A new year often brings a wave of excitement around a fresh start, new goals, and the possibilities that lay ahead. Many of us—especially this year—may be eager to leave 2020 behind and start anew. As you think about new goals and projects for 2021, approaching them mindfully might be the key to accomplishing them. Mindfulness is an approach that simply means being aware of the present without judgment. And mindfulness goals can not only help you create the life you want but also help you love and accept where you are right now (4). So before you dive into goal-setting, here are roadblocks to watch out for, the neuroscience behind the practice, and tips to give you the best chance of success.
Why It’s Hard To Hit Our Goals According To Neuroscience
According to research, a staggering 92% of people don’t reach their goals (5). Why? Many make the mistake of setting easy or vague goals which research shows are actually not motivating enough to hit (7). Others take on too many projects and goals at once, end up multitasking, and aren’t able to do justice to any of their projects (10). And some set goals that simply aren’t realistic or take an all-or-nothing approach, which can lead to easily feeling defeated and giving up altogether.
Stress can also be a big goal-blocker. Research has shown that stress can change the way we think and that prolonged periods of stress can prevent our brain cells from stringing together cohesive thoughts (3). Stress can also come from negative thoughts which, unsurprisingly, can squash ideas, goals, or the inspiration to take action (3).
Our brains are wired to favor routine over novelty, so anything that isn’t a habit yet will be easier to abandon (7). Research has found that habits and goals are stored differently in the brain. A part known as the orbitofrontal cortex is in charge of converting aspirational goals into established, automatic habits. It does this by using the neural messenger’s endocannabinoids, which also regulate appetite, memory, and mood. The best way to get your endocannabinoids to help you form a habit? Be consistent (11).
Mindfulness Can Help You Set The Right Goals
Before you set off in the direction of a goal, it’s key to know if you’re going in the right direction—if your goals are the best ones for you. And while no one else can decide this but you, mindfulness can be a useful tool to help you figure that out. Why? Studies show that mindful people are more likely to set goals based on internal motivations, which can lead to greater happiness, as opposed to goals based on external pressures (8).
One study found that the more mindful you are, the more likely you are to set self-concordant goals—ones that are meaningful to you or most aligned with your personal values (1). Non-concordant goals, on the other hand, are those generally pursued by external factors, such as money, fame, or social pressure. Research suggests that the more self-concordant your goals are, the more likely you are to reach them (1).
Why? Because mindfulness practitioners tend to be highly self-aware, they can be better able to set self-appropriate goals, which are more achievable (1). And it makes sense. The more you know who you are and what you really value, the happier you’ll be when you set goals aligned with those.
“By habitually paying attention to their thoughts, feelings, sensations, and emotions, mindful individuals may develop a greater ability to recognize goals that are congruent with their authentic selves (1).”
Studies have also revealed that mindfulness can help reduce unpleasant emotions like fear, guilt, and anxiety, which can lead to better decision-making and goal-setting (1).
4 Science-Backed Tips To Help You Reach Your Mindfulness Goals
You can think of mindfulness as your lens through which you set and approach your goals. Once you’ve settled on goals that fit you best, then you can turn toward tactics to achieve them. Here are four science-backed tips to help set you up for success.
1. Make Your Goal A Habit
As we mentioned earlier, consistency is key. Small daily steps are shown to be more effective than one weekly (or monthly) Herculean effort (7). So even if you don’t feel like it, it’s best to make time for your goal daily. To help you get in the groove, try linking it to an existing habit like sipping your morning coffee or your nightly teeth-brushing.
In addition, you might also consider setting an easily-attainable minimum threshold for your new habit. For example, if your goal is to meditate every day for 20 minutes, your minimum threshold might be five minutes daily. This can help keep you from abandoning the practice altogether on those days where you might not be able to hit 20 and still benefit from the practice.
2. Change Your Environment
While you might not be able to move to a new city or home this year, there are other small ways you can change your environment to help you establish new habits. One study found that students who transferred to another school were more likely to change their daily habits than those who stayed at the same place (7). It turns out our brains do a really good job of connecting an environment with a specific situation, so environmental cues are a key factor when it comes to forming new habits.
According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, the best time to start a new habit is on vacation when your environment is totally different and you’re not surrounded by your usual cues. In lieu of a vacation, you can make small shifts at home like sitting in a different chair or working in a different room of your house to help foster new habits.
