This evening the Olympics kick off in Rio. The games are sure to offer not only incredibly feats of physical prowess, but also tons of heartwarming tales of hard-working athletes overcoming incredible obstacles to reach their big goal of competing on the world stage.

After you've wiped away a discreet tear or two, these stories may just be enough to convince you to recommit to your own audacious goals. If these awe-inspiring fighters can keep their eye on the prize and achieve their long-shot dreams, surely you can accomplish a whole lot more if you just focus on your own big, hairy goals.

But while that's a natural enough takeaway, it's not actually the lesson you should learn from the impressive athletes swarming into Rio, according to  a thought-provoking post from New York Magazine's Science of Us blog. Olympians don't think constantly about their moment of eventual triumph, insists writer Brad Stulberg, and neither should you.

Focus on the process, not the goal.

"You wouldn't know it from browsing the self-help aisle of your local bookstore, but scientists are beginning to question whether focusing too much on goals runs counter to long-term performance and general well-being," Stulberg reports in the in-depth post, using the experiences of U.S. runner Brenda Martinez, who was accidentally tripped and fell during the Olympic trials, to illustrate the latest scientific thinking.

Not only can an excessive focus on goals lead to cheating (in life and in sports, apparently), but truly gargantuan goals can actually overwhelm and de-motivate us. Finally, even if you achieve your big goals, if you were extremely focused on that end result, actually reaching your goal might leave you feeling empty, or even depressed. And if you should fall short for reasons beyond your control, your self-esteem is likely to suffer an extremely painful blow.

Stulberg lays out a ton of scientific research to support these reservations about goal-setting  before suggesting a better way.

This isn't to say that you should completely disregard goals. Goal setting can serve  as an effective steering mechanism, a north star to shoot for. But after you set a goal, it's best to shift your focus from the goal itself to the process that gives you the best chance of achieving it; and to judge yourself based on how well you execute that process....

For Martinez, this meant not worrying about her bad luck in the 800m, but rather ensuring she got in the right nutrition, bodywork, sleep, and workouts to give herself the best chance of running a good race in the 1500m. Again: She wasn't focused on making the Olympics. She was focused on the process of making the Olympics.

This approach -- de-emphasize the goal and focus on the process -- "can be applied to any goal -- from qualifying for the Olympics, to earning a promotion in the workplace, to improving a relationship," insists Stulberg. In short, he concludes, the best way to reach your biggest goals while maintaining your happiness and energy before and after may be to forget about them.

Do you find big goals motivating or overwhelming?

Published on: Aug 5, 2016
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