Focus on the Process, NOT the Outcome
Boston is in the midst of yet another snow storm today. We’re expecting a foot on top of the two feet we got in last week’s storm.
It’s probably good timing given most people called into work this morning anyways due to the Pats winning the big game last night.
Such an awesome game last night, as most people expected. And don’t even get me started on that finish. Nail biter to say the least!
Tough call by Pete Carroll to throw the ball instead of handing it off to Beast Mode (Lynch) with 1-yd to go to win the SuperBowl, but deflategate talk notwithstanding, the Pats won the game fair and square.
Cue the duck boats
So today I have a guest post from Lisa, my fiance. She’s a psychologist and knows a thing or two when it comes to behaviors and behavior change. Today she sheds some light on goal setting and how many of us view it from the wrong context or window.
Focus on the Process
Purposes for physical activity abound. Feeling good, living longer, getting stronger. Better blood pressure, in-check cholesterol, enhanced mood, improved sleep, increased sex drive, looking hot, and on and on and on.
Any way you slice it exercise = good stuff.
If you are searching for a goal to focus on and help you get active, stay active, or increase your activity, your options are endless!
Despite this plethora of purposes, many struggle to stay consistent with their physical activity pursuits…
Several weeks ago, we thought a bit about your “continuum” of motivation, and considered ALL of your motives to be important contributors to your ongoing success. Our motivations are often connected to an outcome – a goal.
Consider your motivations, and then identify at least one goal (or more) that you have recently identified as important to you…
What do you notice?
Hopefully, and similarly to motivation, you’ve identified a few goals, if not many, that cover a range of outcomes, like health, fitness, energy level, mood improvement, and last, but probably not least, appearance.
Lookin’ good. We all want to look good, or better. It’s part of human nature to want to improve ourselves and to be attractive to others. But if we are exclusively (or mostly) focused on weighing less, being a smaller/larger pant size, or looking more attractive to others, we might be set up for failure.
“How could this be?” you ask? “Since everything and everyone promotes the importance of exercising for improved appearance” you exclaim!?
Let me count the ways:
#1. It’s not really your goal anyway.
Where on earth did you get the idea that your thighs should be “longer and leaner”? I bet you some long, lean lady on TV. Who told you a 6-pack is the way to “finding a mate”? I bet some “Health” magazine columnist.
What is the true significance of dropping a dress size or a waist size? I bet you’ll tell me, “that’s what I want”, but is it really? Or have you been led to believe that some arbitrary appearance-based outcome is a means to a happy end?
We are inundated with images and messages about what bodies should look like all the live-long day. Not only do these messages include impressive, often impossible-to-replicate images, but also judgment, guilt, and the especially toxic shame.
Just last month, a large commercial gym (which shall go unnamed here) posted a sign in the lobby, “Santa, have you looked at yourself in the mirror lately?” To the sadistic and probably-sedentary marketing bastards who incite guilt and shame to boost membership sales, I ask, are we seriously shaming Santa?
Guilt and shame. Motivational?
In the short term, maybe. But over time, heck no.
In the long run, we internalize guilt and shame (a shift from, “I ate something bad” to “I am something bad”… from, I had a “dirty meal” to “I am a dirty fat slob”). Belief in the latter renditions of guilt and shame do nothing for getting us to the gym, and often enable giving up, sitting down, and digging in to a bigger, nastier bag of chips (Or as they say in 12-step programs, a case of the “F-it’s”).
Focusing only on an outcome (in the absence of other goals and motives) can be a thankless, fun-less, motivational vacuum that drains your moxie and damages your confidence and self-image.
#2. Appearance-related goals often focus on a superficial, societally valued outcomes.
How long can you stay in hot pursuit of bigger biceps, skinnier thighs, or a smaller belt size? A week? A month? Right up until the evening of the wedding/reunion/gala?
The motivation based on the reward of a few less pounds or a smaller dress size has an expiration date. There are a few different reasons for this, but first and foremost, external rewards lose their motivational power over time. Anyone who’s ever hit a goal weight and then has trouble staying consistent with his or her nutrition and training regimen knows this.
A “goal” to attain something society values isn’t a goal, so much as a “should”.
