Manage Your Actions, Not Your Outcomes

Manage Your Actions, Not Your Outcomes


“The world shifts itself around your aim, you have to have an aim. You’re an aiming creature. You look to a point, and move towards it — it’s built right into you. It organizes your perception, it organizes what you see and you don’t see, it organizes your emotions and motivations. “ — Jordan Peterson

In this inspiring lecture, Jordan Peterson is highlighting the mind is naturally outcome oriented. When we take a look under the hood of our brain we can see a bunch of things contributing to this.

The first contributor is the Reticular Activating System (RAS), which is a collection of neuronal networks located within the hypothalamus and brainstem.

The RAS does multiple things, but one of its key roles is filtering out unnecessary information — therefore engaging our attention only with relevant information. This selective attention process is how our prior beliefs and expectations become a guiding force for what we perceive in our environment.

Our prefrontal cortex is another large contributor to our incessant need to focus on outcomes. This is the part of our brain that develops our sense of self and allows us to impose our imagination, will and reasoning on the world. Through these faculties, we’re able to regulate ourselves towards a desired goal.

It’s well known that the human cortex is by far the largest amongst the primates. There’s still no conclusion about whether our prefrontal cortex is truly larger, however evidence from structural brain scan datasets suggest that’s the case. This unique capacity seems to be what helps us adapt and grow beyond all the other animals.

This is why goals are important to us, because they are fundamental to how we operate, not just psychologically — but physiologically.


The capacity to project onto the future, and to regulate our behaviour is what helped us overcome the numerous obstacles our species had to go through in past times.

If we didn’t have this ability, we would have been eaten by the lion we couldn’t see coming. And in a way, I think that’s what happened, and as a result, this gene for future projection was evolutionarily selected.

This is where goals come in — as we align ourselves with a projection in the future, motivation occurs through a neurochemical response which therefore inspires action. That projection could be to avoid something negative or to move towards something you want. It’s just part of the wiring.

On a psychological level, these processes lead to a sense that we’re in control of whatever happens. “Captain of my soul, master of my fate” and all that.

In an ideal sense, it’s a motivating factor that gives us a feeling that all our efforts should lead to the outcomes that we’re expecting. It gives us a sense of purpose in the world around us, which encourages us to take action.

“If you don’t have a purpose for your future, then your present has no meaning.” — Viktor Frankl


It’s clear that being outcome oriented comes with functional benefits, but there also comes the fact that we’re stuck in a particular perception of reality — and it comes with it’s drawbacks.

When focusing on outcomes, you make assumptions about what to expect. Failure and success become black and white to you. In this case, we’re treating reality like it’s closed-ended, meaning we treat it like we know everything we need to know.

The problem with this is that reality is actually open-ended. Usually, when you pursue something new you’ll have to try it a few times before you find success. You find out about it only when you try.

As you can imagine, when we form expectations, it puts us against the flow of reality. You’re either anticipating too much difficulty, which means you don’t even try — OR your expectations create an over-confidence, which leaves you deflated at every hurdle you hit. As a result, the attachment to expectations creates a concoction of issues, such as procrastination in the first scenario, and impostor syndrome in the second.

This becomes a failure to see opportunities for adjustments and improvement — and unfortunately, this is what most situations demands of us.

This isn’t to say you shouldn’t have outcomes you aspire towards, but instead, it’s important to just understand that outcome projection is how we work, however it’s not necessarily a reflection of reality.

Once you come to this realisation, then you can use goals as a tool to move you forward, meanwhile not getting lost in the illusion. This allows reality to be your guide and teacher.

“A goal is not always meant to be reached, it often serves simply as something to aim at” — Bruce Lee


The solution to the problem of expectations is to be action oriented — which is focusing on what you do, not on the result.

This ancient piece of advice has made its way throughout history, re-packaged and shared from various philosophers, teachers and wise people of our world. It’s been tested in battle, tested in the highest military and political offices in the world. It’s been tested by creatives, authors and entrepreneurs, tested by some of the smartest people who ever lived.

“You’re entitled to actions, not the fruits of your actions” — Bhagavad Gita

This message of being action oriented dates all the way back to second century BCE, starting with Nishkam Karma, also known as self-less or desireless action — which is the key message found in the Bhagavad Gita.

