Before making any progress in life, we need to set the best possible goals for ourselves. These are the goals that encourage the most positive development and success. People often attribute their failures to poor effort, execution, or ability, and forget to consider whether the goals they set themselves on Day 1 were appropriate. It seems obvious to say but let’s make sure we are on the same page: if you set the wrong goals, you have prepared the ground for wasted time, wasted effort, and probably a truckload of frustration, all the way up until you realize you need to try something new.
Goals can span multiple levels of human psychology. At the most basic level, they guide our immediate actions as we navigate the world. Let’s call these intentions — they are the urges and desires we have to perform some action in this moment that changes our internal states or changes the environment around us. These changes do not need to be profound; an intention could be as simple as scratching our nose to get rid of an itch. If we step up from our basic intentions, we then have the longer-term goals that are useful for tomorrow or next year. Let’s call these plans — they are the motivations we have that we cannot do much about right now, but we keep them in mind for when the time comes. I will talk through intentions and plans in sequence.
Every time we make an action — when we pick up a cup, do up the buttons on our shirt, insert our key into the lock on the front door — our brain is implicitly setting intentions and making predictions about how the world will behave after we go through with those intentions. Of course, we are not always aware of intending something in these simpler instances. We do not think “ok I will push this button into that hole on my shirt in order to tie the two sides together and avoid revealing my naked torso to the world when I step outside”. It just happens. The brain is good at that.
These basic intentions and actions that we use every day only come to our attention when something goes wrong. While we are doing up the buttons on our shirt, we might be thinking about what we will have for dinner tonight, or what to say at the important work meeting in a few hours. But imagine that the next button on our shirt happens to be missing because the cat chewed it off. As our fingers move down to feel for the next button, and fail to detect anything that feels like a small plastic disc, an error signal cascades around the brain, hitting areas that include specific parts of the parietal lobe and cerebellum. This error signal basically says “something unexpected just happened so we need to recruit more brain resources to work out what is going on”. This is where our conscious mind kicks in to help solve the problem. Our conscious mind is good at keeping us focused on a specific issue but also acts as a major bottleneck on anything else we might want to do at the same time. We can no longer think about what to have for dinner while our unconscious system handles putting the shirt on. We are now too busy trying to work out what on earth happened to the shirt button.
This general intention monitoring mechanism also explains some of the more frivolous facts in life, like why we can’t tickle ourselves. When we intend something to happen, and the outcome matches our predictions for that intention, our brain actually suppresses the perceived intensity of that outcome. It is a sort of “nothing to see here folks” signal. But when we have no intention to do something, and an event surprises us, then we feel the full force of its sensory consequences. This is the difference between tickling ourselves and being tickled by a friend. In one case, we have the intention to tickle ourselves which dampens the experience of feeling tickled because the brain is modeling the exact consequences of our intended action. In the other case, we have no such intention or model for the outcome, so the experience is a squirm-inducing laugh-cry phenomenon. Even if we know that a friend is about to tickle us, we still feel their tickle because we cannot directly model their action as if it was our own. Our implicit motor prediction system is powerful but restricted to when we are planning our own actions.
So our intention setting system for immediate actions is a great machine for keeping us efficient. It whirs away, building specific intentions and predicting their consequences. If what actually happens in the world is strange and does not match the predictions, then we generally pay a little closer attention to what we are doing.
Neurosurgeons like to play around with these intention systems. If you are undergoing surgery to remove a brain tumor, you are likely to be awake as the surgeon cuts away a section of your skull and begins work to excise the invader. This allows the surgeon to ask questions about your experience and track what might be going on as they move around the different parts of your brain that they have access to. The best way to confirm the function of a particular brain area is to probe it and ask how the patient feels.
Researchers in 2009 led by Michel Desmurget tested an interesting question: can I use my stimulating electrode to make the patient experience a particular goal or intention to act? They had access to two specific brain areas in patients undergoing surgery: the premotor cortex and the inferior parietal lobe. When they stimulated parts of the inferior parietal lobe with a low intensity current, patients reported desires to move particular body parts, for example “I felt a desire to lick my lips” or “I had a desire to move my right hand”. When they stimulated the same areas at higher currents, patients reported actual movements such as “I moved my mouth, I talked, what did I say?”. But the researchers saw no movements from the patients and detected no change in the muscle recordings. The movements that patients reported were entirely illusory. When researchers stimulated the premotor cortex on the other hand, patients actually moved parts of their body like their fingers or mouth. However, the patients reported no movements and would deny moving even after being questioned. So setting an intention for movement, performing an action, and being aware of that action are separate functions in the brain. In everyday life, the brain works as one tightly integrated unit, but the inferior parietal lobe seems specifically important for setting or monitoring intentions.
