How to Hack Your Brain: The Psychology of Goal-Setting and Dopamine

Apr 9, 2024 / By Chris Holman
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Dopamine, the chemical that activates pleasure responses in your brain, can be your friend. It can also be your enemy, impeding the ability of you—and your clients—from achieving goals. Learn how to put dopamine to work.
Editor’s note: Sign up now for the Discovery Meeting Workshop, being held May 20–21.

Your goals are priceless. And life’s too short to not achieve them (or strive to achieve them). Yet, life is also littered with potholes and shiny objects that constantly thwart our best intentions. And many of these impediments are completely self-inflicted.

Nike says “Just do it.” Hah! Sometimes it’s not that easy. You know what to do, but you keep getting sidetracked. Sticking with our goals these days is the real objective. And why is this true? Because knowing what to do isn’t the problem. It’s the doing that’s difficult.

However, the good news is that when you understand how your brain works as it’s navigating toward a goal, you can head the bandits off at the pass and carry on without being bushwhacked.

This understanding begins with knowing something about dopamine, the chemical‐a “neurotransmitter”‐in your brain that plays a key role in motivation and goal pursuit.

The dopamine spike

Humans have more than 100 neurotransmitters. Dopamine is one of the most important as it acts as a chemical messenger, transmitting signals between nerve cells. It is part of the brain’s reward system, giving a sense of pleasure and motivation to repeat rewarding behaviors like eating, drinking and reproducing. Two dopamine primers are here and here.

Dollars to doughnuts, you’ve already had a dopamine spike today. If you’re a coffee drinker, you most likely had a dopamine spike when you took your first sip. In fact, if you really love your java, you probably had a rush of dopamine the moment you got up and began thinking about your coffee. Or, if you’re a real coffee nut, you got a hit of dopamine the night before as you were thinking about your morning routine. If you’re a runner or love taking walks, you might have felt a dopamine spike when you first got outside and hit the trail or sidewalk. Or it might have been even earlier when you were lacing up your shoes.

That’s the funny thing about dopamine. You can get a bigger spike in the anticipation and planning phase than achieving the goal itself. Dopamine is released when we anticipate a reward or something about to happen. The dopamine spike helps us to take action…dopamine is more about the motivation than just the pleasure.

Your brain has a reward circuitry that responds to gratification. When it comes to setting goals, it begins and ends with the prefrontal cortex (i.e. thinking). However, when it comes right down to it, it’s the limbic (i.e. emotional) system that’s in control. And to stay motivated, you’ll rely heavily on dopamine. Dopamine gives you the pleasure blast and drives the feeling of desire. Any behavior, bad or good, that gives you a dopamine rush will train your brain to want to do it again and again to get the same effect.

9 dopamine hacks

1. Set a clear and meaningful goal

The very act of setting a goal that is important and meaningful to you will activate dopamine release.

2. Good dopamine/Bad dopamine

Be aware of the different sources that create the dopamine experience. Good sources of dopamine: exercise, sun and outdoors, rest, new experiences, good sleep, and working toward goals. Bad sources: alcohol, junk food, doom-scrolling on social media, drugs, gambling, and binge-watching on T.V.

3. Remove temptations

Create physical barriers to prevent easy access to dopamine-spiking distractions like social media or snacks. This makes it easier to stay on track with your goals. And if you’re surrounded by multiple sources of “bad dopamine,” don’t feel like you need to eliminate all of them at once. Start with a few and gradually add more to avoid overwhelming yourself.

4. Don’t share your goals with just anyone

Sharing your goals with others before you’ve actually accomplished anything or celebrating progress too early can trigger a dopamine release, making your brain feel like you’ve already completed the goal. This can reduce your motivation to put in the hard work. Instead, focus on enjoying the process and avoid external rewards until you’ve truly achieved the goal. (However as with any goal pursuit, an accountability partner can be helpful. Seems somewhat counterintuitive, but what you want is a steady partner who doesn’t praise you too much. Someone who is even-keeled and non-judgmental and not prone to inane cheerleading.)

