“What’s your running pace per mile?”, asked my friend. I looked blank.
“How far do you normally run?” I shrugged my shoulders.
“Are you even training for anything?!”
I’d recently started exercising again and my mate wanted to know about specific running results.
Much to his chagrin, I didn’t have any to show.
But unbeknown to him, I was using a process over outcome attitude.
When I was younger, I played lots of sport, including everything from badminton and cricket to football and tennis.
I loved it all.
My parents often spent their evenings and weekends ferrying me from one training to another, not to mention long summers playing one tennis tournament after another.
Then I went to university and started drinking.
Slowly the sport fell away, replaced by late nights and morning hangovers.
Not exactly conducive to running around a tennis court.
After University I spent significant time travelling and working abroad, which didn’t lend itself to regular exercise.
Soon, however, I knew I was missing something important in life.
I felt unhealthy, overweight and psychologically blocked.
I regularly experienced episodes of anxiety and overwhelm, for which I turned to meditation.
However, I felt I also needed a physical release; to return to a more basic, primal and overall, playful mode of being.
It wasn’t because I wanted to sculpt a beach body or collect social media likes.
In fact, external results didn’t factor in at all…
Why do you do what you do?
If it’s like most people, it’s because you desire a particular result.
- In a career, that might be money and prestige
- If you’re creative, it might be becoming a famous artist
- If you’re into fitness, it might be about Instagram selfies and impressing the opposite sex
What start as genuine childhood passions soon become outcome-orientated as society emphasises the importance of external rewards.
This sets us up for constant disappointment.
Instead of focusing on an activity for its own sake, from a place of joy, we’re obsessed with outside validation.
When things don’t go our way, we become despondent and quit.
After being sold the myth of overnight success, we’re unwilling to put in the work and patience to improve our efforts.
If you really want to make progress, I believe it’s better to ignore these external results and adopt a process over outcome orientation.
There are two vital components for this to work.
Process over outcome
We’ve just said that society tries to motivate us through extrinsic rewards, making us act for the wrong reasons.
To focus on the process we must replace these benefits with more powerful incentives.
Adults, like children, should return to a more playful state, engaging in activities for pure enjoyment and inner satisfaction.
There’s immense pleasure to be derived from improving your abilities, even in the absence of external plaudits or praise.
For me, restarting running was never about physical appearance, but rather a deeper sense of fulfilment and lightness of being.
When I restarted exercise, I knew it would take time to regain fitness.
While most people run out (pun intended) and buy a smartwatch and the latest gear, I didn’t do any of that.
My only goal was to run every day. It didn’t matter how far or long.
In fact, I didn’t want to know, deliberately ignoring the data.
As soon as I saw these results, I knew I’d become obsessed with the metrics, and that Goodhart’s Law would prevail.
Instead of acting for intrinsic reasons, my behaviour would be results-driven; a man-made abstraction.
Shielding yourself in this way is especially important after starting something new, when you’ll invariably be in comparison mode, self-conscious of your performance and highly sensitive to negative feedback.
Enjoyment over ability
Don’t get me wrong, collecting data can aid performance, especially when approached from an experimental or curiosity angle.
But it’s a delicate balance and I feel it’s often prudent to ignore the results and focus on the feeling instead.
Just by using the two methods above, internalising a process over outcome mentality, you can go far.
It wasn’t until I’d been exercising consistently for over a year that I finally invested in a running watch.
And even now, I remain careful with the data I consume to ensure I don’t become excessively performance-driven.
I mean, does it really matter that you aren’t the best as long as you love the activity?
Surely we should be optimising for enjoyment above all?
At least that’s how I view my running.
A couple of years after those initial questions, I can’t imagine quitting.
I’ve done enough repetitions that, regardless of my running ability, it’s an identity-driven habit which pays for itself many times over.
Invest in systems, not results
Everyone wants to set outcome orientated objectives…
- Make a million dollars
- Buy a mansion
- Become a best selling author
- Blah blah blah
Instead, ignore these proxies for happiness and go smaller.
Focus on what you can do actually do today to create immediate enjoyment.
These process related goals are much more manageable and while outcome orientated folk are quitting preemptively, you’ll have the patience to persist indefinitely.
If you spend the majority of your days engaged in this fulfilling pursuit, you’ll not only start to enjoy the system, but experience natural improvement, hitting your goals as a byproduct.