Why do set goals so often fail? Why do we sometimes sabotage our own attempts to achieve goals? These aren’t character flaws; these are neural pathways at work. Neural pathways are thought processes and mental associations of the brain that create brain patterns. And when thoughts that become brain patterns are repeated frequently enough, they can become habitual ways of thinking. Habits create behaviours which create results that will stay the same if we continue to do the same things! Doing what we’ve always done will not achieve new goals. We’ll get the same results over and over again.
The good news is that we can change all of that thanks to neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to reorganize and form new pathways or patterns. Where do we start? At the very beginning—we practice new ways of thinking to change patterns.
Scientists estimate we have about 50,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day, giving us several opportunities each day to create change. By noticing thoughts that are not supportive of goal achievement then redirecting them with goal achievement statements, or mantras, we create opportunities to respond differently, to consciously and purposefully choose thoughts that are aligned with goals. I call this process ‘managing the mind.’ Our thoughts can then create behaviours and when both thoughts and behaviours are aligned with goals, previously impenetrable boundaries can dissolve.
So don’t despair if you or your organization’s employees are slipping on their goals for 2015. Don’t feel doomed to see your business partners and employees repeatedly fail to reach their targets each year. All they need to do is to change their minds—simply focus on what they want to achieve, not that they aren’t achieving it.
Success is truly in the head according to a new field of study called social cognitive and affective neuroscience, finding that what we pay attention to changes our brains. And changing our brains changes our results. So goal achievement is not only about the physical actions we take, but equally about the ability to maintain mental focus on the goal.
According to Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb, what we focus our attention on creates networks in the brain that can stay with us, wired together, sometimes forever. The idea that attention is the ingredient that changes the brain is also supported by a large body of research in an area called neuroplasticity, referring to the brain’s ability to restructure itself after training or practice. Amazingly, research demonstrates that within only a few weeks the circuitry of the brain can be changed significantly enough to show up on a brain scan. And we can use the brain’s plasticity to our advantage in realizing our goals by noticing non goal supportive thoughts and then redirecting them repeatedly to create sustainable change.
To get started, simply identify a word or phrase or two that is designed to help you achieve your goal. The words must be personally meaningful, impactful, and motivational. Then, when you become aware of negative self-talk, reasons why you can’t get to that meeting or get started on that proposal, simply pause. First congratulate yourself for your awareness of the mental state that might sabotage your goal and then recall your word or phrase to get back on track. Indentify your word or phrase well ahead of time because you will need those hand holds ready to grab onto in order to climb out of the pit of self-defeating thoughts. Trying to create those handholds while in the depths of the pit is extremely tough.
So with your pre-prepared motivational word or phrases at the ready, when you catch yourself having non-supportive mind chatter, like how you’ve failed at making change in the past, redirect your thoughts at that moment. Some reassuring statements might include: I trust myself to be successful this time. I can do this. I am doing this now. Use the same process when you find that your schedule is creating feelings of overwhelm and you notice you are talking yourself into postponing the steps you intended to take and redirect those thoughts at once by using your prepared word or phrase, which might be something like: I can handle this. My goal is important and so is my development. I’m sticking to my commitment.
The Canadian Institute of Stress calls this ‘self-affirming communication’ and it will help in goal achievement. Mantras, defined as instruments for thinking, are also a form of self-affirming communication. Mantras are not just for monks—mantras work on any type of goal achievement. From coaching employees in the corporate world to coaching teams in the world of sports, some sports psychologists encourage this type of thinking because they know it works on the playing field too.
To create effective mantras, focus on what you want to feel versus what you want to overcome. For example, if you’re stretch goal is to chair a committee and you have been procrastinating, you might notice your thoughts go something like: I just don’t have the time to do this. Maybe Joan can do it. Should I ask Joan? But I want to develop my skills. Why is this so hard? I wanted to do this last year and I didn’t. What’s wrong with me? Maybe I’ll feel more like it tomorrow. I’ll just wait one more day. But instead of allowing your mind to continue its focus on what you are trying to overcome, redirect your thoughts with a prepared mantra, maybe something like: I am ready to do this now…come on…just dig deep and do it.
Experiment with a variety of words and phrases that are meaningful to you. Keep statements short, personal, and meaningful, targeting what you want to feel, not what you are trying to overcome. And use them often, redirecting your thoughts quickly with statements that not only slay negativity but also support your goals.
Changing your brain to achieve goals can be quick and simple—yet it takes focus and commitment. The effort is worth it. You’ll find that using this process is a sure-fire way to increase long-term success and goal achievement. According to Hebb’s theory, ‘cells that fire together wire together,’ helping to sustain your goal achievement attitude now and throughout the year.
Laurie Bonello, B.A., CHRP
Motivational speaker, author, and human resource/wellness consultant specializing in employee selection and development (www.theroadtolife.com).
Phone: (306) 382-0121