A Winning Combo For a Happy and Successful Life: Focus On The Process, Judge Yourself On Effort
About a year ago, I read a great book on mental training called With Winning In Mind by Olympic gold medalist in rifle shooting Lanny Bassham. It was a quick, easy read and it really impressed me. (Check out my summary here.)
One thing that I found particularly amazing was a story about one of Lanny’s coaching clients, golfer Ben Crane. Here’s the story (read it!):
“I suggested that instead of setting a goal to win Ben should goal set to make the process of playing well his primary focus. “Process is Primary” became a theme for the year. Ben’s job while playing was to think about executing his mental and technical systems and not to think about winning. Scoring is a function of great execution, and winning is the result, but thinking about winning can pull your focus off of proper execution in a competition. Thinking about process is the answer.
In the fourth tournament of the year at San Diego’s Torrey Pines course, Crane found himself just 30” from the cup on 18. The crowd knew Ben needed to make the putt for the win, but Crane had no idea. When the ball rolled in, his playing partner Ryuji Imada offered his hand in congratulations. Thinking this was just the customary handshake after the round, Ben did not realize he had won until Heather [his wife] ran on to the green.
“Did I win?” Crane said. This was proof that a player can cause his mind to think about process instead of outcome even with the possibility of winning pulling at him. Crane’s third career victory earned him $954,000 sending him on to his best year in goal at that point.”
So this guy had a 30-inch put for a million dollars. But he had no idea that the stakes were that high. He had no clue how he was doing or if he was going to win – he didn’t worry about the outcome. Instead, he was hyper focused on the process of just playing golf as best he could.
Would he have won if he knew he was about to win a million dollars? Maybe, yes. Maybe, no. It’s possible that he would have failed and faltered under too much pressure like so many people did before him. I would argue that forgetting about the outcome and putting all of his focus on the process was a major part of him winning the tournament.
And just like a process focus helped him win a million dollars, so too it can help you achieve more in your own life.
Any Outcome Is the Result of a Process
Any outcome in life is the natural by-product of a process.
- Losing ten pounds (the outcome) is the natural by-product of eating healthy or exercising regularly (the process)
- Gaining ten pounds of muscle mass (the outcome) is the natural by-product of training heavy, eating well, or taking steroids (the process)
- Publishing a book (the outcome) is the natural by-product of writing regularly and finding a publisher (the process)
Any outcome is the result of a process.
If you eat healthy and exercise regularly, you will sooner or later lose weight. Weight loss is a natural by-product of healthy eating and exercise. If you study hard for your tests, you will generally achieve good grades. Achieving good grades is the natural by-product of studying.
If you are pursuing a goal, you can always choose between focusing on the process or focusing on the outcome. You can focus on losing ten pounds, finishing homework, running a marathon – or you can focus on eating healthy, working on your homework for one hour, or exercising daily.
Whatever your aim is, you can focus on the outcome or the process. One tends to work better than the other…
Achieve More and Be Happier Along the Way: 5 Major Reasons Why Focusing on the Process Trumps Focusing on the Outcome
Alright, the cat is out of the bag. As the story from the intro probably already showed you, focusing on the process is far more effective than focusing on the outcome.
Specifically, we’ll look at five main reasons why that’s the case:
- Process Focus creates and guarantees instant success and motivation
- Process Focus creates upward spirals
- Process Focus reinforces doing the right things
- Process Focus allows you to focus on what you can control
- Process Focus makes things easy, simple, and actionable
All five of them, as you’re about to learn, contribute to better, faster results and more happiness along the way.
1. Process Focus Creates (and Guarantees!) Instant Success
Whether you’re process-focused or outcome-focused, the actual process for reaching the a goal is the same. If you want to lose weight, you’ll have to eat healthy for a certain period of time – regardless of whether you’re focused on losing the weight or on eating a healthy breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It’s really just the focus that’s different. But boy does that make a difference…
When you’re focused on the process, you win every time you apply your process or system. Every time you eat e healthy breakfast, you win. Every time you eat a healthy lunch, you win. Every time you eat a healthy dinner, you win. Apply your system? Instant success.
