Less About Goals, More About Process

We talk a lot about accomplishing our various goals through time management, but as I get older I realize the key is less about fitting increasing amounts of work into the time we have and more about focus–switching focus completely from one task to another, maintaining that focus during any given work session, and maintaining focus over time. When I was younger my synapses fired oh so fast and I could easily switch back and forth between activities. Now I notice it is harder to move from talking to people to writing, move from research to analysis or move from one subject to another. Is there a better way to look at it?

I noticed a few articles/blog posts that came out recently talking about goal setting and focus. They have given me some new ways to think about how to focus on my work:

1. How to Stay Focused When Working on Your Goals Gets Boring, James Clear, Huffington Post, Sept. 30, 2013

How do you stay motivated over long periods of time? Clear talks about the difference between Olympic athletes and the rest of us. It is not so much that they have more motivation, it is that they get into a routine and are able to work through the hard parts. They don’t see their training as simply one event, but as a process.

How can we translate that thinking? He says:

If you want to be a great writer, then having a best-selling book is wonderful. But the only way to reach that result is to fall in love with the process of writing.

If you want the world to know about your business, then it would be great to be featured in Forbes magazine. But the only way to reach that result is to fall in love with the process of marketing.

If you want to be in the best shape of your life, then losing 20 pounds might be necessary. But the only way to reach that result is to fall in love with the process of eating healthy and exercising consistently.

If you want to become significantly better at anything, you have to fall in love with the process of doing it. You have to fall in love with building the identity of someone who does the work, rather than merely dreaming about the results that you want.

In other words…

Fall in love with boredom. Fall in love with repetition and practice. Fall in love with the process of what you do and let the results take care of themselves.

2. Forget Setting Goals. Focus on This Instead, James Clear, Entreprenuer, Dec. 17, 2013.

A variation on his article described above, Clear talks about putting a system in place as being key. He talks about goals versus systems:

If you’re a coach, your goal is to win a championship. Your system is what your team does at practice each day.
If you’re a writer, your goal is to write a book. Your system is the writing schedule that you follow each week.
If you’re a runner, your goal is to run a marathon. Your system is your training schedule for the month.
If you’re an entrepreneur, your goal is to build a million dollar business. Your system is your sales and marketing process.

In this case I see “system” as being a synonym for “process”. And whereas in the post above he talks about falling in love with boredom, in this one he talks about falling in love with the system. Sounds a little nicer, doesn’t it?

3. Focus on Process, Not Outcome, Tom Murcko, How to Live, Sept 2013

In this article Murcko extends this same concept, and even advocates forgetting about the end goal itself. He says that “focusing on process rather than outcome is a much better strategy.” He gives a list of reasons:

  • “It eliminates the noise of external factors. ” – You can master the skills needed faster if you don’t have the external noise.
  • “It encourages experimentation.” – Focus just on the end goal keeps you too narrowly focused, may not allow you to see alternatives for the process.
  • “It lets you enjoy the process more.” You can engage more deeply with the work at hand. Mindfulness is a hot topic these days; and it is good to bring some mindfulness to your daily work.
  • “It puts you in control.” While you may not have control of your ultimate goal, you have control of the process. This will bring more confidence and satisfaction in your work.
  • “It lets you enjoy and benefit more from whatever outcome does occur.” Whatever the outcome of your effort, you can still derive personal happiness and satisfaction from the work itself.
  • “It will give you confidence.” He is talking about confidence in mastering the process. As you gain confidence, you can start to push yourself outside your comfort zone and expand your limits.

So all of my “to do” lists may not necessarily be serving me well: they really are just individual goals for the day. Instead I should perhaps look at the bigger picture of what I need to accomplish, and set a regular system or routine for myself.

When working with a larger team, it is about getting a system or routine in place for the team as a whole as well as the individuals. That is almost easier–setting a weekly meeting or call in which certain things need to be reviewed from the previous week, and the plan for the next week is determined.

When working alone, I find if I rush ahead without thinking about my tried-and-true process for some things, pieces get missed, gaps become evident, and I have to back-track. Better to slow things down a bit and follow things through in the right order. Better to build the habit of connecting with the system that has been put in place.

I recently saw a quote from author Alexandra Stoddard that sums some of this up for me:

Slow down
Calm down
Don’t worry
Don’t hurry
Trust the process

No doubt, like me, you feel a need to consider this further as to how these ideas might apply to your own work. But I feel there is a lot of wisdom here and need to find a way to apply them.

Have you ever tried this approach? Do you think it would work for you?


  1. Very relevant piece in this era of “doing more with less”. In some circles (my area is communications) speaking in terms of goals and strategies is equated with higher level, big picture thinking, and leadership, while developing and implementing tactics and processes are seen as less sophisticated endeavours since they flow from goals and strategies. Your article has aptly demonstrated that goals and strategies that divorced from tactics and processes are doomed to fail.

  2. I am moving from writing to talking about law libraries, not without some self-doubt. For me it has been all about process. I have a few tactics depending on the need. Sometimes I write out my daily tasks to give myself discipline. Other times I look at my inspirational quote to give me that lift. And another energy boost is to listen to a favourite song that becomes your theme song giving you that zing to start working, especially if I am struggling.

  3. Maybe another way to remind ourselves at times, when slogging towards our goals which may require climbing over several hurdles:

    Do you passionately believe in your contribution to the big picture service/mandate for clients?

    Am I in the right profession at this point in my career? What was my original personal driver to do the work that I have been doing along/now? Is it still relevant? If someone took away my tools, would I still have that burning desire for client service? It’s not that unrealistic, for colleagues whom we know have gone elsewhere to set up information systems or new service model from ground up. From nothing. It’s a test how much we still believe in the value of what we do.