Develop goal-directed persistence.
The brain develops gradually, and continues to build neural connections throughout our lifetime. A person’s “executive skills” take from 18 to 20 years to develop. The executive skills are mainly located in the prefrontal cortex, and are the last areas of the brain to develop in late adolescence or early adulthood. Among other skills that the executive skills control is the ability to think before you act, plan, and focus – skills that are essential to personal organization and time management.
This week’s blog discusses goal-directed persistence, the ability to have a goal and follow through until its completion. If you are strong in this skill, you have a good record of achieving goals that you set. You are steady, persistent and reliable, and seldom let setbacks or obstacles prevent you from completing a project on time.
Many people struggle with the ability to set, pursue and achieve goals since it involves self-discipline and focus. An intentional act such as this does take willpower, focus and attention. But studies in neuroscience show that you can do this – literally change your brain – by thinking about what you have decided to do.
Joe Dispenza, author of the book, Evolve your brain, claims that what we think about and where we focus our attention is what we neurologically become.
For example, if you decide to make it a goal of yours to write a book or build a tree house or complete a course in social media – and then think about it, including how you will start, the time you will need, and so on, you are building the brain power needed to achieve that goal. The more time you spend on that goal, both thinking about it and acting on it, the easier it becomes for you.
The default setting on our brain seems to be goal-oriented. But if we stop learning, stop changing our habits, stop being creative and stop seeking new experiences, our brain can become hardwired to maintain the status quo. This does not change its neuroplasticity; we can change it at any time. But we must consciously want to change and start thinking about the changes that we want in our lives.
Although setting, pursing and achieving goals consumes energy by making decisions and practicing self-discipline and focus, you can make it easier on your brain by applying the following suggestions:
- Don’t overwhelm yourself with too large a goal. Our short-term memory, discussed in an earlier blog, allows us to hold only a limited amount of any project in our mind at any one time. So it is important to break a large goal into smaller segments and work at these segments step by step.
- Build the habit of spending a certain amount of time each day working on a specific goal-related task. You can then apply this habit to any goal, no matter how large, whether it is writing a book one chapter at a time, completing a self-study course one lesson at a time or becoming a super salesperson one sale at a time.
- Keep motivation high. Be clear on both the benefits of achieving the goal and the steps you must take in order to get there. Motivation requires both a strong desire to possess what the goal promises, and a belief that the action they are taking will achieve the goal. According to a study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, and reported in the October, 2014 issue of Psychology Today, lessening the gap between expectations and outcome increases our satisfaction.
- Maintain brain health. You will also encounter both internal and external distractions that could impede your progress. That’s why the other executive skills discussed in this blog series are important as well – such as response inhibition, sustained attention and emotional control. Internal distractions could include such things as stress and tiredness as well as self-interruptions. So it’s important to get adequate sleep, a healthy diet and plenty of exercise. These are especially important to strengthen your goal-directed persistence and other executive skills since we are more easily side-tracked and lack energy when we are tired, stressed or ill.
- Schedule time, not tasks. If you schedule a goal-related task to be achieved in a specific time frame, you could feel stressed and out of control if you still don’t get the task completed. To prevent this, change your mindset. Schedule time to work on a task rather than the task itself. The expectation then becomes to spend one hour or 90 minutes each day (or week) until the task is finished. This way you can’t fail.
- Choose a high performance zone. Your working environment has a lot to do with how effective you are. Find your “high performance zone” – the place where you have the most energy and seem to be the most creative, and spent a couple of hours each day working there. This could be a coffee shop, a room at home or a library, not necessarily your office. Another suggestion is to have plants in your office or a view of nature. Sian Beilock, in her book, How the body knows its mind, gave the example of university students with mostly natural views from their dormitory rooms scoring higher in tests of working memory and concentration than students who lived in the same dormitory but with views of other buildings.
- Organize your work area to increase focus. As we read more about the workings of our brain, we learn more about the importance of getting organized. For example, according to neuroscientist Torkel Klingberg, author of The overflowing brain, the more items on your desk, the greater the demand on your attention. So keep your workplace clear.
- Overcome mental blocks. If you find yourself staring at the computer screen with no idea how to start, start typing anyway. As you write nothing of consequence, something of consequence will start spilling out of your brain. In a similar way, if you have ideas or notes scribbled on a napkin or piece of paper, type them. Your brain is activated once the task is started.