Why you won't hit your goals in work or life
Have you ever found yourself stressed about your work? Or worse, simply bored? If so, a radically simple shift in mindset may make all the difference in finding satisfaction in your work. And surprisingly, it may involve giving up your goals.
I discovered for myself the problem with goals when I started my first company. For three years, I aimed to cash out with a big exit. Not only did I not achieve this goal, but I hated most of the journey. Each day of work was a reminder of how far away I was, and I felt frustrated that I hadn't made it already.
I realise now that how I did my first start up is how I’ve done life in many ways. Whether it be sport, study, body, or money, I’ve been obsessed with the goal and seen the process of getting there as an inconvenience to be avoided or, at best, a wall to get over so I can get to where I really want to be.
I was trapped in the “product mindset” a way of thinking values achievements as primary, rendering process secondary.
It’s all too easy to internalise a product mindset in today’s culture. The media glorifies success, exposing us daily to the exceptional accomplishments of others. We’re constantly presented with new mountains to climb through people who are already at the peak, and we struggle to see how we could get there.
Our culture’s glorification of success fuels the most dangerous part of the product mindset – that happiness lies on the other side of accomplishment. Those of exceptional achievement are celebrated as role models, while those still on their way up are effectively ignored as irrelevant until they are good enough to receive attention.
But what I've come to discover is that, to achieve happiness in the moment, we must stop chasing goals as a pursuit to satisfaction - for even if we hit the goal, we'll only create a new one and will always be short of where we should be.
Dilbert creator and entrepreneur Scott Adams put it best when he said, “Goals are for losers.” By measuring ourselves by our accomplishments, we are losing 99% of the time. Then when we win, we set a new goal and become losers again.
Not only does the product mindset not make us happy – it also makes us less productive. We’re more likely to get discouraged and less likely to take the actions necessary to get to where we want to go.
As it turns out, everything it takes to achieve our dreams is in the present. All those yoga classes, meditations or mindfulness practices you've tried... aren't simply a way to destress and feel good. Being present helps you become aware of how good things are and exactly what you need to do to make things even better.
For example, let’s say you want to become a great chef. Cooking involves hundreds of nuanced skills, from picking the freshest ingredients to finely chopping vegetables to knowing just how long to leave that steak on the frying pan.
Each of these skills is practiced in the present and requires paying close attention to exactly what you are doing and experiencing. The more focused you are, the more aware you are of the smell of tomatoes and the more creative you are with the dish you're making. You'll add ingredients you haven't mixed before and you may even discover ingredients that work magically together.
But had you not been present, you wouldn't be aware of the slight burning of the onions and you also wouldn't change how you've been cooking the same dish. You'd be on auto-pilot to always slightly burnt toast.
Paradoxically, focusing on the work rather than the rewards turns out to make us happier than the rewards ever could. It’s what psychologists call “flow,” and studies have found such experiences to contribute to life satisfaction more than the pleasure of winning itself.
This is the “process mindset.” In this way of thinking, practice is the focus. By enjoying the practice and staying in the present moment, you have already won. Goals are of secondary importance, as they simply set a reference point best left to fade into the background of our awareness. They can therefore be as arbitrary as the height of a basketball hoop - just challenging enough to make things interesting.
From being a raging overachiever, I've begun to enjoy my life more when consciously taking on a process mindset. I'm less anxious throughout the day, as I spend less time worrying about the future and more time focused on whatever I'm doing. Boredom is also slowly disappearing, as I’m always finding there is something to practice. I now even find pleasure in folding the laundry!
If you'd like to learn how to focus more and be less overwhelmed or distracted throughout your day, here are three tips which have worked for me to cultivate a process mindset.
Identify Small Baby Steps - Break things down to baby steps. Let’s say you want to write a book. Commit instead to writing one sentence. Then write the next sentence. As you immerse yourself into the process of writing, you’ll find you’ll figure out just what you are writing a book on.
Allocate a Short Period of Focus Time - Timebox your work. Back to the book example. Rather than trying to write all day, commit to writing for 30 minutes. This will get you focused on what you can accomplish in the present instead of how long it will take to produce the finished product. And if you find you don't want to stop after 30 minutes, feel free to ride that momentum as long as you'd like.
Slow down - Intentionally do things slowly. When starting to write, open your laptop slowly. Try typing more slowly. Pause after each sentence. While it seems strange, I’ve found this not only relaxing but also rewarding. I usually get more done when doing things slowly, as I’m conscious of each motion, wasting less energy and learning more from each moment.
Remember these three "S's" – small, short, and slow – the next time you find yourself overwhelmed or discouraged. You'll find both the happiness and results you seek.