Why is goal-setting so important in our lives anyway? What’s the urgency?


Navigating the windy segments of life can be perilous without visualising and setting expectations to guide and organise our future. Successful goal-setting can bring purpose and order to dreams that might otherwise seem unreachable.


Goal setting provides us with direction. We can’t manage what we don’t measure, and we can’t measure what we don’t manage. This direction often comes with the need for visualisation.


Visualisation is the art of imagining the outcome of something. Certainly, everyone does this in their own way, and how detailed our images get greatly depends on the individual. This becomes helpful as we are allowed to understand what we want by imagining the feeling of acquiring it. Some questions we can ask ourselves to help the process are: 


What does it look like?


What does it smell like?


How does it feel in your body?


Having a clear picture generates motivation.


But where does motivation take place?


Can we all feel motivated?


Is this a feeling or a behaviour?


In what way does it help us, and does it even really?



The brain science behind motivation

Motivation is complex to uncover, as this differs from character to character. It is important to mention that the existing series of theories, such as the reinforcement theory proposed by BF Skinner, has the “law and effect” premise. He believed that behaviour was directly based on the results of our actions or feelings. Thus, the more likely the result is positive, the more times it would be repeated. On the other hand, if the result was negative, it did not always disappear. Through a series

of investigations, they found that if provided with negative reinforcement for a long period of time, the individual stopped giving it any importance and continued pursuing the negative behaviour.

On the other hand, the Maslow hierarchy of needs theory is based on the idea that essential physiological needs, such as food and water, should be met before the need for belonging or the feeling of accomplishment. Therefore, it is still being determined where motivation comes from – is it a basic human function or something we have learned and adapted to over the years? 

Attribution theory has as its foundation how individuals interpret certain events and how they relate this to their behaviour, proposed by (Heider, 1978). In said theory, there is the belief that an individual, whilst being presented with someone else’s actions, will either decide if they have acted in this manner because they have been forced to (which attributes it to the situation) or if this a behaviour from the person itself (attributed to personality).

What does all this mean? Is motivation something we learn and manifest through our behaviour? Or is this something we feel and generate automatically? That is the question.

Furthermore, Kim, S (2013) suggests the following model to have a better understanding of lasting motivation: 

  • Reward driven approach
  • value-based decisions
  • goal-directed control


The brain areas in this model would be the amygdala, orbitofrontal cortex, and striatum. Having to be aware then that goal-setting is not as straightforward as a SMART plan, which is based on the idea that goals must be:






This has been the standard way to set goals, and although it creates a good breakdown of what may be needed, it does not consider communication in your brain – which is more complicated than that! 

Being graceful and patient with the process is a must.

Let us look into our reward-driven approach system, which involves dopamine release, your orbitofrontal cortex, and the ventral striatum in the brain.

Reward driven approach

When there is a particular stimulus, which can also be described as any situation, in a reward-driven approach, we can assume this generates reward anticipation and selective approach behaviour towards the reward.

Simply put, say you have been wishing to study psychology for a long time; therefore, you know that graduating from high school will bring many opportunities to enter any psychology programme you want. This being your ultimate goal, you study hard to get into the programme and enrol in college. Once in college, your main focus is getting good grades to graduate with an honourable mention.

According to (Shultz 2004), we have a reward system to prevent extinction, responsible for primary rewards such as food or sexual excitement. Similarly, it is responsible for secondary rewards like money and social rewards like verbal praise and cooperation. Furthermore, this is located in the ventral striatum, being classified as an automatic motivation requiring relatively less attention. Predictive reward signals, which acquire a stimulus, to then associate the reward and encode it.

Okay, so let’s take a moment to digest that! We receive a little messenger who lets us know that if we finish our 10 km run, we will be hitting our longest run so far. Thus our brain recognises and encodes this feel-good messenger and saves it, making us run up to 10 km.

