Process-based Goals Create Progress

“But what are you going to do with that?”

Every time I write something, a well-meaning friend asks me that.

It makes sense: audience is key. To help critique someone’s work, it’s best to know who the intended audience is. But implicit in this question of “what are you going to do with that?” are issues of final product. It implies that if you’re going to bother going through the hard work of writing something, then you had better do something with it. I don’t disagree with that notion (though I will say, sometimes writing for its own sake is a worthwhile process), but I do think it can lead to some unhealthy thinking when it comes to writing. Namely, it promotes thinking of your writing in terms of products, and that leads to product-based goals.

We’ve all made those before: I want to write two dissertation chapters this semester. I will have finished my novel by September. I will write an article each month this year.

I used to set goals like that for myself at the end of each year. I’m pretty driven, so I achieved most of them, but when I didn’t, I felt like I let myself down.

So last year, I didn’t make any product-based goals at all. Instead, I switched to process-based goals. Instead of having a goal of x number of pages written, I asked myself if I could make a commitment to show up to the page for an hour 5 days per week. Rather than running that 7 minute mile, I wanted to see if I could commit to physically changing into exercise clothing and moving in some way four times per week. They were very low-stakes goals, great for not provoking anxiety.

Now of course, I’d love to max out everything. I’d love to say that I clocked five solid writing hours every single week, and that I got an intense workout in four times per week. But I did not do any of those things.

And despite on some days phoning it in with my writing and workouts, 2019 was one of the most productive years of the decade. I got so much done, and I’m significantly fitter now than I was then.

So for me, having process-based goals has meant giving myself more chances to succeed. In asking myself to just do a little bit of something most days, I gave myself more opportunities to get stuck into my work or my workout, and those bursts, paired with regular maintenance sessions, produced results.

So how did that look with writing? Most days, I sat down to the keyboard with a commitment to write something. Out of five days, about one turned into a marathon where I produced 3-5,000 words. Two more were decent 1,000 word sessions, and the other two were just my showing up and tweaking a paragraph or typing a couple of sentences. But in total, that made on average 6,000 words per week, nearly every week. That kind of wordcount adds up fast.

With exercise it was similar. Out of four sessions per week, one or two usually ended up being an intense session heavy lifting or cardio. Another one or two were sessions at the gym or running outside where I had great intentions and did ok, but lost interest after 30 minutes. And then there was usually one per week where there was little point in having changed into yoga pants. But combined that still equaled a consistent practice that pushed my body’s fitness and increased the speed of my mile run.

So at the end of 2019, that puts me at multiple finished projects, and increased fitness. More importantly, it puts me with no sense of failure, because I removed failure as an option. As long as I showed up to the keyboard or to the yoga pants/running shorts, I succeeded. And showing up with no expectations or quotas to meet mean that showing up wasn’t hard. I actually did the things I said I would do, because they weren’t daunting or pinging my perfectionism instincts.

So this year, rather than setting some New Year’s resolutions, I’m going to keep going with my process-based goals. 5 days per week, I will show up to the page. 4 days per week, I will change into exercise clothes and move.

That’s all. That’s enough.

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