Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
22 Mar

Detaching Yourself from the Outcome

When you’re facing 26.2 miles of hard open road with nothing but a pair of Nikes and your own determination to see you through, you get a little attached to the outcome. In fact, the outcome – the finish line, the win, the PR – sustains you. It drives you. Without the promise of relief it holds, you wouldn’t be here, doing this, running this ridiculous number of consecutive miles. You certainly aren’t going to be savoring each and every step. You won’t be basking in the glory of the toil and immense physical effort as they transpire. You will be anything but present, in the moment; you will be attempting, with all of your mental faculties, to transport yourself to the finish line so that you can finally end the misery of the moment.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Really makes you wanna become an elite world-class marathoner, right? That’s what I lived for twenty some-odd years of my life as a runner and, later, triathlete: an obsessive fixation on the outcome of whatever grueling bout of endurance I was currently performing complemented by a feverish attempt to ignore what was happening as it happened. If I could have popped a handful of Xanax and conked out for the journey like an air traveler with flight anxiety only to wake up just as my foot crossed the finish line, believe me, I would have.

Naturally, then, getting away from that mindset, especially as it pertained to fitness, was a huge inspiration for me as I developed the Primal Blueprint. Intuitively, it didn’t seem right that humans would willingly submit their bodies to this kind of physical and mental torture. It didn’t make sense. When I asked myself just what the hell was I doing, why I was putting myself through it, I honestly didn’t have a valid answer. I tried to justify it. Believe me, I tried.

“Winning is worth it.”

“Beating the other guys.”

“Setting a PR.”

“Making the Olympics.”

And the best of all: “There’s nothing quite like the feeling of relief right after a race.”

Notice anything? Each and every one of my justifications for continuing to race revolved around the finish line, a hard goal, a destination, a single moment off in the distance. The journey was never even considered. In fact, it was actively ignored and forgotten by design.

It wasn’t always that way. I started out as a kid in rural Maine running for fun with my buddies. I’d run to school. I’d run through the woods. I’d play army games in the forest for days at a time that ranged over miles in every direction. We would run hard, and when we got tired, we would stop until we weren’t. No expectations, no starting blocks, no rules, no winners – this was pure play. Then I got to high school, joined the track team, found that my way of playing translated pretty well to endurance events. I discovered that winning races felt pretty good, and I was pretty good at winning them. What had once been the greatest source of play for me – running – was now a means to an end – winning the race, scoring the points, beating the other guy, making the cut. That I actually enjoy my physical pursuits was immaterial, because I was basically addicted to the winning and the numbers and the records.

Our lives are defined by moments in time, small bits of experience and emotion and sensory input that are fleeting and insubstantial when taken and perceived alone. What I was doing was focusing on just one of those tiny bits of time-space to the exclusion of everything else that led up to it. Winning feels good, for a second. You might even get a trophy or a write up in the paper, but eventually you stop looking at it, and even if you do it’s just a memory of a moment and a feeling – not the moment or the feeling itself. All you can do, then, is create more moments and be present for them. By detaching yourself from the outcome – whether by ignoring it completely, or by not letting it define your self-worth or the worth of the activity – you are free to acknowledge, experience, and enjoy the full spectrum of spacial/temporal/sensory moments that life can offer. In sheer economic terms, you’re getting more (enjoyment, satisfaction, experience) for your money when you detach yourself from the outcome.

If you’ve ever wondered about my focus on play, playing is the best way to teach yourself to enjoy the moment and detach yourself from the outcome, for by its clinical, scientific, objective definition:

Play is purposeless. There is no goal in mind, no destination. There is only the experience of the moment. Otters don’t play to improve their chance at surviving predators or procuring food (in fact, their playing might actually have survival costs in the short-term); children don’t climb jungle gyms and hang upside down from monkey bars to improve their grip and get sweet abs. They do these things because they’re fun. Any tangible benefits are extra.

Play is all-consuming. Real, honest (not half-hearted) play demands your full attention. You’re not thinking about work or bills or what you’re gonna make for dinner that night. You’re fully immersed in the moment. Your only concern lies in getting that ball in that hoop, or getting around your defender, or reading the defense, or figuring out how to get the other guy’s rook without leaving your bishop open to attack. And quickly – just like that! – the situation changes, and your focus along with it. But it always remains honed in on the present moment.