3. Take Advantage Of Dopamine
When we get something we want—a new job, relationship, or praise—our brain releases dopamine, the “feel-good hormone (7).” We can boost our dopamine levels by setting small goals and then accomplishing them. For example, your brain might get a surge of dopamine if you commit to cleaning your room and then you actually do. This is why to-do lists are so effective: you get the satisfaction of ticking off tasks.
Have you ever done something that wasn’t on your to-do list then wrote it in just so you could cross it off? Science says keep doing this! Because each time your brain gets some of this rewarding neurotransmitter, it will want you to keep doing that behavior. If you have your eyes set on big goals this year, try breaking them down into smaller pieces and let the dopamine fuel you.
4. Set Mindfulness Goals Based On Effort, Not Outcome
Effort-based goals focus on the process, while outcome-based goals tend to focus on the result. Many of us lean toward the latter when it comes to goal-setting, but focusing instead on effort has proven to be more effective and motivating. Why? Because we have much more control over our actions than the outcomes (4).
For example, some outcome-based goals might be: wanting to get a new job this month, or losing 20 pounds by next month, or getting to sleep by 10:00 pm. While effort-based goals on these same themes might look like this: I am going to apply for 10 jobs this month, or I am going to exercise five days per week this month, or I am going to stop drinking caffeine after lunch to help me sleep. See the difference? Focusing goals around effort can also be more motivating along the way and give you a daily dose of dopamine as you tick off your effort.
Adam Alter, a marketing professor at NYU and bestselling author of Irresistible and Drunk Tank Pink, likens this approach to setting up a system.
“The problem with goals is they don’t tell you how to get to where you’re going. But when you set a system and do it, you’re achieving something. You’re succeeding every day as long as you adhere to your system. And you end up getting to the same place, but [the system] framing is so much more effective. It gives you the kind of positive feedback you seek and a system is geared toward psychological well-being — this is the thing I need to do to feel good about moving through the world towards whatever goal state (8).”
Mindfulness Goals: Are They Better?
Mindful people don’t necessarily set objectively “better” goals, but they set goals that are best-suited to them. By living in the present moment, not judging our setbacks negatively, and staying self-aware, we can uncover who we really are and what’s most important to us. As we grow and evolve, so too will our goals. So it’s critical to also make time every few months to check-in and ask yourself if the path you’re on still fits you. Is what you’re doing working and how does it feel day-to-day? If you’re miserable in the process, it may be time to reassess and choose different goals.
- Smyth, Aidan P.J.; Werner, Kaitlyn M.; Milyavskaya, Marina; Holding, Anne and Koestner, Richard. 2020, October. Do mindful people set better goals? Investigating the relation between trait mindfulness, self-concordance, and goal progress. Journal of Research in Personality. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0092656620301045#s0090
- Greenberg, Melanie, Ph.D. 2013, May 1. Five Ways Living Mindfully Can Help You Reach Your Goals. (Blog post). Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-mindful-self-express/201305/five-ways-living-mindfully-can-help-you-reach-your-goals
- Kurin, Kayla. How Mindfulness Can Make Your Goals More Achievable. (Blog post). Yoga International. https://yogainternational.com/article/view/how-mindfulness-can-make-your-goals-more-achievable
- Ryback, Ralph M.D. The Science of Accomplishing Your Goals. (Blog post) Psychology Today.
- Beres, Derek. 2020, November 13. ‘Mindful’ people are better goal-setters according to new research. (Blog post) Big Think. https://bigthink.com/surprising-science/mindfulness-goal-setting?rebelltitem=3#rebelltitem3
- Koole, Sander L; Govorun, Oleysa; Cheng, Clara; and Galucci, Marcello. 2009, November. Pulling Yourself Together: Meditation Promotes Congruence between Implicit and Explicit Self-Esteem. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/222677489_Pulling_Your_Self_Together_Meditation_Promotes_Congruence_between_Implicit_and_Explicit_Self-Esteem
- Kim, Larry. 2015, July 15. Multitasking Is Killing Your Brain. (Blog post). Inc Magazine. https://www.inc.com/larry-kim/why-multi-tasking-is-killing-your-brain.html