Establishing Process-Oriented Goals

With 2019 just around the corner, the topic of New Years Resolutions are on the minds of many people i’m around. With the start of a new chapter, many people are thinking about what goals they’re going to aim for in the coming year, and what they’ll (hopefully) accomplish before the end of this year.

What can I do in 365 days? Can I run 5 kilometres? Can I cook a meal my girlfriend will actually like for once? Can I get my cat to finally love me?

And so we write down these goals, make our pledges, and after all the celebrating and partying, we start 2019 with motivation and determination to achieve our goals.

A week goes by with vigor and enthusiasm as we jog for 40 minutes, look up cooking videos by Gordon Ramsay, and buy sweeter treats for Mr. Fred (who, incidentally, is the name of one of our neighbours cats). Two weeks, and we’re still going strong. Week three, not so much. Hey, it’s a setback — even the greats have them. I’ll bounce back.

… Except you don’t. The jogs go from 5 times a week to 3, to 1, to “I’ll get to it next week”. Watching 30 minute cooking videos on how to sear the perfect steak stays as just that; watching videos. Going out to buy better food for Mr. Fred happens, like, once. Eventually our striving towards our goals fizzles out, and we’re back at square one.

I see this happen in a lot of people, myself included. I’ve been trying to do a lot for a long time; learning a new language, stretching before bed, writing more, and many other goals that I and others have tried to accomplish and fell short. I’ve even set SMART goals! (remember those?)

It’s not to say goal setting is overrated or not achievable, but in my experiences the way we think about goals may affect how we accomplish them (or don’t). We typically see goals as an end result, something to work towards. Which is true; but the focus is on the end result, and much less on the journey there.

We get so caught up in the enthusiasm and motivation to achieve our goals we set the bar way too high (running 5 miles cold-turkey? My lungs hurt thinking of it) and we burn out too fast. Or, we look at so many complex, high level ideas in a subject like cooking and suffer from information overload (or as Psychologist Barry Schwartz calls it, the Paradox of Choice; too many options interfere with our ability to act).

This problem has bothered me for a while, and it’s been something I've been chipping away at. If we can solve the problem of “falling off the wagon” we can keep our self-development going, and we can accomplish the things we set out to.

One of the themes I’ve come across from my own experiences and the experiences of many others (authors like Ryan Holiday, Tim Ferriss, James Clear, Thomas Frank) is to frame goals as a “process” and much less as an end result. What steps are required to achieve the goal? If you want to speak French, you have to learn French. Which requires practices to learn it. Which requires periods of frequent study and application.

From there, we can break things down into the simplest building blocks of the task; styles of doing it, times to do it, frequency of those times, stuff like that. So instead of “i’m going to learn French!” and spending 15 hours straight taking as much as you can, you start small and frequent. One 10 minute french lesson a day. Or, you find a french song to listen to a few times throughout the day and see if a sentence stands out to you, go translate it. Then do it again tomorrow with a different song, or a different sentence.

Focusing on the process can be extremely beneficial because it keeps you in check. The days you feel motivated to do a ton, you have free reign to just go. The days you feel sluggish? 10 minutes. One lesson. Easy peasy. The mountain you originally tried to climb becomes a small hill you walk up. Even in slumps, you’re still getting better. Even marginally.

And you keep doing that, for weeks, months, and years. And before you know it, you’re running 10km, not the original 5 you aimed for. Your girlfriend is bringing her housemates over because she can’t stop talking about your cooking. Mr. Fred actually hangs out with you for once. Bam. You’ve achieved your goals.

And the great part is, switching to being process-oriented ensures you don’t stop there. Now that you know how the process works, you can start with something else; building on the original goal, start a similar one, or even something completely new. You can speak French now? Let’s try Italian. Learned how to cook? Let’s start making recipes and teaching others how you learned to cook. And Mr. Fred? Well I don’t own a cat so that one’s up to you to figure out.

It’s a small shift in mindset, but one that has had a tremendous effect on my life, and one that I’ve seen help others greatly. Hopefully it helps you all in some way as well.

Happy holidays, and happy new year!

P.S. This is my first time writing my ideas on Medium, and on a public platform in general, so I don’t really know how this all works. There’s claps or something? If you push the button, do I hear the claps? Is it a round of applause or like, one loud clap? Is it real time (IE: am I going to hear these at 2am?) or do they pile up till I open my computer again?

If you liked this article, let me know. If you have any ideas on how I can improve, i’m all ears as well. It’s a journey after all.

Poli Sci grad, Comms Strategist, great at remembering names and terrible at pronouncing them. I write on a number of different topics!