Much of what your brain is doing right now is outside your conscious awareness, and that includes many of the processes that set your goals or intentions. Just like the surgeon’s electrode can make you feel “I want to speak now”, your own unconscious brain activity can also produce the intentions you experience in everyday life. In fact, evidence suggests that if I put you in a brain scanner and ask you to freely choose between pressing a button with your right or left hand, your unconscious brain activity will predict which hand you choose 7–10 seconds before you ever realize what you want to do consciously. And don’t think that your intentions to stop an action or change your mind are any more driven by your conscious input. In one of my own studies, we tested whether unconscious fluctuations in brain activity could influence decisions to withhold actions rather than perform them. We measured the levels of activity in people’s motor cortices as they tapped out a rhythm with their finger and skipped a tap in the rhythm whenever they felt like it. We found that before they chose to skip a tap, motor activity in their brain would decrease to predict their upcoming intention to withhold an action. In effect, the spontaneous levels of activity in your motor cortex, which you can never really be aware of, guide your intentions about whether or not to act. They could make the difference between clicking or not clicking ‘send’ on that angry email to your boss, running or not running for that train at the platform, or maybe even pulling or not pulling the trigger on that gun in a moment of anger. Activity that you are not aware of can determine what you think you want to do.
We may often experience urges that come from deep dark places in our biology. Civilized society has largely done, and is still doing, a fantastic job at training us into well-behaved adults who are capable of exercising restraint and considering the moral consequences of our actions. But in extreme situations, things can still go terribly wrong.
A medical report from 2003 describes the life of one particular unfortunate soul. A man leading a relatively normal life began to develop an uncontrollable interest in pornography in his late 30s. This interest began to consume his life and started to advance into its worst possible form: an urge for child pornography. He became less able to control his urges over time, and eventually victimized his young stepdaughter. After being found guilty of child molestation in court, he was committed to a rehabilitation program. His behavior continued to deteriorate as he made sexual advances towards staff at the rehabilitation centre, and he was eventually called to court for a prison sentencing. Before the sentencing could take place, he went to a hospital with severe headaches and explained he wanted to kill himself and feared that he would rape his landlady. A brain scan showed a growing tumor taking over his right orbitofrontal cortex at the front of the head, a brain area known to be important for impulse control and emotional urges. Seven months after removing the tumor and going through strict assessments and behavioral programs, the patient had made significant progress. So much progress in fact that he was no longer believed to be a danger to his stepdaughter and was allowed to return home. Later that year, he began to complain of headaches again and his obsession with pornography returned. Another brain scan revealed that the aggressive tumor had resurfaced with a vengeance. Doctors successfully removed the tumor a second time.
The case above highlights how our urges and intentions in life can dramatically change depending on the state of our biology, and how their source can be very much hidden from us. If activity in the brain shifts in an unhealthy direction, whether due to a visible abnormality or not, our goals in life can shift from finding rewards in family, friends, and careers, to finding rewards in immoral, destructive, and unacceptable actions. We should never take the integrity of our healthy brains for granted. If we are lucky enough to have an intact ability for self-control and productive decision-making, we should consider the intentions we have, and assess whether they will contribute to improving our lives and the world around us. Intentions in your mind often seem to come out of nowhere if you pay attention to them. One moment you are sitting quietly typing up a document at work, and the next, you would do anything to get your hands on churros dipped in chocolate. The frequent randomness and caprice of your intentions should make you all the more wary of them. Not all intentions are sensible, and only attentive consideration will allow you to control whether they should guide your actions or be ignored.
With the short term intentions above, we decide whether we want to do something and then we do it. But we also regularly plan for further in the future. A powerful element in human cognition is the ability to look forward and form goals for tomorrow, next week, and next year. These goals can be simple and straightforward like “I need to post that letter in the morning”, where the only real obstacle is our own memory. But they can also be more complex or philosophical like “I want to find the right person to spend my life with by the end of the year”, where the challenges still depend on remembering your plan, but also depend on many other factors outside of your control.
