The Science Behind Goals

It’s the day before a project presentation to your director. You’re scrambling to finish the report that you’ve had weeks to work on. Every ten minutes your Outlook inbox chime lets you know that an urgent, attention stealing email is waiting for you. The hours slip by.

It’s the night before your final exam and you’re scrambling to cover four chapters of content well into the dark evening hours. You need way more time to study. You had planned to get a long study session in last Thursday, but at 6pm that night you received a text inviting you to beers. You thought you would have been able to just double the study time over the weekend. You didn’t.

It’s the weekend before the surprise birthday party that you were responsible for planning and you’re scrambling to finalize numbers, make reservations, and gather décor. But as soon as your phone pings, you’re back to your texts, and then Instagram, and then emails, and then Instagram again.

If any of the above sound like you, or a situation that you’ve found yourself in, chances are you’ve caught yourself procrastinating at least once or twice. You could be a highly motivated individual that has their life together 90% of the time, but there’s always something that sneaks up on you that you find yourself scrambling to get sorted out at the last minute.

The fact of the matter is that procrastination is an entirely human trait. There are variations of the explanation of why we procrastinate, but I’ll summarize what those variations amount to in broad terms. Our brain is one of the most complex structures in the universe, and it’s composed of various systems that have allowed us to evolve into the species we are today—and systems that often compete with one another (Morse, 2006).

One of those systems is called the limbic system. It is a set of structures in the brain that deal with emotions and memory. One of those structures, the amygdala, plays an important role in controlling motivational behaviors, such as reward-related motivation as well as appetitive and aversive behaviors. In this context, “rewards” are highly motivating, very immediate sources of gratification, such as food, positive social interactions, and sex. This powerful system is responsible for driving many of our most powerful urges and is where much of our immediate motivation comes.

The other system that often finds itself in competition with the limbic system is the called the prefrontal cortex. From an evolutionary perspective, this is a newer,  weaker, system that is responsible for higher thinking, logic, problem solving, and planning. If the prefrontal cortex is the voice in your head that resolves to eat healthier this month, or that schedules in a two-hour study session on Thursday evening, then the limbic system is the other sneaky voice that says, “go ahead, you’re doing great, have that cheeseburger”, or “you deserve a break, go out with your friends and we’ll study tomorrow”.

Some people are better listening to one voice than the other. And the truth of the matter is that how much we procrastinate, (or the flip side of that, how motivated we are to do certain tasks), is dependent on other important variables such as values, expectancy, and our propensity to delay tasks or our impulsiveness (Steel, 2011).

This all makes perfect sense. If you value fitness, you’re more likely to be motivated to make it to that 6am workout. If you have high expectancy (ie; the relationship between input efforts and output results) and confidence that diligent work will yield positive results in your job at work, you’ll be more motivated to work harder. And of course if you’re easily distracted or are prone to delay tasks, then your motivation will often wane.

The trick is hacking our brains to turn long term goals into short term tasks, or using our prefrontal cortex to plan and strategize how we can execute tasks with greater intention and timeliness. We’ve all heard again and again how important it is to set and write down goals, but the real work is what happens in between where you’re at and where you want to be. Short term tasks or sub goals that provide even small or symbolic rewards act as important stepping stones that can increase the likelihood of goal achievement. They do this by leveraging the limbic system which seeks immediate gratification to drive motivation.

The graph below provides a visual to illustrate this point. The orange “Procrastinator Line” represents the motivation of an individual who needs to complete a task by June 30. The dotted blue “Distraction Line” represents everything else in life that can draw their attention away from this goal, from social commitments, to other work priorities, or simply the need for rest and relaxation.

Without intermediate goals, we can see here that distractions and other motivations prevent the procrastinator from actually doing any work on the project until roughly the last week of June. In this case, they are forced to cancel other plans, work longer hours, or compromise the quality of the output. The individual is motivated, however how they have distributed their effort and motivation is skewed until the last few days before the project is due.

The “Intermediate Goal Setter” has instead set weekly checkpoints for them to complete tasks by, which has in turn allowed them to apply the same cumulative amount of effort and motivation, but in a manner that’s probably a little less stressful, and that allows better balance with other work and life priorities. In this case, both systems of the brain are working in harmony to balance long term goals with short term achievements and rewards.

Many of the individuals that I have coached and worked with over the years, both in formal coaching relationships, and in more casual peer-to-peer relationships, have set goals. In some cases those goals are clearly defined following the classic “specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time bound”, or “SMART” structure, and in some cases they are a little more vague but still provide direction. But what often gets missed is everything that happens in between where you’re at, and where you want to get with those goals.

That’s where the real work is, in between where you’re at, and where you’re going. That’s why coaching, social support, regular check ins, or simple personal accountability are so crucial to achieving your goals, they create structure and a plan aimed towards success.

After all, a goal without a plan is just a wish.


Morse, G. (2006, January). Decisions and Desire. Retrieved from Harvard Business Review:

Steel, P. (2011). The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done. Toronto: Random House.