Focus on the Process, NOT the Outcome

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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.

For example:

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:

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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!

Did what you just read make your day? Ruin it? Either way, you should share it with your friends and/or comment below.

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Plus, get a copy of Tony’s Pick Things Up, a quick-tip guide to everything deadlift-related. See his butt? Yeah. It’s good. You should probably listen to him if you have any hope of getting a butt that good.

I don’t share email information. Ever. Because I’m not a jerk.
  1. Note from Tony: like whoa, WE’RE getting married in three months and 28 days. Weird.

Comments for This Entry

  • Brent

    This is an amazing blog post. Why doesn't your fiance have her own internetz site? Where psychololology meets fitness!? People need more of this. I was thinking about my clients who hate to do warm-ups (especially foam rolling) and when I convince them how important it is, they reluctantly do it (some more half-assed than others unfortunately). I really try to connect the process of rolling, activation etc. to the outcome (i.e. more preparation = less chance at injury = staying in the game = results!). Not always an easy sell, but still better than just saying it's important etc. Interesting to watch some buy into the process once I frame it around an outcome they desire. One of the real challenges for me at least though is the clients who complain of the monotony of exercise. I think the industry as a whole is giving people exactly what they want in this case (here's how to supercharge your squat in 27 different variations with a Bosu ball!) and not what they need. It's unfortunate but really haven't found a way to figure out how to get some clients to buy into the repetitive nature of exercise. It makes it tough when you are working against an industry that for the most part is putting fun before safety and effectiveness. PS - any favorite psychology books your fiance recommends, Tony? I really liked Power of Habit (among other ones), but curious what a pro reads :)

    February 2, 2015 at 11:11 pm | Reply to this comment

    • TonyGentilcore

      Thanks for the commentary Brent. Lisa is definitely going to be making more cameo appearances on the site this year, and she's actually going to be giving a little presentation during my workshops in Australia in March. I TOTALLY hear you on the foam rolling and monotony of exercise comment. Much of what we do at CSP is providing CONTEXT to WHY foam rolling is important and WHY we don't need 27 different squat variations. If you suck a regular ol' squats, you're not going to get better by not doing regular, plain, boring, squats. Providing context is always going to be crucial.

      February 3, 2015 at 2:07 pm | Reply to this comment

      • Brent

        It's really interesting people's purpose with fitness. It's almost as if many of the general fitness folks primary goal is to have fun when working out. Sometimes I feel like I need to be an entertainer. I don't run a circus though, so there's that. Hate to be the Debbie Downer here but my philosophy is safe, effective and then fun. In that order. If they wanna have fun there are plenty of dance clubs around the city where you can burn a few cals while having fun. I'm all for that if that is your thing. In the gym, work gets done or results don't come. Can't zumba everything in life if your goal is strength and fat loss. Doesn't work like that. Why some individuals have a hard time understanding this is beyond me. PS - not sure if you have touched on this in a previous blog post but would love to hear your thoughts on how you go about motivating your gen. fitness clients vs. your baseball players. I imagine they come in with different experiences, expectations, etc. and I imagine they both pose unique challenges in getting them to engage and buy into the process.

        February 3, 2015 at 10:15 pm | Reply to this comment

        • TonyGentilcore

          Can't say I disagree with you there Brent. When I was a personal trainer back in the day I often found that many of my clients (not all of them) hired me more to be a babysitter/confidant than anything else. They'd bitch and whine the second I have them "work." "My last trainer wasn't as "mean" as you Tony!" Hmmm, maybe that's why you never saw results....;o) But I do have to say: there's always going to be a compromise with people. Point blank: no matter how much I say Turkish get-ups, or farmer carries, of Goblet squats are good for someone, they're not going to do them. So, sometimes I DO have to throw them a bone and program stuff I KNOW they're going to do. Also, sometimes I'll reward my clients for their work. If I have them deadlift heavy at the start of their session, tossing in a quick arm finisher for my gen pop client at the end of his program isn't going to be the end of the world. Making it "fun" sometimes pays the bills....;o)

          February 5, 2015 at 9:06 am | Reply to this comment

    • Lisa

      Thanks Brent! I do have some favorite psychology books. I'm not sure if you're just looking for recommendations for motivation/exercise psychology, but if not, A General Theory of Love (first Authors Thomas Lewis) is my favorite psych book of all time. Its the science and evolution of emotion - a very enlightening read! I also think Emotional Intelligence (by Daniel Goldman) is excellent.

      February 10, 2015 at 12:32 pm | Reply to this comment

      • Brent

        Goldman is on my to read list, but haven't heard of the first book. On my list now. I haven't really found a good motivation/exercise psychology book. Always looking for good ways to motivate clients, and to help them find a deeper purpose with why the are doing what they are doing. Like I mentioned to Tony, sometimes I feel like people's purpose is entertainment and fun (not a bad thing) but unfortunately their frustration comes soon thereafter because fun/entertainment doesn't always = results. Though I now atmosphere and killer wit helps a ton! Thanks for the input Lisa!

        February 10, 2015 at 12:52 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Barath

    Wonderful article, Lisa! Loved every bit of it. Unfortunately, given I am going to be married in a little less than three months, I am also focused on my end goals now. (lose some fat, gain some bicepzz)...I find that I care more about appearance only outside the gym. Once I start training, I close out most of my other thoughts. But I agree I should concentrate more on the process even outside.....that eating slow part was a very good suggestion!

    February 2, 2015 at 11:30 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Melissa

    Great article! I love Lisa's writing.

    February 3, 2015 at 9:58 am | Reply to this comment

  • Mike Sisco

    Great article, Lisa! It always helps me to set quantifiable goals, but then put the majority of my focus on qualitative things to arrive at the goal. Thanks again!

    February 3, 2015 at 5:04 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Minna

    Great post, Tony! It's always wonderful to see people learning how to shift focus onto the process and those smaller goals throughout rather than some "after" picture. I love #1- this always rings so true even though people don't even realize they're doing it!

    February 4, 2015 at 7:56 am | Reply to this comment

  • Shane Mclean

    Your a lucky man to snag yourself a smart women like Lisa. When are you going to Australia? Need help working on the accent Tony? Love the post Lisa, keep them coming

    February 8, 2015 at 2:55 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Dan Saunders

    Great article, thanks Lisa. Love the reference to the book Flow, have you even read it yet Tony haha. Hopefully Lisa will come along again with some more great insights

    February 9, 2015 at 12:52 pm | Reply to this comment

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