A Guide to Achieving Your Goals in the New Year: Motivation vs Executive Functioning

Leading into 2024, many of us are setting resolutions or intentions, and perhaps also looking back at 2023 and feeling a sense of accomplishment or disappointment in terms of how much progress we’ve made towards our goals over the past year. Rather than offer you another article about how to set “SMART” goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound), I thought it would be helpful to consider the obstacles that can prevent us from achieving our goals by unpacking the difference between motivation on the one hand, and executive functioning on the other hand.


Motivation is the feeling that a certain behaviour or outcome is desirable or beneficial, or will facilitate the avoidance of something detrimental or undesirable. Motivation is a sensation, not a behaviour. Executive functioning refers to a suite of cognitive skills necessary for directing and executing behaviour. Successful, sustainable progress towards a goal requires both the right kind of motivation, as well as the ability to access the necessary executive functioning skills to drive the behaviours required to accomplish the goal.


In order for motivation to lead to the necessary behaviours associated with task-initiation, follow-through, and completion of the desirable goal, it needs to coincide with executive functioning skills. For individuals with normative executive functioning, this might seem like a distinction without a difference. If my executive functioning skills are within the normal range and I see a pile of dirty dishes and I’m motivated by the belief that it would be better if those dishes were clean and put away, and/or the desire to have a clean, empty sink, that motivation will lead almost instantly to action: I think it, so I do it. But when you have a deficit in the executive functioning skill of task-initiation, there’s a disruption in your neural circuitry, where the motivation doesn’t automatically or immediately lead to the activation of the motor cortex and resulting behavioural action.


When progress towards our goals falls short, many of us assume we have a problem of motivation or self-discipline; essentially, we tend to believe it comes down to a question of willpower. However, few people understand the role of executive functioning skills in this equation. In this article, we’ll start by looking at the ways motivation can help or hinder our progress towards a goal, and then consider the impact that executive functioning skills can have on our success or failure. By taking an informed, curious, and self-compassionate approach to understanding the hurdles standing in between us and our aspirations, we see that there are many supports and creative interventions we can try to increase our chances of success.




There are a number of dialectics within the construct of motivation: intrinsic vs extrinsic; promotion-oriented vs prevention-oriented, and adaptive vs nonadaptive. If you have been working towards a goal (or thinking about working towards a goal) and feeling a lack of progress, it might be helpful to think carefully about the source and nature of your motivation. I’m going to briefly review these different types of motivation, and how they can impact our success or failure in reaching our goals.


Intrinsic Motivation vs Extrinsic Motivation


Intrinsic motivation refers to motivation that comes from within ourselves. It is associated with behaviour toward an outcome that is tied to a value we hold very deeply. For example, one of the reasons I create articles for this blog is that it forces me to organize, synthesize, and think deeply about mental health topics that are interesting and useful to me (and that I believe will be interesting and useful to you!). Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, refers to external pressures: social, cultural, religious, familial, or interpersonal norms and expectations. Status, financial compensation, praise, and the avoidance of backlash are all examples of extrinsic motivators. Although both types of motivation can successfully drive goal-directed behaviour (and can even coincide), intrinsic motivation is generally thought to be more sustainable. Intrinsic motivation is also more likely to coincide with enjoyment of the process of goal-attainment, not just the destination.


If you are struggling to reach your goals, consider doing some reflective work around the values these goals are rooted in, and the origin of those values. I have a number of exercises that I do with clients to help them tease out their core, guiding values. These will almost certainly overlap with values instilled by external sources, but the extent to which you authentically hold them will be important for understanding their role in guiding your goal-directed behaviours (as well as your counter-productive behaviours!). I believe (and there is strong evidence to support) that our personalities aren’t monolithic, but rather we have multiple parts of ourselves that may need and want different and even opposite things. If you find yourself consistently getting in the way of your own goals, consider whether there may be an internal struggle going on between your different parts, and try to find a resolution.


Promotion-Oriented Motivation vs Prevention-Oriented Motivation


When you’re driven to achieve success, that’s called promotion-oriented motivation. When you’re driven to avoid failure, that’s called prevention-oriented motivation. While all of us can experience both types of motivation at one time or another, most of us have a tendency towards one or the other.



Promotion-focused people Prevention-focused people
·      Work quickly

·      Consider lots of alternatives and are great at brainstorming

·      Are open to new opportunities

·      Are optimists

·      Plan only for best-case scenarios

·      Seek positive feedback and lose steam without it

·      Feel dejected or depressed when things go wrong

·      Work slowly and deliberately

·      Tend to be accurate and precise

·      Are prepared for the worst

·      Are stressed by short deadlines

·      Stick to tried-and-true ways of doing things

·      Are uncomfortable with praise or optimism

·      Feel worried or anxious when things go wrong


Knowing your motivational style can help you find the tools that work best for you to both increase and sustain your motivation. Creating this kind of a “motivational fit” is believed to enhance and sustain progress for both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, and boost both performance and enjoyment of goal-directed tasks.[1] Research suggests that framing your goals in a way that fits your motivational profile has a significant impact on the likelihood of achieving those goals.


