Significant goals, like completing a work project, writing a book, or buying a home, can seem pretty daunting. And, if we come across a few too many obstacles— especially if they are unexpected—we may end up scaling down our ambitions, or throwing in the towel entirely.
A common way to make large goals seem more attainable is to break them down into chunks—often referred to as micro-goals— and work towards completing them one stage at a time.
This is a fantastic way to frame objectives. After all, work projects really are just a collection of executable tasks, writing a book happens a few pages at a time, and buying a home involves money-saving habits that span over years, if not longer.
However, there is a little-known tool that is even more effective at making you persevere towards your goals, accomplish more and enjoy the process.
Enter the dopamine reward system. It is the brain’s way of neurochemically promoting certain behaviours while curbing others.
Without entering into the murky depths of neuroscience too deeply, let’s focus on the real, life-changing insight: the way our brains process rewards can be manipulated—rewired, so to speak—to suit our aspirations. This is a big deal.
In the words of Dr. Andrew Huberman, “The ability to control internal reward schedules is everything”.
We control these reward schedules through our thinking, and, through training, we can link rewards to the effort, instead of the outcome.
The challenges. The grind. The obstacles we face along the way. The pressures, stress, and discomfort of work. These can become signs of forward progress, of advancement and improvement.
The secret to activating our dopamine reward systems through effort involves noticing and reflecting on incremental—even miniscule—progress towards a goal.
You ran 2 minutes more than yesterday—that means you are on the right path. You showed up and wrote a page in your journal even though you didn’t feel like it? That means you overcame resistance and prevailed. You didn’t lose your cool when that person cut you off? You just moved in the direction of patience and tolerance.
It all starts with a process I call thought-pairing. First, notice something related to effort. Then, reflect on how it brings you closer to your desired identity.
The possibilities and uses that this technique creates are essentially limitless, but here’s an example. Imagine you suffer from debilitating shyness. You want to become more courageous when it comes to being social, instead of being avoidant like your former self.
You start with a small gesture: sending a virtual message to an acquaintance, or responding to a stranger’s “hello” on the street. And then you reflect on it. It’s something you wouldn’t normally do. More than that, it’s evidence that you are capable of moving closer to becoming confident, socially capable, and even brave.
And that’s when the dopamine hits, which reinforces the behaviour and the process itself. The upward spiral, the positive cycle, begins.
With this framework in place, it’s not just a 1 page business plan; it is a step towards your goal of starting a thriving business. It’s not just a mediocre page; it is an iterative part of the larger, enthralling novel you can write. It is not just 5% of your pay-cheque set aside; it is a handful of bricks in the wall of your future house.
So, when you are struggling to find some purpose or meaning in the grind towards your larger goal, look to the small things. Notice them, and remember them. Tell yourself:
“I am on the right track.”
“I am moving in the right direction.”
“This is part of the plan.”
“This shows I am getting better at handling x.”
“If I get through this, I’ll be stronger/more resilient/more (insert adjective here).”
“It’s getting closer.”
The more you can reward the effort process, the better off you are at building effective dopamine reward circuits that will help you achieve your goals.
And a world where you can, and do, achieve your goals will be a better place for everyone.