The same system is responsible for its approachable or avoidant behaviour to sustain motivation. Dopamine has two main divisions; mesolimbic dopamine, responsible for reward anticipation and learning, and mesocortical dopamine, which encodes the relative value of reward and goal behaviour.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter produced in the ventral area (VTA), through globus pallidus, and released into our nucleus accumbens (NAcc) located in the striatum. Dopamine is vital to motor performance, conditioning, learning, and memory (Wise, 2004). As a result of excess dopamine, there can be a lack of the dominant motor responses, leading to making hasty and risky decisions, favouring small or immediate rewards, and behavioural disorders such as (ADHD).

The NAcc is activated when you are presented with your favourite stimulus, such as jokes, feeling in love and smoking. It is important to note that there is an anatomical separation between liking and wanting, as dopamine will play a role in wanting the stimulus, not liking it.

Which means? You don’t have to like it. It’s really just about how bad you want it.

Thus you would not necessarily have to be extremely thrilled to carry out a particular activity as long as you focus on the long-term outcome that said activity would bring (Berridge and Aldridge, 2008). The cognitive process that goes through the Orbitofrontal Cortex (OFC), amygdala and the nucleus accumbens (NAcc) consistently reported being involved in reward processing (Haber and Knutson, 2010).

Throughout time it has been discovered that both social and physical rewards and punishments activate in the same area of the brain. This would show up in the medial OFC, which would be reward-sensitive, whilst the lateral OFC would be punishment sensitive, according to (O’Doherty et al., 2003). Therefore if there is still development or an injury in the said area, this would cause a lack of understanding of the difference in the stimulus. A great example would be kids

between the ages of 8-9, where (O’Doherty et al., 2003) found that said areas did not activate when they were provided with negative feedback. This means that a different approach would have to be taken for the feedback to be successful with said ages.

Accordingly, whilst creating goals, we need to consider that our brain can make the difference between our wants and needs, between what feels like being thousands of feet above the sky to being thousands of feet underground. It is then our responsibility to know the root cause of our goals to be as intentional as possible.

Hence, for said automatic motivation to follow through, the Striatum and Orbitofrontal cortex come into play, evaluating various outcomes and actions, understanding through positive prediction errors and calculating the value continually. Motivation can only be sustained with learning and memory.

The stimulus-action-outcome association is learned, and actions become habitual and automatic.

So, our body keeps track of the rewards we have continually, for example, a chocolate bar every week after a week’s workouts. Which brings us to the question: what would our reward prediction error be?

Your dopaminergic neurons already encode the Reward Prediction Error (RPE). The larger the RPE, the more dopamine is released. Positive RPE is generated when the outcome is better than expected or unexpected. On the other hand, negative RPE is generated when the result is worse than predicted, or anticipated rewards are omitted.

Consequently, the brain has a strong tendency to reduce dopamine release when the reward is expected. The higher the utility of the outcome from the chosen behaviour, the higher the possibility of choosing it later.

On the other hand, goal-directed control would regulate motivation through cognitive control, which means that this is the desire to achieve goals associated with higher levels of cognitive functions, such as planning, retaining the goal, monitoring the performance, and regulating the action. Moreover, the goal-directed process shows that as the reward is delayed, the relative value of the reward is decreased. If so, then the dopaminergic system is about suppressing desire and goal-directed regulation by negative control.

Keeping this all in mind, we can evaluate the areas of our lives that are most valuable to us.

Why does this mean so much to me?

What would it mean to me to achieve this?

In what ways does this fulfil my life purpose?

Is this meaningful to me or others?

The following goal-setting wheel by the science of the people was inspired by John Meyer’s life wheel created in the 1950s. Has also become increasingly famous in coaching sessions, suggesting that we focus on the following aspects: business, friends, family, personal passions, and health. We must first define how satisfied we feel from #1 being completely dissatisfied to #5 being completely satisfied.

Once that is done, trace it down to the following:

Van, Edwards, V. (2020, April 20). [Goal Setting Wheel]. https://www.scienceofpeople.com/goal-setting/


Take a good time analysing these areas, and write down at least 3-5 aspects, great and not so great about the areas mentioned before. Say, you love your family and feel really close to them. You get along with your mum really well. Nonetheless, you’ve not seen your dad since almost 6 months ago, and your big brother for 2 years, and you haven’t spoken to him since.

