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The Science of Setting New Goals

Goals for the month
What are your goals for the month?

Goals are usually things we want but have difficulty achieving. Some can be easily achieved, whereas others require more time and effort. Every goal we set can be beneficial to not only our personal sense of achievement, but to our cognitive functioning as well.

Engaging in behavior is not what makes accomplishing a goal difficult, rather it is the required change in behavior that makes it hard. This sense of struggle can be described with the term behavioral change.

Professor Elliot T. Berkman, from the University of Oregon, describes two dimensions that need to be taken into consideration when looking at why new behavior is difficult¹:

The Way

This requires a reflection of our skills, capacities, and knowledge that is required to engage in a particular behavior. This involves planning out the necessary steps, and having the skills and cognitive processes to execute the plan. This can be considered as the means to our end.

The Will

This dimension represents the desire and importance of this behavior. It is related to the motivational processes, and how you prioritize this desire over the other ones. This involves the intention, the nature and the strength of the drive for any particular achievement.

These two dimensions produce four types of actions²:


This requires some level of skill or knowledge, but little motivation. Habitual behaviors reside in this category, and this kind behavior typically involves the absence of a conscious goal.


These need little skill and motivation. Walking, eating, and similar simple and effortless behaviors fall within this quadrant. We hardly consider these behaviors as goals though. The key difference of this category compared to the first is the required skill level.


These tasks require high motivation and low skill. This involves the simple but new tasks; and some can even be unpleasant. Actions such as changing a diaper falls into this category.


These behaviors require high skill and motivation. The goals that people care about the most typically reside within this quadrant.

The key difference between a habitually unpleasant task and a complex difficult one is the skill and knowledge that is required.³ Both will require high levels of motivation, but when we shift between these quadrants we will begin to build our skill(s).

When comparing an easy complex task and one that requires effort, the difference is the level of motivation.⁴ For example, it can be extremely easy to drive to work since you've already taken that route so many other times. However, more concentration will be needed if you're driving in a new environment. It will force you to utilize the driving and navigation skills that you already have.

Since we are utilizing what we already know, shifting between these two quadrants is a matter of effort rather than knowledge and skill. Once someone has the ability and understands what is required to complete a task, the missing piece to their success is their motivation.

Retrieved from Elliot T. Berkman

When researchers want to study "the ways" of goals and behaviors, they focus on executive functions. These are higher level cognitive capacities that generally aid in successful functioning. It includes attention, task switching, working memory, planning, and inhibitory control. ⁵

Recently, researchers have begun to explore the relationship between the central and peripheral nervous system. They discovered that acute stress on the parasympathetic nervous system can impair our inhibitory controls.⁶ These are the central components of executive functions. It allows us to actively inhibit or delay our responses in order to achieve our goals.⁷

Learning to identify the environmental factors that influence our inhibitory control can promote a positive change in behavioral and social adjustments.⁸ Even though researchers have studied how executive functions operate, further research will need to be conducted to analyze how they can be improved.

When looking at executive functions, there are 3 characteristics:⁹


This describes the level of difficulty behind completing the task. There has been emerging evidence that indicates the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) is one of the many parts of the brain that tracks the amount of mental effort needed.¹⁰ It would appear that not only does the brain have regions that execute the necessary controls, but it also assigns certain controls to various tasks.


In order to engage in executive functions, they require conscious awareness and attention. We can tell when we're engaging in executive functions when a task becomes the center of attention. An example of this could be when we're asked to do mental math. It's generally voluntary but this task will occupy all of your attention.

This kind of attention requires holding the core information within our main focus while simultaneously swapping information. These short-term attention processes are supported by the lateral prefrontal and parietal cortices. The role of these regions is to not only maintain the information, but also to disengage with any unnecessary information.¹¹

Novel Goals

This enables us to perform tasks we've never done before. The role of the prefrontal cortex is to coordinate behaviors to achieve these new goals.¹² One of the defining characteristics that set us apart from nearly all animals is our ability to plan and execute new behaviors.

However, the prefrontal cortex can also learn to automate these new behaviors. To the point where they no longer utilize space in our consciousness. This is how habitual actions are formed.

When this happens, there is a shift from the dorsomedial to the ventral and dorsolateral areas of the striatum. The dorsomedial has a strong connection to the prefrontal and parietal cortices, which involve attention and working memory. Whereas, the ventral and dorsolateral areas are strongly connected to the sensory and motor cortices.¹³ Therefore, these regions are crucial when it comes to forming new habits.

But how can setting goals and utilizing these executive functions be beneficial?

Provides Direction

When we pinpoint our goals, we are giving ourselves a sense of direction. It provides a clearer focus on what is important and can even provide clarity when making decisions. Goal-setting can even form and sustain that momentum that further pushes you towards new objectives.

Personal Satisfaction

When we set goals, it is a very powerful technique that can produce motivation. When we accomplish a goal, it can lead to satisfaction and higher motivation for other goals. But if we do not accomplish our goals, it can lead to frustration. Committing to our goals is the key to success.

A Sense of Control

When we don’t have any goals, we may begin to lose our sense of purpose. But when we have a set plan, we can gain more control over where we want to go and how we want to get there.

Writing down our goals or creating a checklist is the first step to achieving your desires. Some can be more difficult than others, and we may feel discouraged if we fail. But if we commit to our goals despite previous failures, the sense of accomplishment will be even greater.


  1. Berkman E. T. (2018). The Neuroscience of Goals and Behavior Change. Consulting Psychology Journal, 70(1), 28–44.

  2. Ibid.

  3. Ibid.

  4. Ibid.

  5. Roos, L. E., Knight, E. L., Beauchamp, K. G., Berkman, E. T., Faraday, K., Hyslop, K., & Fisher, P. A. (2017). Acute stress impairs inhibitory control based on individual differences in parasympathetic nervous system activity. Biological psychology, 125, 58–63.

  6. Ibid.

  7. Morasch, K. C., & Bell, M. A. (2011). The role of inhibitory control in behavioral and physiological expressions of toddler executive function. Journal of experimental child psychology, 108(3), 593–606.

  8. Ibid.

  9. Ibid.

  10. Ibid.

  11. Shipstead, Z., Harrison, T. L., & Engle, R. W. (2016). Working Memory Capacity and Fluid Intelligence: Maintenance and Disengagement. Perspectives on psychological science: a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, 11(6), 771–799.

  12. Ibid.

  13. Ibid.


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