Just in time for New Year’s: The goal-less goal

Being overly concerned with achievements and material outcomes has traditionally been a Western condition. And in the last couple of decades more and more gurus are advising us that we must visualise our success — to see the scale hitting 135 pounds, to imagine ourselves crossing the finish line, to really feel what it will feel like when we finish writing that novel.

It seems logical that with any goal I should know the outcome I’m aiming for — that way I’ll know when I’ve reached it. And so in the past I’ve been committed to outcome-oriented goals… until a couple of years ago when I decided to learn how to run.

The first thing I did was sign up for a 5k race, to focus myself on a specific challenge that would arrive by a specific date. My 5k led to other 5k’s and eventually 10k’s. So having a specific outcome motivating me worked. Or did it? The sense of accomplishment I felt as I crossed the finishing line was not only fleeting, it was barely perceptible as it fleeted!

Only a couple of years before, running a 10k would’ve been inconceivable to me. I was geniunely the worst runner I’d ever met; people twice my body weight could run faster and further than me. For years I did everything but running to keep fit. Depsite this, completing my 10k failed to trigger a sense of pride or mastery or enhanced self-confidence. As I crossed the finish line, all I felt was a sigh of relief. Not even physical relief, but a psychological burden sort of relief: one of my more demanding to-do’s could be crossed from my list.

That’s how I discovered that outcomes aren’t necessarily what makes the goal worth the effort — it’s the process of getting there that is.

If the 10k gave me little satisfaction, the weeks of training for it did.

The sensation of running not only faster and further, but more naturally and comfortably, was deeply satisfying. Every time I hit the pavement, ran along the canal from Westbourne Grove down to Paddington and then into Hyde Park and along to Kensington Gardens and then up to the Caffe Nero on Hereford Road where I’d stop for my well-earned coffee — was worth it … both for how I’d feel at the end of each run and for the minute-by-minute pleasure of feeling my body in sync with my mind.

My trail along the canal and into the park was one little accomplishment after another. Foot in front of foot, in front of foot, in front of foot, my mind fell into rest as I pummelled along. My usual “should’s” and “must-do’s” and “why-am-I-so-bad-at-running” thoughts were finally overpowered and stunned into silence.

Here’s how another blog explains the benefit of process rather than outcome goals …

… people are too obsessed with outcomes and need to focus more on the process. This is captured in a lot of eastern-based philosophies that tell us … this exact moment is all we have so enjoy the present. Too much obsession about future results blocks our ability to grow and uncover hidden opportunities.

The Goal Triangle

The idea that process goals reflect a more Eastern outlook reminds me of Murakami’s book about running and being a writer.  Come to think of it, reading is the perfect example of process trumping outcome. All the pleasure is in the doing rather than the achieving.

Sure, there are things I want to accomplish. I want to complete a triathlon. I want to publish my book. I am not immune to wanting to reach concrete results, but I’ve come to realise that I’ll get a lot more pleasure out of the hours I put into trying to achieving these things than the hour I achieve it.

So happy reading, writing, walking, running, cycling, travelling, performing, playing, doodling, singing, skating, cleaning, cooking, chatting, dancing, sleeping, bathing and relaxing over the course of 2012.

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Filed under Self-help, Sport, States of mind

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