Episode 55: The Science Of Setting & Achieving Goals | Huberman Lab

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Key Takeaways

  • The neurobiology of goals and goal setting should be layered on top of the psychology to help us achieve our goals more efficiently
  • Four parts of the brain are responsible for goals: the amygdala responsible for fear & anxiety, the basal ganglia responsible for action/inaction, the lateral prefrontal cortex involved in planning and thinking across timescales, and the orbital prefrontal cortex which helps us orient our emotions involved with goals
  • Regardless of the goal or its size, the same neural circuits are involved
  • The neural circuits involved in goals assess two things: (1) the value of the goal and whether it’s worth pursuing; (2) which actions to take towards that goal
  • Delayed discounting: the further out a goal is, the less effective the reward is in motivating behavior
  • We evaluate progress and how we feel about pursuit in peri-personal space; moving toward a goal involves orienting thinking toward extra-personal space
  • Imagining a goal has to be coupled to the pursuit of the goal – visualization alone is helpful in getting us started on pursuit of goals but not a good way to maintain the pursuit of a goal
  • Foreshadow failure: thinking about failure or what will happen if you don’t achieve a goal is actually the best way to motivate towards goal pursuit – in other words, use failure as motivation to lean into correct behaviors
  • “The brain and body are much better at moving away from fearful things than towards things we want.” – Dr. Andrew Huberman
  • Assess progress towards a goal on a weekly basis and give yourself a small reward to leverage the dopamine system and tell yourself you’re on the right track
  • Best practices in setting and achieving goals: (1) set goals that are challenging but possible (not too easy, not impossible); (2) plan concretely; (3) foreshadow failure; (4) focus on visual points to keep the attention and remove distractors


Dr. Andrew Huberman, Ph.D. is a Professor of Neurobiology and Ophthalmology at Stanford University School of Medicine. His lab focuses on neural regeneration, neuroplasticity, and brain states such as stress, focus, fear, and optimal performance.

Andrew Huberman talks about goals and the science of setting and achieving goals. He reviews the neural circuit of the brain responsible for goals and how to use that information for goal setting, goal assessment, and goal achievement.

Host: Andrew Huberman (@hubermanlab)

Note: For full access to publications that are behind a paywall, check out Sci-Hub.

The Neuroscience & Psychology Of Goals

  • Humans are unique in their ability to juggle multiple goals setting & pursuits at the same time
  • Goal seeking and pursuit of goals originate from the same neural circuit, regardless of the nature of the goal
  • Amygdala: instills a little bit of the fear and anxiety factor associated with setting and achieving goals to avoid punishment or embarrassment
  • Ventral striatum in basal ganglia: a neural circuit that initiates “go” (action) or “no go” (inaction) in scenarios
  • Cortex (lateral & orbital prefrontal): involved in planning, time scales, how actions relate to the future, and meshing emotions with progress
  • The neural circuits involved in goals assess two things: (1) the value of the goal and whether it’s worth pursuing; (2) which actions to take towards that goal
  • Goal pursuits involve several different states in the brain and body
  • There are a few core elements to goal setting: (1) identify and define a specific thing to attain; (2) assess whether you are making progress towards that goal; (3) goal execution; (4) action steps

Peri-Personal Versus Extra-Personal Space

  • Peri-personal space: all the space in your body, within the surface of your skin, and in your immediate environment
  • Peri-personal space is what we have and how we feel in the immediate and present
  • Particular chemicals and circuits are involved in peri-personal space – a sense of breathing, consuming water nearby, etc.
  • Peri-personal space is modulated mostly by serotonin
  • Extra-personal space: everything beyond the confines of reach, at some other location in space and time
  • Extra-personal space is understanding what else is out there beyond our immediate, and understanding of how to get there
  • Neuromodulators and neurochemicals involved in extra-personal space is dopamine
  • We have to evaluate whether we are making progress and on the right track within a time period
  • To properly achieve goals we have to be able to toggle back and forth between peri-personal and extra-personal space

Anchoring Attention With Multi-Tasking & Visual Field Tips

  • There is a role for multi-tasking but it must be placed strategically in a time along with pursuit of a goal
  • Most people can maintain focus for about 3 minutes at a time before drifting, even momentarily
  • Leveraging multi-tasking: when we multi-task, there’s an increase in epinephrine/adrenaline which triggers action
  • Multi-tasking activity before jumping into focused goal-oriented behavior can be useful to get us into action
  • The visual system achieves an increase in alertness by communicating with the circulatory system that delivers blood, nutrients, and oxygen to the rest of the body
  • Looking at a goal-line allows people to achieve goals faster and feel like it took less effort
  • Leveraging gaze: look at a dot or line (on a screen or paper in front of you) for 30 seconds then move to work that requires focus; this increases cognitive ability to pay attention  
  • To learn more about visual field and goals: Effects Of Narrowing Visual Attention On Goal Pursuit Behavior by Balcetis, Riccio, Duncan, et. al.
  • Visual perception of present or future is what allows us to anchor our goal-directed system and motivation to complete tasks that may not be useful in the moment (but useful in goal)
  • Visualization is helpful in getting us started on pursuit of goals but not a good way to maintain the pursuit of a goal – you’re better off thinking about how you want to avoid failure
  • Try space-time bridging: gradually move the focus from internal state to outside the body at a distance while taking three slow breaths at each step
    • Step 1: Close your eyes for three slow breaths, concentrating on your internal state;
    • Step 2: Open your eyes and focus vision on an area on the surface of your body (like palm);
    • Step 3: Continue with slow breaths and focus attention outside your body to about 5-15 feet;
    • Step 4: Move eyesight to the horizon or as far as you can and dilate pupils to take in as much as possible;
    • Step 5: Close your eyes and return focus to your internal state and take three slow breaths

How To Size Goals

  • The probability of achieving a goal fluctuates depending on whether the goal is easy, moderate, or impossible
  • If the goal is too easy: it doesn’t recruit enough of the autonomic nervous system to pursue
  • If the goal is moderate or just outside of ability: there’s twice the likelihood you’re more likely to pursue that goal
  • Set goals that are realistic and challenging – but not so lofty they’re impossible and crash the system

Pursuit, Specificity, Of Goals

  • Trying to pursue too many goals at once can be distracting
  • Setting 1-3 major goals for a year is enough
  • Having a concrete plan with specific steps is essential – “what does right look like?”
  • Weekly assessment of progress toward the goal is a good starting point
  • Space-time bridging:

Dopamine & The Reward-Prediction Error

  • Dopamine – the molecule of motivation – is the currency by which we assess value & progress toward goals
  • Possibility is deeply woven into the dopamine system
  • In the neurological system, the surprise, novelty, motivation, and reward release dopamine
  • Reward-prediction error = actual amount of dopamine released in response to something – the amount expected
  • If you tell a child they “might” have ice cream later, you’re effectively telling the dopamine they will have ice cream – if it doesn’t happen, there’s a big dopamine crash
  • Understanding the reward-prediction error allows us to make better decisions about how far out in the future to place milestones and assess progress
  • Pick an interval at which you will assess progress & give yourself a reward
  • Leverage dopamine release on a schedule of rewards that you can do consistently
  • Dopamine interacts with the visual system bidirectionally: using our visual system in a particular way recruits chemicals (like dopamine) to put us in a state of readiness and pursuit – and vice versa

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Notes By Maryann

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