I’ve become a bit ambivalent about goal setting. More interesting to me now is the idea of approaching each new endeavor as a way to grow, gaining some particular skill along the way.
In his book The Practicing Mind, Thomas Sterner discussed how goals often cause adult learners to self-sabotage.
If you have never considered it, think about how everything we learn and master in life, from walking and tying our shoes to saving money and raising a child, is accomplished through a form of practice, something we repeat over and over again. For the most part, we are not aware of the process as such, but that is how good practice manifests itself when done properly. It carries no stress-laden anticipation, no internal question, “When will the goal be reached?”1
We have a very unhealthy habit of making the product—our intended result—the goal, instead of the process of reaching that goal. This is evident in many activities in our everyday lives. We become fixated on our intended goal and completely miss out on the joy present in the process of achieving it. We erroneously think that there is a magical point that we will reach and then we will be happy. We look at the process of getting there as almost a necessary nuisance we have to go through in order to get to our goal.2
When we only consider some future end-state a success, each effort short of that end feel like a failure. At some point after childhood, we lose the joy of discovery inherent in failure. Children are not troubled when they fall down; they pop right up again. When an adult falls, equal time is spent assessing potential embarrassment as injury.
In order to focus on the present, we must give up, at least temporarily, our attachment to our desired goal. If we don’t give up our attachment to the goal, we cannot be in the present because we are thinking about something that hasn’t occurred yet: the goal. This is the goal shift I spoke of earlier. When you shift your goal from the product you are trying to achieve to the process of achieving it, a wonderful phenomenon occurs: all pressure drops away…3 […] This awareness of being where you are and in the present gives you the constant positive reinforcement of reaching your goal over and over again. However, when your mind is only on the finished product, not only do you feel frustrated in every second that you have not met that goal, but you experience anxiety in every “mistake” you make while practicing. You view each mistake as a barrier, something delaying you from realizing your goal and experiencing the joy that reaching that goal is going to give you.4
When, instead, your goal is to focus on the process and stay in the present, then there are no mistakes and no judging. You are just learning and doing. You are executing the activity, observing the outcome, and adjusting yourself and your practice energy to produce the desired result. There are no bad emotions, because you are not judging anything.5
When a new goal is made to focus on the process, the next logical concern becomes progress. While you are walking head-down, observing each footfall, it is easy to wander off course, but focusing on process doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pick your head up and check your aim every so often. Sterner uses the analogy of a final goal being the rudder that guides practice, and I think this is apt.
For myself, I continually apply a “better” check at decision points. Is this next thing going to make me better or not? My nose is not always to the grindstone (or in a book), either. Sometimes a Netflix break will recharge my lost creative energy. Nor does this require an elaborate 10-year plan. I just compare last week, yesterday, or this morning to now. Better is good enough.
Sterner, Thomas M. The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life: Master Any Skill or Challenge by Learning to Love the Process. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2012. Kindle link ↩︎