The surreptitious, insidious belief that you “should” be ‘skinny’, ‘lean’, or have a ‘6-pack’ of abs has gotten a hold of you. As Dr. Ellis, father of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) liked to sometimes say to his patients, “You’re just ‘should-ing’ on yourself”.
In other words, it is a B.S. goal – someone else’s goal that you have adopted (mistakenly) as your own.
Symptoms that you are “should-ing” on yourself with an outcome goal include A). Resentment toward the goal, or to those who have achieved the goal. B). Constantly “breaking rules” that make obtaining the goal impossible, and/or C). Feeling excessive guilt or shame about your “inability” to achieve the goal.
#3. You are focused on the outcome – instead of the process.
I know. “Eyes on the prize”. “Go for the Gold”, right?
It seems only natural to focus on the desired outcome in order to keep you pushing toward it. However, focusing on the outcome ONLY can drain motivation, impair performance, and actually have a negative impact on goal achievement. On the other hand, a focus on the process of your goals can be more enjoyable AND more effective in helping you achieve the outcome.
In other words, a process oriented goal focuses on the journey – not the destination.
Now, you don’t want to throw your outcome goal out with the motivational bathwater! Having a goal of any kind is good – you just want to mix it up, particularly if your goal is long term.
Let’s say you’re getting married in three months and 28 days (just for example1), and you want bring down your body fat percentage by 5%.
Focusing ONLY on your body fat percentage during the next four months will be no fun at all!
But as you monitor your macros and get after it at the gym, here are some in-the-moment goals that focus on the process and facilitate continued striving toward the ultimate outcome:
- “When I squat today, my goal is to focus on form… brace abs, ass to grass, slow down, fast up…”
- “My chin ups will rock the house this morning! Dead hang, solid core, exhale up quick, inhale down, slow…”
- “I’m eating more slowly… noting how I feel before and after… I’m learning how to feed myself differently… how to fuel my workouts… I’m cooking new recipes that look delicious… I’m paying attention to how I feel after my meals…”
Do you see the difference? Your outcome goal focuses on the end. Your process goal focuses on the means. Your outcome goal involves the infinite form of a verb (“I want to be 10 pounds lighter” or “I want to have biceps that are two inches bigger).
Your process goal involves the gerund (I am squatting to depth” “I am pushing the barbell away from my chest, and pulling the barbell toward my chest”).
Remember, process goals can always act in the service of an outcome. Setting an outcome goal, but then focusing on the process can be worthwhile for a number of reasons:
- Performance enhancement: If you are thinking about the process of your workout, and not just the outcome, you can bet you’ll have better form, stronger focus, and increased resolve to add weight, reps, or both.
- Avoiding negativity: Sometimes, outcome orientation causes us to focus on what NOT to do (“I will not eat any Doritos this week!”). Guess what happens when you try to NOT think about Doritos? Or skipping a day at the gym? Or how bad you will feel if you don’t hit your goal? Focusing on the process is foolproof, because you’re ALWAYS thinking about what to do. Process orientation keeps you in the present moment, away from shoulds, guilt, and doubt.
- Enjoyment: It’s true! Being fully engaged in a goal-directed activity is an evidence-based way to be a happy camper. If you’re interested in learning more about this, check out Flow (2008), written by another favorite psychologist of mine, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
So, want to give it a try?
If you do, you can think back to your current goal, which is probably an outcome. Now, take a moment to consider the processes that are involved in this outcome (lifting, learning, cooking, sleeping, and so on). Each week you work toward your outcome, choose a specific process to focus on.
For example, clean up your deadlift technique, finally learn how to “braise” all of that protein you need to be eating, or dedicate a workout to focusing on your breath, throughout all your reps and sets.
Experiment a little and see what you notice. Does the time fly by at the gym, because you were so wrapped up in exhaling and inhaling? Or could you add a few more chin-ups because your breath was so big and strong? Or do you just feel like a bad ass at the end of a focused, fully committed training session?
No matter your current goal, an overarching life long goal for you might be feeling good, living longer, or getting stronger. All of these are a process, and ideally a pursuit that never ends. So, enjoy your journey by focusing on your process.
Good Luck, and let me know how it goes!