The Accomplishment High: What Happens to Our Brains When We Complete Goals

Back in the early 1980s, Curtis Tyler, Alex Smith, and Conrad Will decided that the distances that make up the most mind-boggling endurance challenge, The Ironman just wasn’t long enough: 2.4-mile (3.86 km) swim, a 112-mile (180.25 km) bicycle ride and a marathon 26.2-mile (42.2 km) run. From this incomprehensible notion, the first Ultraman Race was born in 1983.

This event is limited to 40 athletes by invite only. The athletes converge on the big island of Hawaii for this three-day race. Day one consists of a 6.2-mile ocean swim followed by a 90-mile cross-country bike ride. Day two gets just a ‘little’ tougher with a 171.4-mile (276-km) bike ride with a vertical climb of 4,000 feet. Day three, the final leg of the race, consists of a Double. Marathon. You read that right — 52.4-mile run. This is, as its name suggests, the absolute pinnacle of testing the endurance of a human’s limits.

When you watch an Olympic race, what’s the first thing the winner does? The top finisher throws his or her hands in the air in victory. Observing athletes cross the finish line of the Ultraman race, many throw their hands up in victory because the race isn’t about first.

 

It’s about finishing.

 

Throwing the hands in the air is the product of a chemical reaction happening at that moment in each competitor’s brain. Minds are pushed past the mental limits to maintain focus and keep the legs moving, and crossing the finish line is the equivalent of releasing the air from a balloon. Tension leaves the body, and arms stretch to the air. Milliseconds before the hands raise, exhausted bodies are treated with a massive surge of the chemical dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter responsible for the warm, fuzzy feeling of achievement we get when we are presented with gifts, rewards, or upon completion of a difficult task. The more monumental the task is perceived, the more we feel the effects of dopamine. Illegal narcotics also release the same chemical. If the effects of dopamine can hook someone on an illegal substance, it may also have the power to hook us on completing our goals.

To do this, it makes sense to turn our large goal into a collection of sub-goals thus providing us with positive reinforcement along the way towards finishing our work. The more progress we make towards completing the large goal, the larger our motivation grows.

When I started tracking my goals back in 2009, I started with five main goals. In 2016, I realized I set 23 main goals for myself, which meant at least 276 sub goals had been set. If completing goals releases dopamine like an illegal narcotic, that only meant one thing: I was legitimately addicted to goal setting.

Think of setting smaller goals as setting live (humane) traps for your brain. To catch a wild animal with a live trap, you have to lead it to a cache of food with smaller morsels along the way. The animal will first pick up the scent of the smaller morsels, then begin nibbling at the first piece in the trail, followed by the second piece and so on until it’s led into the cage by the sight of a feast. Once the animal steps on a trigger plate, the cage closes, and it’s caught without injury. When we set smaller goals for ourselves that lead to the big payoff, we are giving our brains bait to keep it pushing our work forward.

 

THE CHECKLIST TRAP

When you watch an animal pick up the scent and approach the first morsel, it’s tentative. It looks around to make sure it’s not going to be attacked by a larger animal in search of the same food. It will sniff around for any alien scents. If the coast is clear, it will try the first bite.

When planning out your smaller goals, you’ll want to set them up like a live trap – a Checklist Trap. Your first task should be something easy, something that won’t cause you to run in the opposite direction of your work. Make this task something that can be completed in under an hour with very little brainpower or creative thought. You might feel a little silly at first writing examples like the following:

“String up and tune guitars.”

 “Clear desk of clutter, set out the laptop.”

 “Buy 10 11x14 Canvases.”

From here, make the next step toward completing your goal a bit tougher — something that will take some creative brainpower and a little more time:

“Compile a list of songs for creative inspiration.”

 “Set aside two hours to write a rough synopsis.”

“Begin a mood board of styles and textures for inspiration.”

Through the process, we are leading our brains toward the big goal. We are earning trust and confidence in the process. We are completing very easy tasks to build momentum.

To complete the first draft of my book, UNFINISHED, I broke it down to the following steps:

  1. Read two books about writing a work of non-fiction.
  2. Take 2 hours to do a short synopsis on the subject.
  3. Create an outline.
  4. Break the book down into chapters.
  5. Break the chapters down into sections.

Once I completed these tasks, I then set a schedule to finish each section. I would sit down and try to write 2 sections, typically in a 2-3 hour block twice a week, using this template from Eviatar Zerubavel’s book, The Clockwork Muse:

Section Length

(words)

Words Per Day Days to complete Deadline
Introduction 1,000 500 2 3/02/15
Chapter 1 2,000 500 4 3/20/15
Chapter 2 2,500 1,000 2.5 4/07/15
Chapter 3 2,500 1,000 2.5 4/21/15
Chapter 4 2,500 500 5 5/15/15
Chapter 5 4,000 1000 4 5/30/15

 

A Checklist Trap can work with any creative project as long as it can be broken down into small tasks you can check off along the way. If you are skeptical, here’s an example of a short project broken down into very easy-to-complete tasks:

PAINTING A LANDSCAPE

  1. Pin 20 pictures on Pinterest for inspiration.
  2. Buy an 11x11 canvas.
  3. Make sure I have enough paint.
  4. Take 15 minutes to set up my workstation.
  5. Sketch a rough idea for 20 minutes.
  6. Work for 30 minutes on the left quadrant of the painting.

…and so on.

Checklist Traps are the reason we LOVE the late artist, Bob Ross. Ross was one of the first artists to reveal his Checklist Traps on national television. Before the show, if I saw a completed Bob Ross painting, I would laugh at you if you told me I could make a fairly decent rendition of his work in 30 minutes.

He broke the process down into the smallest tasks — the simplest brush strokes, the “happiest little tree.” If you could put paint on your brush and move it from side to side, you could have a serene forest scene fit for Bambi in as much time as it took to watch Family Ties.

Deconstructing large bodies of work down to their smallest tasks puts us that much closer to being as prolific and masterful as the great Bob Ross.

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