Updated on 03.10.11

Make the Goal the Process, Not the Results

Trent Hamm

Over the last few days, I’ve been thinking a great deal about the goals I’ve set for 2011. For a quick reminder, here they are:

Goal #1: Get fit, which basically meant meeting a few fitness metrics

Goal #2: Play music, which meant being able to successfully play four pieces on the piano

Goal #3: Read 100 unread books, which meant largely clearing out my to-be-read list

I’ve had the most success so far with the third goal, far and away. It is the reason for that success – and the failure on the other goals – that left me thinking. Why that goal?

This morning, it hit me, out of the blue. When I put the revelation in context with the other goals I’ve previously accomplished and failed with in my life, it makes complete sense.

I succeed at goals where the goal itself is a process toward some further end. I fail when the goal is merely that further end.

Let me break it down and explain what I mean.

With the third goal, reading 100 unread books, the real thing I hope to accomplish is to become more well-read. The reading list I put up there is diverse, and by reading all of that stuff and absorbing it to the best of my ability, I’ll likely become a more well-rounded person.

However, becoming well-read is not the goal I set for myself. The goal I set for myself directly sets down the process for becoming well-read. Simply by accomplishing the goal of reading 100 books, I will have naturally become more well-read in the process.

Thus, I’m left with a goal that explains what I need to do right on the surface. Read. Read what? These 100 books I have listed here. I can go right down that list, knocking off book after book. There’s no question or deliberation about what to do. I just simply follow that goal.

The other two goals have failed because they don’t make it clear what I need to do. They both sound noble on the surface – get into shape and learn to play the piano – but they don’t immediately translate into some sort of action.

A successful goal, at least from my perspective, is one where it’s immediately clear from the goal itself what needs to be done and by doing what’s suggested, you’re pushing forward strongly on some value in your life.

So, let’s recast those two goals a bit, shall we?

The first goal is to get into shape. Being in shape is the outgrowth of following a routine exercise regimen. After talking to a trainer, we set up something of a plan for exercising every other day (with a day in between for rest) that hits cardio each time and a certain muscle group every four sessions.

If I were to actually do those sessions, being in shape would be a natural outgrowth. So, my goal should actually be go to the gym every other day. If I actually just accomplish that very simple thing, then the personal change I want – being in better shape – is a natural result.

The second goal is to play four pieces on the piano. Again, being able to play these pieces is the outgrowth of practicing them. Simply put, all I really need to do to be able to play these pieces is to simply practice each day.

If I set my goal to be the straightforward practice the piano for thirty minutes each day instead of the less clear and more lofty one I have in place, then actually playing the pieces I want to play will be the natural result of the steps.

I can even improve the third one. If the change I want to affect in myself is to be more well-read, reading that list of books will accomplish that. However, it still doesn’t point toward a simple action. How about spend an hour each day reading something challenging? I exceed that most days, but this gives the right idea. It pushes me constantly toward the change I want to bring about in my own life.

All of us have big changes we want to make in our lives. Success in making that happen comes often from the little steps along the way. Focus on those little steps for a while without worrying about the big goal. Spend your time just dribbling the ball instead of wanting to be the next Allen Iverson. Spend two hours on your side business each day instead of talking big about building a major enterprise.

Do the little steps right and your destination will sneak up on you.

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  1. Dave says:

    Trent have you ever taken a speed reading course/followed a program like evelyn wood? I know you devote a lot of time to reading, but even so I’m always surprised how many books you read, I feel like I read a lot but I rarely finish more than 2-3 books a month, usually less.

  2. Des says:

    Reminds me of a story I once read. Never made sense to me for a long time.

    A young pup keeps chasing his tail around. An older dog comes up to him and says, “Why are you chasing your tail?”

    The pup replies, “Because I’ve heard that there is happiness in my tail.” The older dog responds, “Wh y don’t you just go about your business and happiness will follow you throughout the day.”

  3. Lauren says:

    Couldn’t it also be that you really enjoy reading (which seems to be the case), and so you find reading more pleasant than, say, exercising?

    Or that reading that be done pretty much anywhere or at any time, while exercises and piano playing have more specific requirements (i.e. I can imagine you reading if you were wide awake at 3 am, but probably not taking a walk outside in the dark, or playing the piano and waking everyone else up).

    I think you might be looking into this one too much.

  4. Interested Reader says:

    Maybe you should have taken your own advice about making 1 resolution.

    I can’t directly link but it was on Dec 27 posted between resolution 2 and 3.

    Also in your original resolutions for piano and exerices you were going to devote 1 hour a day to each. Maybe you over reached and needed to scale down.

  5. Todd says:

    Sounds like you’re referring to the building blocks of goal setting that companies adhere to… S.M.A.R.T. goals: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely… Really helps to focus the goal being set, and add some parameters to measure and achieve success.

  6. VickiB says:

    Todd – that silly acronym speak is one of the REASONS I’m leaving my current company in a few weeks. The idea is fine for an individual, but in the corporate world, the mindset is that the goals get set by people who don’t actually do the work, resulting in more layers for the worker bees and more reports to complete for the managers. Trent’s thinking is more along the lines of Chris Gardener’s story of being successful as a beginning broker – EACH DAY was his challenge of the number of calls he would make, which, when focused there, allowed him to attain his goal of success in the investment world.

