Your Brain on Purpose

Photo Courtesy of Flickr

Photo Courtesy of Flickr

Here’s an interesting fact: At least 11 million bits of information enter our brain through our senses each second. Our conscious mind, however, only seems able to process 50 bits of information per second. Most of what enters our brain happens outside our awareness. Rock and Schwartz note that in a world with so many distractions, a big challenge is our ability to focus sufficient attention on any one idea.

In my experience, a helpful way to direct attention is to establish a clear purpose for important areas of life. 

Here are some life areas to consider establishing a purpose for, either alone or with others:

  • One’s life (What am I on this earth to be or do?)
  • Job or role
  • A project
  • A meeting
  • A phone conversation
  • A job interview
  • A vacation
  • A presentation
  • An email
  • Time that you normally consider wasted: A long commute, being on hold on the phone, your dull weekly staff meeting.

Purpose can be described as:

What you aim to do…a valued direction or intention.

The ideal you keep in mind to direct your actions.

Never complete.

Recognized through action (doing).

(Source Dave Flanigan)

The psychology and neuroscience literature contains much interesting and relevant research relating to the connection between purpose and goal pursuit. Here are several examples:

Our brains are hardwired to experience change as stressful and uncomfortable. Clarity of purpose can minimize the discomfort. The brain relies on a system called the basal ganglia to perform routine, familiar activities. This system is efficient, not energy intensive, and is thus a preferred mode of use. When circumstances are encountered that require conscious attention and new thinking—such as change--the brain draws upon the prefrontal cortex. This system is energy intensive and limited in capacity. It takes a lot of mental energy and it’s stressful to cope with change.

Having a clear purpose to guide you can be very motivating even though change is inherently challenging.  Answering the question “Why am I doing this?” puts you in charge. Research shows that even the perception of control is enough to reduce the stress response.

Formulating a desired direction channels attention and automatically evaluates relevant information. Once you establish a purpose, your brain automatically pays attention to relevant people, information and things. In other words, making progress on your purpose does not require conscious effort and willpower. Of course it helps if you keep your purpose accessible and review it before engaging in related activity, but then relax and let the awareness do the work.

Create “nested” descriptions of what, how and why. Once you develop a purpose statement, it can then become the lens through which you evaluate your actions, decisions and success. That kind of focus reinforces the purpose. It’s very helpful to nest your what, how and why. That way, they are congruent with one another and serve to focus your attention.

Here's a very useful format for creating purpose statements (Source Heidi Sparkes Guber):

A good purpose statement begins with an action verb, describes the quality of action and states the reason for action (results)

            To… answers ‘What we do’

                        In a way that… answers ‘How?’

                                    So that… answers ‘Why?’

This format allows you to consider several elements of a goal hierarchy—what, how and why—separately, yet combined into one elegant purpose statement. Try it!

Don’ t try to focus on what, how and why simultaneously. While there needs to be a connection between the “will” (why to do something) and the “way” (how to do it), the brain can’t focus on both at the same time. Research has shown that different regions of the brain are engaged when thinking about how to do something vs. why to do it. The regions have little overlap. In fact, some evidence suggests that when one set is active the other set is suppressed.

Although there’s no magic formula for creating a purpose statement, it can be helpful to establish clarity about one of the three (what, how and why) first then take a short break. Come back to think through the rest after your break. If you get stuck on the how, go back and add more understanding regarding the why. If you get stuck thinking about the why (what will success mean to you anyway?) visualize doing the tasks that lead to goal achievement and see if you get clearer on why it’s something you want to do.

In this post, I’ve tried to share some current research around purpose and goals with the aim of enabling you to use purpose statements to do what they are best at: directing attention, aligning action, and motivating accomplishment. If you’re interested in more detail about the science behind these, please contact me and I’ll be happy to share references.