Provision #756: Your Brain On Goals

Laser Provision


When people work with coaches they usually want help with setting and achieving goals. The motivation is often very practical: they want to be more successful in life and work. What they don’t always realize, however, is that the act of setting and striving to achieve goals changes the brain in demonstrable and positive ways. If you want to not only accomplish more but also to feel better, one of the best prescriptions is to get involved with intrinsic, goal-directed behavior. When was the last time you put your brain on goals? If it’s been awhile, then this Provision might give you a nudge.

LifeTrek Provision


It could be argued that coaching just makes people miserable. Seldom do I spend time with my clients on how to be happy or content with the way things are in the present moment. Even though I and my colleagues have written many Provisions on the notion of enough (see, for example,Envision Good EnoughEnough is Enough, and Reach for Enough), most of the time as coaches we are talking with our clients about their desires and strategies to move beyond the insufficiencies of the current moment to a more sufficient future. That is, in fact, one way of defining coaching: we assist people to cook up and make dreams come true.

Great coaching also assists people to avoid being miserable on the journey from now to then, from Point A to Point B. There is no benefit to cooking up big dreams if they make us feel inadequate or incapable in the moment. To avoid that eventuality, coaches assist clients to break down their dreams into manageable steps. Quick wins enable us to feel good about ourselves in the moment even as we hold and work toward bigger dreams in the future. When coaches assist people with this essential task, instead of feeling miserable, people feel great. There’s nothing better than making progress towards a self-directed goal.

That is, in fact, the true work of coaching. Coaches do not assign goals to clients as though we were physicians with a prescription pad: take two goals, drink plenty of fluids, and call us in the morning. Clients come to coaches with goals in hand, seeking the clarity and competence required for dreams to come true. And that’s exactly what happens in a surprising number of cases. Clients end up better off than when they started. Through the enhanced representation, design, and pursuit of the goals talked about in coaching conversations, clients achieve better goal attainment as well. Each facet is an important part of the puzzle:

  • Goal Representation. One of the more interesting questions that coaches talk about with our clients, either directly or indirectly, is the question, “Whose goal is this anyway?” Clients often start out by representing their goals as coming from outside themselves, with extrinsic motivators and directives. These are the things they “should” do or that someone else wants them to do or that society expects them to do in order to be successful or healthy. When clients represent their goals in this way, they are engaging in the Mental Musterbating that I wrote about in my last Provision. Such goals often can and do make people miserable until and unless they become internalized as something people want for themselves.In this stage, the work of coaching is to explore whether or not that should happen. Not all extrinsic goals should become intrinsic goals for every person. The question we ask, then, is simply, “What do you need most?” Different people will answer that question in different ways. At first, they may think we are asking about strategies: “I need a better job,” or “I need a divorce.” Through appreciative inquiry and empathy, however, clients can move from the surface level of particular strategies to the deeper level of universal needs.

    Here’s an example: I recently spoke with someone who was contemplating a major life change that would involve relocation and quitting her job. It would have been easy to stay on the surface level, weighing the pros and cons of each strategy. Instead, we dove deep into the needs that were most alive for her in the moment. How would she represent her goal? To have more autonomy and adventure in an area about which she feels great passion? Or to have more security and acknowledgment in a community around which she feels great connection? Weighing those alternatives led the conversation in new and profitable directions.

    One reason for that is because the shift from extrinsic to intrinsic goals, from particular strategies to universal needs, lights up the brain in very different ways. We move from the lateral prefrontal and parietal cortices to the medial, which engages our sense of attachment and understanding in very different ways. Our brains on intrinsic goals are not the same brains as when we are contemplating or working on extrinsic goals. Great coaching makes for great changes in the brain when we challenge people to examine and own their goals.

  • Goal Design. Once people have a goal in mind, the next piece of the puzzle is to design a plan for doing something about it. That’s especially true for intrinsic goals, which often come without a road map. When the boss assigns us a project with a deadline, the project plan gets delivered in the same envelope and, whether we like it or not, it’s our job to follow the instructions and complete the assignment. Everyone has had that experience at different points in life and some people do better with it than others. That, too, has something to do with how our brains are structured and developed. Compliance depends upon neural networking.Pursuing intrinsic goals, however, has less to do with compliance than intention. It’s up to us to set our minds on how we want to get something done. Some of the more interesting research in this field comes from the observation that approach and avoidance goals effect the brain in very different ways. When we are designing a plan to get something we truly want and need, that unleashes all kinds of positive emotions and hormones that make for a very happy brain indeed. When, on the other hand, we are designing a goal to avoid something we don’t want, we activate the fight-and-flight mechanisms that actually make it harder, rather than easier, to stay on task and to realize our dreams.

