You’re starting a project or a new exercise plan, and it’s in shaky, new territory for you. You feel doubt about whether you can do it, and so you’re tensely doing everything you can to make sure it will turn out the way you hope.
The stress, fear, doubt, and tension you feel likely come from an attachment to how things will turn out. For example, we want to lose weight and get fit through exercise, or be brilliant at our new project and have everyone think we’re wonderful.
But perhaps we could acknowledge these truths:
The outcome isn’t always fully in our control. Sometimes other people get in the way or unintentionally sabotage a project. Sometimes things happen that we didn’t expect. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, things just turn out differently than we pictured in our heads. The weather might turn, or we might come down with the flu. We might even get injured, or something may throw our schedule off.
There are multiple outcomes that will be OK, if not great. For example, maybe we won’t get six-pack abs even if we do our best with an exercise plan, or maybe we won’t finish the marathon we’ve been training for.
But maybe we’ll get healthier despite not meeting the goal. Maybe we’ll enjoy the exercise, or meet other people trying to get healthier. Maybe it won’t turn out as well as we had hoped, but we can still enjoy the process.
The outcome we hope for isn’t the only one we can appreciate. In fact, if we are broadminded, we may see that the actual outcome could be even better.
Focusing on the outcome is detrimental. It causes us to stress out, to enjoy the process less, and sometimes to not even start something because we don’t think we have a chance of getting the desired outcome.
For example, we may walk away from writing that novel before we even start, because we doubt it will be good. But how do you ever get good at writing a novel if you never attempt it?
Focusing on the outcome can lead to disappointment if it ends up not being what we wanted. We may also be disappointed in ourselves when we don’t live up to our own expectations, or be disappointed in others for the same reason.
What if the outcome does matter, like, say, you are supposed to hit objective X for your work? Well, you should do the actions that are most likely going to get you that outcome. Plan out the steps, then execute them. But as you’re doing each of the steps, you don’t have to be attached to the outcome.
Letting go of our attachment to the outcome is freeing. It helps us be more present with the doing, the being, the act itself, rather than what might come in the future. It can help us have better relationships, because we’re more focused on the people than on the goal. It can help us have a better relationship with ourselves, as we focus on our own well-being and contentment, rather than some external source of possible happiness. Spoiler: Happiness doesn’t come from external things.
What can you focus on instead of the outcome?
The intention. I’ve found my intention in doing a task to be much more important. it’s what I hope to bring to the task rather than what I hope to get out of it. It’s how I want to show up right now, rather than how I want things to be in the future.
For example, I intend to be helpful and loving as I write this; I intend to be mindful and appreciative of nature as I go out for a walk or run; and I intend to be fully present, compassionate, and open-hearted with whoever I’m talking to. I bring this intention and try to let it inform how I move through the world.
The effort. Instead of worrying about how things will turn out, pay attention instead to how focused you are on it, how much effort you’re putting into it, and how mindful you are as you do it. How much of your heart are you putting into it? How much love and care are you giving to it?
The process. The outcome is a result of the process—if you’re not getting the outcome you want, focus on improving the process. How much care are you taking as you do it? How can you step up your game? Pay attention to how you’re doing things.
The moment. What is beautiful about this particular moment as you do the action? What do you notice? Can you be curious as you do the act, instead of having a fixed mindset? What is there to appreciate about yourself, about the other person, about everything around you, right now?
The relationships. Much more important than the outcome is the relationship you have with the person you’re serving or working with.
When you’re focused on the outcome, you often disregard the feelings of the people you’re working with, snapping at them when they’re not doing things the way you’d like. Instead, you can focus on your connection with them, on finding ways to make them enjoy the process more, and on being warm or compassionate.
Think about how this might change things for you. If you’re working on a shaky new project, you can focus on what is beautiful about the moment, having fun with the effort, playing and being curious, and being more loving to yourself and others. This transforms every act, every habit, every project, and every moment with others.
Do every act out of devotion and love, letting go of any attachment to the outcome.
Leo Babauta is the author of six books, the writer of Zen Habits, a blog with more than 2 million subscribers, and the creator of several online programs to help you master your habits. Visit ZenHabits.net