Two Ways to Think about Self-Improvement

Photo by Kevin Miller

Photo by Kevin Miller

A few months ago I realized I don’t like setting goals. However, I admire people who work this way. “I’m preparing for a triathlon next summer.” For some people, a triathlon next summer is the best way to run on the treadmill today.

If you like to set goals, you are outcome-focused. The outcomes are explicit; the actions are implicit.

The alternative (and my preference) is to focus directly on daily, weekly, and monthly actions and habits. “Read a good book every day.” “Visit the gym three times per week.”

If you like to focus on habits and routines, you are action-focused. The actions are explicit; the outcomes are implicit.

But without a goal, how do you know your gym time will make you ready for a triathlon? I don’t know. But that approach doesn’t work for me. Incidentally, I don’t signup for triathlons. (But it sounds like a fun mindset if you have it.)

Outcome focus is top-down. This is Stephen Covey’s approach in Seven Habits where he describes “beginning with the end in mind”.

Once you have that sense of mission, you have the essence of your own proactivity. You have the vision and the values which direct your life. You have the basic direction from which you set your long- and short-term goals. You have the power of a written constitution based on correct principles, against which every decision concerning the most effective use of your time, your talents, and your energies can be effectively measured. (pp. 108-109)

Action focus is bottom-up. This is David Allen’s approach in Getting Things Done:

I have discovered over the years the practical value of working on personal productivity improvement from the bottom up, starting with the most mundane, ground-floor level of current activity and commitments. Intellectually, the most appropriate way ought to be to work from the top down…. The trouble is, however, that most people are so embroiled in commitments on a day-to-day level that their ability to focus successfully on the larger horizon is seriously impaired. Consequently, a bottom-up approach is usually more effective. (pp. 19-20)

By the way, does the action focus cause more discouragement? What if I want to read a good book everyday, but I didn’t read yesterday? I prefer to think of goals, of any type, as prospective not retrospective. Goals drive your future behavior. They’re not a stick to beat yourself with.

Both approaches lead to what you are becoming. “I want to be an avid reader.” “I want to be a patient person.” No matter what approach you take, it seems important to focus on what you are becoming.

Thanks to Kevin Miller, James Miller, and Brian Henderson for conversations that led to this post.