I don’t focus on outcomes. It’s, “what do I need to do to execute the next shot?”Mark Nichols, Canadian Curling Champion and Olympic medalist, from an interview during semi-final game of the 2022 Canadian Men’s World Curling Championship.
This was not about pretending he didn’t care about winning. Mark Nichols cares deeply. It is his strategy. Putting process before outcomes, the next shot before winning the game, is a key and consistent differentiator between individuals who perform well under pressure and those who don’t.
He and his team, skipped by fellow Newfoundlander Brad Gushue, are four-time Canadian Curling Champions, World Champions and Olympic Gold and Bronze Medalists.
When the interviewer asked him what he needed to do to win, he didn’t hesitate. “I don’t focus on outcomes.”
This strategy applies to more than elite curling. You can enhance your performance in almost any field of endeavor with this simple shift in focus.
We are trained to focus on outcomes from very early in our lives – from the grades we get in school, to the university entrances we pursue, to the jobs and salaries we secure. In fact, our perceived value and sometimes our jobs can become attached to the results we achieve.
Trying to control outcomes in your life can sometimes block you from achieving the results you want.
The reason? Outcomes are not controllable.
You can control the process; you can’t control the outcome.
For most of my adult life, I was between 30 and 35 pounds above “my ideal body weight”. I am 5′ 2″, with a small frame so the extra weight didn’t feel good. Every year, I set a weight goal. “Lose 30 pounds!” Despite a compulsive focus on losing weight – diets, exercise programs, weekly ‘weigh-ins’ – at the end of each year, that 30 pounds was still there. It was frustrating and worse, it affected how I felt about myself.
A little over six years ago, my body started to revolt. I began reacting to almost everything I ate. I was in constant pain. I felt nauseous and bloated most of the time. Sometimes, I would break into hives, or my eyes would swell up. Despite months of investigation with a range of specialists, nobody could figure out what was wrong.
So, I stopped the futile search for answers and decided to focus on what I could control.
I started to pay close attention to the signals my body was giving me – the things that made me feel worse; the things that made me feel better. I ate simpler meals so I could learn which foods created the worst reactions. I stopped eating those. Because big meals upset my stomach, I ate smaller portions. On the advice of one of my health care providers, I tried intermittent fasting – eating only between the hours of 11 a.m. and 7 p.m.
Slowly the symptoms subsided. My energy improved. I started sleeping better. I went for daily walks and then added some gentle yoga. These things made me feel better, so I kept doing them. They became habits. They were all small changes implemented slowly over several months as I gathered ongoing feedback from my body.
A year later, the 30 pounds were gone. I had dropped four dress sizes. I still can’t tell you why I finally lost the 30 pounds. Was it the food choices I made; was it the mystery illness itself; was it the intermittent fasting or all of the above? I don’t know and it didn’t matter anymore. What mattered was maintaining the habits and rituals that nourished me every day.
The weight loss was a by-product.
Attention to process teaches you to trust yourself.
A good process is repeatable and reliable. When you keep showing up for the process, you learn you can rely on yourself. You learn to trust yourself. When you repeat the process, you build skill. The more skill you build, the more confident you become, the better you perform.
When you invest in an outcome over which you have no real control, you invite self-doubt, fear, and judgment into the process. Am I going to score that point, is my boss going to like this presentation, will I get the job? As the stakes increase, it gets worse. The voices of anxiety and doubt make you miserable. You procrastinate and resist. The process gets harder.
When you focus on the outcome, you create suffering.
A good process improves with failure.
Nobody likes to fail.
But when you focus on the process, failure becomes a natural part of the process. Failure goes from being something you fear to something you use. It is how you learn about the effectiveness of your process. It becomes a teacher with valuable information. It makes the process better. It makes you better.
When you become attached to an outcome or worse, if you use that as a measure of your worth, then failure becomes a matter of identity. It becomes personal. It can have you overfocus on not making mistakes vs. simply doing your best work. It erodes your confidence and increases your likelihood of failing again.
Sometimes the fear of failure becomes so great that you would rather not take the risk. You procrastinate, you avoid, you quit.
Focusing on process builds resilience and perseverance.
When you focus on the process, you get progress. When you focus on the outcome, you get disappointed.
Burn out is not simply about working long hours without rest, although that is part of it. Burnout comes from futility – working hard and not achieving the results you want. You lose faith. You get frustrated and fatigued. You become cynical.
When you let go of the outcome and focus on the process instead, you begin to focus on and do things that affect change. If the process is not good, because you are attentive to it, you can see opportunities for improvement. It might be challenging but when you can see progress, the challenge becomes stimulating rather than overwhelming.
A focus on process rewards the journey.
When you focus on outcomes you look for guarantees and assurances.
When you build a good process that keeps you working at the edge of your abilities, you improve. Your challenge becomes interesting. The process becomes its own reward. You stay with it, you get better, and you are motivated to do more.
You take calculated risks. You stop seeking empty reassurances and approval from others. You trust the process, even when the outcome is not clear.
In his book, The Practice, Seth Godin suggests you ask yourself this question, “If I fail, would it have been worth the journey?”
If the answer is yes, you are on a path with its own reward.
A good process does not guarantee a good outcome.
Mark Nichols and the Brad Gushue team went on the win the semi-final over the U.S. team 8 to 6. Then the next day, they lost the final to Sweden.
Even when you focus on all the right things. Even when your process is good. Even when you do everything to set yourself up to succeed. You don’t always achieve the outcome you are after.
And that’s the point.
You are never guaranteed a good outcome. But a good process can put you in position to succeed more often. More important, it can have you embrace and enjoy the ride while you do it.
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