Getting to Where You Want to Go

In a world of chaos, the brain acts like a compass of sorts to filter out the distractions and achieve your goals.

The Reticular Activating System plays a critical role in helping you get where you want to go. In today's modern age, it is easy to get oversaturated with information. Yet, people continually sift through billions of bits of data at any given time and somehow organize this data without short-circuiting. This resilience is extraordinary in itself, but being productive with this data is the real feat.

Many factors are involved in seeing our dreams come to life, explicitly being self-aware, proper motivation, and understanding how to set goals effectively. Luckily, there is a part in our brain that supports the realization of dreams and achievement of goals called the Reticular Activating System (RAS)—a cluster of neurons located above the spinal cord and a gatekeeper to the senses.

It is the filter between our environment and our senses, except for the olfactory system. The RAS connects the unconscious and conscious mind, working behind the scenes to sift and organize environmental data in response to the world around us. 

brain illustration of reticular activating system

It picks out which information to process and creates a selective perception of reality-based mainly on our past experiences and programming. And because it stores core memories to protect us from perceived danger in the world, the RAS is vital in developing self-esteem, perception of happiness, and the establishment of personal belief systems.

The RAS plays a crucial role in goal-setting by helping us focus more effectively on what we seek to accomplish and impressively filtering out the noise. An excellent example of the RAS in action would be a time in your life when you started thinking about something, like buying a new car, and then all of a sudden, you start seeing that specific car everywhere. 

As a result, you unconsciously keep an eye out for it, and as a result, see it surprisingly often. This phenomenon is also known as selective attention.

The flip side of this would be confirmation bias, a shortcut that our minds take to support our pre-existing beliefs. So we are reassured that each time we see that car, it is further proof of our impression that the car is everywhere.

In general, the RAS highly influences how we see the world and how we act, such as how our beliefs become thoughts, the thoughts translate to emotions, and ultimately, how our feelings turn into actions.

A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?

When it comes to our self-esteem, our beliefs about who we are, which we've received from our childhood and other critical moments in life, are programmed in the RAS and are projected into the real world as self-fulfilling prophecies.

For example, a person who has low self-esteem will not go after things that they think are too big for them, leading to moments of self-doubt and self-deprecation. As a result, these people are most likely to settle with less desirable choices or circumstances.

In contrast, people who are driven, confident, and goal-oriented have a growth mindset. These individuals who have trained their RAS to focus on specific ideas will be able to better focus on more opportunities around those thoughts and will persistently go after these opportunities even though they might seem impossible at the moment.

For instance, in public speaking, people who have stage fright and picture themselves failing will stutter, stumble over their lines, and eventually fail to articulate their message in front of their audience.

Our predetermined beliefs about ourselves influence our behavior so that we do things that align with our expected results, regardless of whether they are positive or negative. Consequently, unmonitored negative beliefs can lead to anxiety and depression, which can further wane down a person's motivation.

The RAS conditions us to repeat our beliefs, thoughts, emotional patterns, and subconscious coping mechanisms, and, often, we do not realize this, but we behave according to the thoughts and ideas that we feed our RAS. 

As such, we need to bring to our consciousness whatever positive beliefs are programmed in the RAS because these thoughts affect our actions and, therefore, all areas of life--relationships, career, health, wealth, and spirituality. Thus, while the RAS is the key to increasing our motivation, without conscious awareness of how this part of the brain works, it can function against our aspirations.

It’s wonderful to climb the liquid mountains of the sky. Behind me and before me is God and I have no fears.

Helen Keller

Getting Motivated

The old saying goes, "If there is a will, there is a way." We can define "will" as motivation and the capacity to see the goal through. On the other hand, we can define "way" as our cognition, skills, and the ability to plan and execute. Both are equally important to accomplish goals.

Will is a product of the dopamine reinforcement learning system of the brain, directly related to motivation. The more value you place on the goal, the more likely you are to accomplish it. For example, if you want to finish school, the value you place on education, self-growth, or your family who could benefit from it directly affects whether you earn that degree in your own time.

In neuroscience, "the way" is a product of executive function, higher-level cognitive skills, and capacities that promote functioning optimally. Hence, it is effortful, operates consciously, and is engaged when doing new things. This functionality is driven primarily by the prefrontal cortex.

An example of executive functioning would be...

What is 2+2? .... That is not executive functioning. 

What is 29 X 3?... That is executive functioning.

🎯 Effective Goal Setting 🎯

There is a consensus in the scientific community that accountability, commitment, and writing down one's goals are the deciding factors for accomplishing a goal.

In 2015, Dr. Gail Matthews, a Psychology professor, set out to establish the power of goal-setting. She recruited 267 people from all walks of life to study goal achievement, dividing everybody into five sub-groups.

The commonality among the different groups was to think about their monthly goals and rate each goal according to 5 factors.

1. Difficulty

2. Importance

3. Skills and resources to accomplish the goal

4. Commitment and motivation

5. Whether they had pursued the goal before

The study's key takeaway was that when people write their goals and action commitments daily and share them with others, the probability of achieving the goal increases significantly. 76% of the people that did this either achieved their goals or were at least halfway there.