Beyond it being, well, fun, there are practical reasons for incorporating play into your fitness.

You’ll be more active. Humans are ultimately hedonists, and a hedonist is more likely to do a thing that feels good. If exercise is fun and “feels good,” if the “journey” itself compels you, you’re going to end up fitter and more active.

Your training will be more effective. By focusing on the moment – on what your body is actually doing – you will enjoy more powerful and precise neuromuscular engagement. Quite literally, thinking specifically about the movements you’re performing will make those movements more focused, powerful, and effective.

You will reduce injury. I attribute some of my running injuries not just to the sheer volume of my training (overuse), but also to the loss of technique and form that occurs when you try to ignore the act of running. I would focus only on the finish line while trying to block out what my body was undergoing, and in doing so, the quality of my running would suffer.

Now, I don’t want to discount the place of goal-setting. Goals can be helpful for some, and necessary in many situations. I’m not against planning, or thinking ahead, or competing to win. But I caution against allowing your goals to define and control you. And this should go without saying, but don’t do something that makes you avoid the moment. Ultimately, wedding yourself to the goal sets you up for what feels like an EPIC FAIL and crushing disappointment when it isn’t reached while precluding you from enjoying life – enjoying those little seemingly inconsequential moments that lead up to the finish line. And this says nothing of the fact that strict goal setting can keep you from enjoying the end result, however good, if it isn’t exactly what you expected it to be. That is, it can keep you from seeing all the other possibilities that result from the the process you commited to, or the principles you let guide your day-to-day decisions.

Listen, you’re not going to control the outcome by honing in on it to the exclusion of everything else. On the other hand, when you focus on the present (when you think about what your body is doing and what you’re lifting and where you’re landing and how this muscle feels when it’s engaged and the power of the current and the temperature of the water and the blazing sun overhead – all of it!), you’ll likely end up smashing the competition and reaching your destination anyway – without having missed the awesome journey.

Are you able to detach yourself from the outcome? If so, how has it affected your life and your training? If not, do you think you should? I hope you all got something from this post. I don’t expect (or even want) you to quit your jobs and take up full-time hacky sack while dealing patchouli oil on the side, but I do hope that you’ll be able to divorce the outcome (no prenup required) from time to time and learn to be here now.

At least some of the time.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Nikes?!!?!?!?!?!!?!?!?

    Marteen wrote on March 22nd, 2012
  2. Great post! It seems like the journey is often forgotten when reaching the finish line and once you’ve reached it the satisfaction is gone in an instant. I agree with finding something fun for exercise(play). I fell in love with cycling and couldn’t imagine ever giving it up. The fitness and good health are just a bonus to spinning the cranks.

    Tony wrote on March 22nd, 2012
    • I’m totally in love with cycling too. Especially when I decide to take a road “just for fun” to see where it goes.

      Happycyclegirl wrote on March 23rd, 2012
  3. Relentless pursuit of goals leads to burnout and injury and I have to be constantly watching out for that as it is my tendency – currently nursing a broken foot and no exercise below the knee for three months! Those of us who are A-types have to be really careful about this.

    Alison Golden wrote on March 22nd, 2012
    • Sorry to hear about your foot, Alison :(
      How are you exercising? Swimming?

      I’ve got to give it to you, when I broke my arm, I thought that was tough. But breaking a foot is such a challenge in so many different ways.

      Dr. Mike Tremba wrote on March 22nd, 2012
  4. yes.

    Justin wrote on March 22nd, 2012
  5. I think we are all looking for something to define us. It’s like the new book I heard Mark is writing. Even when I’m on a decent course life feels hollow to me. Oh damn. Am I in the Matrix again?

    Grokitmus Primal wrote on March 22nd, 2012
  6. Mark,

    I usually have the “all-in” approach to every goal I set for myself (this could be why I’m not always the best poker player), so I understand where you’re coming from.

