Process vs outcome

If you’re stuck on a project and not making progress, ask yourself whether you’re focused on the process – or the outcome.

During any interview with someone who’s accomplished something impressive – published a book, won a major sports competition, started a company, and so on – someone always asks about process. “What’s a typical day like for you?” “How often do you practice? When?” “Do you write/paint/design on a computer, or on paper?”

It’s always interesting to glimpse into someone else’s life, especially a life that is just familiar enough to imagine, but not quite familiar enough to imagine accurately, but I think there’s more to this question. This question is also about success. If I, sitting in the audience or listening to the interview, can figure out how you, a successful person in an industry I’m interested in, achieved success, then maybe by replicating your process I can succeed as well.

I often work with new college graduates, just beginning professional careers, and this idea shows up there too. “What’s the right way to write this document?” someone might ask, or, “How much time do you spend on email?” Learning to work effectively is a key skill, and yet – embedded in this is that same assumption that identifying and replicating process will lead ultimately to success.

But what if it won’t?

Of course, in many contexts process is necessary. If you want to become an outstanding baker, you need to learn what’s involved in creating that perfect loaf of bread. If you want to sing opera, voice exercises can improve your technique. Success in many fields requires expertise; expertise requires practice; figuring out what to practice and how to do so makes sense.

And yet.

Process can also be a distraction.

Going back to the published author example: one person’s process might include writing for 45 minutes, every day, first thing in the morning. But if the outcome you’re looking for is to get published, writing daily won’t get you there unless you also write things a publisher might want, figure out who those publishers are, and send your work to them. In terms of getting published, it doesn’t matter how much or how perfectly you write if that’s all you do.

Similarly, if as a new hire you create a perfect document, but the team you’re working with prefers collaborative whiteboard sketching – well, whatever your perfect document was intended to achieve it likely didn’t.

And for one more example: if you want better physical fitness, and you go to the gym three times each week, and while you’re there you take a lot of stretching classes… you’ll likely get more flexible, but not stronger, or less out of breath when walking up large hills.

Process can help you achieve an outcome – but it’s rarely an outcome in itself. It may even get in your way, either by giving you a false sense of progress (“I’m writing every day, this is totally going to work!”), or by obscuring shortcuts that could lead to faster success (if your goal is “be able to do 20 pushups,” you probably don’t need to drive to the gym).

When a project is challenging, it can be tempting to think, “If I figure out how to work on this, everything will all work out!” But that’s often not the case.

Better to pause, take a step back, and ask: “Wait, what am I aiming at?”

And go from there.

Once again I feel the need to overhaul my calendar

Huzzah! Doing this right now was inspired by an episode of Before Breakfast

Every so often it happens: I come up for air, like a seal or a swimmer suddenly popping up to survey the coastline and check how far they are from shore, and suddenly realize I Must Reschedule All The Things.

And so, this time: day six of vacation, week four of meditation (twice daily! but that’s a subject for another post), and I found myself neatly laying out days in a notebook, Monday to Sunday, and blocking in my Ideal Realistic Week.

Here it is:

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The exact layout was inspired partially by realizing that once the Horrible House Remodel is complete, there’s no reason I can’t occasionally work from home in the morning, then stop by the nearby Barre3 studio for a class on my way in to work in the afternoon. I’ve also been thinking about how to minimize context-switching, whether between 30-minute, back-to-back meetings, or between those meetings, email, and strategy or deeper work. And I wanted to figure out when to write – I have this nagging urge to do so, but I’ve never found a time or a rhythm that feels comfortable, and increasingly I feel that I had better do this now – and how to make better use of my Friday evenings (I know, I know – Friday evenings shouldn’t be hard, but whatever – for me, a person largely allergic to planning ahead, they are).

And so, the ideal.

Of course, an ideal is only an ideal. Weeks vary; constraints change (oh, how I wish I could control all the meetings at work! and never need to go to the dentist; or have the car break down); but it was useful to lay this out. I realized I need just as much time for email & followups as I do for actual strategic work; that I wanted time for work-related reading; that if I’m not doing something social on a Friday night, going for a walk and then doing some writing might be a good alternative. And I set up my work days as basically having two halves, one morning, one afternoon, and putting meetings in only one half each.

This week is vacation, so for the weekdays, I have no intention of following my plan 🙂 For the weekend and next week… I just might.

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