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Focusing on the journey, not the destination

November 16, 2012, 1:46 pm

I admit that I’ve had a bit of a rough time lately with life. Our Center has an annual cycle that means that fall and winter is an extremely busy time. During the month of October I worked on one of the annual mammoth tasks, looking forward to November when it would be over… only to have to immediately start working on the next mammoth task. It’s depressing. Other parts of life have been less fun lately too – even derby has been getting me down.

In fact, I realized that the only thing I’ve really enjoyed recently is my drum lessons (have I mentioned I am learning to play the drums?). My husband commented that I’ve been getting really good, and I laughed and said it was funny that I’m good at the one thing I’m doing with absolutely no goal in mind. Sure, it would be fun to play with a band in public, and if that happens, great – but I am playing just because I like it and it’s fun.

This was a revelation.

Like many ambitious people, I have a lot of goals and I work hard towards them. But sometimes it can be a bit draining, especially when you feel like that end goal is so far away. I remembered too that once I went off the traditional academic path, suddenly research was more fun. I’m publishing at a rate 2-4 times higher than when I was a postdoc looking for a tenure track job. I conduct and publish studies now not because I have to, but because I enjoy it.

I wondered if I was on to something, and turned to the all-knowing Google to look up “being too goal-oriented.” Apparently I am right on trend – there have been several pieces in the last few months, including this article in the New York Times, about the potential problems of focusing on one’s goals.

What to do, then? It seems that a better route to success is focusing on the process, not the outcome. For example, people who were asked to think about why they went to the gym and to state their goals (losing weight, etc) actually spent less time on the treadmill than people who were asked to describe what they do at the gym. The gym-goers who were asked to think about their goals perceived their workout as requiring more effort than did those asked to think about the process. It’s not that the latter group didn’t have the same goals, it’s that they weren’t thinking about the goals while they were at the gym. Goals might motivate you to get started with something, but they aren’t sufficient to keep you motivated.

Interesting. I’m not yet sure how to make this work in my normal life, but it’s certainly something to think about.

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