How Goals Can Distract You From Success

Growing up I was always told to keep my eye on the prize (my goals).  It made sense, so I didn’t really question it.  As I got older I could still see the value in the statement.  Goals are important; they give us a direction and destination to pursue.

However, earlier this year I began to realize that maybe my eye shouldn’t be focused too intensely on the prize.  Perhaps I should focus it more on my efforts and actions.  Now, I am not saying to forget the prize (goals), what I mean is that once you know what the goal is, you don’t need to focus on it so much.  For instance, if you want to be a lawyer, you don’t need to remind yourself everyday that you want to be a lawyer.  If you are enrolled in and attending law school, you have probably already internalized that goal.  Your proverbial “eye” should instead be on the actions and efforts that will get you there because ultimately, that is the only thing within your control.  In fact, your goal could become somewhat distracting in a negative way.  By focusing on it a lot, it feels as if you have more to lose with each setback and there will be setbacks.  This causes an unnecessary distraction that can be avoided.

The efforts and actions represent the journey and becoming a lawyer represents the destination.  Given that we spend most of our time on the journey versus the destination, it makes sense that we shift most of our focus to where we spend the most time.  If we do that, we can dedicate most of our energy to the efforts and actions that culminate into the goal.

This doesn’t just apply to careers; this applies to relationships, athletics, personal goals, etc.  Focusing on what is outside of our control creates unnecessary frustration whereas focusing on what is within our control can liberate us from frustrating levels of disappointment.

When I teach math students, I always encourage and celebrate the journey (and struggle) my students experience versus the answer (destination).  I remind them over and over that the final result is not as much within their control as everything they do to get there.  I reinforce this by focusing most of my energy on reviewing and giving feedback on their work versus the final answer.

The specific moment that enlightened me to this insight actually took place on the soccer field and was followed by an even more insightful conversation.

At least 3 mornings a week I go to train on the soccer field by myself.  One of my routines is to practice penalty shots for about 20 minutes.  As I was setting up for each shot I did what I usually do, which is to focus on the area of the goal that I want to place the ball in – in my case I usually aim for the upper/lower left hand corner or left side netting.  This is my usual spot.  Overall my penalty shots were quite accurate, but not as powerful as I wanted them to be.  If I aimed for the upper left hand corner, the toughest and riskiest spot, I would hesitate to hit the ball as hard.  I was afraid of missing my target (the destination).  This was because I felt that I had the most to lose with attempts into the upper left hand corner.

Then it hit me, I have no control over what happens after I hit the ball.  Once it leaves my foot, it’s completely out of my control.  The only thing I really have control over is everything that happens up until I strike it with my foot.  So at that moment I decided to shift my focus to my foot and the ball.  I already knew where I wanted to hit it since it’s my usual target.  In order to make sure the target didn’t distract me, I kept my head down and only looked at the ball, even for an extra second after I struck it.  Because the target is still important, I simply made my first step in the process to look at the goal and my target once.  After that, I would not look again until after my foot hit the ball.

I was blown away by my first attempt!  I hit it with a force I never hit it before and right into the upper left hand corner.  It even smacked the inside post and ricocheted out of the goal.  I thought, this has to be beginners luck.  So I attempted another shot.  Again, I hit the target with incredible force.  This happened 5 times in a row.

In relationships, this means focusing on your efforts and actions, and less so on the resulting reactions and responses of the other person.  Ultimately, we cannot control what others do, but we can control how we behave.  Just because we do something nice for someone doesn’t mean he or she has to thank us or show gratitude.  After all, we did the nice thing because we wanted to (or at least that’s why we should have) and their response (target/goal) should not be the focus.  Going one step further, whatever does happen afterwards, is worthy of examination and reflection. Then, whatever conclusions you arrive at will be a result of the responses, not from any lack of effort on your part.  I think we often hurt more about a breakup because we feel we didn’t really do all that we could have during the relationship.  By focusing on efforts and actions, we can reduce that avoidable part of the hurt.

In business, Steve Jobs practiced this insight.  At any given time, there were only a few goals he prioritized.  Once the goals were set, he didn’t have to think about them so much and he allocated most of his focus to the efforts, actions, and details necessary to achieve his goals.  One of his goals was to design a product that was beautiful inside and outside.  Another goal was to produce an exceptional user experience.  Once set, he didn’t focus on those goals, instead he focused on the efforts and actions to get there and trusted that everything would work out.

Keep your eye on the efforts and actions you take today.  Give a performance you would be proud of, no matter whether you achieve your goal or not.  When I miss my penalty shots now, instead of feeling disappointed, I feel proud of my effort and then I consider what I could do better and differently next time.  Oh, and sometimes, it’s just not meant to be.

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