How refocusing on process over goal achievement can lead to greater success.
Do you ever feel like you’re trying really hard to make things happen, but not getting where you want to go? Or like you take two steps up and one step back (or even three steps back)?
Maybe you’re desperately trying to find a new job. Maybe you’re lonely and want to get married. Maybe you’re telling yourself you need to lose 50 pounds. These are all examples of goals. Many of us live in cultures that are hyper-focused on goal achievement, and this can be a problem.
Let’s say, for example, you set a goal of running a marathon. You read every issue of Runner’s World magazine, you train for months, you purchase the best shoes, and you eat the perfect diet. When the big day comes and that starter pistol sounds, you’re off!
But what happens if you sustain an injury or get sick while running? Or perhaps a dangerous storm rolls in, or a pack of wild boars charges the runners, and the race gets called off. Some obstacles may be less likely than others, but they do happen, and they can cause a specific outcome (like crossing a finish line) to land out of reach.
Goals are outcomes, and outcomes are often out of our control.
Let’s return to the examples above—finding a new job, getting married, or losing 50 pounds. You can do all the “right” things—prepare your resume, practice for interviews, join a dating website, start exercising—but the ultimate goal of landing the job, the spouse, or the new number on the scale isn’t entirely within your control. There are any number of factors that might interfere with achieving the desired outcome. Look at your own experience and see if this rings true—some of your goals have likely been met, while others have remained elusive.
What’s more, if you are hyper-focused on achieving a specific outcome, you may give up if it doesn’t happen. You try online dating for six months and don’t have a ring on your finger, so you remove your profile. On the flip side, if you do achieve a specific goal, you may decide you’re done—goal achieved, checked off the list, nothing more to be done here. You lose weight, then return to your old habits. One step up, two steps back.
So what’s the alternative?
Try something with me: Grab a pen or something else you can hold easily in your hand (it doesn’t need to write)1. Now think of some goal you’ve been trying to achieve and grasp the pen as tightly as would reflect all the energy you’ve been putting into achieving this goal. Notice how it feels. Maybe give it a number from 1-10.
Now loosen your grip by about 50 percent, and notice how this feels. Now loosen your grip as much as you can without dropping the pen and notice how this feels. What is the one thing that hasn’t changed?
You’re still holding the pen.
Perhaps as an alternative to goal achievement, you can hold the outcomes more lightly while focusing instead on the process—what you’re doing (actions), how you’re doing it (qualities), and the reason you’re doing it (why). These are things you do get to control.
If you want to run a marathon, you can train (action) diligently (quality) and run (action) intentionally and mindfully (qualities), all because physical fitness or new challenges or spending time with friends (assuming they are runners too) are important to you (why). If you want to lose weight, you can eat (actions) mindfully (quality) and exercise (action) reliably (quality), because of your physical health or modeling healthy behavior to your kids matter to you (why). In other words, your efforts count whether or not you cross the finish line (literally or metaphorically).
So try refocusing on the process over the outcome—you will create a new context where persistence and perseverance can thrive—four steps up, one step back, three steps up...
If you enjoy Jill’s writing and want to learn more about holding outcomes lightly, check out her upcoming book, Be Mighty: A Woman’s Guide to Liberation from Anxiety, Worry, and Stress Using Mindfulness and Acceptance, available for preorder here.
Exercise from Stoddard, J. & Afari, N. (2014). The Big of ACT Metaphors: A Practitioner’s Guide to Experiential Exercises and Metaphors in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. New Harbinger Publications: Oakland.