I've seldom met a successful person who didn't start out with a set of ambitious goals. However, the power of goal-setting isn't just anecdotal. It turns out that there's a wealth of scientific research into how goal-setting changes the way you brain functions. That research also provides guidance on how to make goal-setting vastly more effective.

Here's the gist: Goal-setting restructures your brain to make it more effective. A key article in Behavioral and Cognitive Neuroscience Reviews explains:

First, emotional significance is evaluated preattentively by a subcortical circuit involving the amygdala; and second, stimuli deemed emotionally significant are given priority in the competition for access to selective attention. This process involves bottom-up inputs from the amygdala as well as top-down influences from frontal lobe regions involved in goal setting and maintaining representations in working memory.

That's a fairly technical description, so let me break it down:

  1. The part of your brain that creates emotion (your amygdala) evaluates the degree to which the goal is important to you.
  2. The part of your brain that does problem solving (your frontal lobe) defines the specifics of what the goal entails.
  3. The amygdala and frontal lobe work together to keep you focused on, and moving toward, situations and behaviors that lead to the achievement of that goal, while simultaneously causing you to ignore and avoid situations and behaviors that don't.

While that process sounds as straightforward as a computer program, what's actually happening is much more complex. Because your brain has something called neuroplasticity, goal-setting literally changes the structure of your brain so that it's optimized to achieve that goal.

This phenomenon was first identified in a landmark study of multiple sclerosis patients at the University of Texas. MS is an extremely serious degenerative disease of the brain with debilitating symptoms like numbness, speech impairment, loss of muscular coordination, and severe fatigue. Researchers found that MS patients who set ambitious wellness goals had fewer, less severe symptoms than a control group. In effect, goal-setting actually helped heal their brains.

Researchers have also learned what kind of goals make the most dramatic changes to the brain structure. A recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology showed that goals that are highly emotional (i.e., the subject is highly motivated to succeed) cause participants to downwardly evaluate the difficulty of achieving that goal.

In other words, if you strongly desire a goal, your brain will perceive obstacles as less significant than they might otherwise appear.

Research has also shown that ambitious goals are far more motivating (i.e. they more thoroughly structure your brain) than easily achieved goals. For example, a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that people who committed to an ambitious goal (in this case reducing energy consumption by 20 percent) actually ended up saving energy. People who committed to an easier goal (reducing consumption by 5 percent) ended up consuming the same amount as before.

In other words, if you want to fully activate your amygdala and frontal lobe so that your brain makes you more successful, you must set challenging goals. As a meta-analysis on goal-setting research published in the Psychological Bulletin explained:

In 90% of the studies, specific and challenging goals led to higher performance than easy goals, "do your best" goals, or no goals. Goals affect performance by directing attention, mobilizing effort, increasing persistence, and motivating strategy development. Goal setting is most likely to improve task performance when the goals are specific and sufficiently challenging.

So, let's summarize:

  1. Goal-setting literally alters the structure of your brain so that you perceive and behave in ways that will cause you to achieve those goals.
  2. Challenging goals that have strong emotional resonance will alter your brain structure more quickly and effectively than weak goals.

One word of warning: The brain-changing power of goal setting works only when it taps into the characteristics of the goal-setter's individual brain. Because of this, bosses can't set brain-changing goals for their employees. All a leader can do is have ambitious, challenging goals for themselves in the hope it will inspire others to do the same.