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The 3 Goal Fundamentals

Updated: Nov 21, 2023

What comes to mind when you think about goals? Short-term and long-term goals? SMART goals? (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely). If you're like me, conventional goal-setting knowledge leaves much to be desired and has become redundant. There is little new in popular advice even when it comes from experts. I would like to change this. I want people to understand the obstacles that block goal achievement. I want people to understand how goals actually work. I want people to understand that goals are even more powerful than most people know. In this 1st blog entry, I will introduce three fundamental principles that can begin to transform your understanding of goals. Rather than build suspense, I'll get right to it:

1. If a goal is not activated in the brain, then that goal has no impact on us.

I created this principle after having studied both neuroscience and motivational science for several years. Although it has universal implications to all areas of life, I introduced this idea in my book The Motivation Game, which is focused on golf. So, what does it mean for a goal to be "activated?" Given our current knowledge in neuroscience, a goal is activated when the neurons that represent that goal are firing. When they are not firing, the goal is inactive, or dormant. So, what activates those neurons? Thoughts, feelings, and sensory input from the environmental context can trigger goals (and motives) automatically or we can deliberately activate goals by conscious choice. So, we can write down our most important goals, but we will need to reactivate them at relevant times in the future for them to make a difference.

Now, activation does not necessarily mean "conscious." In fact:

2. Most of our goals are activated non-consciously.

Research in cognitive psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and related fields clearly show that most mental processes, including motivational processes, happen "under the hood." We don't have to consciously tell ourselves to have a goal to walk from one place to another, to brush our teeth, or say something in a casual conversation. However, this does not mean that the goal was not activated prior to action. To repeat, the only goals that matter are those active in the moment - whether we are aware of them or not. Thankfully, goals are typically not that deep. They can usually be readily accessed via targeted self-reflection and/or quality questions from a practitioner who understands the complexities and subtleties of both motivation and the athlete's sport.

3. Thoughts don't create movement; goals do.

Imagine taking a walk and noticing a tree. You think, "That's an apple tree." Does that thought cause you to pick an apple? No. It may, though, trigger a memory of the rewarding experience of eating an apple from a tree. This memory could lead you to anticipate the pleasure of eating an apple, which could, in turn, activate a goal to reach for one. Not until a goal is activated, though, would you pick one. We have thoughts pass through our consciousness regularly. Imagine acting on each thought. If we did, we literally could not function. Thankfully, we only act on those that have some value in the moment and get translated into a goal.

Thank you for taking your time to read my 1st blog entry. I hope these principles spark some thought about the implications they have in your life.

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