For all of our collective obsession with goal setting, it leaves a lot to be desired. Failing to reach a goal is often a miserable experience, one that leaves us feeling inadequate and small. Yet achieving a goal features its own flavor of negativity. After the goal is completed and we have celebrated our achievement, we are presented with the lack of a goal: an emptiness that can be positively disheartening unless we immediately fill it with another brighter, shinier goal to strive towards.
It was six years ago when I first realized that goals weren’t working for me. I was overwhelmed by the breadth of options available to me and burnt out by the pressure of external measurements. Although I didn’t use the words goal or process, I started adopting behaviors and mindsets that were about the “how” of my life instead of the “what.”
I didn’t give up goals entirely, because they can still be useful for certain kinds of time-sensitive life milestones. But today I live my day-to-day life almost entirely from a process-driven perspective.
If your personality and life experiences mean that you are fulfilled by goals, more power to you! But for many people, introducing elements of “process” into their motivational framework can mean a less stressful, more fulfilling life.
What’s a process, anyway?
Processes are the “how” of life. Every time you ask a “how question,” the answer describes a process. How do you choose what to eat for dinner? How do you conduct yourself in a job interview? How do you connect with your spouse? Whether you think of them that way or not, your entire life is made up of a series of processes.
When we look towards the future, however, often we do so through the lens of goals, not processes. We ask ourselves questions of what we want the future to be before we consider how to get there. But “how to get there” is more fundamental! You can live your life better without setting a time limit on the results, but you can’t reach a goal without changing your day-to-day behavior.
A process-driven life is a life lived by comparing yourself to yourself. By making gradual daily improvements, a process-driven person is forever on the path towards a better life.
Process-driven living means grappling with the hard questions every day, not just when setting New Year’s resolutions.
By shifting the focus towards how we conduct our daily lives now and how we want to conduct them in the future, our forward-thinking becomes more practical. It reflects our daily fulfillment in a way that milestones cannot. In this article, I will share some of the ways this has worked for me.
1. Articulate your values.
Why it’s important:
You set a goal because you have a limited amount of time. You calibrate a process because you have certain personal values.
Does the way you spent your day reflect what you believe in? That’s a hard question to answer, and it’s made more difficult without a clear picture of those beliefs.
Every action you could take right now results from a complicated spectrum of beliefs. You couldn’t even choose a breakfast cereal at the grocery store if you didn’t have a full arsenal of emotions to guide your decision-making. When calibrating the various processes in your life, you take a critical approach to comparing how you spend your time and energy today to how you truly believe you should be spending your time and energy.
Although values should include big-picture philosophies like “nonviolence” and “humility,” they can also be things that seem trivial or silly, like “an organized workspace,” “watching funny TV shows,” or “experiencing interesting physical textures.” If something brings you joy, it is valuable, and so it should help inform your processes.
How to implement it in your life:
Learning about and clarifying your values is about mindfulness, so journaling is very helpful. If you don’t know where to start, you can approach the value-discovery process like a scientist studying your own mind. Ask yourself questions about what you enjoy, what you dislike, what you take pride in, and what qualities you admire or dislike in other people. By observing your emotional reactions to various situations, you can build a picture of your values that can then be written down, edited, and referenced.
Once you have some values written down, now you have a yardstick for evaluating your current process. Compare how you spend your time and energy during each day to how you prioritize your values.
Just remember that processes are a spectrum, not a binary, so falling short of these ideals is expected! One of the key words is “calibration” — processes are designed by taking incremental steps towards an ideal, like a control loop for your life.
2. Track meaningful data over time.
Why it’s important:
While articulating your values helps you understand where you are going, tracking data helps you understand where you are now. Whether you are calibrating them on purpose or not, you use processes all day, every day. Understanding these processes is key to improving them.
There are two categories of data that are important for calibrating processes: inputs and outputs. Inputs are data about the processes themselves, like which habits you performed in a day or how much time you spent in certain activities. Outputs are the snapshots of how well your values are being reflected, from your mood to the amount of money in your bank account to how honest you were in a difficult situation.
In the relationship between inputs and outputs, the real magic happens. Understanding where you have been and where you are now is essential to improving your life for tomorrow.
How to implement it:
Once again, journaling is a tried-and-true method for tracking how you spend your time! In your entries, try referencing the values you wrote down for strategy 1 — have you been more kind to your coworkers today? Why is that and how could you be even kinder tomorrow?
A lot can be learned from the quantified self movement on this subject. Personally, I pay for a subscription to Exist, a data aggregation service that identifies correlations across various data collection apps. By spending time with this wealth of information, I am forced to take a more objective look at my life.
When you do make successful process changes, this will also be reflected in the data you collect. If sleeping more improves how you rate your mood, the record of this correlation can create a positive feedback loop, pushing you onwards and upwards.