  7. Tracy says:

    I’m with Lauren, because if your conclusion followed your premise, you wouldn’t be on track with the ‘read 100 books’ which is just as generic as the ‘play 4 pieces of music’ – neither allocates specific time to each.

    Also, as Interested Reader said, in your original posting on this, you had practice time built in – it just wasn’t enough.

    The real meat of this is about how it’s important in goals to review them periodically, check your progress and determine if you need to change your process in order to attain the goal in the end.

  8. Tracy says:

    Actually, looking back at your personal fitness, you also had concrete plans for when and how long you would exercise.

    The only one where you DIDN’T say ‘do x, y times a week for z length of time’ was the reading goal – the only one that’s on track.

  9. lurker carl says:

    Goals also need to be realistically rated as to their relative importance to determine which ones can be temporarily set aside when life happens. For instance, at what point does reading 100 books or playing music become more important than physical fitness?

  10. valleycat1 says:

    I like what Trent did with his goals, making them more specific from now on. This is one post I’m not understanding the criticism for. Personal goals work best when they’re formulated to suit the specific person rather than someone else’s guidelines or their idea of what makes more sense.

    And #1 Dave – I read at least several books a week without speed reading training. Whenever I have any down time at all, my default response is to grab a book (soon, my Kindle!). Not tweeting or IM-ing or calling someone on the cell. And in the evenings I read at least an hour daily, if not more.

  11. Andrew says:

    It’s amazing how many goals-both short and long term-can be met if you just TURN OFF THE TV!! (good advice which I tend not to follow!)

  12. Stephan F- says:

    Sometimes you can do more then one at a time. With audiobooks you can exercise or commute or even shop at the same time.
    Obviously you can’t practice piano and listen to an audiobook but that is fine.

    I have read a large number of new books last year and now I am taking a break and reading some old favorites, like Dragonsong.

    Goals are good but you should have an eject button. If a goal isn’t working out, it is okay to give up.

  13. Gal @ Equally Happy says:

    I like having specific goals to work towards (get more fit) but I also add in subgoals such as “do this many workouts” to each. One is the goal and the other is the plan. In combination, they help me figure out what I want to do and how to get there.

  14. WhiteCedar says:

    Trent, I really enjoy your sharing of your thinking on an issue like this. I though this was a great post, though I came to a somewhat different conclusion.

    Basically, I think you are swinging from one extreme to another, here. The one goal that is working well isn’t process oriented. Don’t try to fix the one thing that isn’t broken.

    I take two things away from the success of your reading goal.

    The first is that it is concrete and measurable. You can look at your book list and see every thing that is checked off; each book read is a real, tangible achievement. Notice how that’s different from saying, “I read for an hour, today.” You can’t check any title off your list, or point to a book on your shelf and recognize it as a friend. It doesn’t put you any closer to your target of 100 books.

    The second thing is that your goal is incremental in nature. Its a goal made up of discrete, attainable steps. Each book is a milestone along your path to the goal.

    That’s different from a process because the process lacks any flexibility to it. If your goal is “go to the gym every other day” what happens if you miss a day? Has the whole endeavor failed? or succeeded less well? A process goal also robs you of any motive to excel. Just showing up is enough to meet your goal, no need to push yourself.

    I think your repertoire goal is less satisfying to you because it isn’t as incremental as 100 books. Each piece is a really big goal, without any reinforcing milestones along the way. You might divide your pieces up into smaller sections. Scheherazade is in four movements, of course, but Clocks is also in four sections as well. You should use whatever method is necessary to break your big, monolithic goals into something more incremental.

    At the end of the year, you will be able to play your chosen pieces. No amount of technical proficiency will give you the same level of satisfaction and motivation to continue playing.

  15. ejw says:

    I’m with Lauren and Tracy here. Is there anyone who’d rather change clothes and drag yourself to the gym or outside to exercise (particularly during this insanely snowy/cold winter we midwesterners have had)than curl up with a book? And isn’t mastering a piece of music just a series of small goals “a process toward a further end?” Learning each phrase, or bar or movement (small goal that is a process)then being able to play the entire piece (or play it from memory) that is the ‘further end’? And I have to assume that you can play the piano better than you did before and that you’re in better physical shape than before…so did you actually ‘fail’ at those goals? Or is it just taking you longer to reach whatever you’ve determined is where you want to be? Being able to play a musical piece is far more tangible than the rather vague ‘being fit.’ I guess looking at the situations differently is what you’re saying in the last paragraph but…but destinations don’t always sneak up on you, regardless of the small steps you’ve taken and sometimes even stepping in the obvious direction leads you somewhere else entirely.

  16. Lou says:

    I like this post a lot. I haven’t been setting goals at all lately – my focus has been on reducing the clutter from our last move, which happened 2 years ago. I would not put anything away til it had a permanent home and i wouldn’t toss a box til i had gone through it. Yes, I know/knew to declutter before packing, but (long story short) I didn’t.

    So I’m nearly done eliminating that clutter and ready for a new, more pleasurable goal. This post gives me a number of ways to think about that goal. Thanks.

  17. Borealis says:

    Trent, I am surprised you fell into the fallacy that teachers are underpaid because they teach kids and that is important.

    Everyone who does a job that they love is overpaid. It is the garbage collectors, sewer cleaners, and other unpleasant jobs that are underpaid.

    If teachers don’t love teaching and feel they don’t get enough money to make it worthwhile, they should definitely leave teaching.

    Why do you “value” work by what someone pays for it?

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