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5 Ways Our Brain Sabotages Our Goals (& How to Fight Back)

5 Ways Our Brain Sabotages Our Goals (& How to Fight Back)

As wonderful and fascinating as the brain is, it is not always our friend when it comes to achieving goals, according to Gregory Ciotti, the founder of Sparring Mind, who writes about understanding the science behind how our brain works, and how to use it to our advantage.

I got interested in this subject because of the research I did for another article entitled, “Top 5 Regrets People Have on Their Deathbed.” I wondered why it was that so many people “go to their graves with their music still in them,” as Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw said. What is it that happens to us that we sabotage our own dreams?

If we can understand how our brain works, we have a better chance at doing the things that we really want to do, suggests Ciotti. Accomplishing our goals will not only make us happier, but also more fulfilled as we approach the end of our life.

Here are five ways our brain can hinder our goals, and some well-researched ways to overcome the saboteurs.

1. Over-Fantasizing

Visualizing our goals is very important. We must envision and feel ourselves achieving what it is we desire, but we can overdo it with too much fantasizing. Grandiose dreams that focus on the ultimate ending are so much more pleasurable than dealing with the here and now, but big dreaming can actually keep us from doing the real work necessary to bring our goals into reality.

Dream big, then set goals and get down to work. Too much dreaming will trick the mind into thinking you have already achieved the goal, and getting down to work and doing the hard stuff is never as satisfying as the grandiose dream with the “Hollywood” ending.

2. Procrastinating by Envisioning the Worst Parts

The brain has a tendency to envision the worst part of something, making the entire project feel too overwhelming, so we procrastinate.  Here is how you trick your brain: start somewhere — anywhere! Just as cliffhangers keep us coming back to TV shows, our brain wants to see the conclusion. Once we start, the brain becomes enticed to finish and keeps working with the subject. It is wired to solve puzzles. All we really have to do is get it going, and it will take over and move the project on to completion.

If you have projects you keep starting and stopping, just tell yourself you are going to do one little piece of it so that the overwhelm doesn’t kick in. Your brain will become engaged in completing it, and in no time you will find yourself enjoying the challenge rather than dreading it.

3. Abandoning Ship at the First Sign of Distress

Unfortunately, once we fall short of a goal, the brain has a tendency to throw in the towel. Many of us have been there with dieting. We blow one meal, give up, and then eat the entire pie. We might as well….all is lost... you know the scenario.

You can combat the tendency to give up on a goal by coaxing your brain in the following ways:

1. Review your many successes so far and be kind to yourself.

2. Tell yourself it is only a minor slip; all is not lost.

3. Have a back-up plan for when you slip up. For example: If I accidentally eat a whole pie, I get up and walk 30 minutes in the morning, have my scheduled breakfast and get back on track. The brain likes a plan and will be much more likely to climb on board again if a structured strategy is in place.

4. Engaging in Mindless Busy Work

The mind loves mindless busy work disguised as progress. I find I will even engage in something I dislike, such as housework, rather than tackling a tough project. Don’t be fooled by doing those semi-related or barely-related menial tasks to make yourself feel productive.

At this juncture, go back to number two, and just start somewhere, anywhere. Remember, the mind is wired to completion. Once the brain starts a task, it becomes engaged to solve the creative puzzle, and the task no longer feels daunting.

5. Winging It

The mind needs a plan to stay on track. We need to set goals and be consistent — winging it won’t get us there. Research has shown that not only do well-laid plans get accomplished more often, but planning for failure (see #3) along the way (in case of emergency) helps us stay on track when under stress.

The brain is a fascinating machine. If you understand how it is wired, you can trick it into working with — not against — you. Can you relate to any of these thought patterns? What are your strategies for success?

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Erica Sofrina is a nationally recognized  speaker, teacher and author and the founder of the Academy of Feng Shui. She lives in Half Moon Bay, California

Read more: General Health, Guidance, Inspiration, Life, Mental Wellness, Self-Help, Spirit

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Erica Sofrina

Erica Sofrina is an Internationally recognized Speaker and Teacher and Author of the book Small Changes, Dynamic Results! Feng Shui for the Western World. She is also a life coach and motivational speaker and is the founder of the West Coast Academy of Feng Shui. She has run a successful business as a Professional Organizer, Interior Designer and Certified Feng Shui Consultant for over a decade and resides on the charming coastal town of Half Moon Bay in Northern California. Find out more at

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+ add your own
3:37AM PST on Feb 20, 2014

I've been there... thanks for the article.

5:54PM PST on Feb 14, 2014

I am not sure my brain does any of those things.

5:41AM PST on Feb 2, 2014

very interesting article

1:46AM PST on Jan 28, 2014

Thank you :)

7:32PM PST on Jan 25, 2014

Good article. Thanks.

4:02AM PST on Jan 24, 2014

#4 is the worst for me!

11:17AM PST on Jan 22, 2014

everyday battle.

6:21AM PST on Jan 22, 2014

Understanding the problems is half the battle

1:55AM PST on Jan 22, 2014

thanks Erica....

everything IN us starts with what we think about ourselves, I think......this is very good advice

1:30AM PST on Jan 22, 2014

Thanks, Erica. I've copied the article and pasted it at the beginning of the file I'm keeping for a radio play I'm struggling with.

Yes - I recognise a lot of this! Another common one is putting others' needs first - you think you're being altruistic, but are you really? Is it just another excuse not to get on with it? (I have to be careful with how much time I spend here on Care2, for example!) 'Start anywhere' is a useful one, because there's a terrible fear of it having to be the 'right' beginning - empty page, and you type Act One, Scene 1 and your mind fills in 'of my play, which has to be really good'. My friend and writing mentor has always advised to start a tentative/possible third scene, so you don't have to worry first off about set-up, exposition etc. It's worked for me and I've translated it to non-writing projects too. (It helps you ditch perfectionism.) Sometimes I've found it helpful splitting the day up into hourly chunks, and deciding what I'll be doing in each - that keeps you on track, and you can always swap one hour's activity with another's if it's looking better that way. Books on creativity, like The Artist's Way, can be very helpful, but you need to make sure that you don't just read about it!

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