How Your Brain Is Trying To Keep You From Your Goals (And How To Overcome It)

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How Your Brain Is Trying To Keep You From Your Goals (And How To Overcome It)


 Our brain is wired in some really cool ways with a primary function of survival. But not so cool is that these same wirings could also be keeping us from reaching our goals and our potential.  A failure to recognize and understand how our brain may be working against us can lead to very frustrating cycles of false starts and failures.

Let's talk quickly about cognitive biases. Basically, we all have these little errors in our judgment and thinking that come from our tendencies to make assumptions instead of gathering and analyzing relevant data.

Some are better at realizing our own cognitive biases and judgment errors than others, and then take specific steps to compensate. Failure to recognize a cognitive bias is also a cognitive bias! (blind spot bias). Our brain and the thoughts that come out of it can be our biggest ally, but far too often it becomes our biggest enemy. Successful people have mastered systems for thought management, creating hacks for getting around the habits that want to derail them from actively pursuing and achieving their goals.

Bottom line: reaching goals means finding ways to get out of your own way in pursuing positive outcomes! A bonus is you will also be much happier if you aren’t constantly and unwittingly subjected to these negative forces.

So how do these cognitive biases and perceptions influence our choices and how can they prevent us from achieving and creating what we want? There are three main sources I want to explore.

Confirmation Bias

This bias is all about the tendency of only listening to information that confirms our assumptions and prejudices. This affects almost every aspect of our lives including most of our opinions and our willingness to reconsider those opinions. Confirmation bias is a form of a self-fulfilling prophecy since we are often only seeing and hearing what we want to see and hear, which means that everything confirms what we already think. The more emotionally charged we feel about the issue the more powerful this bias becomes.

How This Keeps Us From Our Goals

Have you ever said to yourself that you would accomplish something if only you weren’t too busy? Was being too busy determined based on carefully logging hours and activities over a period of time or from only remembering the occasional days we work late?. Remembering those abnormally busy days or moments and ignoring the other nights of binge watching full seasons of TV shows on Netflix is something we are all guilty of doing.

One that I come across quite often as a Krav Maga Instructor is in having conversations with students about their attendance in class. After being informed that they haven’t attended enough classes for something like a Level Test, there is often a confused look and a comment like “But I have been coming 2-3x every week for a few months”, but a quick check of the attendance logs shows sporadic and inconsistent weeks, sometimes hitting the 2-3x a week mark and maybe more often skipping entire weeks. For this person, they genuinely believe and remember it as having happened a certain way due to only remembering the weeks that confirm their opinion.

How To Overcome

This is the most common and hardest bias to overcome, but it starts by being aware of it (now you know!). Be a skeptic of your own thoughts and opinions, and make more decisions based on objective data collecting. Are you truly too busy? Keep a calendar with all of your daily activities to see when you have free time. Do you think your diet is fine and yet you can’t lose weight? Track what you eat and when you eat it to see what is really going on. 


If you can track it you can manage it, and if you can manage it you can overcome it.


Negativity Bias:


Bad is perceived as stronger than good, negative a bigger force than positive. More likely to think someone is mean because we only remember the 1 time they were rude and forget the 20 times they were nice because the negative carries more weight. Same with using the one bad workout experience to assume all workouts will be bad.

As a survival function, it is much better to assume the weird looking tree is a predator over assuming the predator is a weird looking tree. The first assumption can save your life by altering your path with little consequence for being wrong other than a sigh of relief, the second one has a big consequence by making you the prey. This bias towards assuming the worst can be a good thing when it comes to predators or other real dangers but impacts us negatively in many day to day relationships and plans.

We all know the importance of first impressions, but have you thought about why those first impressions make such a strong difference? A bad first impression is such a heavy force since we give it more weight than a good impression, and if combined with the confirmation bias where only information that confirms the prejudice is continually being selected, it is nearly impossible to overcome!

How This Keeps Us From Our Goals

Negativity bias leads to unnecessary risk aversion and from being open to new things by immediately focusing on why something won’t work, instead of the ways that it could be made to work. The risk aversion leads to feeling justified in never starting anything positive.

A real personal example is I have wanted to begin learning Spanish for a while, but I always put it off because I assumed some combination of it being too difficult, that I wasn’t good with languages, and that I wouldn’t be able to learn it so it would be a waste of time. This has literally been a goal for most of my adult life and the negativity bias was always keeping me from even giving it a try. After finally realizing this in the last year, I have found that I actually enjoy the learning process and am able to make progress.

If you are setting yourself up for failure by assuming you won’t like something, or that you will be bad at it, and dwelling only on the negative, your goals will always remain far out of reach.


How To Overcome

First, learn to see both sides by examining the pros and cons. If you can train your brain to put the negative impulse to the side for a second to first focus on the positive things that could come out of the action, you might not even need to get back to the negative (which most likely is not even likely to happen). Second, learn to save judgment until after giving it a try. Approaching the goal with an open mind and having a bit of boldness and daring will open up so much more potential than we realize.


The Planning Fallacy:

Making unrealistic long-term plans that follow a best-case scenario. When the inevitable life events happen it causes the whole plan to be scrapped.

How This Keeps Us From Our Goals

A best-case scenario type of plan is like saying I am going to work out every day. Eventually, and most likely pretty quickly, something unexpected comes up, which causes that day's workout to be missed. This isn’t really a big deal, but in this scenario, it means the goal has already been broken, which then leads to thinking that I might as well just quit everything. Why do you think most New Years Resolutions fail? The vast majority of them fall into this category of poorly planned out goals that don’t properly set expectations and allow for mini-victories.

How To Overcome

Shorter term goals that focus on consistency. Making a goal of “Getting Into The Best Shape Ever” is unrealistic, but making the same goal start as “Getting into class 2x every week for 6 weeks” is extremely doable and much more likely to result in success. These smaller short-term successes will lead to confidence and setting higher level goals to aim at and accomplish.

Realistic planning. In Krav Maga, we don’t spend much time practicing the best-case in our self defense scenarios. It makes much more sense to have a plan of attack for the worst-case scenario, and if it is any degree above that then all the better for us. Same with our goal planning, it needs to accommodate the bad days, the good days, and the in-between. How does the plan change when we don’t feel like it or when we are sick? Are there other things we can do if for some reason we can’t physically make it to the gym or it the weather doesn’t let us run outside? This type of planning is much more realistic and keeps us on track, so we don’t quit the entire quest over a minor setback.


We all have bias and perception problems that keep us from so many things. There are already enough distractions and problems just as is, if you are going to improve and advance your life in a meaningful direction, you can’t afford to get in your own way. Being aware of these 3 common sources of self-sabotage is a great start to getting to where you want to go!  

You also don’t have to do this alone. Finding a good coach or training partner who you can confide your goals with and allow them to hold you accountable is a winning combination.

- EVKM Chief Instructor Derrek

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