Perhaps you’re setting out to run a marathon—or maybe angling for a big promotion. Or it could be something as simple as trying to cut back on caffeine, or moving your body more often. No matter the size or scope of a goal, you can find some comfort in the fact that achieving different habits or milestones all comes back to a similar cycle in the brain. And with the right knowledge, we’re all capable of tapping into that motivation.
So what does it take to set an intention or hack a habit? While neuroscientists are still uncovering a lot of mysteries around the human brain, here are some science-backed pointers that will give you a head start on your next goal.
The SMART framework is often referenced in the workplace while determine business objectives and employee development—but it can be a great template and an effective goal setting process for your personal goals, too. The SMART model asks that you:
In a 2007 study out of Dominican University of California, psychology professor Dr. Gail Matthews asked 267 participants of varying backgrounds to take different steps to set goals—and found that the group who wrote their goals down were 42% more likely to achieve them than those that didn’t.
You might think goal-setting is all about willpower and determination—but while those things can certainly be helpful ingredients, it’s much more of an uphill battle if you’re not passionate about what you’re trying to achieve.
Now, to be clear: We know that at face value, “passion” might not be an obvious way to describe a target habit like cutting back on sugar or waking up earlier. But there are ways to reframe your goal to something that has more of an emotional tie, like the end result you’re aiming for. For example: Maybe you’re cutting back on sugar because you want to be kinder to your body or improve your health—which maybe has a ripple effect on your family and the life you’re building. Or the real reason you want to wake up earlier is because you’re excited to have those extra hours to work on a passion project. In other words? It’ll be that much easier to stay on track with a habit or goal when you know exactly what you’re working towards, rather than making it about the habit itself.
While trying to understand how habit formation happens in the brain, scientists have determined a loop of behaviors consisting of three parts: cue, routine, and reward. The cue is the trigger, and the idea is that it should be consistent. So if your goal is to wake up earlier, then the cue is your alarm, ideally at the same time every morning. With time, consistency (routine) and a reward (a hot cup of coffee, perhaps?), your brain will start to register the routine and automate the habit.
Experts have found that when you connect a new habit or goal to an existing, well-established one, it’s that much easier to build a routine around it. An example: If your goal is to challenge your fitness or log a daily workout, and you’re already in the habit of waking up at the same time every morning, maybe you start your day with a quick workout routine right after waking up. While it might be challenging to shift your routine at first, you’ll find that with time, you’ll feel ready to work out first thing in the morning. Another example? Let’s say you need to take a prescription or pill at the same time every morning, but have a tough time remembering. Try putting your pills right next to your toothbrush, so that when you brush your teeth, you’re also reminded to take your prescription.
How’s this for improving your chances of success? The American Society of Training and Development found that when we have an accountability partner on our goal-setting journey, we’re 65% more likely to achieve the result we want. That might mean recruiting someone to go after the goal with you, or it could just be committing to checking in on your progress with someone.
Life happens—there are so many outside factors that can disrupt the routine or goal we’re trying to cultivate, so it’s unrealistic not to anticipate slip-ups from time to time. When this does happen, just ease back into your routine the next day or whenever it makes sense to make it a priority again. All in all: You got this!