Or, what if you don’t like the industry you are working in and feel you need to move forward with your career. However, you really like your colleagues and the coaching aspects of your job.

Once you are ready, it should look something like or completely different to this:

This enables us to visualise our current situation in the abovementioned areas.


What are my personal passions?


Do I even have any?


How well do I get along with my friends?


When was the last time we went out?


Have I been saving as much as I promised I would?



Moreover, in relation to the wheel, we are to create intentional goals which connect directly to who we are and what we want in the long run.


So you don’t really see your dad much? Why? Because you love him and you want to see him grow old. Make a note to see him at least 5 times every 2 months.


The endowment effect defines itself as the higher value placed on an object or stimuli rather than a new one. This makes people more reluctant to give up what they have been provided, as they take things or situations as theirs.


We are all possessive creatures. Let’s make the most out of it.


Through studies at Cornell University, Kahneman, Knetsch, and Thaler (1990) wanted to determine if the endowment effect survives when subjects face market disciplines and learn from these experiences. Through a series of trials involving the ‘induced value tokens’ to create a market model, which involved supply, demand, and finally introduced trade. The objects will be owned by those who add the most value to them.



Once we better understand our goals, we can become accountable for them. Agree to reflect on your progress once a week, whenever it suits you, but make sure you make the time. This will give you a broader perspective on where you stand now and in the long run.


So what does it all come down to?


It all begins and ends with yourself, how well you know yourself, why you are seeking a specific goal, and how you want this to look in the long run with daily or weekly routines to power this goal up.


Rome wasn’t built in a day.


Although I’m sure you’ve heard this one thousand times, I’m also sure you’ve felt desperate when things seem to be taking forever to launch, so let’s learn to be patient, trust the process, choose gracefulness, and be grateful for where you are at that moment. As soon as you feel stressed, visualise where you are going, not where you are at.


Through a series of mindful practices like meditation, you will find that by creating space in your mind, by accepting the right now, it will become easier to plan the future. You will be allowed to find more freedom to be as successful as you wish in pursuing what you want.




Juneja, P. (n.d.). Reinforcement Theory of Motivation. Management Study Guide. https://www.managementstudyguide.com/reinforcement-theory-motivation.htm


Kim, S. (2013, March 4). Neuroscientific Model of Motivational Process. Neuroscientific Model of Motivational Process. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00098/full


van Edwards, V. (2020, April 20). Goal Setting: 5 Science-Backed Steps to Setting and Achieving Your Goals. Science of People. https://www.scienceofpeople.com/goal-setting/


Attribution Theory (B. Weiner). (2018, November 30). InstructionalDesign.Org. https://www.instructionaldesign.org/theories/attribution-theory/


Boss, J. (2017, February 14). 5 Reasons Why Goal Setting Will Improve Your Focus. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffboss/2017/01/19/5-reasons-why-goal-setting-will-improv e-your-focus/?sh=2b1affb2534a


How To Set Meaningful Goals Using Mindfulness. (n.d.). Mindful Dev Mag. https://mindfuldevmag.com/issues/issue-7-mindful-productivity/setting-meaningful-go als-mindfulness


Church, R. M., & Shaufeli, W. B. (2001). Psychological Process – an overview | ScienceDirect Topics. Science Direct. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/computer-science/psychological-process


GANTI, A. K. H. I. L. E. S. H. (2021, January 12). Endowment Effect Definition. Investopedia. https://www.investopedia.com/terms/e/endowment-effect.asp


Kahneman, D., Knetsch, J. L., & H. Thaler, R. (1991). Anomalies: The Endowment Effect,



Loss Aversion and Status Quo Bias. Anomalies: The Endowment Effect, Loss Aversion, and Status Quo Bias. https://scholar.princeton.edu/sites/default/fles/kahneman/fles/anomalies_dk_jlk_rht_19 91.pdf