    That is why great coaching always stays in conversation with clients until they can clearly articulate what they do want. To get to that point, we often ask clients to close their eyes and visualize themselves going through the motions of their design. Such visualization triggers the mirror neurons of the brain in ways that make both goal pursuit and goal attainment more likely. When the brain imagines that we are doing something the brain engages the same circuitry that will be used when we are actually doing something. Creating vivid, preparatory neural sets is important to successful coaching.

    Back to our example: As we spoke about my friend’s options, we explored in detail what life would be like both now and in the future under different scenarios. In each case, we explored the feelings and needs that were being stimulated and met. This was helpful but not sufficient to devising a plan just because we ran out of time. It’s not uncommon to have to sleep on these things, literally, in order for the brain to generate a coherent goal intention and design.

  • Goal Pursuit. Once the goal has been conceived (representation) and set (design) it has to be pursued in order to be attained. Such pursuit, according to Elliot Berkman and Matthew Lieberman in their paper, “The Neuroscience of Goal Pursuit,” includes at least four dimensions: attention (to the goal in context as the design unfolds and to goal-relevant cues), motor control (as we act upon and react to circumstances), response inhibition (self-control and self-regulation so that we don’t get distracted by situational and personality moderators), and progress monitoring (noticing and reducing discrepancies).Project managers will recognize those four elements. Nothing gets done without attention, motor control, response inhibition, and progress monitoring. What project managers may not realize, however, is the complexity of these interrelated tasks in both neurological and physiological terms. So many different regions of the brain are involved, each of which must be coordinated with the body, that it’s a wonder we are ever successful when it comes to goal pursuit. Thanks to millions of years of evolution, however, most of us are up to the task as long as we have sufficient help and support along the way. No one is an island, especially when it comes to goal pursuit.

    Coaches can be an important source of such support. When we talk with clients about what is going on, we are strengthening their attention muscles. When we assist them to develop healthy routines of work, exercise, and rest, we are strengthening their motor control. When we bring back conversations to their stated intention, session after session, we are strengthening their ability to manage their emotions and stay on task. When we receive reports on what clients have accomplished and learned through their various activities, we co-create success through progress monitoring.

    Example: My friend decided to do more thinking about her goals and about the relevance of coaching to achieving her goals. It became clear, as we talked, that her need had less to do with goal pursuit than with goal representation and design. Once she knows what she wants to do, she’s pretty clear that she knows how to do it. She is naturally high in self-control and self-regulation and more than able to monitor her own progress over time. Still, at this phase in her process, she sees the value of talking with someone who can help her to sort things out and make decisions. That’s the goal she wants to pursue now, setting up the implementation goals to follow.

The neuroscientific literature abounds with studies that explore what happens to the brain on goals. A brain with goals is clearly not the same as a brain without goals. It is firing differently, generating different connections and chemicals, producing different emotions, ideas, and actions. We know this to be true from our own experience, but scientists are now learning more about the mechanism of action as well as the consequences of inaction.

Brains work better with goals. Indeed, brains are goal factories. There’s no end to the stuff we come up with. By challenging ourselves to identify intrinsic motivators, to design attractive (rather than aversive) goals, and to pursue them with the focus and organization of a project manager we will attain those goals more often than not, on the way to making dreams come true.

Coaching Inquiries: What are your goals right now? Are you sure? How could your goals better serve your life energy? What designs would help your goals to be expressed more fully? How could you stay focused on your goals even when distractions arise? What systems do you use, like a project manager, for progress monitoring? Who could help you to improve those systems in life and work?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form to arrange a complimentary conversation. 

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.


When you suggested in your last email that we click to confirm our address, I was happy to do it. Your writing is always meaningful and we appreciate it. We hope to meet you in person again.



May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching Internationalwww.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformationwww.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coachingwww.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

Address: 121 Will Scarlet Lane, Williamsburg, VA 23185-5043
Phone: (757) 345-3452 • Fax: (772) 382-3258
Skype: LifeTrek • Twitter: @LifeTrekBob
Subscribe/Unsubscribe: Subscriber Services