Thanks to a couple of glasses of Swedish elderberry cider on Friday evening, I hit the Four Beasts trail an hour later than normal this morning. Talk about living on the edge! During the ascent, I ran into a hiker I hadn’t seen in a while who remarked on how much weight I’d lost since she last saw me. When I responded that I’d lost a little, she insisted that it had been a lot.
As much as I appreciated the compliment, I found myself wondering how overweight I’d been when I first started venturing out into the hills. Although I’d known that I could do with shedding a couple of pounds, I hadn’t seen it as a major problem. I certainly hadn’t considered it serious enough to track my weight as part of my exercise program.
Looking back, I can’t help thinking that it’s a good job I didn’t worry about outcomes like weight loss when I started pounding the Four Beasts trails. This would only have diverted my attention from the much more important task of making sure I stuck to the process of hitting my targets for steps and floors. By focusing on two simple measures that I had control of, I was in other words able to achieve other beneficial outcomes like losing weight and sleeping better without having to consciously think about what I needed to do in order to accomplish them.
Confucius took a similar approach with his teachings. Rather than promising his followers that they would achieve an outcome such as getting an official position by following his way, he urged them to focus on the process of cultivating their values, thinking, and conduct. If they managed to secure their dream job as a result of adhering to the process that was great, but it wasn’t the primary objective.
When you set a goal, it is important to think very clearly not just about the result you are aiming to achieve but also how you are going to sustain it. It can be quite easy to lose weight, for example, if you go on a crash diet, but the question you need to ask yourself is whether you will be able to keep it under control once you have completed the diet. By the same token, it may not be too difficult to find a better job if you have the right connections, but it can be a lot tougher to keep it if you don’t have sufficient experience and expertise to carry it out effectively.
By focusing on concrete process improvements that you can control, you have a much better chance of achieving sustainable long-term progress than if you chase arbitrary short-term outcomes. Better to commit to a regular exercise regime than throw yourself into a miracle weight-loss plan.