J.D. Moyer

sci-fi writer, beat maker, self-experimenter

Goals Should Provide (Not Require) Motivation

Goals should electrify the brain.

Goals should electrify the brain.

Over the last couple years I’ve been experimenting with different systems for setting and achieving goals. During that time I’ve hit some walls and changed my mind more than once. Here’s a summary of my current thinking:

One area that I haven’t discussed in detail is that motivational value of the goal itself. Several times, I have selected a goal that seemed to align with my life purpose, but then found myself swimming upstream when it came to taking action. The parameters I set around the goal (target date, reward) had no effect, because my core motivation was lacking.

If the goal itself doesn’t energize you, no trappings applied around the edges are going to light the fires of your motivational engine. Goal-setting doesn’t work as a hammer to pound yourself into something that you’re not. At the best, goal-setting adds structure to something you already want to do.

Steve Pavlina has a good post on this subject. I don’t agree with everything in the article, but Steve makes an excellent point in that the point of goal-setting is not to control the future. The point of goal-setting is to energize you in the present moment.

Energizing and Actionable

Steve’s post references SMART goals (a concept made popular by Peter Drucker), which stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound (Steve is not in favor of the SMART system). I think the SMART criteria are reasonable in the context of employee management (Drucker’s field), but they make less sense for individuals trying to “level up” in a particular life area.

My own criteria for goal-setting are that a goal should be:

  1. Energizing (providing motivation rather than requiring it)
  2. Actionable (the goal is such that you can immediately plan and take actions in pursuit of the goal, including setting up a task system and schedule that will in all likelihood lead to reaching your goal, as long as you do the work)

The goals I end up choosing for myself usually end up being SMART goals as well, but for me the SMART acronym isn’t that helpful. It misses the most important thing (that a goal should be energizing, providing motivation), and five criteria are just too many too remember (even with the help of the acronym).

“Today You” vs. “Tomorrow You”

The human brain is comprised of layers, with each layer relating to a different set of functionality. The inner layers are more primitive, and provide motivation and capability to eat, hunt, defend ourselves, claim territory, procreate, and otherwise pursue our reptilian and mammalian prerogatives.

The outermost and most recently evolved layer, the neocortex, enables conscious thought and the ability to understand and visualize time outside of the present moment.

Sometimes human motivation becomes a battle between primitive instincts to sleep, eat, and rest vs. more abstract/cerebral motivations (prepare for the future, work on a project that may offer long-term benefits, etc.). This schism could be considered “today you” (that part of you that is interested in immediate sensory satisfaction) vs. “tomorrow you” (the part of you that considers future consequences of present actions).

Goal-setting tilts the scales in favor the neocortex (“tomorrow you”). This doesn’t necessitate total self-denial. “Today you” can be easily satisfied with good food, adequate rest, time with friends and family, and other animal pleasures. Life occurs in the present, so it doesn’t make sense to endlessly defer gratification. But goal-setting can provide a line of defense: a minimum level of effort dedicated to improving circumstances over time (even if it means minor, occasional discomfort in the present).

Motivation and Brain Health

If your life is devoid of excitement and nothing excites you, you are probably depressed. When I experience a lack of ambition and motivation it’s a red flag for me that my dopaminergic system is out of whack, and that I need to take immediate steps to increase BDNF, encourage neurogenesis, and resensitize dopamine receptors. My basic strategy in this case is to become more paleo (eat less sugar and starch, decrease artificial light and go to bed earlier, exercise more intensely, spend more time with friends and family, and reduce screen time). On top of this I eat more curry and oily fish (turmeric and DHA both increase BDNF, increase neurogenesis, and improve brain health). When I take these steps I generally notice a marked improvement in attitude and motivation within a week (and sometimes just after a day or two).

Personal Update

My own goals continue to center around fiction writing. Though sometimes I feel (as a 44-year-old trying to start a career as a novelist) like I’m tilting at windmills, I recently completed a 2nd draft of novel that I’m reasonably pleased with, and I’m working towards what might eventually become a novel-writing system.

Good luck with your own goals, and Happy New Year!


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  1. Since nobody is jumping in to comment I will start it off. Just read this excellent (older) post from Charlie Stross (whose novel Glasshouse I just finished, and loved). Reading this bleak post actually *increased* my motivation to continue to write and eventually publish fiction, so I think I must be on the right track. The Lifestyle of a Writer.


    Relates back to one of my earliest posts on this blog:

  2. A good article on “today you” vs. “tomorrow you”. Neither one can be trusted. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/19/opinion/sunday/stop-trusting-yourself.html?hp&rref=opinion

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