‘A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’
We’ve got this saying by Bruce Lee written on the front of our journals at The Fit Project — ‘A goal is not always meant to be reached; it often serves simply as something to aim at’. Or you may have heard it phrased this way: ‘Life is about the journey, not the destination’. You’ve probably come across a number of iterations of this expression in your life—on social media, in schools—even at other gyms. Well, science has just confirmed what inspirational quotes on Instagram have been saying forever—that it is actually sound advice.
That’s the conclusion of a study out of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, in which researchers surveyed over 1,600 hundred people on metaphors they used when thinking about their goals. The study examined people who used the destinationor the journey framing, or no metaphor at all, with the authors of the study discovering that those who used the age-old adage of the journey, rather than the destination metaphor, were significantly more likely to continue the good habits they’d developed—even after hitting their goal. Essentially, reaching a goal isn’t just about success or failure; it’s also about the process.
According to Szu-Chi Huang, one of the co-authors of the study, ‘If I think about this as a journey from where I started to where I am today, with all the ups and downs, it can help me see how much I have actually changed’. Hindsight can be a powerful motivator, she adds. If your goal is to get in shape, for example, ‘[The journey mindset] drives me to continue eating healthy and working out, even after I reach the destination.’
Reflecting on the process, it’s the highs and lows, as well as the successes and failures, that can help individuals reframe and get back on track after a significant setback on the journey towards their goal. That’s a vital part of creating healthy habits, according to the decision-science researcher Alan Barnard, who studies habit formation and decision-making (he was not involved with the Stanford study). If you’re trying to make a change, one of the things that can get in your way is the stress you feel when you stumble along the road.
Stresses and dealing with failure
If you see yourself as being on a set path toward a specific end point, without any deviations, those stumbles can feel like much bigger deals—and, as a consequence, are much more likely to discourage you from pursuing your goal(s) further. ‘Your stress response can work against you if you’re hurt much more by a bad day,’ Barnard says, ‘even if you have equal amounts of good and bad days over time.’ But thinking of yourself as being on a journey means assuming that the road may be winding, and, importantly, help you acknowledge that and make it okay. ‘We’re human beings,’ Huang says. ‘We care about important goals, but we will fail along the way. It’s not rational to think we’ll just keep on making progress every single day.’
And the great thing about removing the psychological end point of a destination is that the progress can continue. ‘The journey mindset helps me think about this as something that’s a process, from the past, to where I am today, and going to the future,’ Huang says. ‘It never stops.’ Or, as Walter Elliott remarked, ‘Perseverance is not a long race; it is many short races one after the other.’
On our back wall here at The Fit Project we’ve got 3Ps written up: Practice, Patience and Perseverance. These 3Ps form part of our core values because we believe that attaining health, fitness and wellbeing is a process that never stops.