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A Different Way to Look at Goal-Setting


March 2023

At the beginning of the year, we write down our new year resolutions.  We even make sure they are S.M.A.R.T. (More on SMART: EmpowerU in 2024: Tips for a Successful Start). As time progresses, life gets in the way.   We lose momentum to the point that we may achieve some or none of them.

Setting S.M.A.R.T goals is just the beginning of the goal pursuit process.  There is more that we need to account for in identifying the goal and how we achieve it.  We should take into consideration the way our brain looks at S.M.A.R.T goals. We need to dig deeper into our goal-setting process OR goal pursuit process, to not only create S.M.A.R.T goals but do MORE…

In this blog, I discuss what MORE means so you have greater success of achieving your goals by looking at: the purpose, the science, and being “brain-friendly.”


Purpose: Why Have Them?

Why even bother to set goals?  There are a number of benefits to goal-setting:  It gives purpose to what is important to you and the values you desire to uphold.  Goals provide a way to challenge us and learn from the experience.  It is meant to inspire and motivate us to take action.  (Check out our blog EmpowerU in 2024: Tips for a Successful Start on the Power of 3: Identifying and developing S.M.A.R.T Goals.)

Typically, the goal-setting process is focused on doing, an action journey: What are the actions we will take to achieve our goals and what will happen?  Generally, we do not think about this process as also a discovery journey: What are we learning? How do we feel? Who are we becoming as we achieve these goals? Both are equally important to keep in-mind as we strive to achieve them.

The Science: How Our Brain Works

“How and why are more than separate thoughts – They’re entirely separate ways of thinking.”  Elliot Berkman, NueroLeadership Institute, 2012.

It is fascinating how our brain processes this entire journey of goal-setting:  tapping into the left side of our brain (methodically, structure) and our right side (creative).

There are 3 critical elements on the journey to achieving your goals:

  • How we frame goals in our mind (goal representation)
  • How we take action (goal pursuit)
  • What inspires and drives us (goal motivation)

Goal Representation

Goals exist within a hierarchy in that smaller, concrete goals are embedded within larger abstract goals (Caver & Scheier, 1980).  Neuro-imaging studies of goal hierarchies show that the way the brain thinks about why and how are entirely different (Sput, Falk, & Lieberman, 2010). 

The WHY focuses on part of the brain associated with intention and mental state reasoning. It’s the passionate part that keeps us motivated to achieve the goal.  The HOW focuses on action, our motor learning system. It is the problem-solving part.  This concept of goal hierarchy is taking oneself through a reiterative process of asking Whys and Hows to get to the core of the focus and path to achieve the goal. The why is the “bigger picture” or higher hierarchy.  The how is the plan/details or lower hierarchy.

Here is an example of this reiterative process:

I want to increase my sales by 15% next quarter. I will then ask WHY and HOW:   Why do I want to increase my sales by 15%? Because I want to be the top sales executive (higher order goal).  HOW can I increase my sales by 15%? By working an extra hour each day by reaching out to my prospects and follow-ups (lower order goal). Dig deeper, how can I work extra hour each day? By starting 30 minutes sooner and working 30 minutes later.  Why do I want to be the top sales executive? Because I want to feel competent. Try this with one of your goals!

Goal Pursuit

There is evidence that our brain systems for thinking about the WHY and HOW are entirely separate.  We often default to thinking about one first; it is important to have separate and distinct conversations about the abstract and concrete aspects of goals.  In corporations and organizations, when the performance management process starts with goal-setting, it only starts and ends with S.M.A.R.T.  If we want to keep going, you need to look at the WHY – focus on your VISION and the HOW – focus on your plan and details and talk about both!  Ultimately, we need both to inspire us and address difficulties that may come along the way during the year – inaction, decreased motivation, and/or loss of confidence.

Goal Motivation

In order to achieve your goals, you got to be motivated. How do you sustain the pursuit until you achieve it?  It boils down to how we frame the goal (It’s never too late to frame!).  One should frame your goal to best match your motivational preferences.   The Approach-avoidance theory (Gray, 1970) states there are two systems to motivation: One sensitive to reward (approach) and the other to punishment (avoidance). 

This can be explained with a simple example of brushing your teeth:  Individuals leaning toward reward will think brushing your teeth will lead to promoting healthy gums, teeth, and good breath.  Individuals leaning towards punishment will think brushing your teeth can avoid cavities, fillings, and bad breath. What we respond to is somewhat dependent on our innate preferences. 

For instance, Sales professionals are highly motivated by wins (approach state).  Legal and Accounting professionals are focused on avoidance-motivation based on the nature of their role.   Think about what drives you and frame your goal accordingly: Do you want to reduce team conflict or create a more collaborative team environment?  One is not better than the other.  Keep this concept in-mind as you take a look at your goals. Think: How might I frame this to feel more motivated?

Be “Brain Friendly”: FINAL THOUGHTS

In other words, when you think about the S.M.A.R.T. framework, shift your thinking to hold space for your head and heart.  One can do this simply by replacing Achievable with Aspirational, Appealing, or Attractive as you continue to work on your goals.

Don’t just focus on the results but think about the values and beliefs. 

Here are a few examples that takes into consideration both:


Be a leader
Hit the gym at 6.am.
Have more emotional intelligence


Be the Boss Lady
Slip into my new dress on my 50th brithday!
Get under the waves!

Now, go conquer your goals!

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