May 26, 2020

The Science of Goal Setting

Each EmpowerED 3.2.1 features a brief summary of my musings about and learning from multiple disciplines as they apply to leadership in education. 


Setting goals is a common activity among us all. Why is that? Have you ever wondered why setting goals is a behavior we share? We engage in goal setting with new beginnings like starting a new job or having a baby. Most of us engage in goal setting (aka resolutions) each January 1st. We also engage in goal setting when new data emerge to point us in a better direction such as the results of an annual physical or student performance on state tests. I took to looking for the science behind goal setting and how we can better understand the phenomena to move us ahead in life, and I found a lot.


3 Big Ideas

    1. As humans we continually seek to reach new levels of being and becoming. To do this we must understand the balance of our logic and emotions, our neurological seesaw. According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That’s pretty awesome! That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image. Asking students to set goals is a powerful strategy that helps them take ownership of their learning and set a path forward.
      Dustin Wax’s Don’t Be Stupid: A Guide to Learning, Studying, and Succeeding at College

    2. On a related note, the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine. This means that our brain is working with us to direct us to goal achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. Dopamine is an important chemical messenger in the brain that has many functions. It’s involved in reward, motivation, memory, attention and even regulating body movements. Erica Julson wrote about the importance of dopamine and natural ways to find more of it, She tells us dopamine is the ingredient that helps us focus, concentrate, plan ahead and resist distractions. Unfortunately, our lifestyles are not conducive to dopamine production and many of us have low dopamine levels. We feel fatigued, lack of focus, and have difficulty concentrating. Luckily, there are things we can do to help our brains release more dopamine. These practices can help increase dopamine production and help rewire your brain to be productive and happy at work and home: set goals, get regular exercise, practice meditation, be grateful and maybe start a journal, smile–it tricks your brain to be happier, and be nicer to others. None of these are profound nor are they difficult to make a regular part of our day. Enjoy making progress toward your goals!
      Erica Julson on Health Line,  “10 Best Ways to Increase Dopamine Levels Naturally”  

    3. Would you set off on a cross-country trip without a map, a GPS, or even a clear destination in mind? If you did, you might have an interesting adventure. But there’s also a good chance you’d wind up somewhere you didn’t want to be! This is why it’s so important to set goals. Goals act like a road map for your life. They help you take control and guide you along your journey so that your experiences are rich, satisfying, and enjoyable. If you need a review of SMART goals, Mind Tools provides a great one. In addition, Gary Keller and Jay Papason describe in their best-selling book The ONE Thing a formula of 3Ps for setting (and achieving) goals: Purpose, Priority, and Productivity. Even the youngest among us are capable of setting goals and sticking to them. Helping students set goals and see them through is an important life skill, and every student should have the benefit of dopamine rewarded goal accomplishment.  Tools to use:



“The only limit to the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.”

– Michelle Obama

“I think goals should never be easy, they should force you to work, even if they are uncomfortable at the time.”

– Michael Phelps

1 Question

How do you use goal setting to plan for the future?


About the Author: Marcia Baldanza is also the author of Professional Practices, a Just ASK Senior Consultant. and adjunct professor at Virginia Tech. Until recently she worked for the School District of Palm Beach County, Florida, where she was an Area Director for School Reform and Accountability; prior to that she was Director of Federal and State Programs.


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