Internal Locus of Control - Why You Should Focus on the Process, Not the Result

The clock was ticking down as the UCLA Bruins were about to defeat the Seattle University Redhawks in the round of 16 game of the 1964 NCAA basketball tournament. The Bruins came into the game undefeated and were up 95-90. The win was all but assured, yet legendary basketball coach John Wooden was not happy.

His team had underestimated the tenacity of the Redhawks. UCLA came into the game expecting to win with ease and did not play with great effort and focus. They had taken plays off – especially on defense – and allowed the Redhawks to almost score at will.

Luckily, the Bruins hit enough shots to outscore the Redhawks. However, Wooden knew that if his team showed this same type of effort on defense against better competition in the final rounds of the tournament, they were destined to lose.

So, despite the victory, Wooden scolded his team. He demanded of them greater effort, focus and resiliency and he demanded that they play up to their potential – or their undefeated season would be a waste.

The team responded well, winning their next 3 games without giving up more than 84 points against much better opposition than the Redhawks. This led the Bruins to finish the season undefeated and win their first of 10 NCAA championships under Wooden over the next 12 years.

To provide context about how big of an accomplishment this is, the next closest coach, Mike Krzyzewski who has coached Duke for over 30 years now, only has 4 championships! 

So what is the lesson here? That being a hardass is the key to wild success? No. John Wooden may have seemed to be harsh on his players in the game against the Redhawks, but what he was really doing was getting them to focus on what they could control.


Despite all of his success as a basketball coach, John Wooden claimed that he never once cared what the final score of the game was. If his team won or lost, he did not care. What he cared about was whether or not they played with great effort, focus and resiliency [1]. So there were some games where his team won yet he was not happy, and there were other games where they lost and he was extremely proud.

Ultimately, aspects outside of your control can determine the final score of a basketball game. You may play perfect defense, but your opponent hits shots from near impossible ranges. Your team may get some bad calls against you at the worst possible times. And for whatever reason, tonight you may just miss the shots that you usually make.

Due to these and many other factors, you may play your heart out and end up walking away from the court defeated. Wooden knew this, so instead of having his players focus on the scoreboard, he had them focus on the things they could control.

This is called the “internal locus of control” and it is a proven path to achieving great results [2].

In working toward any goal, there are always going to be factors outside of your control that affect your results. If your goal is to lose weight, you cannot control your genetic disposition. Some people are going to have an easier time than others.

If your goal is to run a marathon, you cannot control all of the factors that may affect your training schedule. You may get sick, you may get injured, and you may get slammed by work or family emergencies that are more important.  

If your goal is to get a promotion, you cannot control who else the company will look at as well. You can't control what other candidates' level of experience is, or what connections they may have.

All of these factors lie outside of our control. So if we focus on result-oriented goals like this, even if we do everything right, we may still not get the result we want. Just like John Wooden’s teams could do everything right on the court, yet still end up losing the game.

Then if we do not achieve these results, our willpower can take a major hit. We lose our motivation and inspiration as we begin to question whether or not we will ever be able to achieve what we really want in life. This can leave us deeply debilitated and not only derail these goals, but any others we may have in the future as well.


We can beat this phenomenon by shifting our focus to what we can control. Rather than being results-oriented, we must become process-oriented. Even the best-laid plans can be disrupted by outside forces.

You cannot control your body’s ability to lose a certain amount of weight, but you can control the food that you put into it. You cannot ensure that you will complete a marathon, but you can control your effort in training for it. You cannot control whether or not your boss promotes you, but you can get into the office early on a regular basis with a positive attitude.

When we become process-oriented and shift our focus to what we can control, we get key 3 advantages:


When we are focused on the result, each step of the process seems insignificant – especially if the result is a lofty goal. With each step towards our goal, we realize just how far we are away from achieving it.

For example, if our goal is to build a cathedral, we are going to have to lay thousands of bricks. Compared to the cathedral, each brick that we lay seems completely insignificant. With each one that we lay, we realize just how far we are from turning those bricks into a cathedral.

However, if we shift our focus to the process of laying each brick perfectly, each brick laid becomes a small win. We grow confidence with each brick and soon enough they begin to take the shape of a cathedral.

Shifting your focus to process not only gives you more control, it allows you to earn small wins on a regular basis. Small wins are greater than their benefits on paper [3]. Not only are they a step in the right direction, but they also give us confidence in the process and our ability to achieve even bigger wins in the future.


When we set a results-oriented goal, we are essentially placing a bet on the future. No matter how hard we work, there will be factors outside of our control that affect whether or not we reach our goal on time.

If we set a goal to lose 10lbs in 2 months, what do we do when we are 1 month in and we have only lost 3lbs? Do we starve ourselves? Do we adjust our plans? Do we even know if losing 10lbs was realistic in the first place? In most cases, sadly, we would abandon all hope and go right back to our old routine – even though we have made significant progress! [4]

The other side is not that much better either. What if we incredibly lose 9lbs after the first month? Do we stop trying as hard? Do we go back to our old eating and exercise routines? In most cases, we would use that as a reason to justify taking it easy in the second month. Then we slip right back into our old habits. [4]

If we are process-oriented we avoid this trap. We see any lost weight as progress! Regardless of how much we lose, this reinforces our belief that we can reach our goal of becoming healthier. Nobody, not even experts, can control how much weight they will actually lose by following certain diet and exercise routines. But we can control what we put into our bodies and how much time we spend exercising. By focusing our willpower on what we can control, we will establish great behaviors that will eventually lead to the results we want.


When things do not work out in our favor, we naturally want to determine “what went wrong?” Our brains have evolved to avoid pain, so we usually look to blame factors outside of our control for why we did not get the results that we wanted.

The diet plan I was on did not work.

I have bad genes.

The boss has never liked me.

When we place blame in this way, we shut out our ability to learn from the mistakes we made. Because these are all factors outside of our control, there is nothing we can do to change them to achieve our goals in the future.

If we shift our focus to the process and what we can control, however, we can learn from what went wrong and change it for next time. Perhaps we tried to set up an exercise routine in the evenings, but had more post-work commitments than we thought that we would.

So we learn from that process and we shift the exercise routine to the morning. We can then assess whether the morning works as a better time to exercise. By focusing on the process and what we can control, we can make constant tweaks and improvements because we are in control.


There are many advantages to being goal-oriented. You gain focus, motivation and confidence by setting goals and achieving them. But if you focus on results rather than the process, you can set yourself up to fail because of factors outside of your control.

There will always be factors outside of your control that will influence the ultimate outcome of your efforts. By shifting your focus to the process and factors within your control, you set yourself up to achieve small wins, to learn from experience and avoid trying to predict the future. Focus on the process and eventually the results will come – and they may be even greater than you predicted!


  1. Wooden, J., & Jamison, S. (2005). Wooden on leadership. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  2. Horn, T. (2008). Advances in sport psychology (3rd ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
  3. Duhigg, C. (2012). The power of habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. New York: Random House.
  4. Baumeister, R. (2013). Handbook of self-regulation: Research, theory, and applications (2nd ed.). New York: Guilford.