5. Leverage intermittent rewards

Rather than always rewarding yourself after completing a task, try using intermittent or variable rewards at milestones along the way. This keeps your brain engaged and dopamine levels fluctuating, which can enhance motivation and focus.

6. Develop a growth mindset

When facing challenges, reframe setbacks as opportunities for growth. This trains your brain to associate effort and difficulty with dopamine release, making the process itself rewarding.

7. Plan your day and create routines

Setting clear goals and schedules can help you stay focused on consequential tasks and avoid decision paralysis, which can drain dopamine.

8. Give yourself an attaboy/attagirl

The release of dopamine when you achieve a goal serves to reinforce and motivate the behaviors that led to the successful outcome. This dopamine “high” can make us feel excited, energized, and eager to continue pursuing our goals. Remember to not celebrate too early (or too much). The key is to find a balance‐acknowledging and enjoying your progress, but not overdoing the celebration until the goal is truly reached. This allows us to harness the power of dopamine to fuel your motivation and drive towards your objectives.

9. Go jump in a lake

Immersion in cold water at 57 degrees can cause a 250% increase in dopamine level. Compared to substances like cocaine and alcohol, which can increase dopamine by 350% and 40% respectively, cold water immersion provides a more sustained rise in dopamine over 2–6 hours without the sharp “crash” associated with those substances.

Oh…Are you older than 45?

Somewhere around the age of 45, and as a function of the natural progression of our aging brain, our baseline levels of dopamine start declining by 10–13% each decade. This means that in our 60s we might have as much as 50% less dopamine than in our youth.

A side note: This dopamine drop might explain why older adults take less risks…a really interesting point for advisors to consider, both for themselves and their clients.

To counteract this decline, see items #2 and 3 above for healthy ways to restock your baseline dopamine supply. And don’t forget to get outside in the sun, as exposure to natural light can increase dopamine receptor density.

Three more things to consider, music, meditation, and tyrosine. Listening to music that you enjoy may result in reward-like feelings of pleasure. Regarding meditation, one study found that just one hour of meditating increased dopamine production by 65%. Diet can be a really important building block for replenishing your dopamine. Tyrosine is an amino acid and a precursor for dopamine synthesis. Tyrosine can be found in almonds, bananas, avocados, eggs, beans, fish, chicken and dark chocolate.

How about for your clients?

The benefits of “dopamine management” and goal setting as it relates to financial advisors is self-evident and obvious. But how about for your clients? If you’re a financial advisor who helps clients achieve goal-based objectives, how might you employ your understanding of the effects of dopamine to aid them with their own motivation and desires?

  • For example, when you help clients identify their financial goals, do you have a thorough and complete discussion around what’s really important for them to achieve?
  • Do you guide them to set clear and meaningful financial goals?
  • Do you help them establish important milestones along the way?
  • And when they achieve their goals, do you celebrate their accomplishments?

In other words, are you piloting your clients to have their own bursts of dopamine?

Final thoughts

To be sure, when you’re working toward a goal, dopamine hacks will only take you so far. Effort and good old-fashioned determination, diligence, and perseverance remain part of the solution. Sometimes we need to stick with doing things even when we don’t want to, dopamine be darned.

As a final point, dopamine is a crucial factor that drives us to pursue and achieve our goals. By understanding how to optimize dopamine release, we can harness its motivational power and increase our chances of successfully reaching our aspirations and desires.

I trust that you find this helpful.

Chris Holman is the executive coach with Horsesmouth. His career in financial services spans 43 years as a financial advisor, a national director of investments, and an executive coach. He is a Professional Certified Coach (PCC) as certified by the International Coach Federation (ICF). He can be reached at


Fantastic Chris!!! Thank you very much!
Jim...thank you. DOPE (amine) springs eternal.
What a DOPE (amine) article Chris! pleasure!
Chris, this was a great article. Thank you. I will share it with my staff!

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