Goal Orientation: Action vs. Outcome
Summary: To achieve an outcome, you have to take action, and that action should be your goal. You can’t directly choose an outcome, but you can always choose to take action.
Jason wanted to lose 20lbs. His “goal” was to lose 1.5lbs per week, and he started by just doing “a little” more exercise and “trying to eat better.” He started strong, with a big push of enthusiasm. He would lose a pound or two sporadically, but he gave up a few weeks in when he actually gained two pounds. He had failed at his “goal,” so he quit, disgusted.
Why did he fail? Why do I keep putting “goal” in quotes?
Because, Jason eventually realized, losing 1.5lbs per week isn’t a goal at all. It’s the outcome of an action, and the action is the goal. You can’t just decide to lose 1.5lbs per week, but what Jason figured out is that you can decide to work out for a fixed time every day.
To reach his desired outcome, Jason made a critical shift in his thinking. He worked backward to figure out that a pound of fat stores 3500 calories, so in order to lose a pound per week he’d have to burn 500 calories per day. He knew that 45 minutes on the treadmill burned 500 calories.
He shifted his goal. Action: run 45 minutes on the treadmill everyday. Outcome? He lost 20 pounds.
To make the critical shift in your mind from a “goal” that leaves you powerless and frustrated, simply ask: is the goal I have in mind an *action or an *outcome**?
Most goals are an outcome because outcomes are what we’re concerned with when we work hard to achieve. That’s understandable, but wrong. To achieve an outcome, you have to take action, and that action should be your goal. You can’t directly choose an outcome, but you can always choose to take action.
I started writing a book recently, and my desired outcome is to have the first draft fleshed out in four months. I want the manuscript to be 80,000 words. I need to write 5,000 words a week. 1,000 words per weekday.
This is like Jason deciding to burn 500 calories per day. It’s better than “lose 1.5lbs per week,” but it’s not quite fundamental enough either. He took it a step further by figuring out what 500 calories being burned looked like, and his goal was to run for 45 minutes per day. He can’t directly control how many calories he burns, but he can directly control how long he tries to burn them.
I started with 1,000 words per day goal. The problem is that 1,000 words can mean filler words, or it can mean densely packed, heavily-researched material. So for the first few days I worked really hard on the book. More than full time. But I wasn’t hitting my 1,000 word goal because a lot of the work was research, and writing a book is always front loaded with a lot of reading and fucking around before words go down. So I was frustrated that I wasn’t reaching the goal, and I started to slip, and after a few days of slipping, I stopped working on the book.
That pattern of failure is classic, it happens to people all the time. Good thing I knew.
So, I shifted again. It takes me an average of two hours to write 1,000 polished words. So that’s my goal: write my book for 2 hours per weekday. In 4 months, the outcome will be a first draft.
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