They Said, “Focus on the Process” – WHAT DOES THAT MEAN!?

I do not know how many times I have heard this my profession.

“Focus on the journey”

“It’s about the journey, not the destination.”

“Focus on the process.”

“It’s progress, not perfection.”

“Process over product.”

And while these axioms have some truth to them, I had always found myself saying…ok…but HOW??

I mean, I think I understand??  

You want me to focus on the process…

…but does that mean to focus on what I’m doing? My execution? Do I make sure to do what my trainer told me to do?  Do I make certain to do exactly what the diet book had laid out for me to follow?

You can see how this sage advice can lead to a lot of confusion and ambiguity. 

As it turns out, “focusing on your process” takes a lot more than just doing stuff.

To better understand this, let’s take a look at common behavior that most of us do every day, driving.

I want you to take a moment and imagine that you are driving your car.  Maybe you’re on your way to work or home; maybe you’re driving your kids to school, or maybe you’re on a road trip.  

What are you thinking about?  

Are thinking about what you are going to make for dinner? About the promotion you got at work?  Maybe you’re thinking about a fight you got into with your spouse?

Whatever you are thinking about, I BET you aren’t thinking about driving.

That’s because driving becomes largely automatic past our initial stage of learning how to do it.  We no longer engage with the act of driving because it has become routine and habitual.  In other words, we don’t have to exert a bunch of brain power to make sure we can get from point A to point B on a set of four wheels.

Now how does this relate to the idea of “it’s about the journey, not the destination?”

Well ‘focusing on the process’, ‘making it about the journey’ is largely about our level of engagement.

In the case of driving a car, there is a reason why almost everyone I know has spent far more than 10,000 hours behind a wheel (the standard amount of practice time needed to become an expert) and yet I do not know one professional driver (myself included) despite all the “practice” we have seemingly accumulated.  In other words, we have not gotten any better.

Our “practice” has not improved our skills or ability because we are no longer engaged with the act of driving.  We are not worried about being “better” drivers, at least not enough to warrant serious consideration and purposeful practice.  Therefore, you may not know that the proper hand position on the steering wheel has changed from 10 and 2 to either 9 and 3 or 8 and 4.  You are probably, equally, unaware that you can take defensive driving courses, or that there is a “right” way to merge called zipper merging.

This is just one example of how action is not enough, and how practice can be pointless.  If you want to be better, you have to engage.

In the words of Denzel Washington:

Engagement requires effort. It requires us to disengage from autopilot and think about what we are doing in a way that confers the benefit of learning.

It might force you to ask questions such as:

  • What do I think is working?
  • What’s not working?
  • How do I feel about it?
  • What can I take away from this?
  • Should I adjust my approach?
  • What am I missing?

A lot of this should seem like common sense, but a good friend of mine once told me…common sense is not so common.

Therefore, we have to incorporate some kind active reflective method in order to witness shifts in perspectives, beliefs, or values. Which can, in turn, lead to insights, that may lead to the changes we are seeking to make.

This reflective process – the act of applying critical thinking to our actions, behavior, and thought patterns –  is what I refer to as engagement and consequently, can also be viewed as a kind of deliberate practice.  

Deliberate practice is a term coined by researcher and psychologist Anders Ericsson, whose work is most noted for discovering the nature of expertise and performance.

And that’s essentially what we are trying to do –  become experts in our own lives – to develop skills, ways of thinking, behaviors that are important to us and that add meaning to our existence.

Now when it comes to changes that are adaptive in nature, as in trying to figure out how to eat better, exercise more, get more rest – maintain a healthy relationship with eating, activity, and self image – self reflection and introspection can prove to be a vital practice.

I define these changes as adaptive challenges because rarely are the solutions to these problems black and white.  For example, in regards to weight loss, the simple instruction of “eat less, move more” SHOULD be sufficient enough to achieve the desired result.

However, take into account the complexity of emotional eating, social pressure, self deprecation, lack of self efficacy etc. –  we can see how the shape of the problem has morphed into something where simplistic solutions just won’t cut it.

Because we are no longer just addressing unproductive behavior, i.e. overeating and being sedentary, we are also addressing the underlying motivations, emotions, beliefs for doing so.

A reflective process allows us to investigate the multitude of factors that sustain unwanted behaviors, while also providing cognitive tools to move us forward.

But all reflection and introspection is not created equal.

It is true…self reflection can be done wrong.

Yes, I know that can be surprising to hear, seeing as how self awareness, self knowledge, etc is seemingly so prevalent.  But people rarely comment on how you might want to approach it.

So today I wanted to discuss the reflective process, and how we can engage with our personal development in a way that actually leads to personal growth.

Ask A Better Question

We are constantly in communication with ourselves.  We tell ourselves stories.  We have conversations in our minds, and we are constantly asking ourselves questions in search of solutions to our troubles.

We might ask questions such as:

  • Why do I feel this way?
  • Is this right for me?
  • Why did I do “that” (insert any unwanted behavior)?
  • Do I exercise or not today?

And while this type of inquiry is, at the very least a starting point, it doesn’t always provide us with a path forward.

