Getting Where You Want to Go

It's very common to hear successful people talk about how they feel like they are almost manifesting their destiny because they have been focusing on envisioning their newfound success for many years, often starting in childhood. 

There are a multitude of explanations on what separates successful people from unscucessful people, and one thing we know for sure is that people who know what they want, have faith they can get it, and put the hard work in that is necessary often find themselves experiencing the fruits of success. 

There are many factors that contribute to our dreams becoming a reality, including explicit self-awareness, proper motivation, and understanding how to set goals effectively, but on the physiological front, the Reticular Activating System (RAS)—a cluster of neurons located above the spinal cord and a gatekeeper to the senses—is a key player in the game. 

In today's modern age, it is easy to get oversaturated with information as we are all constantly sifting through billions of bits of data at any given time and organizing this data without short-circuiting. The key is to making this data work in our favor, which is where the RAS becomes relevant. 

brain illustration of reticular activating system

The RAS plays a crucial role in goal-setting by helping us focus more effectively on what we seek to accomplish by via selective filtering. Except for the olfactory system, it serves as a barrier between our environment and our senses, bridging the gap between our unconscious and conscious mind, working behind the scenes to sort and organize environmental data in response to our surroundings.

We've all had experiences of thinking about something specific, like buying a new car, and then all of a sudden, we start seeing that specific car everywhere. While it may seem magical and surreal at the time, this phenomenon is a result of selective attention.

The flip side of this would be confirmation bias, a shortcut that our minds take to support our pre-existing beliefs. Often bombarded with information, humans are very susceptible to this bias because it's an efficient way to process information so we are reassured that each time we see that car, it is further proof of our impression that the car is everywhere.

A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?

When it comes to our self-esteem, our beliefs about who we are, which we've received from our childhood and other critical moments in life, are often projected into the real world as self-fulfilling prophecies. Our predetermined beliefs about ourselves run deep and have a profound influence on whether things that align with our expected results, regardless of whether they are positive or negative.

For example, a person with low self-esteem will typically not pursue things they think are too big for them. As a result, these people are most likely to settle with less desirable choices or circumstances.

In contrast, people who are driven, confident, and goal-oriented will persistently pursue new opportunities even though they might seem impossible at the moment. These individuals have trained their RAS to filter out the noise and will be able to better focus on opportunities as they present themselves. Roman philosopher Seneca once said, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity," and when our filtering system is working correctly, our propensity to recognize opportunity is heightened.

The RAS conditions us to repeat our beliefs, thoughts, emotional patterns, and subconscious coping mechanisms, and, often, we do not realize this, but we behave according to the thoughts and ideas that we feed our RAS. It's a bit similar to training a data set in machine learning. 

As such, its vital to become conscious of our thoughts and beliefs to better understanding the influence they have on on our RAS because these thoughts and beliefs affect our actions and, therefore, all areas of our lives—relationships, career, health, wealth, and spirituality. Thus, while the RAS is the key to increasing our motivation, without conscious awareness of how this part of the brain works, it can function against our aspirations.

It’s wonderful to climb the liquid mountains of the sky. Behind me and before me is God and I have no fears.

Helen Keller

Getting Motivated

The old saying goes, "If there is a will, there is a way." We can define "will" as motivation and the capacity to see the goal through. On the other hand, we can define "way" as our cognition, skills, and the ability to plan and execute. Both are equally important to accomplish goals.

Will is a result of the brain's dopamine reinforcement learning system, which is directly related to motivation. The higher the value you place on the goal, the more likely it is that you will achieve it. For example, if you want to finish school, the value you place on education, self-development, and discipline have a direct impact on whether you complete the degree on your own time.

In neuroscience, "the way" is a product of executive function, higher-level cognitive skills, and capacities that promote functioning optimally. As a result, it exerts effort, operates consciously, and is engaged when trying new things. It is driven primarily by the prefrontal cortex.

What is 2+2? .... That is not executive functioning.

What is 29 X 3? ... That is executive functioning.

🎯 Effective Goal Setting 🎯

There is a consensus in the scientific community that accountability, commitment, and writing down one's goals are the deciding factors for accomplishing a goal.

In 2015, Dr. Gail Matthews, a Psychology professor, set out to establish the power of goal-setting. She recruited 267 people from all walks of life to study goal achievement, dividing everybody into five sub-groups.

The commonality among the different groups was to think about their monthly goals and rate each goal according to 5 factors.

1. Difficulty
2. Importance
3. Skills and resources to accomplish the goal
4. Commitment and motivation
5. Whether they had pursued the goal before

The study's key takeaway was that when people write their goals and action commitments daily and share them with others, the probability of achieving the goal increases significantly. 76% of the people that did this either achieved their goals or were at least halfway there.

