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How Our Brains Stop Us From Achieving Our Goals

How Our Brains Stop Us From Achieving Our Goals

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Published by: Surut J Shah on Aug 17, 2012
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05/13/2014

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How Our Brains Stop Us From Achieving Our Goals (and How to Fight Back

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Gregory Ciotti As admittedly wonderful and fascinating as the human brain is, it can also feel like the brain is out to get us sometimes. In some circumstances, our brain's natural reaction actually does more to sabotage than help. Here,Sparring Mind founder Gregory Ciotti explains how to combat your brain's own brilliance, overcoming the instinctual reactions which often have devastating effects on your long-term goals.

Your brain can hurt your goals by fantasizing too much
Would you believe that fantasizing is the #1 way your brain unintentionally ruins your goals? It seems unlikely, right? The thing is, the proof is in the pudding (or in this case, the research): psychologists have found that while positive thinking about the future is broadly beneficial, too much fantasy can have disastrous results on achieving goals. Researchers tracked the progress of how people cope with four different types of challenges. As an example, in one of those challenges (trying to find a fulfilling job), those who had spent the most time fantasizing performed the worst in a variety of critical data points:
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they had applied for fewer jobs they had been offered fewer jobs if they were able to find work, they had lower salaries. Why? Why could fantasizing about a positive end take a turn for the worse? Jeremy Dean, a psychological researcher at UCL London and the owner of PsyBlog had this to say about the researcher's conclusions: The problem with positive fantasies is that they allow us to anticipate success in the here and now. However, they don't alert us to the problems we are likely to face along the way and can leave us with less motivation—after all, it feels like we've already reached our goal. It's one way in which our mind's own brilliance lets us down. Because it's so amazing at simulating our achievement of future events, it can actually undermine our attempts to achieve those goals in reality. Our poor brain is thus a victim of itself. Again, this is not to say that visualizing goals is necessarily a haphazard strategy for achieving them, it's just that we need to be aware of the dangers of excessive fantasy. Instead of being entranced with what the future may bring, we need to learn to love the work here and now. Enjoying our day by day progress and realistic ‘checkpoints' is a much more practical way to create our future; getting lost in grandiose dreams that focus on the ultimate end is not. As they say, don't give up on your dreams, but don't fall under their spell either.

Your brain procrastinates on big projects by visualizing the worst parts
Procrastination, of all of the things on this list, is likely the most recognizable: everybody realizes that they procrastinate from time to time, and it's something we are forced to battle with every day. How can we fight this persistent opponent? Interesting research from Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik (of whom the Zeigarnik Effectis named after) reveals to us an interesting tidbit about the human mind: we are better at remembering things that are partially done. Ms. Zeigarnik came to this conclusion by testing the memory of folks doing simple "brain" tasks like puzzles or crafts. She then interrupted them and asked them to recall (with specific detail) the tasks that they

and have been doing well for about 2 1/2 weeks. Our brain has the habit of envisioning the impending huge workload of an upcoming task. It also tends to focus on the most difficult parts or sections. we're primed to remember the last episode because the story was interrupted. Instead of finishing the day a tad over your 2000 calorie goal. It's the same with your tasks: start. your brain is yelling out "BURGER!"." You also tend to see that it's not as big a mountain as you initially imagined. This doesn't paint the true picture though: they ate over . The crazy thing about this scenario? It's much more than a momentary act of weakness: psychologists have observed that this is much more likely to happen as a result of you missing a previously set goal. and our brain wants a conclusion. In the study. Specifically. you're forced to use a restaurant menu. you order the burger with fries and don't look back. triggers our brain in a different way. know this: in a study by Kenneth McGraw. Just starting though. This was to make them believe that they had most certainly "ruined" their diet goals for the day. What both of these studies teach us is that when people finally manage to start something. Your brain will "abandon ship" at the first sign of distress Anyone who's fought the good fight with dieting will likely recognize this phenomenon." we find ways to skate around it and trick ourselves into thinking that we're busy. and this is where procrastination begins to set in: as we try to avoid the "hard work. but you know your defenses are at risk. This seemingly small milestone appears to be the most important one to overcome if you wish to defeat procrastination. This is because they tricked some of the participants into thinking that they had recieved a larger slice than the others (using framing and false information). The thing is. Afterwards. it turned out that those who were on a diet and thought they'd blown their limit ate more of the cookies than those who weren't on a diet. nearly 90% of participants continued working on the puzzle anyway. you're having dinner with friends tonight. combined with the bread you had before dinner. It's the same way that cliffhangersare utilized to keep us coming back to our favorite TV shows. The thing is. The result? When the cookies were weighed. all of the participants were interrupted before they could finish. participants were given a very tricky puzzle to solve with an "unlimited" amount of time. people who were actually on diets were tested with pizza and cookies. they are much more inclined to remember the task and finish it. two groups of participants (those on diets and those not dieting) were told not to eat beforehand and then served exactly the same slice of pizza when they arrived to the lab. The problem is this: At the bar before dinner. the experimenters didn't really care about the cookie's rating. they were then asked to taste and rate some cookies. your brain will be more enticed to finish it to it's "conclusion. and then told that the study was over. you're with your pals tonight. To make matters work. they just wanted to see how many people ate. After starting a task. you had a little "cheat" moment by ordering snacks and drinks. leave you with one option to stay a bit over your caloric intake goals: you must eat a salad. and your brain will overcome the first hurdle. What does this have to do with procrastination? Before we get to that. and that the work involved in completing this task won't be so terrifying after all. The Zeigarnik Effect and the subsequent McGraw study assure us that the best way to beat procrastination is to start somewhere…anywhere. She found that people were twice as likely to recall more detail about the tasks they had been interrupted in than in the tasks they had completed. Instead of the healthy meal you could have made at home. Despite being told they were done. right? You know that those drinks and snacks.were doing or had completed. inresearch by Janet Polivy and her colleagues. after all. Envision this: You're on a diet. The thing was.