Adaptive Motivation vs Maladaptive Motivation


The distinction between adaptive motivation and maladaptive motivation comes down to our feelings of self-worth: of being enough. If your striving comes from a place of shame, recrimination, and self-criticism, you may be highly motivated in the short-term, but these self-destructive processes will very likely zap your energy to the point that any long-term change is impossible or unsustainable. On the other hand, you can tap into adaptive motivation by trying to shift your mindset to one of enoughness; by not tying your ability to achieve a given goal to your very worthiness as a person. There is nothing wrong with wanting to accomplish something new, provided that we avoid the pitfalls of this black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking. One of the challenges with such thinking is that it increases the likelihood that even minor setbacks will snowball into feelings of failure, and send us careening off-course.


Executive Functioning


Unlike motivation, which remember is a feeling, executive functioning processes are a set of cognitive skills. For the purposes of this article, it might be helpful to think of them as similar to other familiar skills, like swimming or riding a bike. Executive functioning skills are core cognitive processes that are necessary for controlling behaviour by selecting and successfully monitoring behaviours that facilitate the attainment of chosen goals. They are complex processes that utilize the most sophisticated areas of our rational brain. Many goal-oriented behaviours rely on a constellation of these executive functioning skills working well at the relevant time.


There are eight main executive functioning skills:

1.     Start – start a behaviour (aka “task initiation”)

2.     Stop – inhibit a behaviour (aka “impulse control”)

3.     Shift – shift from one behaviour to another

4.     Control – monitor and control emotions (aka “emotion regulation”)

5.     Remember – remember things as we’re learning them (aka “working memory”)

6.     Organization – plan, prioritize, and organize environment and behaviours

7.     Self-Monitoring – monitor what we’re doing, and how we’re feeling about what we’re doing, while we’re doing it

8.     Flexible Thinking – adjust and adapt to changing external circumstances


The level of competency in each of these skills varies widely from person to person, and it is possible to be strong in one area of executive functioning (say, impulse control) and weak in another (say, task initiation). Some of these individual variations in baseline skill have been linked to structural and functional differences in our brains: sometimes referred to as neurodivergence (for instance, ADHD, Autism, and Giftedness). For neurotypical and neurodivergent people alike, individual differences in executive functioning are strongly determined by genetics. To further complicate matters, these skills can be more or less available to a given individual on a particular day, depending on a variety of internal and external factors. Within the range of a person’s inborn ability, environment and training have a significant impact on optimizing or impairing these functions.


The prefrontal cortex is believed to be the main brain area required for these complex executive functioning processes. This means that other psychological processes can increase or decrease our ability to access our executive functioning skills; for instance, when our cognitive threat response is triggered (fight or flight), these skills tend to go offline in favour of more basic, urgent, survival-based processes. For this reason, depression, anxiety, addiction, and trauma can all interfere with our ability to access our executive functioning skills. This is one of the reasons that people who are experiencing these conditions might struggle to complete tasks or goals they set for themselves. Perversely, this failure, which may really amount to skill deficit, may be incorrectly labelled as a lack of motivation (which remember, is a feeling, NOT a behaviour), causing us to experience shame and recrimination, which further reinforces our initial threat response. This is a little bit like taking someone who can’t swim, throwing them in a pool, and telling them that if they were just motivated (/disciplined/capable/productive/ambitious etc etc) enough, they would be doing the backstroke. This cycle of shame and the resulting reduction in executive functioning is one of the primary things keeping many people stuck.


Understanding this cycle gives us multiple points of entry if we want to change these destructive processes:

(1)   Intervene in the internal processes that are inhibiting executive functioning – recall that these skills go offline once the threat response is triggered. Recall also, that different people have different baselines for each skill. The following strategies can help you to return to your own baseline

a.     Interrupt the shame and recrimination – you can check out my earlier blog post on Self-Compassion for ideas about how to start this.

b.     Try a grounding exercise to help you reset your nervous system from a survival (fight/flight) response back to a regulated state where you have access to your more complex brain processes, like executive functioning

c.     Build up your perceived sense of safety through connection with supportive others – for example, if you have a goal of running more, connecting with a runner’s club can increase the intrinsic rewards of the activity to overcome any initial resistance to this particular behaviour.

(2)   Change the external factors that are inhibiting executive functioning – systems are your friend here. Rather than try to force your brain to work with existing systems, explore what you can do to change the systems to work for your brain. For example, I am terrible with organizing physical paper files. This was a major problem as a family lawyer – historically, judges have loved paper.  However, since COVID I’ve gone paperless, and thanks to my steadfast adherence to a simple but effective digital file naming system, my filing essentially does itself now. No need to find the motivation, discipline, or even skill to master paper filing – I simply found a workaround that works for my brain.

(3)   Work to slowly strengthen executive functioning skills over time. Regular engagement in mindfulness, martial arts, sports, music, dance, caring for a pet, and cooking have all been found to enhance overall executive functioning. One thing all these activities appear to have in common is that they pair something apparently enjoyable with the development of skills; there is a built-in reward system.



By starting from a place of curiosity and understanding, we can begin to unpack which executive functioning skills are interfering with goal-oriented behaviour, and consider ways to either (i) grow/build the skill in which a deficit has been identified; (ii) compensate for the skill deficit with other, stronger executive functioning skills in which we don’t have a deficit; or (iii) build external supports to remove the need to rely on the weaker skill.


To all those working towards something this coming year, whether big or small, good luck out there!


[1] https://hbr.org/2013/03/do-you-play-to-win-or-to-not-lose

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