3. Listen to yourself.
Why it’s important:
Modern life is nothing short of a flood of incoming information. It’s been normal for a long time to receive expectations from family, friends, and society. Yet never before have we been so overwhelmed with opinions, requests, marketing, entertainment and plain old random noise.
It’s easy to succumb to this phenomenon and measure yourself against external expectations, and almost everyone does so to one extent or another.
We can all make better choices and lead more fulfilling lives if we pay more attention to the internal and less to the external. Achieving goals at the expense of physical and mental health is not a choice to be taken lightly, so it is important to understand the daily manifestations of health.
One of the most important data points for my own life is one that I don’t record, because I am paying attention to it every day anyway. My mental clarity is something I pay attention to every day. Because I value my mental clarity so much, I have learned to recognize brain fog very quickly. When I observe this negative data point (especially if it occurs multiple days in a row), there are several factors I can adjust, including sleep duration and alcohol consumption. Mental clarity is at the intersection between a high-priority value and a reliable source of data, so the process with which I approach my daily life cultivates mental clarity. I almost never experience brain fog these days!
How to implement it:
Your body and your mind are incredibly sensitive measurement devices offering you constant feedback on how you should live your life. However, it’s easy to ignore this data in favor of the external. Next time you experience a negative emotion or physical discomfort, stop what you are doing and try to identify what you did to cause it. If the cause seems external, ask why you reacted how you did.
Certain responsibilities mean we must temporarily ignore what we are feeling, but many times we can adjust our schedules to align with our current mental and physical states. Are you feeling strong and energetic? Try heading to the gym this morning instead of later in the afternoon.
In addition, a meditation practice can help attune you to what is going on in your body and mind. Although many choose to meditate for spiritual reasons, it also trains your brain to pay attention to internal information, rather than external. After meditating daily for a period of several weeks, you will be better equipped to notice your current state and, therefore, to work towards improving it.
4. Don’t [just] set a goal, schedule a time.
Why It’s Important:
Habits are one of the backbones of a process-driven life. Habits are a very effective kind of process because they create consistency in areas that you want to prioritize. If you set a goal to study 15 hours for an important test, the goal is reached whether you started 2 weeks before the deadline or the day before. Yet studying an hour a day for two weeks is not only healthier, but ultimately results in better memory retention over time.
Daily practice is how humans work. We learn best when sleeping off our day’s experiences.
In addition, habits can often transcend mood and energy levels, allowing you to make progress when it would be otherwise unlikely. If listening to your body sounds too similar to the advice of a professional couch potato, habits can be the difference between a process-driven life and a hedonism-driven life.
How to Implement it:
If you haven’t read it, I would highly recommend Charles Duhigg’s book, the Power of Habit. It has a very detailed, practical guide for creating habits. The science of habit forming is fairly well understood, although there are many factors that can make it easier or harder in certain situations.
For me, this often starts with something as simple as setting an alarm on my phone as a reminder of the commitment I made to myself.
Scheduling time is where your most important values will shine through. If you value your artistic creativity, start working today towards a daily art creation habit. When your habitual daily commitments reflect your most important values, you will wake up one year from now or five years from now more successful, happy, and fulfilled than you are today.
5. Return to your themes.
Why it’s important:
One of the most stressful parts of living a process driven life is that certain parts of your identity can feel missing for days, weeks, and months at a time because they do not seem as valuable to you as they once did. Unless your whole day is a continuous series of habits, you will spend time each day on what inspires you. And what inspires you will change.
You are better off doing inspiring things every day. You’ll be more productive at inspiring things and you’ll feel happier while doing them. But you’ll also sometimes become burned out or off your game, and you should listen to that too.
If you rely on goals, it could mean continuing to slog through the same effort, despite losses in both enjoyment and productivity. A process-driven approach allows you to take a break and focus on something else fulfilling, prioritizing the how of your life over the what.
Returning to the common threads of your interests creates long-term progress despite short-term fluctuations.
How to implement it:
Returning to your themes is like a pattern recognition game. How do the current opportunities available to you intersect with skills and interests you have cultivated in the past?
Applying old skills in new areas sounds suspiciously like the process of innovation. Often these unexpected manifestations of old interests are more valuable than traditional specialization.
Rather than mourning the fact that you no longer care to read novels every day, try looking for the ways this hobby could evolve in the future. Maybe instead of novels, you find an app that lets you read scientific papers on the fly. Or maybe you take on a writing-heavy role at work because your skills were bolstered by the time you spent reading.
In this article, I described five strategies I use to live a process-driven life.
- Articulate your values to measure your daily progress against what really matters.
- Track meaningful data over time to understand how your processes are working for you.
- Listen to yourself to ensure your actions support your physical and mental health.
- Schedule a time to invest daily in your most important values.
- Return to your themes to craft long-term benefit out of short-term interests.
Process-driven living is all about understanding the content of your current life and being realistic about how to improve it. For me, this paradigm means more focus, happiness and fulfillment. I enjoy what I do every day. I believe in what I do every day.
What strategies do you use to live a process-driven life?