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It's the climb - how to set (and achieve) your goals

With exams and deadlines fast approaching, what can psychology tell us about how we set and achieve our goals?

By Genevieve Clapp, Second year, Medicine

With exams and deadlines fast approaching, what can psychology tell us about how we set and achieve our goals?

If your anything like me, it is around this time of year that you decide to step things up academically. Yes, the New Year’s resolutions may have not gone to plan, but the exam season is approaching –  time for some new goals.

So, we flood the stationary stores buying notepads plastered in motivational quotes and whipping out the Colemans and pastel highlighters. Maybe you’ll even re-download the Forest app that you deleted as soon as January exams were over. Unfortunately, according to the latest research from Queen Mary University, a beautifully calligraphed list of aims won’t be the key to our success – how we approach our goals will.

The team at Queen Mary conducted a series of experiments into how much effort people were willing to put in to achieve their goals. They measured effort by looking at a person’s willingness to perform a mental task, which was a simple mathematical problem, or a physical task, that involved squeezing a joystick. The participants were given a range of financial rewards to choose from, each one requiring them to execute a task with a different level of difficulty.

After analyzing the data, they concluded that most people set a goal based on the reward rather than the amount of effort required to achieve it. However, when they start to work towards the goal their focus shifts from the reward to the amount of work it is going to take to achieve it. This makes it significantly harder to accomplish what we set out to do.

At first, I found this quite hard to believe. ‘Can’t be bothered’ sometimes seems to be the slogan of our generation, with many people often not applying for opportunities or taking part in things because it is simply too much effort. We already have a lot on our plates, why would we want to take on more?

But, on second thought it began to make more sense. Dr Osman, an experimental psychiatrist and one of the researchers running the study, explained that ‘getting up early to exercise for a new healthy lifestyle might seem like a good choice when we decide on our new year's resolutions, but once your alarm goes off on a cold January morning, the rewards aren't enough to get you up and out of bed.’

Interestingly, there was no difference between the responses for the physical tasks and the mental tasks; therefore, whether you’re hoping to run a marathon or reach for those first-class honors, the solution is the same. We need to switch our perspective. Consider the blood, sweat and tears it is going to take when setting the goal, and then keep your target in sight once you’ve made that decision.

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You might be thinking that it is all very well telling us to concentrate on the finish line, but that really this is fairly hard to put into practice. This is completely true, as there are many things that can distract us. One method that might help would be to set some milestones along the way.

Our brain’s reward center is built around the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is released when we achieve something, giving us a sense of pleasure. Doing a few things that trigger this response will make you hungry for that gratifying sensation and will hopefully make you want to keep achieving those milestones. Drugs such as cocaine have the same effect on the brain, which is why they are so addictive.

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Another important chemical when it comes to your ambitions are endocannabinoids – it is important to note these are found within the body, not cannabis, before you get any ideas. These are involved in habit formation and act on the orbitofrontal cortex of the brain to turn a goal into a habit. The more regularly you do tasks that help you reach your intended destination, the more endocannabinoids will be released, and it will become instinctive.

Whether these tips leave you addicted to achieving your goals or no further along than before, this recent research still gives us important insight into human behaviour. Hopefully, researchers will continue to dig deeper and find out why it is in our nature to set ourselves unattainable goals in the first place.

Featured image: Flickr / Get Everwise, Oliver Tacke, Unsplash / Miguel Bruna, Ameer Basheer, Glenn Carstens

How do you set your goals? Let us know!