Our goals can only be reached through a vehicle of a plan, in which we must fervently believe, and upon which we must vigorously act. There is no other route to success

Pablo Picasso


George T. Doran coined the term "SMART goal" in the November 1981 issue of Management Review and it has since been widely used to guide people in writing and setting goals. SMART Goals, in essence, provide a clear sense of focus, clarity, and direction.

"SMART" is an acronym that stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely.

SMART Goals illustration

Setting goals gives us a sense of direction, drive, and purpose. As a result, by setting well-defined goals, you can keep an eye on your target and better focus on how to achieve your goal within the time frame specified. You can also improve your chances of reaching your objectives in this manner.

To put this into practice, keep a journal in which you write down your goals and feelings about them. Then, review your goals on a daily basis, and you should begin noticing when relevant information in the environment is present related to accompilishing your goals.


Plain, direct, and unambiguous, e.g., "I want to save and invest a significant amount of my savings to attain financial freedom."


Quantitative criteria that allow you to track your progress, e.g., "I want to save 20,000 dollars and invest 20% of that in the stock market."


Attainable, reasonable, and realistic; it should challenge you, but at the same time, it's not impossible to achieve given the resources that are available to you, e.g., "To achieve my goal of financial freedom, I will manage my spending and take the time to learn about stock market investing."


Answers your "why" and whether it aligns with your values and long-term objectives, e.g., "I want to save 20,000 dollars and invest 20% in stocks because it will allow me to diversify my investment portfolio and attain financial independence."


The goal should be time-sensitive to create a sense of urgency, e.g., "I should have saved 20,000 dollars and invested 20% of the amount in the stock market by the age of 25."

🧐 See it to believe it 🧐

Visualization improves the likelihood of achieving a goal. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, visualization is “the act of visualizing something or someone” or “forming a picture of it in your mind”. It’s almost like looking through a particular lens, your unconsciousness, your imagination, your deepest desires, and seeing your life unfold within your inner eye.

There are a multitude of visualization techniques, but consensus is that PETTLEP is considered most effective and is currently most prominent. The acronym indicates that physical, environment, task, timing, learning, emotional, and perspective relevant aspects of the imagery all need to be aligned with the aspects of the actual activity. 

A highly effective exercise is to imagine yourself with a bow and arrow aiming at the goal, which symbolizes the outcome of the goal being achieved. Clearly visualize the goal, imagine it happening, and release the arrow. At this point, believe that you are moving toward that goal, and you should start noticing opportunities that move you closer to the goal, as well as being more clear on distractions that move you further away from the goal.

Reprogramming subconscious beliefs

1. Challenge negative thoughts and beliefs

When we notice that we feel undeserving of a goal, we must question our feeling. Are we really in the position to say when something is not for us?

2. Use affirmations

After catching a negative belief, we can use affirmations to counter it. Make sure that you have supporting statements so the brain accepts the declaration. For instance, if we use the affirmation "I am good enough," five specific reasons we are good enough should follow it. This way, we strengthen the reprogramming with actions, repetitions, and emotions.

3. Identify the unmet needs

When we don't get our needs met, such as love, significance, growth, or certainty, we feel dissatisfaction. Unmet needs for long periods can lead to depression.

4. Validate emotions

We have to be aware that our feelings always tell us something about our internal reality—not always the external reality.

5. Avoid negative self-talk

How we speak to ourselves will be programmed in the brain. We have to make sure that we are compassionate to ourselves and avoid being overly critical when making mistakes.

Challenging ourselves to do new things and overcome obstacles is hardwired into our biology. The brain craves novelty and rewards us with dopamine bursts. Take full advantage of this by setting lofty short-term and long-term goals. Believe that you are deserving of great things and that you are capable of accomplishing great things.

As we reach our milestones, we gain more confidence to propel us forward. Neural circuits change and synapses strengthen when we learn something new or overcome a challenge. Grey matter grows, dopamine is released, and self-esteem rises.

To effectively set and achieve goals, we should first focus on changing the negative beliefs that have been programmed into our RAS. Our thoughts create our reality, and by practicing mindfulness and intentionality, we can set more goals and achieve better results.


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Epton, T., Currie, S., & Armitage, C. J.. (2017). Unique effects of setting goals on behavior change: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 85(12), 1182–1198.
Gardner S., Albee D.. (2015). Study focuses on strategies for achieving goals, resolutions . Dominican Scholar Press Releases. 266.
Höchli, B., Brügger, A., & Messner, C.. (2018). How Focusing on Superordinate Goals Motivates Broad, Long-Term Goal Pursuit: A Theoretical Perspective. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 1879.
Kim S. I. . (2013). Neuroscientific model of motivational process. Frontiers in psychology, 4, 98.
Pezzulo, G., Verschure, P. F., Balkenius, C., & Pennartz, C. M.. (2014). The principles of goal-directed decision-making: from neural mechanisms to computation and robotics. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B. Biological sciences, 369(1655), 20130470.
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The RAS has always been one of the most interesting parts of the brain to goes to show how powerful our minds are and that "where attention goals, energy flows." It is both liberating and a little scary to know that a large part of what happens to us begins in our minds.