Determining why we participated in an unwanted behavior doesn’t do much for us in the way of progress, if we don’t explore how we could avoid doing it again, and/or improve the outcome.

You have probably come across people like this in your life…heck, you have probably witness this in yourself.

Imagine that a friend comes to you and says…

“I hate that I hate to exercise”, and like any good friend you say,

“have you tried running?” and they say,

“I could never do that.  I hate running.” So then you say,

“How about yoga…you mentioned you might like that?” and they say,

“yeah, but I could never make the time for it.”

And so on, and so on.  You probably know how this ends.  

It becomes one long conversation of someone providing you with evidence as to why they can’t do something, yet never entertaining the possibility of a way to move past their perceived obstacles.

Like the saying goes…

So you can see how self awareness, and self knowledge doesn’t always lead to insights that can help us make progress.

In light of this, I want to share with you some guidelines I use with myself, as well as my clients, to help facilitate reflective inquiry.    

Be cautious of questions that solicit a binary answer

Often times we ask ourselves questions that really don’t allow us to explore the realm of possibility.  

  • Should I go to the gym or not?
  • Do I go to bed early or stay up to watch the basketball game?
  • Do I eat this pizza or stick to this diet?

Asking questions such as these, ones that require “yes or no”, “either or”, “whether or not”, answers narrow our vision, and force into focusing on the limited options we have presented to ourselves.  All while negating other solutions that could, possibly, better fit our lifestyle, personality, and/or satisfy an array of criteria.  For example, if we ask a questions such as:

  • Do I eat this pizza or stick to this diet?

We fail to explore if there is a way to do both.  We never entertain the possibility. What if we reimagined the question to look like this:

  • How can I eat the foods I enjoy, while also staying committed my weight loss or aesthetic goals?

Your inquiry might lead you to strategies such as macro counting, carb cycling, calorie cycling, carb backloading, etc.

The question allows you to pursue alternatives you may have not considered.

It should be noted that I said, be cautious.  It is not that questions that solicit a binary answers aren’t useful, but they should only be used once you have explored the realm of possibility.

More often than not, we BEGIN our reflective inquiry with questions that force us into limited options, rather than opening us up to exploration and curiosity.

Asking “why” is not always useful

As mentioned earlier, asking the question “why” may be good for understanding our motives and behaviors, but it doesn’t do much for translating knowledge into action.

Asking “why” can also lead us to confirm our own biases.  

For example, if I am someone that views myself as lacking discipline, lazy, depressed, etc., and I ask the question…

Why am I overweight?

I will produce every reason for WHY I AM – pointing to every character flaw and past failure, essentially obliterating my chances of moving forward. Instead I sink deeper into my despair and hopelessness.

What I have done is supported the view I have of myself by stating all of the relevant evidence (true or not) to confirm it.

In cases such as these, asking “why” can be more harmful than helpful, and it’s exactly the reason you should question the utility of asking “why”.

In the example mentioned above asking

Why am I overweight?

Does nothing to move the marker forward. It simply forces you to confirm an already apparent truth. Asking…

  • What can do to change things?
  • How did I get here?
  • Or What now?

Are probably more productive questions.

Now using “why” isn’t always a bad thing.   There are instances where asking why can be useful. For example, when it comes to relating actions to values as in, “I am doing this, not only for myself, but for my family as well.  It’s important that I stay healthy so my family doesn’t have to worry about me. It’s definitely part of the reason why I exercise.”

Self reflection is good, self absorption is bad

With all this talk of self, it is easy to get wrapped up in, well…oneself.

We already have a culture that promotes and over exaggerates our importance in the form of selfies, and carefully curated profiles and news feeds.

So while self reflection is good, it can also teeter dangerously close to the line of self absorption.

If you find yourself completely preoccupied with your feelings, thoughts, behaviors, or you find yourself incessantly ruminating over your flaws, imperfections, negative experiences, or how you are viewed by others, then your self – absorption may be masquerading as your self reflection.

Self reflection allows us to understand ourselves enough to be self accurate, while also serving as a catalyst to make forward progress.  Self absorption, on the other hand, can send us into a spiral of defeat, delusion, and worry, while simultaneously blinding us to the things we hold dear in life.

Oddly enough one of the best way to avoid the mismatch between self reflection and self absorption is to…you guessed it…

ask a better question.

If you are upset about that presentation you totally bombed on, and you find yourself kicking you when you’re down, you might ask…

“Ok, what’s done is done.  How can I move forward?  What can I take away from the experience?

If you look in the mirror and you feel bad about how you look, you might say…

“What am I feeling? Do the thoughts I am having right now serve me?  What can I do NOW to make progress?”

The ideas I have presented you with today are just a few reflective habits.  They allow us to direct our attention and focus because it is impossible to control our thoughts.

So as you engage with your process more and more, practice these habits of mind.  Because, without a doubt, you will encounter trial and tribulation.  You will have successes and failures, and times of triumph and defeat – all of which you will need to examine with some scrutiny, as well as a bit of levity –  because even with with all of this attention put into ourselves, we should never take ourselves too seriously.