Skip to content

The Reason It Is Hard To Stick To Goals

Life's experiences

The rule that human beings seem to follow is to engage the brain only when all else fails – and usually not even then.” -David Hull, Science and Selection: Essays on Biological Evolution and the Philosophy of Science, 2001  

Reading the above should wake you up somewhat and make you realize how the so-called ‘thinking brain’ works. I love how David illustrates this point by using the example taken from Hector Levesque’s work. Here’s the example:

Try to answer before reading on: Jack is looking at Anne but Anne is looking at George. Jack is married but George is not. The question is: Is a married person looking at an unmarried person?

  1. Yes
  2. No
  3. Cannot be determined.

Answer A, B, or C before you look up ahead.

Over eighty percent of the people who respond to this problem answer incorrectly. The vast majority of people answer C (cannot be determined) when in fact the correct answer is A (Yes). The answer is easily revealed once we engage in what in the psychological literature is called fully disjunctive reasoning. A fully disjunctive reasoning involves considering all possible states of the world when deciding among options or when choosing a problem solution in a reasoning task. This means that disjunctive reasoning is slow and systematic.

While the brain represents just 2% of a person’s body weight, say it weighs about 1.5kg and yet, it accounts for twenty percent of the body’s energy use. That tells you of the complex machine our brain is. The thing about this brain that we must know is that: It is very stingy in terms of its energy use, yes, it is an energy miser.

How many times have you made a goal to improve your life and failed to even get started, let alone to follow through? Honestly, it’s probably thousands of times. I am talking about life changing goals here, like:

  • Daily physical and mental exercise;
  • Reading a book daily;
  • Journaling daily, etc.

So, why is there such a discrepancy between great life plans we’ve designed and actually taking the actions that will get us there? Our brains are lazy and are really letting us down and here’s how. Because of the brain’s laziness, once it has learned something, it wants to automate it. And because of its illness, which is laziness, it prefers and prioritizes efficiency. Let me explain this using Daniel Kahneman’s two systems of thinking in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. Where he explains these systems as follows:

  • System 1: Fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, subconscious.


  • System 2: Slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious.

Let’s start with the system 2 – slow thinking.

Slow thinking happens in your pre-frontal cortex (PFC), the most evolved part of your brain. This is the part of your brain that makes you human. This part can think about thinking, make predictions, control impulses, solve problems, and create new ideas. It’s the part of your brain that looks at your life and your potential, and plans a way for you to become your best self, call it the best version of yourself.

Now, system 1 – fast thinking.

Fast thinking on the other hand, comes from the subconscious mind, which lives in the limbic system (emotional brain). This is the least evolved part of you brain. It’s the part that stimulates a chemical/hormonal response (cue adrenalin and cortisol), which leads to an instant, emotional directive (RUN AWAY!). It’s also the part that prefers it if everything feels good all the time. It encourages you to keep things the same and if you do, it says, “ Thank you very much, so let’s avoid anything uncomfortable, ok?”.

So, based on the above explanations, you can see that these two systems of thinking go a long way towards explaining why it’s so challenging to put your plans into action. Put simply, your brain prefers and prioritizes efficiency which is mostly about applying what you already know – using fast thinking, over starting and doing new things which is hard because it involves slow thinking which requires a lot of energy. Remember, the brain is a couch potato, period. New thinking requires ignoring your hardwiring – otherwise known as automatic processes, habits, thoughts, and feelings that you’re already super good at because you’ve done them a thousand times over. Like I indicated before, the brain is forever trying to pass off as much as it can to reflexive action. We have two types of action. Deliberate and reflexive. Deliberate is associated with System 2 – slow thinking while Reflexive action is associated with System 1 – Fast thinking.

I think it’s important for me to explain efficiency from the brain’s perspective. It basically defines efficiency as its ability to save energy. The more it saves energy, the more efficient it is. Now you’ll agree with me that saving energy from the brain’s perspective is all about not engaging your cognitive or thinking abilities which means relying on the stored/automatic programs. This is when your habits, the old ways of doing things, are driving you. “Don’t fix it if it’s not broken!” “We’ve done it this way for years and why change it now?” These are but some of the System 2’s thinking examples.

I am certain that all of the above now looks uncomfortably familiar, am I right? You’ve now seen why it’s so difficult to stick to your goals. Don’t worry, there’s a way out. Here’s the good news:

  1. The fact that you’re having trouble staying on track with your goals doesn’t necessarily mean you have a lack of willpower or a bad person. It means your brain is wired in a different way, and now that you know, you’ve the power to do something about it.
  2. All it takes to create new hardwiring is ATTENTION and REPETITION. I promise you, that’s it!
  3. You need to understand the Habit Loop: Trigger/Cue – Routine – Reward (you can read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg for more). The key to this habit loop (Cycle) is not to change the trigger (what happens), but changing how you respond to it and still achieve a similar reward. For an example, your trigger may be the alarming going off at 5am. The routine maybe checking your phone right away and then feel Rewarded by that. Don’t change the trigger (alarm going off at 5am), instead, replace checking your phone by drinking a glass of fresh water and then reading five pages of a motivational material or listen to a motivational audio clip and then experience the same reward and even more. Putting you Attention to this and Repeating it over and over until it becomes automatic is how you change your life one habit at a time.

You have the power to answer to answer the call on your life and live your dreams!

Veli Ndaba is a Neuro-Conscious Leadership Speaker and Trainer, Neuro-Life & Business Coach, Neuro-Motivational Speaker and Author of four books (You Are Born to Win, Your Dream is Calling You and SWITCH ON! And Set Your Soul On Fire!), Newspaper Columnist and Entrepreneur. To book him to speak at your next event or to help you and your team unleash your greatness, contact him on, or +27 83 304 9773


Open chat
This is Veli`s office. How can we serve you today?