Focus on Process Over Goals

by | Jan 12, 2016 | Asset Management, Investor Behavior

Let me preface this post by saying that if you’re not in Patrick O’Shaughnessy’s book club, you’re missing out on some great recommendations from an incredibly smart person. One book Patrick recommended this month, that I will absolutely be reading sometime soon, is How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life by Scott Adams. Patrick shared an interesting passage from the book that really resonated with me. Adams has an interesting perspective on goals that I’m not sure I’ve heard before:

“To put it bluntly, goals are for losers. That’s literally true most of the time. For example, if your goal is to lose ten pounds, you will spend every moment until you reach the goal—if you reach it at all—feeling as if you were short of your goal. In other words, goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary. That feeling wears on you. In time, it becomes heavy and uncomfortable. It might even drive you out of the game… If you achieve your goal, you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize you just lost the thing that gave you purpose and direction. Your options are to feel empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of your success until they bore you, or set new goals and reenter the cycle of permanent presuccess failure.”

Harsh words about something that our society tends to view as a positive. Having goals is usually equated with being a driven and hard-working individual. I don’t totally disagree, and while goals can be a form of motivation, I think I agree with Adams too. Goals mean well, but have definitely caused me to needlessly beat myself up before.

For example, in the last few years I’ve gotten really into practicing yoga and meditation. Both the physical practice of yoga and the mental practice of meditation are areas I went into with specific goals. Anybody who has done either is likely chuckling to themselves right now. I wasn’t unlike many others who have begun these practices, I wanted to do complicated inverted poses and become a calm, collected master of my own mind. The problem is that if I kept my initial goals and used them as a measure of success, I’d consider myself a failure today. That would be pretty frustrating, and I likely would’ve given up ages ago.

Thankfully, along the way I’ve changed my mindset and found that the process seems to take care of itself. It hasn’t been about achieving the goals I had at the onset of my journey, and it hasn’t been about aimlessly being content with everything either. Like many things in life, the answer so far has been somewhere in between. Having a disciplined process, like practicing yoga multiple times a week and setting aside a few minutes in the morning to meditate, has brought me a long way. It’s been pretty cool to recognize the positive changes these practices have brought me, and I’m very happy with where I’m at. Although I’m still working on inversions and haven’t quite mastered the mind yet, I don’t struggle with feelings of ineptitude due to not reaching a predetermined goal. Most importantly, I have the framework in place to guide both of these practices further, and I believe the processes will bring me where ever I need to be.

This isn’t so different from investing. We often talk about focusing on what we can control. One great way to do this is by creating simple and repeatable systems that will keep us heading in the right direction. It doesn’t have to be complicated, in fact, it shouldn’t be. Whether we’re talking about systematically implemented investment strategies or systematic contributions to an account, the consensus seems to be that consistently doing the right things will get you where you need to be. If your goal is to beat the market every year, you’re likely to be disappointed. However, if you strive to reduce unforced errors by automating good decisions, I have confidence that you’ll do well over time and be happier doing it.