Focusing on the process rather than the outcomes

This piece by James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, expresses something I’ve discovered over the last but struggled to articulate: process matters more than outcomes. His counter-intuitive claim is that setting goals can often get in the way of achieving them which is a claim I increasingly agree with. In my own case I’ve set the number of hours which I’m willing to work each day (7 hours) which includes a writing target (1000 words). When I reach those goals I stop working and switch off much more easily than I previously used to be able to.

I time it which felt a bit obsessive for a while but increasingly feels crucial to me because it’s a huge barrier to procrastination once you get used to it. It makes getting distracted into something you have to recognise and choose (i.e. by turning the clock off) rather than a state you can easily drift into. Rather than focusing on my outcomes, I instead try and improve the quality of attention and immersion with which I approach those hours, particularly the writing. I’ve been doing this for a year and my experience has been that I get more done with less effort, without the ups and downs of productivity which tended to accompany my previous goal-based approach.

If I try to work more than seven hours a day (five or six days per week) then I’ve found the quality of my attention rapidly drops and I enjoy my work less. If I try to write more than 1000 words I get burned out and can’t write the next day. It means I always stop writing when I’ve got something left to say, which makes it easier to resume the next day. This seems to be the upper threshold of how much focused work I can sustainably do and seeking to improve the quality of my attention improves the quality of the focused work. I’ve optimised the process to the greatest extent I’m able to, which means I can trust the outcomes will take care of themselves.

Obviously planning projects is still an important part of this. But my previous obsessive use of Omnifocus (with its fixation on granular detail) has felt increasingly unnecessary to me. I’ve recently moved to Things where I’ve mapped things out much more loosely. As long as I trust the process, it just doesn’t feel necessary to plan things out with the granularity I used to in Omnifocus.

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