On the path from where you are now to where you want to be, you accumulate a large number of small wins along the way. And each small win counts as a success, making you feel good about yourself, creating a sense of accomplishment, giving you confidence to keep going, showing you the progress you’re making and so on… ah, this feels great!
When you’re focused on the outcome, things look a lot different. Now you only win once you achieve your goal (e.g. once you lose the twenty pounds). No instant success here. You first need to accomplish the goal, then you can be proud, happy, and feel like a success. No matter how much progress you’re making or how much hard work you’re putting in, all that counts is the ultimate outcome.
Even if everything’s going great. You’re depriving yourself of a sense of accomplishment, happiness, contentment, or pride. You find yourself in a constant state of “When I finally achieve my goal, then I’ll be happy and successful. Then I’ll feel proud.”
Kinda demoralizing, huh?
But it gets worse…
When you’re focused on the process, all those small wins are basically guaranteed. If you apply your system, you win. That’s the deal. If you put in the necessary effort, if you do the right thing… you get a guaranteed win.
When you’re focused on the outcome, this is not the case. Regardless of how much effort and hard work you put in, you’re never guaranteed to succeed. And this is a huge problem.
Let me make an example to show you what I mean. Say you have a writing task due next week and you decide to do some work today. Let’s further say that you work hard for 60 minutes – watch what happens depending on what you’re focused on…
If you’re focused on the process, your goal is simply to work as best you can for the 60 minutes. Once you’ve finished writing for 60 minutes, you win. That’s a success. It doesn’t matter how far you’ve come or if you’ve made much or little progress. You put in the work and that’s what counts. You feel proud of yourself. You’re feeling great.
If you’re focused on the outcome, your goal is a specific result such as writing 1,000 words or completing the introduction. In this case, there are two possible outcomes. If you meet your goal after the 60 minutes, great. You win. You did what you wanted to do. You’re proud of yourself. You feel great. It’s basically the same result you’re getting with the process focus.
But what happens when you don’t achieve your outcome goal after the 60 minutes? You might have worked just as hard. You might have done your best. But that won’t matter. You’ve missed your goal. You failed. You’re miserable. You tell yourself that you should have done better and you end up beating yourself up over it and feeling like a loser. Whoops.
Isn’t that one hell of a crucial difference?
If you’re process focused, you’re guaranteed to win and feel good as long as you put in the effort and do your best. If you’re outcome focused, you might feel like a failure and loser despite putting in all your effort and doing your best. You might give it all you’ve got, but you’re still going to feel terrible after missing your outcome goal.
Bottom line: Process focus creates many small wins, resulting in more motivation, happiness, confidence, feelings of accomplishment, etc. Outcome focus tends to do the opposite, neglecting small wins and leaving us deprived of feelings of making progress, feelings of accomplishment, happiness, and motivation.
And this is just the beginning. Wait till you see the ripple effects being created here…
2. Process Focus Creates Powerful, Self-Perpetuating Upward Spirals
By now you might say, “Feeling like a success is great. Feeling motivated is great. Being a bit happier is great. But what does it matter? How’s that going to help me reach my ultimate goal? That’s what it’s about.”
Fair enough, one might say it doesn’t matter how we’re feeling along the way. As long as we achieve our ultimate goal of losing 20 pounds, getting a promotion at work, or finishing a writing project, we’re good, right?
Well, here’s the deal. Even if you don’t care about the feelings themselves, you should still care about them for what they’re going to do for you.
If you say, “I don’t care how I feel along the way. All I care about is reaching the ultimate goal.” Fine. But how you’re feeling along the way has a huge impact on how fast (or if at all!) you’re going to reach your ultimate goal.
