How to pursue your goals AND relish the experience

Do you ever struggle being fully present with what you are doing in this moment? Perhaps occupied with a project at work when you are actually spending time with your children? Or maybe worrying about your child’s report card while taking a shower? And I’m not even going to say the word “Facebook.”

It’s widely documented that full engagement in the present is a hallmark of high performance, but why is it so challenging sometimes?

As I was pondering this question at the end of a particularly non-present, distraction-filled day, I came across this fascinating article in the New York Times (probably on Facebook—cringe), called “The Problem of Living in the Present.” The key takeaway from the article is that the majority of our daily activities fall into one of two categories: telic or atelic. Telic activities (it comes from the Greek word “telos” which means goal or purpose) are things we do that have an endpoint, such as writing an article, washing the car, cooking dinner, getting married, etc. Atelic activities are things we do that are not done with an endpoint—things such as spending time with our family, learning a new skill, reflecting on life, etc. There’s no endpoint; the endpoint is the experience of doing it.

What I realized is that for me, telic activity is so satisfying—the feeling of accomplishing a goal, checking that thing off my to-do list—is such a mini-rush, that atelic activities can feel like a let-down neurologically. To a brain that is used to the repeated dopamine hits of successfully accomplishing telic activity after telic activity, doing something atelic like engaging with my children just feels, I don’t know, less stimulating.

If you’re like me, and this information feels like a revelation, read on for three tips on how to apply this cool bit of linguistic knowledge to your daily life:

Recognize when you’re engaged in telic vs. atelic activity
According to the NYT article, telic activities “aim for a terminal state, by which they are completed. Think of reading this article or driving home from work. Once you arrive at the goal, you are finished: The point of the activity has been achieved.”

Atelic activities, in contrast, “do not aim at terminal states. However much you reflect on life or spend time with your family, you cannot complete these activities. Though you will eventually stop doing them, they do not aim at a point at which there is no more of them to do.”

Telic: you doing the thing with the end in mind; atelic: you’re doing the thing just to do the thing.

Think about what you’ve done today. Do most of your activities tend to be telic or atelic? In other words, do you tend to think about your activity in terms of the goal of accomplishing stuff, or just doing stuff to do it? Which kinds of activities feel more satisfying to you? If I were a betting gal, I’d put money on the telic side of the scale.

To be clear: telic activity is great! We are ambitious, get-it-done women after all. But if you find yourself unable to engage fully in atelic activity without your brain itching for accomplishment, for the task to be completed, then you may need a bit more balance.

Balance both types by going all in on whatever one you’re engaging in. Commit!

Now that you’ve recognized your tendency to one type of activity or another, a great way to find balance is to really commit to going all in on whichever type of activity you’re engaged in, and embrace any attendant discomfort that you discover.

If you tend toward telic activity and find yourself unable to enjoy atelic, non-goal oriented time, double down on the actual physical sensations of the experience itself. If you are reading books with your child and find yourself wanting to get to the end of each book you’re reading (probably for the hundredth time, we get it.), focus on the texture of your child’s hair, the sound of their voice, the warmth of their skin. Practice drinking in the experience of the moment itself.

If you tend toward atelic activity and have a hard time really closing, completing, or shipping, as they say, and would rather enjoy the experience of being in process, double down on clarifying your vision for the terminal state that you’re working toward. Think about something that all of us would classify as telic, like washing the dishes. I don’t know about you, but I wash the dishes, not for the joy of scrubbing plates, but because I hold the prospect of a clean kitchen as a strong reward at the end. It may be that the goal that you’re aiming for isn’t clear or the reward isn’t strong enough.

Remember the goal here (see what I did there?) is to learn something about yourself and experience something new or different, so don’t use this process to engage in familiar patterns of judgment or retreating. Stay amused and light-hearted.

Bring qualities of one kind of activity to bear on the other to enhance your experience of each.
We all need a balance of goal-oriented and experience-oriented activity. One way to do this is to double down on each type—really focus on the ideal terminal state or goal with telic activity, and really focus on the experience when it’s atelic activity (see #2 above)

Another way to seek this balance is to take the opposite approach: blending them. For example, can you bring a heightened awareness of your present-moment experience (atelic) to the time you spend preparing a case, closing a sale, booking a flight (goal-oriented, telic activity? Can having a goal (like finding the most rocks on a walk) heighten your enjoyment of your atelic activities?
Here at CWM we are really focused on practical applications of best practices—what is the point of knowing these two kinds of activities if they aren’t useful in enhancing the way we experience our lives every day?

If it feels overwhelming to approach and even visualize the kind of transformation you’d like to experience in your life, think about this: “If you were given one year to live, what would you immediately want to change in your life?”

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