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How Competition Can Help You Reach Goals

Being competitive gets a bad rap and is often associated with stress, anxiety and an overly intense focus on winning or being “the best.” But competition is also a powerful motivator and can increase productivity, improve performance and provide accountability. “Competition at its base is what has driven us as a species to survive,” says Craig Dike, PsyD, assistant clinical director of Doctor on Demand. “It drives biological and physical evolution.”

The theory prevails that social competition led to an increase in the cranial capacity of human beings over the course of time, and a study published in Human Nature examined the reasons for this expansion: Researchers collected data from 153 hominid skulls and examined the global climate changes at the location/time the fossil was found and dated, the number of parasites in the region and the estimated population density. “Our findings suggest that brain size increased the most in areas with larger populations,” says lead study author David Geary, Ph.D., PsyD, cognitive developmental psychologist and professor at the University of Missouri. “This almost certainly increased with the intensity of social competition.”

When you engage in competition, two things happen in your cerebrum. First, you trigger the release of dopamine (the feel-good hormone) in the hypothalamus. Dopamine is involved in neurological and physiological functioning, and it is a contributing factor to motor function, mood and decision-making. Second, competition boosts your capacity for learning, according to a study published in Frontiers in Psychology — which makes sense because you start sharpening the skills needed for winning and will pay more attention to the task at hand in order to improve on your skills and give yourself an edge.

Keeping Competition Friendly

The term “competition” insinuates that there’s a clear winner and loser involved, but if the competition is friendly, this is OK as long as both parties work to push one another toward a similar goal, regardless of who comes out on top. “Healthy competition between friends inspires both sides to do their absolute best,” says Nikole Benders-Hadi, M.D., psychiatrist at Rockland Psychiatric Center in Orangeburg, New York.

Whether it’s completing an app-based challenge or beating a personal record or placing in a fitness contest — here’s how to make your next competition friendly.

1. Preplan

There is no payoff with a competition unless you have a previously determined goal and a map of measurable steps to make it happen. For example, if your goal is to run 100 miles in a month, you need to determine how many days a week you plan to run and how many miles you’ll run each week, as well as any other touchpoints or benchmarks to help keep you on track.

2. Incentivize Your Challenge

Perhaps there are silly repercussions for the loser, or the winner gets a new pair of workout shoes — however you choose to incentivize the ongoing challenge, a wager — big or small — can be motivating.

3. Track Your Progress

The steps you’re taking to achieve your goal should get you closer to the finish line each day, so it’s important to record them for reference. For example, if your goal is to abstain from eating junk food, log your food in a journal each day. Or if you’re competing against friends to burn the most calories in a month, send each other sweaty selfies and/or a screenshot from your fitness tracker metrics as proof every day.

4. Reality Check

If something becomes too competitive, call a timeout. Reassess your goal and change the objective so that all parties are pushing one another toward a similar achievement and are working together in the process. That way you all win — and remain friends in the end.

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