When Change Gets too Big

The Importance of the Upper Bound

When it comes to goal setting, there are many great, simple tips on how to formulate a goal in order to be successful in achieving it. The S.M.A.R.T. goal setting by S.J. Scott is a great one – a method to support you setting change goals that are specific, measurable, achievable and have a time limit. Vague goals such as “I want to speak Spanish” or “I want to look as good as J.Lo” leave us feeling overwhelmed. They make us feel like we are making no progress. That no matter how hard we try we are just not getting anywhere. Which leaves you feeling frustrated and unaccomplished. Ultimately, we drop our goal and stop trying to live a more fulfilled life. Thus we translate goals into tangible milestones “I will learn one new word in Spanish a day” or “I will work out 3x a week”. Such goals guide us and support us in our pursuit.

One thing a lot of goal setting theories forget to highlight is the importance of an upper bound. We humans are addicted to achievements. Every time we achieve something – we get a shot of dopamine in our brains. As an article in Forbes magazine lays out:

As an example, say you hit a project milestone on time and on budget and note your accomplishment. You get a hit of dopamine, the “feel-good” chemical. Dopamine acts as a neurotransmitter, sending signals to other neurons that serve as a pleasurable reward. (…)

When you experience the dopamine reward, your brain pays attention to what you did to deserve your “feel-good” moment. That includes the brain calculating what’s needed to repeat that action and move toward achieving your goals. The dopamine also plays a role in regulating your attention, learning and movement.

We are basically addicted to accomplishing. It’s human nature to push for more and get more of those dopamine hits. It’s highly addictive. So we push for more. After we learn one word a day, we push for learning sentences. After being in the gym 3x a week, we see how much more we can do. And we fall into another spiral of giving ourselves the feeling that we will never actually achieve our goals. We lose 5kilos, we want 2 more. We run 5miles, we aim for 10. We constantly push for more thus making ourselves feel constantly inadequate. It’s just as important to limit yourself. Change – as much as no one wants to admit it, is a marathon not a sprint. Rather than taking leaps, we need to focus on making minor improvements each time. Add 1% more to get those dopamine kicks – not 100% more. As James Clear puts it: Push enough to make progress, but not so much that it is unsustainable. In his book “Atomic Habits” he mentions: It is better to make small progress every day than to do as much as humanly possible in one day. Do things you can sustain.

How much more fun is it to have constant feeling of progress rather than big strides? Small, simple and easy is what will get you there. Not hard work and tears.

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