Feelings of happiness, accomplishment, pride, progress, optimism have been shown to dramatically improve our performance. Making progress on meaningful goals, for example, has been shown to create feelings of well-being, boost optimism, and create incredible motivation to keep going (as I write in this article, progress is one of the most motivating things on the planet!). Feelings of happiness, as I’ve shown in this guide, bring similar performance-enhancing benefits. Shawn Achor, a leading happiness researcher, goes as far as saying, “It turns out that our brains are literally hardwired to perform at their best not when they are negative or even neutral, but when they are positive. [And] when we are happy – when our mindset and mood are positive – we are smarter, more motivated, and thus more successful. Happiness is the center, and success revolves around it.”
I could go on, but the point is: The better we feel – the happier, more optimistic, and more motivated we are – the better we perform. And vice versa. If we’re feeling like shit, we tend to perform like shit. Positive emotions fuel performance while negative emotions slow us down.
Bringing it back to a process focus… We talked about racking up many small wins on our way towards reaching the ultimate goal. Here’s where it gets interesting. Each small win creates small ripple effects, leading to more positive emotions, more future effort, and ultimately a massive upward spiral. Here’s how this works:
You apply your system and pat yourself on the back for that small win. You feel a little bit proud, you feel like you’re making progress, you feel a bit more confident in yourself, you generally feel good about yourself. The resulting optimism, motivation, confidence, and other positive feelings lead to increased performance and more effort in the future, which then leads to even more and faster progress, which then creates even more motivation, confidence, optimism, which then… The result? A so-called success spiral, torpedoing us towards the achievement of our goal.
Not bad, huh?
Now think about what happens when you’re all focused on the outcome. You can forget about the small wins, the positive feelings, the increased confidence, the motivation, and the upward spiral. If anything, you’re creating a downward spiral consisting of discouragement, failure, lack of progress, reduced effort, low confidence, etc…
Instead of racing towards your goal, you gotta pay attention not to get stuck in the mud somewhere with your old, battered truck.
3. Process Focus Reinforces Doing the Right Things
“Behavior that gets rewarded/reinforced, gets repeated,” is one of the most fundamental concepts in behavioral science. If you tell a dig to “sit” and then give him a goodie, he is bound to repeat the behavior. That’s dog training 101.
Well, guess what? Human beings work the same way. That’s basically how addiction works. Heroin, cocaine, gambling, video games, and other addictive substances or behaviors are so rewarding to our brains that we get an urge to repeat them over and over again.
The good news is that we can use the same mechanism to get ourselves to repeat positive behavior over and over again as well. We just have to reinforce it.
And that’s exactly what happens with a process focus. Every time you apply the process, you feel good about yourself – you’re making progress, you feel a sense of accomplishment, you’re maybe even a little bit proud of yourself. These good feelings act as the reward, which reinforces the behavior, which then leads to the behavior being more likely to be repeated in the future.
Put differently, process focus rewards doing the right actions – the things that ultimately lead to the accomplishment of our ultimate goal –, making them more likely to be repeated in the future. Resulting in us engaging in more of the right actions that help us move towards our goal. Jackpot!
Now, think about what outcome focus does. It literally deprives you of the sense of accomplishment and all those good emotions. Even worse, it may result in lots of negative emotions – you feel like a loser, you feel like you’re stuck, you feel like you’re not making progress, you’re all self-critical, and so on.
You might work really hard, put in tons of effort, and do everything right to achieve your goal – awesome behavior that you would like to repeat in the future, right? But, unless you meet your outcome goal, you’ll never reward and reinforce that behavior…
Isn’t that a shame? So much effort. So much hard work. So much sweat and tears. Despite doing so many things right… you still make yourself feel like a loser, leading you into a downward spiral, which will make everything even worse.
The point is, the right behavior should always be acknowledged and positively reinforced whether it creates the wished-for results or not. Regardless of the outcome, doing the right thing should be acknowledged and rewarded.
So, while a process focus reinforces the actions that help us achieve our goals, the outcome focus doesn’t. Thus, the process focus helps us reach our goal faster by reinforcing and therefore repeating the necessary actions. In other words, over time, process focus leads to more goal-producing action.
4. Process Focus Allows You to Focus on What You Can Control
Epictetus, the great Stoic philosopher, once said, “Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are within our control, and some things are not. It is only after you have faced up to this fundamental rule and learned to distinguish between what you can and can't control that inner tranquility and outer effectiveness become possible.”
Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding that some things are within our control and some things are not.
Interesting. Especially because the process tends to be under our control while the outcome is usually not. Think about it…
- We can’t control exactly when we finish our novel. But we can write 500 words every single day.
- We can’t control if we’re getting promoted at work or not. But we can arrive early, leave late, take more responsibility, and work hard every single day at our job.
- We can’t control how fast (or if at all) we’re losing 20 pounds. But we can eat healthy every day and exercise three times a week.
If we are to believe Epictetus, then we’ll find inner tranquility and outer effectiveness by focusing on the process – which we can control.
This goes hand in hand with John Wooden’s philosophy. He’s probably the greatest basketball in all of history, so he surely knows a thing or two about life and success. In his book Wooden, he wrote, “It goes back to what my dad used to say. ‘If you get caught up in things over which you have no control, it will adversely affect those things over which you have control.’”
So, if we get caught up in things over which we have no control (the outcome), it will adversely affect those things over which we have control (the process).
If we get caught up in the outcome, it negatively affects the process. Which is a crucial point, because the process is of course what ultimately leads to the outcome.
If we’re all caught up in wondering if people will like our book, it negatively affects the process of actually writing the book. If we’re worried about winning the ping-pong tournament, it negatively affects the process of actually playing ping-pong. If we’re stressed about getting good grades at school, it negatively affects the process of studying.
Paradoxically, the best way to achieve a certain outcome, is to completely forget about it and fully concentrate on the process.
5. Process Focus Makes Things Easy, Simple, and Actionable
Focusing on the outcome can be overwhelming, which may lead to inaction, getting stuck, or not getting started in the first place. Focusing on the process, on the other hand, simplifies everything. We can break down a big goal into manageable steps and simply focus, one by one, on the execution of those steps.
- Writing an entire book is overwhelming. Writing 500 words every day is easy and simple.
- Losing 40 pounds sounds overwhelming. Eating a healthy breakfast, then lunch, and then dinner, one after the other, is easy and simple.
- Becoming an Olympic gold medalist is overwhelming. Practicing every day for 4+ hours is simple.
Forget about the outcome, focus on the process.
John Steinbeck, a Nobel Prize winning author, puts it like this: “When I face the desolate impossibility of writing 500 pages, a sick sense of failure falls on me and I know I can never do it. Then, gradually, I write one page and then another. One day’s work is all I can permit myself to contemplate.”
Do not permit yourself to get all caught up in thinking and worrying about the outcome. Break your goal down into small, manageable, and actionable steps. And then get started on the first step, trusting the process.
Theodore Roosevelt was a big advocate of this approach as well. He once said: “I dream of men who take the next step instead of worrying about the next thousand steps.”
And Eckhart Tolle, the great spiritual teacher, says: "Focus not on the one hundred things that you will or may have to do at some future time but on the one thing that you can do now.”
The point is, being too focused on the outcome can literally paralyze. Instead, just focus on the process. Don’t worry about all the future steps and hurdles and what not. Focus on the next step instead.
Bottom Line: Focusing on the Process Leads to Faster + Better Results and More Happiness Along the Way
Ben Crane won a million dollars by focusing on the process and forgetting about the outcome. Would he have been as successful if he was all caught up thinking about the outcome – the million dollars? We will never know.
Considering what we’ve just learned, however, we can speculate that he would probably not have won had he focused on the outcome. To recap, we’ve looked at five distinct advantages that process focus has over outcome focus. All factors lead and contribute to better and faster results.
And it’s not just me who’s saying this…
But Don’t Just Take My Word for it… Michael Phelps and other Highly Successful People Who Live and Succeed With a Process Focus
If focusing on the process is so much better than focusing on the outcome, surely some of the most successful people in the world must be knowing and using this approach as well. Yep, that is indeed the case. Here are just some of many examples…
Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, had the following short conversation before the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio:
Reporter: “You’re a guy who likes closure, you like the chapter to end the way you envision it ending. So, suppose in Rio, you do really, really well, but in your last individual event, the 100m fly, you take a silver instead of a gold. Would that haunt you?”
