Just before my first competition my skating coach asked me what goal I wanted to set for my skate. She encouraged me to pick something at least theoretically under my control: perhaps to smile, feel the music, or be in the moment. I picked a small goal and it helped me feel in control of the situation. If you hear competitive figure skaters interviewed you’ll notice that their goals for their skates are never what they call ‘placement’– how they end up being ranked by the judges. That’s not under the skater’s control. They are encouraged to have goals about the process of training or performing itself.
Focusing mainly on a goal that’s not under your own control is crazy-making. You can have a desire to win, to lose twenty pounds, or whatever your heart desires. Those are called outcome goals and they help you set your long-term direction and path. But complex outcomes are the result of many factors, only some of them controllable by you. You’ll be happier if you focus on the step-by-step processes you can actually control.
So have an outcome goal if you must but break that larger goal into many small steps, and put your focus on the process of the small steps. The journey is where you’ll spend 99% of your time. Keep your attention there and you’ll keep yourself from fretting about your outcome goals even while you are moving toward them.
Here’s how this works for me. I want to pass certain skating tests, but I try to focus on goals related to training for those tests. If my coach says I’m ready to test I make certain goals for skating during my test. Things like, for example, to continue my skate after any mistakes without getting flustered. My goal can’t be all about what the judges write down– I can’t know who will be judging me or what they will say.
So for a runner, instead of outcome goals like ‘win marathon’ or ‘beat my personal best time,’ process goals could be to follow your training schedule during the weeks before the race and try to achieve a mental flow state during the race. For someone trying to lose weight, process goals could be to eat five servings of fruit and vegetables each day, work out three times a week, or commit to re-starting the diet and exercise program after each time obstacles come up. Be creative. Process-oriented goals will help you enjoy the journey and feel success along the way.