    I’m lucky my wife reigns me in when I get caught up in over-obsessing on my goals. I know not everyone has that person to rely on to snap them out of their tunnel-vision, sp your post is a great reminder on how to live not just for the end results, but for everything else.

    Mitchell wrote on March 22nd, 2012
  7. Interesting progression of posts from yesterday to today. Detaching yourself from the outcome is the answer to dealing with most hard things in life I think, not just sports. And progressing from there … if you’re going to concentrate on the journey and not the outcome, it just makes sense to be doing something you love whenever possible.

    Joanna wrote on March 22nd, 2012

  8. And this says nothing of the fact that strict goal setting can keep you from enjoying the end result, however good, if it isn’t exactly what you expected it to be.”

    soooo true!! My very first half marathon was a miserable experience because I had this goal in mind that in theory was achievable, but in reality difficult given I was injured. I failed to enjoy my time with my best friend, whom I’d just met after being friends for years, and enjoying my time with Disney Princesses and Princes. I let my enjoyment of completing my first half marathon be overshadowed by the fact that I had a time I was not pleased with.

    Thank you for this post, Mark.

    Jenn wrote on March 22nd, 2012
  9. Oh, how true, Mark.

    For such a long time, I was so engrossed in my work that I wasn’t exercising or enjoying social activities as much as I should have; I justified it by saying “once I accomplish XXXXXXX, I’ll get back to enjoying the things I love”.

    Partially through your blog, I was reminded of how faulty that mindset is.
    The balance between accomplishing goals and enjoying the present is such a fine line, and I think it’s so important to do both. Thanks for the post.

    Dr. Mike Tremba wrote on March 22nd, 2012
  10. Right on! In my 30’s I stopped all the “point A to point B” exercises and started playing tennis again…but the competition could dampen the fun sometimes. Only thing I’d take issue with (nit-picking, sorry) is “Play Is Purposeless” …for me, the fun is a big purpose! I need it in my life, and that’s the difference for me between enjoying a game and not. I struggle with competition still–to enjoy the match when I’m being pushed, but there is also an enjoyment in being fully focused and engaged.

    Tom Bassett-Dilley wrote on March 22nd, 2012
  11. :-) one of your best posts, EVER, Mark!

    tess wrote on March 22nd, 2012
  12. Trail running demands full focus on the journey, since if you put your foot down on the wrong rock at the wrong angle, you’ll land on your face. There are also moments of pure joy as you sprint down a steep hill, leaping over roots and pushing off trees.

    So even though trail races are competitive, the finish line isn’t the reason for running.

    Tim wrote on March 22nd, 2012
    • Yeah right on Tom, trail running demands you full attention and it is absolutely joyful to jump logs at speed, weave around corners, conquer a small incline and celebrate what our bodies are capable . This is the opposite to running a long cardio race (or training long cardio) which comes down to our Ego and whatever demons we are running from.

      A round of Golf when played well is a lesson in giving up control; in order to score well one must be not focused on the score! It is about being in the moment and playing each shot as well as possible, not getting to emotional about the outcome of each shot, quickly revising the shot and then moving on (for 4.5 hours).
      Maybe that’s why we PLAY golf we don’t “work” at it.

      Anthony wrote on March 22nd, 2012
      • This is so true about trail running. I’ll never forget the first time I ran a mountain trail. The high of merely being in the moment and being so in tune to the environment around you – love it. Thanks, Tim, and thanks, Mark, for writing this post. This is probably the best and most important lesson I’ve ever learned on here.

        Leah wrote on June 8th, 2012
    • I love this post! I ran competitively for years but began to hate it because of the pressure to always get better times and win. It got to the point that the thought of what I was supposed to achieve made the running seem so difficult and painful that I couldn’t even put my running shoes on! Such a shame since most of the moments of pure joy I have felt have happened whilst running: seeing the world, the sea, the sky and feeling my body working in complete harmony. Now whenever I begin to feel that the pressure of a goal is ruining my enjoyment of the process I recreate that feeling of joy and exhilaration, and picture the most perfect run in my mind. This seems to trigger enjoyment of the whole activity, even if it’s tough, and makes me feel that everything is possible again.