Truly. but planning for failures along the way ("In case of emergency…") helps people stay on task under duress. not become distraught by a single mishap. It takes doing the hard work and it takes deliberate practice. When you look back at what you've gotten done by the end of the day. research by John Bargh and colleagues reveals that our brain loves to become robotic and to mimic people out of habit. we'll instead float around doing semi-related (read: barely related) menial tasks to make ourselves feel productive without actually getting anything done. but remember the progress that you've made. your brain knows this. I tend to fall flat on my face. This could be something like: "If I go over 2000 calories in a day. I'll go for a 15 minute run as a ‘penance. I put some in category ‘A' (must be done tomorrow) and some in category ‘B' (must be worked on or done in 2-3 days). and then the next morning. it's still an accomplishment to have started one and to have set long-term goals for yourself. but not something that produces any measurable results. The thing is. the subject of "if-then" plans was discussed in relation to how we set and stay consistent with out goals. don't let your brain ruin your goals by diverting you from what needs to be done! Your brain is not good at "winging it" when it comes to planning. In fact. Say you did have that lapse and go over your calories for the day.ever! Every night before I go to sleep. Research tells us that this is the best mindset to take for misfortune and failure in general: your progress and achievements go so much farther than that slip-up. Also remember that you can fight that procrastination by just getting started. that's why you have to remind it that the challenging stuff is often the stuff that produces the results you desire. I shouldn't have to tell you that this is disastrous to achieving long term goals! This busy work is often a mechanism our brain uses in cohesion with avoiding big projects (mentioned above): instead of diving into the difficult tasks we KNOW we should get done. I like to write a simple to-do list that I group into two categories.. Instead of "winging it" and letting your brain crumble to it's likely response (discussed above). With the diet example. whenever we come short of our goals. Here's the thing: you're not going to build a thriving business or a successful blog with that kind of busy work. I do this because when I sit down at the computer without a plan. make sure you're proud of what you got accomplished. and the results are not surprising but reveal a lot of insight into how our brain reacts to planning (and even some great tips). Don't let this happen to you! The best way to combat your brain from signaling ‘Mission Abort!' after you've missed a short-term goal is to re-frame what just happened. researchers found that not only do well-laid plans seem to get accomplished more often. My so-called "work time" turns into the not-so-productive "check email time" or "browse Reddit" time. there's no way around it. you did fall short or maybe mess up this time. It seems that I'm not alone! In research by Gollwitzer and colleagues. you should have a backup plan ready to know what to do when failure strikes. Yes. Let's continue our diet example from above.50% more! On the flipside. our brain is geared towards a call of "Abandon ship!". The thing is. I'll finish the day as close to 2000 as I can. the dieters that did think that they were in their caloric limit ate the same amount of cookies as those who weren't on a diet at all. you could look at all of the "good days" you've accumulated thus far: even if you fell after only a few days of starting your new diet. don't let your brain convince you that all is lost! Your brain loves mindless busy work disguised as progress One of the ways in which your brain continues it's trickery is through busy work: work that gets "something" done. Short-term lapses in your end-goal are not like a bad apple spoiling the bunch: you have gotten things accomplished so far and you need to stay focused on the long-term.. nothing of any importance gets done.' make sure I eat an extra .

just with a quick run) yourself by running in the morning. Download his free e-book on ‘Conversion Psychology' for more research or follow Greg onTwitter. Fill up your Buffer at one time in the day and Buffer automagically posts them for you through the day." You are likely no stranger to feeling ashamed about getting off track. all week long. Simply keep that Buffer topped up to have a consistent social media presence all day round. So remember to include an "if-then" plan for your next big goal—you'll be able to beat back your brain's guilt over slipping up now and then and you won't have to ever "wing it" in case something goes wrong! How our brains stop us from achieving our goals (and how to fight back) | Buffer Blog Gregory Ciotti is the founder of Sparring Mind. you can go about your day knowing that you got what you deserved. instead of sliding down the slippery slope of guilt through the rest of the day. the blog that takes psychology and persuasive marketing and makes them play nice together. and then continue the rest of my day as normal. Image remixed from Ioannis Pantzi and Leremy. . and including a small ‘penance' like I discussed above can help us get over it quicker. If you failed on your diet for a day and then ‘punish' (again. Buffer makes your life easier with a smarter way to schedule the great content you find. we've all been there. Having those "In case of emergency…" plans help us to have a gameplan in case we do falter.healthy breakfast.

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