Why do we keep hearing about New Year’s Resolutions that do not survive the mid-year checkpoint? Why do our goals slowly fade away as the year progresses? Here is one reason why.

The goals or the dreams.

Setting your goals can be sometimes tricky. It is common to get over-excited thinking about the potential outcomes and the scenarios we would like to achieve. We dream about the future and sometimes drift away from reality, the “here and now”, making these goals just dreams, and forgetting about the “starting point” and the consistent (hard) work they require to be successful.

I must admit I am a big planner, and I find it stimulating to portray myself achieving goals and milestones in later months. But why do we keep hearing about New Year’s Resolutions that do not survive the mid-year checkpoint? “This year I will run a marathon!” “This year I will become a vegetarian.” “I will read two books a month.” Anyone? I think we have all been there. And here is one reason why; explained flawlessly by Daniel Lieberman and Michel Long in “The Molecule of More”.

I do not intend to summarize the book, but surely recommend it as part of your reading list if you are curious (like me) about the brain, and human behaviour in different realms such as love, power, and creativity. However, for this discussion, here are part of my learnings that may serve you well while thinking about setting goals in the months to come.

The realm of possibilities.

When we engage in planning, we enter the realm of possibilities, and one chemical is automatically activated in our brain: Dopamine. This neurotransmitter is one of the most powerful in the human brain and it is associated with desire, pleasure, creativity, and getting the things that are out of our reach, things you can only enjoy in the future. The aspirational world is dominated by this one super-strong chemical, which additionally is hard to satiate.

The interesting thing here is that when dopamine is activated, for example when planning your goals, other neurotransmitters which allow you to connect to the present, to the things you have and can touch, to the “here and the now” are suppressed. The brain has a set of chemicals that deal with what we “have”, and one chemical, dopamine, that deals with what we “want”. And when one is in action, the others are kindly asked to stay put.

The here and now.

The task of drafting our aspirations ignites the production of dopamine in our brain, and since this molecule loves to be fed and always wants more, we tend to follow its lead and commit to goals that sound truly exciting but are seldom attainable. But what if, instead of jumping straight into drafting our future we first revise what we have in our hands “now”, where we are today, and pick those things we would like to focus on? Most likely, we will be able to slow down dopamine and allow the neurotransmitters responsible for the “here and now” to do their job before “the planner” comes into the house.

The picture today.

We invite you to start by focusing on what you already have and looking at what you can control. Look down, at your paper, do not look up. Make an inventory of your past wins. Draw a picture of your life today, including people, places, and things. This way, the “here and now” neurotransmitters will kick in and do their job. Once you have done this work, then, and only then, look up; take a glimpse at the future and surely, dopamine will help you do the rest of the job.

Cheers to your goals and achieving them,