Why Goal Setting and Problem Solving Are So Hard

Thinking is hard; especially when you’re trying to have a thought you’ve never had before. You may want to set new goals, but you’re struggling to envision what you actually want. Perhaps you have a big problem that needs a creative solution or a final decision, but you feel gun shy and unable to make the call.

These are problems we all face as our brains secretly make us feel unclear and indecisive. Thankfully, when we understand the mechanisms that cause these challenges, we can take steps to correct them. It’s possible to clear out the fog and make room for greater clarity and certainty in our goal setting and problem solving.

You Think On a Continuum

Your brain can be your best friend or your biggest roadblock.

During the good times of crystal-clear thinking, we take our minds for granted and assume that ability to think will always be there. We start to view the brain as a machine that should always be at our beck and call. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.

Your brain operates along a wide continuum, ranging from ineffective thought where you can’t come up with a single new idea or remember a simple word, all the way to amazing clarity where creativity and decision making seem to flow without effort.

Why thinking creatively is so hard
Your ability to think and create depends on your current position in the Clarity Continuum.

We all want to live on the far right side of the spectrum and often assume it should be easy and normal to be there all the time. But then a mental block comes and we feel stupid and frustrated, which only makes the matter worse.

The truth is your brain is highly sensitive. It’s not a computer that turns on and pumps out answers to your questions on demand. Rather, it’s a living organ that responds to its environment. It has the potential to go anywhere on the continuum, but it doesn’t move up the scale based on your wishes; it moves based on the conditions you create for it.

3 Reasons Why Your Brain Can’t See Or Decide

If you’re struggling with goal setting and problem solving, then it might be caused by one of these three problems.

Problem #1: Your brain is too stressed
When it comes to creative thinking and problem solving, you need the full effort of your prefrontal cortex (PFC). This is the area of your brain responsible for higher level thinking, short-term and long-term decision making and regulating behaviour among other things.

When under stress, the PFC quiets down and becomes less able to function. In this article published in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, the author discusses studies showing that “stress exposure impaired the performance of tasks that required complex, flexible thinking.”

Goal setting and problem solving require complex thought. Unfortunately, a stressed out brain simply can’t meet the demand.

In addition, according to this Stanford Business article, “if the brain is experiencing highly physiologically arousing emotions associated with stress, then our first instinct will be to stay away from excitement and seek comfort instead.”

New and exciting solutions can feel uncomfortable because they’re unknown and require work. When too much stress is present, your brain prevents you from exploring new mental territory so you can stay safe.

So what does all this mean? When your brain is under stress, your PFC (your ability to think) stops working at its best. If you want to optimize your thinking and increase your creativity, you need to calm down and combat the stress response.

Problem #2: Your brain is too tired & unmotivated
In general, your brain is lazy and wants to follow the path of least resistance. In Your Brain at Work, author David Rock explains that thinking of something you’ve never seen before takes a lot more energy than focusing on something you already know.

You already have well-formed ways to think about most things in your life, like money, health and love. Looking somewhere new, setting goals that stretch you or trying to imagine a new way to live can feel difficult because you’re pulling yourself off that well-worn path.

You sit down to think and suddenly your mind starts bouncing around between 100 other things. It feels like you’re pushing a boulder uphill because the energy requirement seems too great.

In this state, you’re lacking energy and motivation and need to get yourself recharged.

Fun Fact:
One of the key brain chemicals responsible for motivation is dopamine. Interestingly, it has been linked to creative thinking. In this published research, Parkinson’s patients receiving dopamine agonist therapy to activate dopamine receptors experienced a measurable increase in creativity, which disappeared when therapy ended.

Your brain needs dopamine for energy, motivation and creativity.

Problem #3: Your brain lacks the right experience
Contrary to popular belief, our imaginations don’t have the power to create something from nothing. We think in terms of what we already know. Rather than build something brand new, your brain sticks to close variations of what you have seen before.

Try this: Picture yourself in an airplane, thousands of feet in the air. You’re sitting in your seat with a seatbelt across your lap and your tray folded down with a drink on top. See the plane from the outside; its nose, wings and jets. Simple, right?

Now what if I asked you to imagine a new kind of flying machine that doesn’t look like anything you’ve seen before. It can’t resemble the shape of a plane, spaceship, car, truck, barrel or anything else you know. You have to construct it from nothing.

Do you give up yet?

I’m sure you discovered that nothing really comes to mind when you can’t use familiar references. The same is true when you’re lacking insights and experiences when setting goals or solving problems.

If you want bigger goals and better ideas, you need new inputs. You need to get a little inspiration from what others are doing by calling a friend, reading a book, watching a video, attending a seminar, listening to a podcast or hiring a coach.

Your brain needs to draw from a well of existing ideas, making new connections for creative breakthroughs whenever it can. It’s imperative that you keep digging deeper.

Now Go See Clearly

A bad mental block can feel like permanent failure, but it doesn’t have to be that way. By dealing with these three causes of brain fog and lazy thinking, you can learn to move yourself along the Clarity Continuum.

What do you do to spark clear, creative ideas?

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