A Subtle Mental Shift Is Kind of Rocking My World Right Now

I’m a man who love(d) a good goal.

Goals are supposed to provide clarity and potentially motivation (if it’s a particularly well-crafted goal) on a quest of personal development. I know all about how good goals are supposed to be set and I can break down an audacious goal into bite-sized chunks with the best of them. Unfortunately, this torrid love affair with goals has remained largely unrequited. Goals just don’t love me as much as I love them.

My eyes have been wandering and I think I may have found my next personal development amour and this time it feels a little bit different…

A Practice-Based Approach to Personal Development

A practice is more than just a goal. It’s a mindset and lens on life that permeates everything you do and think. You don’t ever achieve a final end state in a practice. There’s no final goal, ultimate boss, or checkbox to tick when you’ve finished. It’s a commitment to taking constant yet small action that helps you develop skill. It’s a way of life. It’s just how you think and act.

My goals were always designed around aspirations like “being in good shape” or accomplishing some sort of impressive extracurricular activity like “write a book” or “start a company.” They were my best shot at articulating the end state that I thought would bring me happiness and/or meaning. I’ve finally realized, though, that trying to set goals kind of flies in the face of a lot of what I believe about the difficulty and impracticality of predicting the future in a complex world. Who am I to know what specifically might be the best thing for me to pursue?

Therefore, I’ve been experimenting with having a small handful of “practices” that I’m always thinking about and trying to challenge and push myself in at all times. They aren’t goals and they are very broad. They come out of the self-knowledge I’ve gained over the past 30 years about when, where, and how I feel like I’m at my best. As of this writing, they are:

  • Mindfulness

  • Strength

  • Cooking

  • Journaling/Writing

  • Minimalism/Essentialism

  • Deep Work

My hypothesis is that developing skills in these areas (which obviously aren’t mutually exclusive) will serve me much more than any set of discrete goals ever could. Each of these practices can be developed with deliberate effort and consist of actual skills that can be practiced and refined.

I’m still working on the supporting mechanisms that will help me bring these to life, but so far I’ve landed on a couple that have worked well.

1. Weekly Freewriting & Reflection

First, I’ve set aside some time every weekend to just do some free writing about how the previous week went in each of my practices. What did I do to become more skilled in this area? What didn’t I do? What should I consider doing next week? Taking some time to just reflect and set some basic intentions helps me stay on the proper track.

2. Tracking Meaningful Metrics

Another thing I’m still in the process of doing is figuring out which metrics actually help me see development in each practice. The obvious one is simply the number of sessions in which I deliberately engage in the practice (number of strength workouts, number of meals cooked at home or new recipes tried, number of meditation sessions, etc.) but I think there may be a few others that are worth tracking. I already have a pretty robust weekly metrics habit where I regularly track a few numbers that matter to me so this is simply a matter of updating those metrics to make sure they directly support my practices.

3. Capturing Potential Next Actions (in a Low Key Way)

Finally, I created a folder for each practice within OmniFocus where I capture discrete next actions I could partake in to help me further develop my practices. These ideas often fall out of the freewriting exercise I shared above. I often start the freewriting exercise by quickly reviewing and checking off the actions I know I took in the previous week. For example, right now in my Cooking Practice I have the actions, “sharpen my knife,” “find a recipe to cook this week,” and “read another section in The Food Lab.” In my Strength Practice I have “bail on a squat” (so I can get over my fear of failing a rep and learn how to do it in a safe way) and “finish reading chapter 3 of Starting Strength.” I treat these next actions lightly and none of them have a due date. They’re just placeholders to help me figure out what to do when I decide I want to do a session in any of my Practices.

I’ve only been doing this for a couple weeks but the difference in my mindset has been incredible. Thinking about the ways I want to be better as never ending practices instead of finite goals has somehow completely shifted what it means to get better at something. My actions are no longer a means to an end but an end within themselves. Maybe it’s possible to make that mental shape without all the rigamarole I described above but for whatever reason this is really working for me.

Expect more on this topic as I continue tweaking the basic approach and getting deeper into the practices themselves.

This article is part of my daily challenge to write and publish something in about 30 minutes. Please excuse the length — if I had more time I would’ve written something shorter. I like feedback in the comments below or Twitter (@samspurlin).