Don’t Aim For the Stars. Just a Bit Above the Ground is Great!

Everyone tells you to set huge goals. “Aim for the stars!” Is what they say. But maybe we’ve got it wrong.

Humans thrive on a sense of achievement. We like completing things, checking things off, making progress and hitting targets. These things give us a little shot of our reward chemical, dopamine. Is the dopamine buzz bigger if the goal is bigger? Without a doubt. But there’s something else you need to know about dopamine: it reinforces behaviours.


It’s common sense that when you give your kids positive reinforcement for something, they’re likely to do it again. Part of that is conditioning - they want more positive reinforcement (read: more dopamine) so they do it again. But the other thing going on under their radar is that the dopamine helps begin to lay down some super-conductive neural pathways that actually turn that action into more of a habit.


There’s a reason that most people can’t stick with their new year’s resolution much past the middle of February. It’s because they run out of dopamine. Either because their goal is too far in the future, or because they’re not getting the results they thought.


When things are far off in the future, they don’t seem like as much of a reward to us ($100 right now would be great, but $150 in 12 months doesn’t really excite you), so we get less dopamine. And when we don’t feel like we’re achieving anything - when we’re not making progress - there’s no dopamine for us either. So without the dopamine, our behaviours aren’t reinforced. Habits aren’t established and conditioning doesn’t take place.


So maybe we should set smaller goals - things that are far more achievable - to get that dopamine buzz.


Often in my workshops on performance and productivity (or sometimes even leadership), I hear people say things like:

I’m going to exercise six times a week, or I’m going to do five one-on-ones with my staff every week


This is a great intention, but if you’re coming from a small base (or a base of nothing) then chances are you’re going to find this really challenging to execute.


What’s going to happen instead is that you are going to exercise twice a week for a while, or do three one-on-ones with your staff. Now, this is actually great compared to what you would otherwise have done if you hadn’t set any targets, but now you feel like you failed a little because you didn’t deliver what you said you would.


And guess what? You don’t get any dopamine. You might actually feel bad. And this does nothing to reinforce your behaviour.


So aim lower. Don’t shoot for the stars every time. Don’t shoot for the ground either, but maybe find somewhere in between (I actually prefer close to the ground). Get some of that dopamine for a job well done, and then you’ll be able to aim higher the next time you take a shot.


** Tony Wilson is a Workplace Performance Expert. His insights into performance science and it's application in the workplace will make you re-think the way that you approach leadership, culture change, high performance and productivity. Tony has an MBA and a BSc majoring in physiology and delivers workshops and keynote presentations around the globe.

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