      Ruth wrote on March 23rd, 2012
  13. I totally agree with you on all of this!! Play is so important for our physical and mental health. But I take a little offense to your opening. I actually just finished my second marathon and happened to find your site today (although I’d seen it in passing before). I was excited that you mentioned 26.2 miles… but the whole, “You certainly aren’t going to be savoring each and every step… You will be anything but present…” section does not apply to me. I really did savor each and every step of both marathons and, in reality, I use my training schedule as an excuse to get outside and play on a regular basis. :) Having a running goal actually helps me get outside and be in the moment more than I would otherwise.

    Alyssa wrote on March 22nd, 2012
  14. Our goals are our passions. And once we meet those goals they take us to the moments we want to experience. I agree with you that they have the ability to detach us from the moment, but they also give us the power to achieve, and the power to detach us from the moment so we can have something great at the end. There is something uniquely human about how our passions become our goals, and how our goals consume us until we see them to the end.

    Matthew Caton wrote on March 22nd, 2012
  15. I used to run competitively and like many people I knew I was wedded to a specific pre-set training “schedule.” Speed work every Tuesday, no matter what. Long run on Sunday. Minimum 40 miles a week. I stopped the competition with the birth of my kids but I still held that up as what I “should” be doing, and I still ran a lot.

    When my dad died, I stopped running and spent a period just going for long walks. I wasn’t in a hurry and I didn’t have a destination, I just wanted to feel my dad in the wind and sun. I was struck by all the runners who passed me, earbuds in, grimaces on their faces, obviously slogging through their workouts and getting in their daily mileage without much enjoyment. I saw myself in them. I’ve gone back to running, but now I stop and walk if I don’t feel like running, I take off my shoes and run barefoot sometimes, and I run more often – and more slowly – with my best friend. We have amazing conversations about things that matter deeply to us.

    I think of my dad, who would have given anything for a few more years to savor his moments. He would tell me to celebrate my healthy body and enjoy the journey, because it is always too short.

    Gydle wrote on March 22nd, 2012
    • Funny how you talk about your dad, I to think of my dad a lot. I remember him enjoying life, and am grateful for his wisdom. He quickly reminded me at times when I looked at something at groaned about it being work, how he would have loved to be able to do that but no longer could. Makes you rethink your priorities. I am so glad I had those times with him, and whenever I feel bogged down I remember to be grateful that I have the ability to do those things, and I actually enjoy them.

      rdzins wrote on March 22nd, 2012
  16. thanks, mark. i needed that.

    Elaina Gutierrez wrote on March 22nd, 2012
  17. It is so true that this may be one of the absolute hardest things to do in the world. The best golfers I play with are the ones that don’t think “I need to shoot four under to win” but instead think about each hole as they play the round (the journey). In the end it takes care of itself, although that’s so easy to forget…

    Chance Bunger wrote on March 22nd, 2012
    • Yes, this is so true! I never go low when I try to go low. I go low (low for me) when I forget my score until I add it up at the end. In that state, every shot feels like its own universe or its own bubble. My mind is calm. Everything gets processed subconsciously (distance, terrain, wind, club selection). The swing feels effortless, and the ball stops wherever it stops: maybe where I thought it would stop and maybe not. Then the next swing is the same. No worries about future shots. No regrets about past shots. No thoughts about the total score. Just the trees, and the air, and the grass, and the ball, and the swing. My “scoring goal” this season is not to have a scoring goal. I hope instead to be fully present, relaxed, and joyful for each shot. If there are 70 per round, that’s fine; and if there are 100 that’s fine too.

      Matt wrote on March 22nd, 2012
      • Yeah good one Matt, golf is an amazing exercise in giving over from ones conscious brain to ones subconscious, getting “over” ones missed shots quickly and getting back to what makes good shots. Example: I hit only hit 9 greens in regulation in our Wednesday comp just gone and came out of that with a 73 (+1). I missed plenty of greens but it didn’t matter as I just stayed in the moment and concentrated on the shot at hand (chip or bunker shot and then putt)which resulted in me getting up and down 7 out of 9 times (1 birdie). Now that I think about it, I never thought about making a bogie even though I had 9 chances at making one. I had little things to work on for my bunker play and my chipping and my putting, the score was just an outcome of executing shots whilst my mind was working on those little things (swing keys) that were driving my short shots.

        A hello to of you “primal-golfers” out there! and a sorry to all the others that can’t understand a word I have written!

        Anthony wrote on March 22nd, 2012
  18. Great post, Mark. I have to admit that it’s very difficult to detach my self from the outcome, though. I realized this when I made it a goal to run a half marathon. It felt important to me, because I had just lost a 100lbs. and it would be some kind of proof that I was just as healthy as other runners, if not more healthy. And, I hated it. I ran constantly for 2 months, ache and pain, finally ran the marathon and couldn’t stand running any more. Since then, I’ve started to work out to feel good rather than to reach some ultimate goal, and to play sports that I like rather than try to atain NBA skill level.

    Carlos Morales wrote on March 22nd, 2012
  19. This is right on the money. All of the talk about play around here has seriously influenced my approach to fitness and physical activity in general. I’m a recovering endurance athlete as well. I still do races, but I mo longer race them, I now “play” them. Not to be spammy, but I recently wrote about my experiences in arriving to this new approach to physical activity:

    Matthew Miller wrote on March 22nd, 2012
    • I liked your blog post a lot. Nice smile!

      Gydle wrote on March 23rd, 2012
  20. Great post.

    Play is purposeless.
    Life is play.

    ZenBowman wrote on March 22nd, 2012
    • Play is purposeless. Life is play. Therefore life is purposeless?
      I am a mom of 3 adult children and I assure you play is NOT purposeless. When children (or baby animals) play they are learning life skills. Their little bodies are learning how to move and becoming stronger. Their minds are figuring things out. They are learning how to communicate with other children. They don’t realize how much they are learning, and they are not playing for the purpose of learning…it’s just what children do!
      Play is purposefull. Life is play. Life has purpose!

      Shirley wrote on March 22nd, 2012
      • +1

        rarebird wrote on March 22nd, 2012
        • The intent of ‘play is purposeless’ is that play does include a conscious purpose. The idea that your kids learn life skills is not their purpose when playing, but rather, an indirect result. They aren’t playing to learn life skills. That lack of focus on the goal is what is intended as the key takeaway for many adults who live life focused on goals and not living in the moment.

          Your comment is correct, I just wouldn’t read it as something that is in conflict with the author’s message about play being purposeless.

          Paul wrote on March 26th, 2012
  21. That’s the reason I believe why so many people do just great in the moving around and working out department but fail miserably on the food front. There is a lot of fun to be found in the athletic pursuits, seeing how your body responds to challenges, playing… Activity is an instant gratification, plus the release of endorphins: FUN! But it’s hard to find fun in fasting, turning down yummy foods and making sure that you are hungry rather than full….

    leida wrote on March 22nd, 2012
  22. Thanks for this. It is exactly what I needed today.

    Krista wrote on March 22nd, 2012
  23. I enjoy tennis because i am outside and it keeps me active and it is a FUN game to me.
    I am not a great player and am still learning since i started playing 6 yrs ago.
    Anyway I often play in leagues and I really need to DETACH MYSELF FROM THE OUTCOME. Because I almost always lose the match :). But i feel pretty disappointed at times. Even though I know this is just an amateur league and I am just playing and getting more experience playing different people. But bottom line it should be FUN! and that is it.
    This is an awesome post!!! i am going to clip it and carry with me as a reminder

    Gayle wrote on March 22nd, 2012
  24. Last summer, I hiked ten days with the Boys Scouts at Philmont Scout Ranch in northern New Mexico. I was constantly fighting them to enjoy the current situation. Philmont is one awesome view after another, but often the boys would simply hike by one scenic vista after another. They wanted to get to the next camp. I enjoyed the trip, and “slowed them down” by my endless photography. Sometimes a scoutmaster just has to be sneaky.

    I experience a something similar when I make something. I enjoy the process of making it. When I finish, it is nice to be finished, but I really want to start something else. I am about to finish making a marimba for my son. I plan on a lute for myself next. Gotta keep sharp and have fun.

    Damien Gray wrote on March 22nd, 2012
  25. Mark!!
    Awesome timing of this article for me. I just recently decided to stop trying to force things in my life and get back to doing what I love. So I resumed my eskrima training and am living in the moment again. No focus on black belts or anything. Just loving being in the gym and training. I feel like I just recaptured magic from my youth. Keep the inspiration coming.


    Brett wrote on March 22nd, 2012
  26. Mindfulness in EVERYTHING!

    Thanks for this post, Mark!!!

    pat wrote on March 22nd, 2012
  27. Nice post!

    This reminds me of a 2009 NYT article by Michael Lewis about Shane Battier, an NBA player whose role was to defend the best players in the league. The article spent a great deal of time on the merits of focusing on process rather than on outcome – essentially encouraging readers to focus on the things that they can control.

    Come to think of it, I’d actually consider this the most valuable lesson I’ve learned in life.

    Andy wrote on March 22nd, 2012
    • Yes, process rather than outcome. I think that’s the key, the key not only to athletic success but to happiness and to well being in general. Stu Mittleman talks about this in his running book. He says instead of thinking about the finish line or the personal best we can “manage the moment.” In other words, find the ease and joy and intelligence and power and compassion in the present moment. The “goals” will take care of themselves. It obviously has worked for him and Shane Battier as athletes, and I think it can be applied to everything in life.

      Matt wrote on March 22nd, 2012
  28. How very true. Life’s a journey, not a destination. I tend to keep forgetting it all the time, thanks for reminding me about this, perhaps the most important thing in life.

    einstein wrote on March 22nd, 2012
  29. Thanks for this post! Such a good reminder for everyone!

    shavonne wrote on March 22nd, 2012
  30. Excellent post.

    Samantha Moore wrote on March 22nd, 2012
  31. You know what? CrossFit is play for me. 😉

    gilliebean wrote on March 22nd, 2012
  32. Exactly what I needed! It’s not just for the ‘fitness’ journey, but it’s applicable to every area of our lives – work, being social, studying etc. I often find myself distracted from what I’m currently doing, because I have my mind set on something else. Like Mark wrote, I am thinking about what I’ll cook for dinner while reading something for work. 😛 It feels kind of sad, letting all the moments go by and having fun with what I’m doing. I think that the more you master this kind of attitude and mindset, the more you have your life fulfilled. It determins the quality of your life.
    This definately made me think about how I spend my time and if I enjoy my life. Conclusion is, I want to own moments more.

    masage wrote on March 22nd, 2012
  33. life is so much better when you’re obliviously working towards your goals

    Jake wrote on March 22nd, 2012
  34. Play at many things…it is much more enjoyable all around.
    Like Playing “Dodge person” in a crowded grocery store…instead of wishing you were not there. Talk about detached>>> Grok On>>>

    Dave PAPA GROK Parsons wrote on March 22nd, 2012
  35. :p

    Jeannie_5 wrote on March 22nd, 2012
  36. Either you read my mind, or God just totally used you to answer a prayer. Either way, perfect timing Mark :)

    Alyssa wrote on March 22nd, 2012
  37. Great post, Mark I was just thinking about enjoying the journey in terms of learning to surf. It’s easy to get caught up in needing to be as good as someone else.

    Dan Campbell wrote on March 22nd, 2012
    • Wonderful post, Mark. As I was reading it I was thinking about how my fixation on the end result makes it hard to even start! I’ll procrastinate because I’m too worried about the outcome to enjoy the ride there. Or I’m too afraid that I can’t accomplish whatever it is, so I won’t even begin. I try to remind myself, “if you THINK you can’t do it, you’re right”.

      PrimalPotter wrote on March 23rd, 2012
  38. This applies just as much to playing an instrument – the harp in my case. When I started, various friends who were also learning at the same time were so focused on ‘getting’ grades etc, now we all just focus on playing and enjoying it – and playing along with other musicians. Tremendous fun! And we can almost feel our brains grow.

    Jenny W wrote on March 22nd, 2012
  39. This is a great post from someone who’s been there. OTOH, we’re not all at that point. We have to find what resonates with us right now, where we are.

    Thanks, Mark.

    Grokiana wrote on March 22nd, 2012

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