I’m writing a book. It’s a big book – some 400 pages. Every morning, I write for 2-3 hours at a coffee shop. I have a long way to go.
Sometimes this is overwhelming. If I think too much about the 60,000 words looming in front of me, I might freak out and stop writing. The big picture is scary.
So I’ve learned to stop doing this. I’ve learned to concentrate just on the section I’m writing at the moment. No matter what the future holds, I concentrate on doing the best job writing the 3,000 or so words I have to write that day.
“Even if this book never gets published,” I tell myself, “I’ve been given the chance to drink coffee and write about a topic I really enjoy, and there are worse things in the world than that.”
Humans constantly evaluate our willpower against the progress we’re making toward some goal. If we’re closing the gap between us and the goal, we’re more likely to stick with it. If the distance isn’t closing, it gets harder to hang on.
We do this because we usually view our pursuit of the goal as a temporary, unpleasant condition. We are chasing a goal, and at some point we will achieve it. When we do, we’ll probably stop doing the things that got us there. Our current labor is just something we’re doing right now.
But what if it wasn’t? What if the goal wasn’t…well, a goal? What if the pursuit of the goal – or, rather, the process behind the pursuit – was the goal itself?
One reason our society can’t seem to stay healthy is because we look at health as a goal, not a process. It’s a temporary condition we achieve, not a state we exist in perpetually.
One of the best pieces of advice I got about eating was that the only diet that works is the diet that never ends. Which means it isn’t a “diet” at all. Diets are traditionally goal-centric – do this thing for a period of time to achieve this goal. But if a diet never ends, then it’s not a goal, it’s a state of being. It’s a process.
In 2010, researchers did an experiment where they took two groups of treadmill walkers. Before starting a workout, they encouraged one group to think very hard about how this workout contributed to their goals (goal-focused). For the other group, they encouraged them to just think about the workout they were doing right then (process-focused). Before starting the workout, both groups noted the amount of time they intended to workout.
The result? The goal-focused walkers claimed they would walk an average of eight minutes longer than the process-focused walkers. But, when the final results were tallied, the process-focused walkers spent nine minutes longer on the treadmill.
The researchers identified two characteristics: intention and pursuit. Intention is what you plan to do (the goal). Pursuit is what you actually do (the process). Intentions are easy. Pursuit is hard. We concentrate so much on our goals that we forget the process.
The researchers theorized that increased intention simply freaked out the exercisers:
[…] focus on the goals of exercising renders this activity more effortful thereby reducing gym users’ persistence.
Put another way, the big picture was scary. The current process seemed small in the larger context of their goals, so it was less important, and exercisers were consequently less willing to put up with physical discomfort for it.
The authors even extended this to other contexts and activities, like children and drawing:
[…] we ask whether children who expected to receive certain rewards for drawing would draw less if they [think about] these expected rewards vs. focus on the drawing itself. We predict that attending to incentives has negative consequences on engagement.
This is a classic example of intrinsic (internal) motivation vs. extrinsic (external) motivation. Intrinsic motivation is that which comes from the process itself (exercise, drawing). Extrinsic motivation comes from the reward. Intrinsic motivation is stronger and more durable. We stay focused on the process. The goal is important, certainly, but secondary.
Daniel Pink, in his book “Drive: The Surprising Truth of What Motivates Us”, talks about intrinsic motivation in the context of helping a friend move. If you spend all day lugging boxes for a good friend, you’re doing this out of genuine love and care for your friend. Moving sucks, but you’re spending time helping a friend, and there’s honor in this.
If, at the end of a long day, the friend offers to pay you $100 for your time, how would you feel? In handing you a wad of cash, your friend has completely changed the context of what you did. The reward has shifted completely outward. You were no longer doing it for the intrinsic reward of helping your friend move (the process); instead they believed you were doing it for the extrinsic reward of money (a goal). You’d likely be offended.
Humans love context. We’re obsessed with the big picture and how everything fits into it. Every experience we have is a puzzle piece, and we try to fit it into a larger framework of experience. We often won’t want to workout unless we have some larger goal framework to fit it into. Are we working towards something? Are we making progress?
Additionally, we love thinking about our future self because our future selves are perfect. A 1999 study (PDF) showed that when movie watchers had to pick a movie to watch days in the future, they picked acclaimed movies like Schindler’s List. When they had to pick a movie to watch right now, they picked something like Weekend at Bernies. Why? Because, in their minds, their future self was cultured and deep. By comparison, their current self was superficial and frivolous.
Goals are all about context and the future self. They allow us to dwell on this amazing future moment when everything comes together and we are who we want to become. This is exciting. By comparison, we find the actual process to be boring and tedious.
So, should we abandon our goals? Absolutely not. But make sure you love the process in spite of them. Make sure you enjoy the process of pursuing the goal, not just the idea of achieving it.
If you have goals in the gym, but never get any closer to them, would you quit showing up? If so, then this might be a dangerous place to be. If you don’t love the process, but instead love the progress, then progress has become a crutch. You depend on it to stay motivated.
But progress isn’t guaranteed. Injuries happen. Backslides happen. Business trips happen. Sometimes you just stop making forward progress for months at a time. And, for the older athlete, there comes a day when you stop hitting PRs. Then the only goal becomes just to decline more slowly than average.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that there’s honor in repetition. There’s comfort in routine. There’s strength in consistency. There’s power in the struggle. There’s even an odd sense of security in boredom. There is joy in the process, and no matter what the future holds, the most important burpee in the world is one the I’m doing at any given moment.
Just like the book I’m writing, I try to approach CrossFit as a continuing process, with goals as a background motivation.
I’d like to do an L-sit rope climb. I’ve been working toward this for months now. I can get about 20 seconds of an L-sit, and I just got a legless rope climb, so now I’m working on putting them together. That’s far easier said than done, but I’m gonna get it one day, and that day is gonna be awesome.
But that goal is not what keeps me coming into CrossFit. Rather, I love the routine of walking into an empty gym at 5:15 in the morning. I love the people, especially the usual suspects that trickle in that early – it’s quiet, so you look up every time the door slams shut. I love the lonely echo of my footsteps off the building during my warmup run. I love the spirit of communal destruction and the tribal mentality that says, “We’ll beat this WOD together.” I love walking out of the gym at 6:45, completely drained and feeling fantastic about it.
Sure, I have goals. But I love the process, and like the diet that never ends, this is the only way it works over the long-term. If your forward progress stops, your extrinsic motivation dries up, and you quit coming to the gym as a result, be sure to stop back in about 20 years. I’ll still be here.
Look for me at the top of the rope, legs held perfectly parallel.