In 1979, the San Francisco 49ers were the worst team in the NFL. In 1981, they won the Super Bowl and became the only team in NFL history to go from bottom to top in two seasons.
This was an astonishing achievement. But what is even more astonishing is the way it was achieved: By not focussing on results.
In his book, the aptly titled, The Score Takes Care of Itself, 49ers General Manager, Bill Walsh, says, “coaches, and staff heard little talk from me about winning anything, and certainly not by some arbitrary date.”
He goes on, “I had no grandiose plan or timetable for winning a championship, but rather a comprehensive standard and plan for installing a level of proficiency—competency—at which our production level would become higher in all areas, both on and off the field, than that of our opponents. Beyond that, I had faith that the score would take care of itself.”
Walsh new that by directing the attention of every player and every member of staff to mastering a system of actions and attitudes – his ‘Standard of Performance’ – nobody needed to think or worry about winning. It would just happen in its own time. And it did.
Why? Because it shifted focus from something out of their control (the result) to something within their control (their behaviours). It redefined success as consistent execution of the system. It took the pressure off and allowed them to embed the habits that would ultimately take them to glory, without aiming at glory.
This principle was perhaps best articulated, more than 2,500 years ago, by the Greek poet Archilochus: “We don’t rise to the level of our expectations; we fall to the level of our training”. And it is just as applicable to your health and wellbeing as it is to business and sporting endeavours.
The conventional method for getting healthier and fitter is to set an arbitrary goal (e.g., 10 kg weight loss) to be achieved in an arbitrary timeframe (e.g., six months), get motivated to make big changes, and then track the results.
I’ve talked before about the limiting effect of goal setting – goals may be necessary but are nowhere near sufficient. But our obsession with results is equally as detrimental. ‘Results focus’ is typically seen as a positive (indeed a necessity in certain fields) – an indication that you are a winner. However, the most successful leaders – like Bill Walsh – don’t buy this. And neither should you.
Feeling successful is the single most important skill in behaviour change. But focusing on results makes applying this skill very difficult. And that’s because results don’t show up in a predictable way.
For example, two people who adopt the same healthy diet and exercise protocol will respond in different ways at different times. So, it makes no sense to tie success to an arbitrary result at an arbitrary time point. It’s a recipe for feeling unsuccessful and reverting to old habits, despite making great progress. That efforts to improve diet and lifestyle are almost always short-lived will probably not come as a surprise to you, and it is supported by a large quantity of evidence.
The solution is to take your attention away from goals and direct it towards designing and executing a system of behaviours that will move you in the direction you want to go. Showing up and doing the work is what matters – the trajectory, not the end result. And success is then defined as every step in the right direction, no matter how small. Get that right, and the results will take care of themselves.