It's about this time of year when attendance at the gym and healthy food selections at the grocery stores begin to decline. Old habits sneak back in and the novel zest and enthusiasm to pursue our New Year's resolutions fall off the radar. I have been guilty of abandonment when it comes to making resolutions at New Year's. I think for the past three years "reducing my caffeine intake" made it on the list- yet as I sit here sipping about my third cup of coffee today, I realize that that it never happened. I have been successful at some of my resolutions. I wanted to write more, read more, and sleep more. I also wanted to do yoga more often, and start watching more documentaries on TV (the ones where you actually LEARN something). People often wait until New Year's to make resolutions or promises to either themselves or their love ones. I use to think that only making resolutions on the first of the year was silly, and the people who gave up were wimps. I was always told to set goals for myself throughout the year. But, the more thought I thought about it, the more I realized that goals and resolutions in all areas of our life- not just athletically, are important. As athletes, goals set or made for improvement are a regular part of our vernacular and our training, but this is not the general consensus amongst the population. The concept of goals should bleed into all areas of our lives.
Some of the best athletes use goal setting and visualization techniques to make their "dream" a reality. They don't just resolve to improve- they make it a goal and then they create a plan that will help them achieve that end result. Competitive runners' goals don't have to be time specific. The goals should be both short term, and long term to allow the runner to one day get that time. This year in running, I made a goal for myself to cross train more ardently and make yoga a regular part of my routine so that I can stay relatively recovered after hard training sessions and injury-free. I also wanted to include more "tempo" style workouts so that I could build a good foundation for 5ks and 10ks. During the track season, I really had to work on my speed. I knew that I had a strong base and was in good shape, but some key workouts with the city track club gave me a really good (and painful) initiation into the proper training for 3ks. It was a goal that required sacrifices and short term steps to make my way there.
I think this is what people don't like about resolutions or about goals. The truth is, at points it can be uncomfortable and at times painful. You know what they say – no pain, no gain. And short term sacrifices lead to long term gains. Unfortunately, I know this all too well to be true.
I have tried to incorporate goal setting into every aspect of my life. Work, school, life, and of course running. Work and life I found were much harder for me to create and also to stick to. It gave me empathy for all those people, come the second week of January, who just don't feel like it is worth it anymore.
Many people associate goal-setting with New Year resolutions, and are quick to dismiss goal-setting as ineffective, since most well-intentioned, elusive, and unrealistic resolutions fail before the end of January. American sprinter Michael Johnson wrote a book about his climb to success. The book Slaying the Dragon emphatically emphasizes his ability to harness his talent through effective goal-setting. The book drives home the point that even if you weren't blessed with the speedy legs and talent of Johnson, or if you are fast, slow, or don't even run at all- anyone can accomplish substantial progresses in performance by means of goal-setting.
A recent study on goal-setting in the worlds of business and in sport and exercise showed that goal-setting led to performance enhancement in 78% of sport and exercise research studies.
The other day I was on the elliptical at the gym and they had a specialist, on one of the morning shows on the TV, talking about goal-settings. This made me want to think more about what exactly happens in our heads both psychologically and biologically when we set goals for ourselves. Apparently it is a lot more than we would think.
According to the research, setting a goal does something to our brains and makes our brain invests energy into that concept or idea as if we'd already accomplished it. In other words, by setting a goal, a part of our brain considers that desired outcome as an important part of who we are and becomes part of the brain's self-image. Our brain cannot separate between things we want and things we possess. Neurologically, then, our brains treats our goals the same way as it treats a valued possession.
Neurotransmitters helps our brains function. You've probably already heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life. But a lesser known neurotransmitter, dopamine, is extremely important as well. Dopamine acts as a motivator by creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Consequently dopamine plays a fundamental part in keeping us focused and motivated on our goals because the feeling of achievement elevates our mood. Dopamine is related to wanting or desire. Thus, our brain reacts the same way when we get an object that we want or if we realized our goals. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.
Ownership is an important factor too. In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Limited students wanted to trade; even if they professed to like chocolate better. Seems insignificant at first, but then comes part two of the experiment. When they reversed the experiment, and handed out chocolate and then offered to trade mugs for the candy, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Seemingly the significant thing about the experiment wasn't WHAT the students had in their possession, but the feeling over the object they had in their possession. This is called the "endowment effect." In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); making us unwilling to part with it. Parting with a possession triggers a dopamine shut-off.
Curiously enough, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn't require actual possession in order to take place. In actuality, a rational anticipation of the future (read- a goal) can make us start thinking of it as a part of us. It suggests that the brain is working with us to direct us to achieving our goals by releasing dopamine. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it.
So there, we can actually have scientific research and proof that we should be setting goals for ourselves. Our brains are neurologically engineered to be on our side when it comes to resolutions. So why not set more resolutions? Why not spend more time at the gym? Why not get out of debt?
And even if we look at it from a non-scientific standpoint, I could stand to say "no" to that cup of coffee. I really should spend less time on Facebook. I really should. But then again- I'll think about that next year...