Should You Focus Relentlessly On The Process Or Goals?

Process or GoalsPaul O’Neill, who ran Alcoa and quintupled profits during his 13-year tenure, famously focused on one keystone habit to transform the company. It’s worker safety. Analysts and investors couldn’t believe their ears when he was introduced as the new CEO when he said that would be the company’s most important focus. They thought he was out of his mind and could not see how this would translate into financial results. How wrong they were.

O’Neill knew he had to completely change the culture of the company and get everyone working together. To do this he needed an initiative that everyone could rally around and safety was that. This focus allowed for greater communication, better management-employee relations, improved productivity, and tremendous financial results.O’Neill drowned out the cacophony of the naysayers and relentlessly focused on worker safety and built systems and processes to support this paramount objective.

Process versus Goals

People are understandably fixated on goals. After all, if you don’t know where you’re going then any road will take you there. On the other hand, a fixation on goals can actually be counterproductive in the long run. I recently read a book called The Practicing Mind by Thomas Sterner and it makes the case for being much more focused on process and purpose versus goals.

O’Neill focused relentlessly on the process and culture of safety and he believed the results would follow. O’Neill was proven right by the tremendous profit growth that materialized at the company. He later became the Secretary of the Treasury and ran that department in a similar manner. O’Neill believed that poor government outcomes are usually not a result of bad policies but bad processes. While he faced a lot of backlash because government agencies and politicians have very different agendas than private sector participants, it didn’t stop him from focusing on processes versus outcomes since the latter should be a byproduct of the former.

Goals can have the unintended consequence of creating a lot of stress because we often feel like we’re behind, not doing a good job, or we’re not going to achieve them. Sterner argues that in life we should be in a perpetual state of practice since in that state we’re completely in the present with a laser-sharp focus on what we’re doing. All we are doing in practice is trying to improve incrementally and we are far less judgmental of ourselves than when we are not in that mindset.

A goal focus, on the other hand, often takes us out of the present into a future that can be tension creating as

“[w]e usually are either thinking about something that has not yet happened (and may never happen) or reliving something that already has. We waste each moment’s opportunity to experience what is real by focusing on what is not.”

In order to shift from a goal mindset to one of perpetual practice requires both patience and discipline, two hallmarks of mastery. Think of Warren Buffett, considered to be the world’s greatest investor. Much of his success comes from very rarely investing outside of his circle of competence by only investing in what he knows and understands and then waiting patiently for the right valuation/price to purchase.

Buffett has said that the stock market often transfers wealth from the impatient to the patient. I think this is also true in life more generally as disciplined and patient people tend to have better outcomes than undisciplined and impulsive ones. And yet, what is so ironic and beautifully articulated by the author is the paradoxical situation that

Problem with patience & discipline is that developing each of them requires both of them.Click To Tweet

But the rewards for cultivating patience and discipline to develop a practicing mind versus a results-obsessed one far exceed the costs.

“When you focus on the process, the desired product takes care of itself with fluid ease. When you focus on the product, you immediately begin to fight yourself and experience boredom, restlessness, frustration, and impatience with the process…When you shift your goal from the product you are trying to achieve to the process of achieving it, a wonderful phenomenon occurs: all pressure drops away. This happens because, when your goal is to pay attention to only what you are doing right now, as long as you are doing just that, you are reaching your goal in each and every moment.”

When we are very focused on goals, we are often subconsciously comparing ourselves to our notion of perfection which we all know is unattainable, particularly because it is a moving target since we’re always growing and evolving. Perfection often implies judgment which is not a very healthy way of operating and living day to day.  A more healthy point of view is to shift one’s perspective by viewing setbacks not as mistakes, but just part of a process of discovery which reveals what works and doesn’t work.

While this may sound idealistic, the author believes that:

“When you stay on purpose, focused in the present moment, the goal comes toward you with frictionless ease. However, when you constantly focus on the goal you are aiming for, you push it away instead of pulling it toward you. In every moment that you look at the goal and compare your position to it, you affirm to yourself that you haven’t reached it. In reality, you need to acknowledge the goal to yourself only occasionally, using it as a rudder to keep you moving in the right direction…When you let go of your attachment to the object you desire and make your desire the experience of staying focused on working toward that object, you fulfill that desire in every minute that you remain patient with your circumstances.”

The best poker players know they can play very well and still lose.Click To Tweet

The best poker players know they can play very well and still lose. Over time they will win because they wait to bet big when the odds are in their favor and they let the process guide them versus their emotions and they have enough faith in the system to not be scared out of it. The same can apply to investing.

We all experience outcomes that have come out less favorably than we expected. That is a reality of being on the playing field for a long period of time and making many different bets. Yet, if the process is solid with downside protection being the primary focus then over time the winners should handily exceed the losers. Patience, discipline, financial reserves, sticking with what you know, and a long-term perspective are often the ingredients of the recipe of financial success. It’s also particularly helpful to enjoy the process and intellectual stimulation of investing versus just trying to make money.

Do your best this week to focus on staying within your purpose and the personal system you use to support that purpose of helping find the joy in your life as opposed to judgmentally measuring yourself against a set of goals as the only yardstick of your progress. Whenever you feel tension and stress building up ask yourself if it’s coming from a place of judgment about yourself and if so, take a step back and try to shift from a results mindset to more of a practicing mindset. I have found this to be helpful for me. We all have our unique paths and it’s our great challenge to find them, to stay on that road, and enjoy the journey.

As Jerry Garcia sings in the song “Ripple“:

There is a road, no simple highway

Between the dawn and the dark of night

And if you go no one may follow

That path is for your steps alone

Over to You:

People are understandably fixated on goals. We are often subconsciously comparing ourselves to our notion of perfection which we all know is unattainable, particularly because it is a moving target. What do you think? Which is more important? The process and procedures or the final goal? Do you stay within your purpose? I’d like to hear your thoughts?


4 comments on “Should You Focus Relentlessly On The Process Or Goals?
  1. Bob Serr says:

    Great blog Gary. Reminds me of a few of St Ignatius spiritual tenets; seek freedom and detachment and to be indifferent with the outcome. I’ve tried following these and a few more for the past year and half and it’s been amazing how practicing and having disciplined thought and action has helped bring about personal change.

    Be well my friend and thanks always for your challenging blogs.

    • Thank you Bob. I’m glad you’ve been experiencing the positive benefits of what I wrote about. It’s one thing to write about it and another to actually live it and I’m delighted it has made such a difference in how you are experiencing life.

  2. André Bueno says:

    Excellent post Gary! Your articles always bring a fresh perspective and a relatable framework for the everyday investor.

    Have you read Mastery by George Leonard? If you haven’t read that, and The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle- I think you would like both!

    Have a great week bud!

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