How to stop sabotaging your goals

brain sabotage goals

You've made the decision to change your life.

You set an intention, make a commitment, set a goal.

You've gotten excited and can see all the good things that will come from this change. You can see all the bad things that will happen if you don't.

But ultimately you start out strong and fizzle. In many cases, you may not even start.

You might forget in a matter of minutes your grand intentions.

We fail so often. We fail to complete our intentions and our potential. We feel guilty and think we are just too lazy, unmotivated, useless. But what truly decides whether we achieve our goals is much less dependent on us then we would like to believe.

We are mistaken when we think it is all up to us, our character and discipline, willpower and strength. That we are responsible for our commitment and our good intentions will be enough to propel us to success.

But it's not discipline or willpower that's the problem.

It is the actual design of our brain.

Yep, our brain is programmed for failure!!

Hyperboles aside, part of our brain is still all instinct and emotion and snap decisions. Then another part is logic and future planning, analysing all the available information and make solid goals. The basal ganglia (or 'reptilian' brain) does not care at all about the future plans, it only cares about right now. And right now it wants those sweets! So you eat the sweets, even though you had already planned to cut down on sugar.

You watch tv instead of study.

You stay in bed instead of getting up early and get the day off to a strong start.

You spend to much time on work and not enough time with your kids.

Logically, you can see the errors. You can see clearly how not following your intentions are going to lead to health problems, failed tests, stress and strained relationships. The intention is strong. It's obvious, logical and important.

But in the moment, in the 'NOW' part of our brain, none of that matters. You're hungry, the study is stressful, the bed is warm and cosy and deadlines are looming. Right in the absolute now the rewards for following through on your commitment are non-existent. And the reward for the alternative is instant. Cake, entertainment, warm beds.

stop self sabotaging

Here's the thing. We think we can override this with willpower. You can't. You pretty much cannot use willpower alone for staying on track with your intentions. Your brain isn't built for it.

Let me say it again. You cannot use willpower alone to stick to a future goal. In the moment you're faced with something that is at odds with your commitment from it, your brain will let you down. The more it's staring you in the face the more likely you'll cave.

You need to make the reward or consequence instant (and preferably out of your hands).

For example, my partner said he wanted to start getting up at four. A true, life-changing, decision that would improve aspects of his life in many many ways. He set his alarm, excited, ready, enthusiastic for the next day. The alarm goes off, there's a groan, the alarm stops and he's straight back asleep.

Now I knew he wouldn't get up. I didn't want to spoil his enthusiasm so I didn't say anything but the next day when he was setting his alarm again I told him "there is no way you're going to get up to that unless you have something that forces you to"

So we brainstormed. If he didn't get up at four he had to get up with our son at six and I got to sleep in, if he didn't get up I got the whole day off. If he didn't get up I would donate $100 to a cause he didn't agree with.

That last one was my idea. And he stopped. And looked at me. And said, "that would do it."

That would do it.

Without a doubt that would get him up. No way is anyone going to stay in bed when there are a hundred dollars on the line. Not just to be lost but to be given to something you dislike?!

What would make you do the thing?

Getting stuff done - "What would make you do the thing"

If having a cigarette would meaning giving your prized collection of teacups to your sister then you're much more likely to see it through. Logically cancer should be the bigger motivator, not the cups. But losing them is more immediate.

More right now.

More likely to get your reptilian brain, your limbic system and your neocortex on the same page.

More likely to get results.

Which, in the end, is what matters.

It might seem ridiculous to ask an assistant to not forward any calls to you until you've emailed five clients in the morning but if you constantly struggle with those emails, and if you know you're missing important calls it might push you to actually get them done.

The truth is our brains are immensely complex and mysterious and we have only the beginnings of ideas of how it works. Sometimes ridiculous things work. If I couldn't have coffee until the kitchen was clean you better believe it would be spotless 90% of the time. Unfortunately, I can't set the coffee plunger to work like that and no one is here to keep me to it during the day. I need the consequence to be out of my hands.

What ridiculous threat or reward would motivate you to stick to a goal? Let me know in the comments or send me an email. Let's brainstorm!



I'm in the middle of creating a productivity goal smashing course specifically for people who suck at productivity and goal smashing.

Want in for the beta (cheaper) round?

Sign up for my newsletters to be kept in the loop

You might also like: