The Secret to Setting Long Term Goals

This is Part 1 of The Secret to Setting Long Term Goals

Does setting long term goals ever feel like this? You revel in the process at the beginning but find, as you pursue it, you start losing steam?

Maybe you find yourself going off track, or lose your motivation to push on.

Perhaps the process starts feeling like a chore, and you struggle to commit.

This is natural and certainly doesn’t mean that you just can’t set and meet your long-term goals.

It only means you don’t have the right strategies yet.

Your brain and body has mechanisms in place that allow you to set and pursue goals.

And once you know how these mechanisms work, you can leverage them to your advantage!

The Secret to Setting Long Term Goals

The Key to Motivation

There are plenty of articles and videos about dopamine, as I’m sure you know.

But many resources leave out some critical details about this neuromodulator.

For example, you might have heard of dopamine as the “pleasure molecule.”

As neuroscience demonstrates, however, dopamine has less to do with pleasure, and more to do with want.

Dopamine is what makes you desire something, and this desire is what pushes you to work towards a goal.

Say for example you’re anticipating seeing an old friend after a long time.

This anticipation causes an initial pulse of dopamine to surge down your brain’s reward pathways.

It gives you that sense of excitement and joy as you look forward to meeting up with someone you care about.

And you experience a greater dopamine spike when you actually reap the reward you were expecting.

So, you might be thinking that the secret to setting long-term goals is just keeping your dopamine levels high, right?

The Secret to Setting Long Term Goals

Brain scientists say it is not as simple as that. In fact, dopamine is a bit of a double-edged sword, and if you’re not careful, it can work against you.

However, when you know exactly how your dopamine systems work, you can flip the same system to your advantage!

Table of Contents

1, The Pleasure-Pain Balance of Dopamine

2. Set Realistic Goals

3. Reward the Effort and Not the Goal

4. Don’t Be Afraid to Make Mistakes

The Secret to Setting Long-Term Goals

1. The Pleasure-Pain Balance of Dopamine

There’s a lot of information out there about the pleasure aspect of dopamine. But there’s not enough information about the downside.

Whenever you experience a spike in dopamine, there is a corresponding release of chemicals which cause pain.

You might not experience this as physical pain, or even recognize it as pain.

But this pain is what causes you to crave more dopamine. It creates the need and desire to keep pursuing whatever caused that spike.

It’s this pleasure-pain balance that makes it possible for a dopamine spike to prolong your ability to pursue a goal.

There’s a big catch, though.

With every spike of dopamine, the subsequent spike is less than the one before. In other words, each subsequent time you pursue the reward, you experience less dopamine.

This is why, for example, you might not enjoy that second slice of pizza as much you as enjoyed the first one.

You May Not Experience as Much Dopamine Each Time You Pursue Your Reward of Setting Long Term Goals

Or why you might not experience the magic of a new holiday location as much if you visit again soon after.

And remember the “pain” part of the pleasure-pain balance?

As you experience lower dopamine spikes, you experience more pain.

The more frequent your dopamine spikes, the more pronounced your experience of the yearning for dopamine will become.

It can start manifesting in mental and emotional pain, and overtime demotivate rather than motivate you.

This is why anything that causes really sharp increases in dopamine  – like gambling, alcohol, drugs – are so addictive.

The sharp increase is followed by a massive crash as you begin to crave that dopamine surge again.

So, what can you do to balance out the pleasure and the pain?

Use Intermittent Reward Scheduling to Balance the Dopamine Pleasure and Pain of Setting Long Term Goals

The Secret to Setting Long Term Goals

The goal here is to prolong that sense of pleasure and minimize the pain.

And an effective way of doing this is through scheduling your dopamine by rewarding every other step toward your goal, instead of all the steps.

Rather than celebrate completing every item on your to-do list, celebrate every other item. And do this in an unpredictable, changing pattern.

By doing this, you’re basically allowing each spike of dopamine to last longer and drive you further.

And by increasing the gap between each spike, you’re also minimizing the increase in pain.

You have better control over your motivation and the ability to expend more effort toward your goal!

Here’s what intermittent reward scheduling might look like.

Say, for example, you have a report you need to write for school or work.

Rather than celebrating every single step, like brainstorming the topic, doing your research, mind mapping etc., reward every other step.

So, instead of stopping to congratulate yourself and feel good about yourself after you’ve picked a topic, wait until you’ve done your research.

Then, hold off celebrating again until you’re done with the first draft.

Do the same with long-term projects, and you’ll be able to sustain your motivation for much, much longer!

2. Set Realistic Goals

This might sound like basic advice, right?

But setting realistic goals is extremely important to make it easier for dopamine to do its job right.

Dopamine is very subjective. What you anticipate or perceive as a reward won’t be the same for others.

For example, you might be a huge Marvel fan. So, if you’re anticipating a new Marvel film, your levels of anticipation and dopamine are likely to be higher than a casual movie-goer’s.

But what if the movie doesn’t meet your expectations?

The difference between your expected level of dopamine and what you actually experience might leave you demotivated instead.

This is a reward prediction error. When your anticipation of a reward is higher than what you experience, the dopamine spike isn’t enough to motivate you.

Meanwhile, if you’re a casual moviegoer, and had milder or no expectations, you might enjoy the film more.

Your dopamine spike would be higher. It might motivate you to watch the film again, try other Marvel films, or recommend it to friends.

See what I mean by dopamine being very subjective?

With this in mind, remember to set yourself accessible, realistically doable goals.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be ambitious – you just want to be mindful of how possible each goal you set is to reach.

Stay Tuned: Part 2 of The Secret to Setting Long Term Goals is here.

Part 3 of The Secret to Setting Long Term Goals is here.

Pat Wyman is the CEO of,, best selling author and an internationally noted brain and learning coach known as America’s Most Trusted Learning Expert.

Pat’s superpower is helping people learn, read and remember everything faster. She has helped over half a million people in schools and corporations such as Microsoft, Intel and Google improve their lives with her learning strategies, learning styles inventory and courses, including Total Recall Learning™.

She is the best-selling author of more than 15 books, a university instructor, mom and golden retriever lover!

Contact Pat to find out more about the Brain Advantage 2.0 Learning and Career Assessment and customized coaching programs for professionals and students.