I think its amazing and interesting. I try to harness the power of my mind to overcome my self doubt and remind myself that I can accomplish anything I put my mind to!

I appreciate the scientific explanation behind goal setting. It always helps solidify your quest for improvement with science. Maybe its just me, but anything with evidence really paves the way that there is logic behind the choices you are making. You just need to know where to look. Here's to achieving our goals! Hoping you could share more articles like this (science behind stuff).

@6lackanary Oh I believe in manifesting wants and goals.  I believe everything  starts with a positive mindset. @Tina2016 the elephant analogy is so true! I have to work on that myself, because I can go BIG picture which can be overwhelming when trying to reach a goal. Breaking it down into smaller pieces is more rewarding, because it’s feels like you’re constantly accomplishing something which in turn is motivating to reach the bigger goal.

Great piece. I just read about this recently but having a goal-oriented life has an effect on your brain, making it less reactive to threats and more focused on rewards, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Chicago.

It’s a finding with potential implications for people with depression, who tend to focus on negative events and are less responsive to rewards. And it helps explain why some people seem able to stay upbeat despite adversity.

Having goals in your life is important, especially if you feel like you are a failure. It is difficult to have goals when you feel as though nothing will ever work out for you, but it can be accomplished.

This article just might be the best thing I’ve read all week. I have been struggling lately with so many ideas and so many goals and projects that I have. I think for today what I need to do is just find a quiet place and a couple hours to myself. Then I’m going to just write a list of the things that I need to do and then write how I’m going to accomplish them and give myself a realistic timeframe. With the oncoming school year and different things needed for my small business I have been feeling overwhelmed. I forgot how important it can be to write down your goals and work on them a little bit at a time. I think I’ve just been frustrated with expecting to do too much at once and then ending up not getting anything done. Thank you for the well wrote out article and the motivation I needed to get back on track and accomplishing my goals.

"Our thoughts shape our reality and, with mindfulness and intentionality, we can better set more goals and achieve higher results."

Wisdom. So much truth.

Interesting,  so from my understanding RAS is the filter that brings you the relevant information it knows you need to achieve your goals.  I believe in setting  long and short term  goals, but I tend to focus heavily on the short term goals - breaking my goals into little chunks.  It all leads to the long term in the end, but going about things little by little makes the goals more achievable, and less overwhelming..

Motivating and inspiring. Focused and aligned work is harder and harder these days.

This article was a very motivating read, I find it hard to stay on task the busier I get - especially with work. Setting goals has allowed me to streamline my day and quite honestly reduce my levels of stress. I completely agree that you are more likely to achieve your goal if you share your intent with family and friends. I feel like sharing your goals almost gives you a sense of more accountability knowing that "someone else is watching". Setting goals is probably one of the best productivity tools around. This was really a great read and very helpful.

Just the motivation I needed today. Gonna need to research RAS more

This year I have had goals down that I have wanted to do for a very long time I have only shared them with one very close friend. It was interesting to read and hear how sharing it with friends will help you actually reach your goals. I’ve noticed that my friend is actually very encouraging and would ask me if I worked on anything during the day or if I put a little bit of time to my goal at least learning about it. I feel like this is also creating an accountability because someone else knows and they’re helping me to follow through. I think I need to write them down and put my goals right in front of me so I see them every day and maybe write down what I’m going to do to help accomplish these. Thanks again for this great story and giving me ideas and encouragement.

I hope you were able to meet your goals!

This is exactly what I needed today. I love how I find things like this exactly when I need them.

My grandmother would always say Visualize, Prayerize, actualize.

Visualize it happening, pray for it, and watch it actually happen.

They say you have a 44% higher chance of achieving your goals if you write them down. I have been doing this for years and absolutely love checking them off when I achieve them.

I love your quote "Prove yourself right, and prove the naysayers wrong"

Music is also such a great way to motivate me along the way. It's amazing what a fun little feel good song can do to help kick you in high gear.

I am definitely going to do some more research on the RAS. My daily goal setting come in the form of manifesting what I want in life and it works the same for me and has ben very effective. Over the years I have tried other goal setting methods and the five factors used by Matthews seems to be promising! I'll definitely be using this as my journaling tool for goal setting from now on.