a new, strong neural pathway that will stay with you until you can afford a chauffeur and can give up driving yourself.

This habitual behaviour frees our brain for more important activities, and because it is a well-worn path, it is much easier to use than to start a new one.

Reshaping behaviour using your best friend

Understanding why it seems so difficult to achieve goals, means you can now use that knowledge to your advantage. Your brain really is working for you. You just need to help it along.

Here are 7 tips that will ensure you will achieve all you want.

1. Before you even start, be realistic. Know that you will need time, determination, patience and will power. And be kind to yourself

Willpower, focussed attention and mindful action can be used to push through resistance and rewire habitual patterns. Remember willpower is finite but you can increase its reserves simply by exercising (good for both the brain and your body

2. Start with one goal and start small

Remember, your brain cannot cope with too much change in a short space of time. At best your prefrontal cortex can manage only one goal at a time.  Be selective of what you want to achieve and you will have more chance of success. Ensure that the goal is achievable. Quite often we set ambitious and daunting goals that never get off the ground. Simplify those bigger goals into something more achievable

3. Attach a behaviour to that goal

Instead of saying “I will lose weight” rephrase it to say you “will stop eating that cream bun for morning tea and eat an apple instead”. Start small. Yes, it is going to take longer than you might want, but you have a better chance of sticking to it. To make it easier, avoid being in the place where those cream buns are being sold and/or eaten. It appears that changing your environment is easier than changing your behaviour. So consider what you can do to change your environment to assist you maintain your goal.

4. Build a fresh neural pathway

Once you begin to change any behaviour you start building a fresh neural pathway. To maintain it you must continue the behaviour. It has now been shown that it takes on average 66 days (and sometimes longer) to create a new habit, not the 21 days as previously touted. So you will need to use your willpower until the new pathway can take over your new behaviour to become automatic.

As a bonus, the old neural pathway (the one that tempts you to eat cream buns) will start to wither away. Again, it will take time and you will continue to feel its pull for a little while longer. When that happens you should distract your mind. Read a book, do colouring in for adults (you will love it), a crossword or Sudoku or just go for a walk.

5. Hold yourself accountable for what you want to change: Write it down and tell others

Write down your goal put it somewhere you can see it on a daily basis. It will help keep you on track.

Let people know what you are planning to do and ask them for their support. If you go a week without eating a cream bun, tell them and reward yourself (no, not with a cream bun, but a trip to the movies, or buying that book/dress/you name it that you have been promising yourself). Get excited, punch the air. Feel the pleasure of success.

That lovely warm and fuzzy feeling you get when people congratulate you, or you feel happy and excited, is the result of a dose of dopamine released by your brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain‘s reward and pleasure centers. Dopamine also helps regulate movement and emotional responses, and it enables us not only to see rewards, but to take action to move toward them. And isn’t  that is just what you need?

6. Have a good social network

Research has shown that having a good social network has a huge impact on your behaviour. Apart from helping you keep on track, having a social support helps reduce stress and anxiety. Not only is it good for your health, but it reduces the pressure on your prefrontal cortex. If your prefrontal cortex is dealing with stress it doesn’t make good decisions.

7. What to do when life throws you a new problem

Life has a bad habit of throwing in a problem at the worst possible time. Trying to deal with the problem and maintaining your goal will lead to feeling overwhelmed, as your brain diverts energy towards dealing with the new issue.

It’s okay to put your goal on hold. If you can maintain the progress you have already made plus deal with this new issue, great. You won’t lose too much momentum and you can get back to your goal once you have dealt with the problem.

But if it doesn’t work out that way, it’s important that you don’t call yourself a failure, or weak, or whatever derogatory term you want to label yourself. Your brain actually takes that on and believes it! We all fail at one time or other. It’s a part of being human. It’s having the courage to pick up the pieces to start over again that makes us stronger and more resilient.

Here is your opportunity to succeed

Now you know how your brain works for and against you. So go on. Choose a worthwhile goal and start working on it now. Don’t wait until January 1, 2017. Today is a far better time and with some determination and willpower, you will have accomplished your goal long before then.

Success_smallYou feel wonderful. You have achieved your goal. It’s exhilarating. Now you are ready to take on another. And this time it will be a lot easier because you have primed your brain for success.

If you are interested to read more on willpower, neuroplasticity and neural pathways start here:

Read how a neuroscientist discovered exercise was good for the brain here