Our goals can only be reached through a vehicle of a plan, in which we must fervently believe, and upon which we must vigorously act. There is no other route to success

Pablo Picasso


The term "SMART goal'' was first used in 1981 by George T. Doran during the November issue of Management Review. And since then, it has been widely used to guide people in writing and setting down goals. Essentially, SMART Goals provide a clear sense of focus, clarity, and direction. 

"SMART" is an acronym that stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely.

SMART Goals illustration

  1. Specific: plain, direct, and unambiguous(Example: I want to save and invest a significant amount of my savings to attain financial freedom.)
  2. Measurable: quantitative criteria that allow you to track your progress(Example: I want to save 20,000 dollars and invest 20% of that in the stock market.)
  3. Achievable: attainable, reasonable, and realistic; it should challenge you, but at the same time, it's not impossible to achieve given the resources that are available to you(Example: To achieve my goal of financial freedom, I will manage my spending and take the time to learn about stock market investing.)
  4. Relevant: answers your "why" and whether it aligns with your values and long-term objectives(Example: I want to save 20,000 dollars and invest 20% in stocks because it will allow me to diversify my investment portfolio and attain financial independence.)
  5. Time-bound: it should be time-sensitive to create a sense of urgency(Example: I should have saved 20,000 dollars and invested 20% of the amount in the stock market by the age of 25.)

    Goal-setting provides us with a sense of direction, drive, and purpose. Hence, by setting well-defined goals, you can keep an eye on your target and better focus on how you can achieve your goal within the specified time. This way, you are also able to increase your chances of achieving your goals.

    To apply this to your life, track your progress by keeping a journal to write down your goals and feelings about them. Then, review your goals daily, and the RAS will send clues when relevant information in the environment is present.

    🧐 See it to believe it 🧐

    Visualization increases the chances of achieving a goal. Once we have set our goals, we can imagine ourselves in the future with the positive expected results. When we do this, we have to feel the emotions as if we are already there. This way, the RAS can program those positive feelings and support us along the way.

    A simple exercise that we find highly effective is imagining myself with a bow and arrow aiming at the goal, which symbolizes the goal being actualized.

    First, I envision accomplishing the goal while visualizing the target. Second, I pull the bowstring back. As any bowhunter knows, the entire movement requires a strong core, a calm mind, and awareness of breath. Finally, I release the bowstring and imagine myself as the arrow heading toward the desired goal. I literally become the arrow heading toward the goal. I surrender.

    This exercise has helped me develop trust that everything happening in my life is moving me closer to the goal—the conversations, events, omens, and so forth.

    Some would call this prayer. Others might call this faith. 🌟 Regardless, a deep trust in life is necessary because it often requires overcoming a fair amount of adversity to achieve our goals.

    With visualizations, we must also plan how to achieve our goals and act on them. Studies have demonstrated that reasonable goals are achievable but, of course, require work and perseverance to see them through.

    Positive Change

    Diving deeper, we must know how to reprogram our negative beliefs to set goals and achieve them. When we feel down and unmotivated, we must see our negative emotions as feedback from the body that we must confront rather than suppress. 

    Negative emotions that keep us away from our goals are simply giving us feedback about patterns we must change or unmet needs we must give attention to. When triggered by unfavorable circumstances that stop us from aiming high or moving forward, we must go inwards, inquire, and create changes for improvement.

    🔐 Reprogramming subconscious beliefs 🔐

    1. Challenge negative thoughts and beliefs - For example, when we notice that we feel undeserving of a goal, we must question its truthfulness. Are we really in the position to say when something is not for us?

    2. Use affirmations - After catching a negative belief, we can use affirmations to counter it. Make sure that you have supporting statements so the brain accepts the declaration. For instance, if we use the affirmation "I am good enough," five specific reasons we are good enough should follow it. This way, we strengthen the reprogramming with actions, repetitions, and emotions.

    3. Identify the unmet needs - When we don't get our needs met, such as love, significance, growth, or certainty, we feel dissatisfaction. Unmet needs for long periods can lead to depression.

    4. Validate emotions - We have to be aware that our feelings always tell us something about our internal reality—not always the external reality.

    5. Avoid negative self-talk - How we speak to ourselves will be programmed in the brain. We have to make sure that we are compassionate to ourselves and avoid being overly critical when making mistakes.
    Once you're more aligned with your values, feelings, and needs, you can set better goals, and you'll be in a better mindset to achieve them.

    Challenging ourselves to accomplish new things and overcome challenges is wired into our biology. The brain craves novelty and rewards us with bursts of dopamine. Take full advantage of this by setting short-term and long-term goals that are on the verge of unachievable. Believe that you deserve great things and believe that you can achieve big goals.

    As we get to our milestones, we develop more confidence to propel us further forward. Whenever learning something new or overcoming a challenge, neural circuits change, and synapses strengthen. Grey matter increases, dopamine releases, and self-esteem improves.

    To effectively set and achieve goals, we should start by focusing on changing the negative beliefs programmed in our RAS. Our thoughts shape our reality and, with mindfulness and intentionality, we can better set more goals and achieve higher results.


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