It’s an action performed without expectations of results, you ultimately do something just to do it. The ability to act outside the bounds of your expectations is powerful because it frees you from the bondage of these expectations — whether that’s imposter syndrome, procrastination, fear, doubt, and so on.

This philosophy fell into the hands of many people throughout history, one of such people was Marcus Aurelius the great roman emperor.

He’s renowned for his personal writings known as ‘Meditations’, where he shares personal insights and ideas for self-improvement. His self-guidance is rooted in the philosophy of stoicism, which is highly credited as the key to his success.

“You must build up your life action by action, and be content if each one achieves its goal as far as possible–and no one can keep you from this. But there will be some external obstacle! Perhaps, but no obstacle to acting with justice, self-control, and wisdom. But what if some other area of my action is thwarted? Well, gladly accept the obstacle for what it is and shift your attention to what is given, and another action will immediately take its place, one that better fits the life you are building.” — Marcus Aurellius

This is 2000 years ago. The most powerful man in the world. He’s reminding himself that you take things step by step. You don’t focus on the distant future, you focus on what’s in front of you — and you focus on doing it well.

This is a stoic talking about being action oriented, and his life became a great example of what happens when you adopt this framework.


Just like successful genes that are passed down through evolution, the action oriented philosophy has maintained its relevancy in present day. It’s been the guiding force in various ideas in our world today.

Getting Things Done
David Allen, the creator of Getting Things Done (GTD), revolutionised productivity and time management in the early 2000’s.

GTD is a framework for managing your productivity by following a set of key principles. One of the core principles of GTD is ‘next actions’, which is the idea that for every outcome you want to achieve you need to break it down into the single next physical action you can take.

Our brains have the natural tendency to create vague to-do’s which make it abstract and difficult to tackle in the moment. The next-action principle forces you to overcome this problem by operationalising every outcome. No more nebulous abstract ideas in your head — with clarity comes motivation.

This focus on next-actions in GTD, constantly keeps you engaged with a process oriented view, which is different to all the other productivity systems that advocate for an outcome oriented view. The fact that this is regarded as one of the best productivity systems in the world is representative of how powerful focusing on your actions is.

Mamba Mentality
The late Kobe Bryant, during his time, brought about a mindset that he called ‘The Mamba Mentality’.

Mamba Mentality isn’t about seeking a result — it’s about putting your focus on the process of getting to that result. It’s about the journey and the approach.

“A big shot is just another shot” — It’s all about the next step, gaining feedback, making adjustments and taking another step.

To him, this continuous process is a way of life. It acts as an important filter for all endeavours, to help you perform at your best.

Flow States
Why is this mentality significant? What does it have to do with his success? Could it just be that he was talented and he worked hard and that’s it? Maybe, but I don’t think so, I believe this mentality had a huge part to play in the fruits of his labour.

The psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, introduced the world to the concept of Flow in 1990.

Flow has been understood as a state of peak performance, where we maximise our engagement with the tasks infront of us, which is tied to a heightened state of intrinsic motivation. In other words, you feel your best, and you perform your best.

We first saw flow emerge from the greatest performers, athletes, actors and musicians in our world. Now, we’ve come to understand that flow is something we can all tap into.

5 years ago I watched a TED Talk from Neuroscientist Jamie Wheal, called ‘Altered States to Altered Traits: Hacking the Flow State’.

In the TED Talk, Jamie explores the idea that not only are flow states accessible to all of us — but it’s also possible to have flow become a natural emergence within your everyday life.

The research tied to flow states shows us we are also our happiest selves when we find complete engagement in what we do, and in these moments where we transcend ourselves, we rely on being action oriented.

“To overcome the anxieties and depressions of contemporary life, individuals must become independent of the social environment to the degree that they no longer respond exclusively in terms of its rewards and punishments. To achieve such autonomy, a person has to learn to provide rewards to herself. She has to develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of external circumstances.” — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi


Having goals is important since they are so fundamental to how we work, but when we manage our actions instead of our outcomes we find ourselves at our happiest and at our best.

The impact of this becomes clearer when you see this core message play out in the lives of various successful models and schools of thought. This approach is something that each one can explore for themselves, and assess whether it’s truly worth all the hype.


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