Setting the right plans depends on a reliable capacity for self-reflection. You need to know how good you are at a particular task and how much it truly motivates you. In giving advice about goal-setting, people often lump these two things together with goal difficulty, but it’s important to understand that they are separable. The advice I hear most often is to “make sure that a goal is not too easy and not too hard”. This is generally true but it’s more practical to expound on the statement a little. “Too hard” is a bad thing because it destroys motivation, and “Too easy” is a bad thing because progress is slower than it needs to be given your level of ability. Edwin Locke, an American researcher and pioneer of goal-setting theory, puts it most precisely when writing about the role of difficulty in goal-setting with his co-author: “So long as a person is committed to the goal, has the requisite ability to attain it, and does not have conflicting goals, there is a positive, linear relationship between goal difficulty and task performance”. In other words, as long as you are aware of the limits of your ability and don’t set goals beyond them, and as long you are fully motivated to commit to your plans, set your goals to be as difficult as possible because that will lead to the greatest success.
Other evidence from experimental psychology can lend a helping hand with what are called ‘implementation plans’ (actually they are called ‘implementation intentions’ but I will use ‘plans’ to avoid conflict with the intention vs plan terminology I defined earlier). A common problem with the way we generally set our goals is that they are far too vague. We tell ourselves “I want to lose weight” and “I want to quit smoking”, and entirely lose track of those thoughts at first sight of a chocolate cake or cigarette.
Well, implementation plans make it more difficult to forget or ignore the goals we set. Instead of a blanket abstract statement like “I want to be healthy”, an implementation plan needs to be formatted with an ‘if-then’ structure. For example, “if I feel a craving for a chocolate cake, then I will eat a stick of celery”. This more concrete formulation is harder to lose track of or find exceptions to. It forces us to consider the future a little more seriously, and builds a stronger connection between cue (the ‘if’ part) and behavior (the ‘then’ part).
In one experiment, researchers tested implementation plans with unemployed opiate addicts in a hospital to see whether their employability behaviors would improve. After showing the participants model resumes, the researchers explained that they could submit their own resume at the end of the day. Those who formed relevant rather than irrelevant implementation plans about completing a resume were far more likely to hand in a resume when the time came. In fact, out of the patients who suffered addiction-related withdrawal symptoms, 8 out of 10 who formed relevant implementation plans submitted their resume, while 0 out of 11 of those who formed irrelevant implementation plans submitted their resume. Strong and specific implementation plans make us more resistant to distraction and counterproductive impulses when we are trying to stick to plans we set.
If the advantage of implementation plans applies to people suffering severe withdrawal symptoms from their heroin addiction, then it should certainly apply to luckier people who are simply distracted by the occasional shortbread while trying to eat healthier. You can even supplement your implementation plans with an added kick up the bottom, by making a public commitment out of your plans amongst friends and family. You’re a lot less likely to give up a goal when loved ones are watching you and judging your integrity.
Another problem with our goal setting is the scope of our plans. We have already seen that formatting a plan with a concrete ‘if-then’ structure helps enormously, but there are simpler helpful strategies that your grandmother taught you. Breaking down goals into small concrete steps with an approach as simple as writing a list can do wonders. When we try to keep multiple tasks and goals in our busy head, they spiral out of control and begin to look like large demons, each more difficult to defeat than the last. The stress makes it harder to think clearly, and we naturally end up delaying any action at all. Seeing the same goals written down on a piece of paper allows you to appraise them more realistically, and relieves the burden of holding the tasks in your working memory. You have something concrete in the world to organize your thoughts around and a piece of paper is far less intimidating than an abstract thought. You can see it clearly so it doesn’t escalate in your anxious head. Something so small could not possibly be unmanageable. And each time you complete a task, you can visually see your number of remaining tasks reduced as you tick one off. It is hard to overstate the value of tangibility.
It helps to be aware of the many external and internal factors that affect our intentions, goals, and decisions. There are hidden depths and secrets to our motivations that we may never be aware of. But considering our intentions a little more carefully, and cutting ourselves some slack when we realize we have stupid intentions, can help to cool down a hot head in the future. It also helps to demystify that feeling we have all experienced at some point when looking through old photos or daydreaming about past mistakes: “what on earth was I thinking!?”. Nobody should expect permanent happiness but we can certainly aim for greater self-efficacy and achievement. We all have our own ideas about what the perfect life looks like, and it’s about time we crafted that vision a little more carefully for ourselves. Then we can move towards it with a stronger sense of pragmatic self-belief and awareness.