Michael Phelps: “No, because I know I could look back at how I prepared and I would know that I did, that Bob and I did whatever we could do to prepare ourselves to be the best. Uhm, so I think now being able to prepare how we have, uhm, I’m willing to accept whatever results I get. I mean sure, will I be tipped off? Probably. But I’ll know deep down inside that that was the best that I could do that day.”
Warren Buffett, currently the third richest person in the world, once said, “We enjoy the process far more than the proceeds.”
Dan Loeb, another self-made billionaire, puts it this way: “If you do something the right way enough times, you’ll win.”
John Wooden, sometimes called THE greatest coach ever, was a huge proponent of this philosophy. He writes in his book Wooden, “I never dreamed about winning a national championship. It happened before I even thought it was possible. What I was dreaming about each year, if you want to call it that, was trying to produce the best basketball team we could be. My thoughts were directed toward preparation, our journey, not the results of the effort (such as winning national championships). That would simply have shifted my attention to the wrong area, hoping for something out of my control. Hoping doesn’t make it happen.”
Nick Saban, another hugely successful coach, is said to run his organization with two words: “The Process.” He says, “Don’t think about winning the SEC Championship. Don’t think about the national championship. Think about what you needed to do in this drill, on this play, in this moment. That’s the process: Let’s think about what we can do today, the task at hand.”
Confucius, the great Chinese philosopher, said around 500 BC, “The superior man does not mind being in office; all he minds about is whether he has qualities that entitle him to office. He does not mind failing to get recognition; he is too busy doing the things that entitle him to recognition.”
Stoic philosophers also emphasized it in their teachings. For example, they used something called a ‘reserve clause’, which basically states: ‘I will do my best to succeed, while accepting that the outcome is beyond my control.’ In other words, I will focus on the process and do the best I can, but I understand that the outcome is ultimately not under my control. That’s process focus 101. Seneca, one of the best-known Stoic philosophers, said: “In short, the wise man looks to the purpose of all actions, not their consequences; beginnings are in our power but Fortune judges the outcome, and I do not grant her a verdict upon me.”
Many centuries later, Christian theologians would add a reserve clause to their letters by appending the letters ‘DV’ (Deo Volente = God Willing) at the end. Indicating that, ultimately, they had no control over the outcome.
So there you have it. Some of the greatest and smartest people of human history, all focused on the process instead of the outcome.
Every goal is the result and natural by-product of a process.
During your pursuit of that goal, you can either focus on the goal itself or on the process that will ultimately lead to the goal. Both involve the same actions. But both lead to drastically different results.
If you’re focused on the outcome, you’ll get overwhelmed, discouraged, demoralized. Sooner or later you’ll find yourself in a downward spiral, slowing down your progress, and maybe even getting you to quit. Ultimately, you’ll end up achieving your goal very slowly and painstakingly (if at all!), after an utterly miserable and unenjoyable journey.
If you’re focused on the process, you’re guaranteed to succeed every time you apply your system. You’ll find yourself racking up one small win after another, resulting in an upward spiral of progress, optimism, confidence, and motivation. You’re on the superhighway towards achieving your goals while enjoying the journey along the way.
The message is clear: Stop worrying about the outcome, get fired up about the process.
- Don’t focus on losing 20lbs. Focus on eating a healthy breakfast, then lunch, then dinner.
- Don’t focus on writing a book. Focus on sitting down every day and writing 500 words.
- Don’t focus on becoming a pro basketball player. Focus on training every day as best you can.
- Don’t focus on becoming the next president of the United States. Focus on doing the things that entitle you to office.
If you’ve got a big, exciting goal for your future, break it down into small, actionable steps. Ask yourself, “What steps do I need to take to achieve my goal? What’s the process for achieving the goal?” Then, lay down your dominoes, and start knocking down one after another.
Trust the process, and let the results take care of themselves.
Thanks for Reading
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