Process Goals vs Outcome Goals: How to Decide

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It seems we have been conditioned to go through life setting goals for ourselves.  These goals change over time and typically become more complex or meaningful as we get older.  Sometimes, they may even be deemed necessary in order to ensure our professional success or personal well-being

For instance, if your doctor says you need to lose 50 lbs in order to get your blood pressure under control, you’re going to have to set a goal to do this.  Your health is at stake.  Or if your boss tells you that you need to finish a high priority project by deadline, you’ll need to complete it or else risk losing your job.

There is nothing wrong with goals. Some are by choice, while others are forced upon us. But here is the problem with many goals we set out to achieve… they are unrealistic or “larger than life” on paper.  They’re just too big! And that makes them daunting, which conversely, sets us up for failure more times than not.

This is where process goals come into play

What are Process Goals?  

Process goals are the small, measurable steps we take towards achieving a larger goal. It’s more about the journey, and not the final destination. Think of them as the mile markers we pass on a highway, telling us how far we’ve come and how much further there is to go.  

Process goals are ones that we have complete control over. We set the pace and allow ourselves to slow down, or even take a break, from time to time… without the risk of veering completely off course. 

Process goals are not designed to make you feel like it’s “all or nothing”… and are not meant to foster self-loathing or guilt over the hiccups or speed bumps we may encounter along the way. Process goals take our human nature into account, as well as the fact that certain things in life are not always in our control

The Difference Between Process and Outcome Goals

Unlike process goals, outcome goals are often not within our control because they are about the end-game or the final destination. If you’ve even seen a child trying to catch a floating leaf blowing in the wind on a Fall day… you may get an idea of what an outcome goal can feel like. It can be frustrating and not easy to get a hold of.

The truth is, even if you consider yourself an overachiever and are 100% committed to a goal, you still may stumble over an unforeseen obstacle that prevents you from getting there.  And then what? More times than not, after stumbling more times than you’d care to, you contemplate giving up… or, worse, you actually do.

Setting large goals can be a wonderful thing… and there is nothing wrong with having higher standards or dreaming big. The problem, however, comes when you don’t allow yourself to follow a roadmap to get you where you want to be.

Process goals are that roadmap. Without it, you’re playing an “all-in” game of poker… which we all know is a gamble. Sometimes the chance pays off, but most of the time we wind up worse off than when we started because we didn’t contemplate the bluff. The bluff is like a dead end, with only one way out.

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Process goals are the small, measurable steps we take towards achieving a larger goal.

When we set outcome goals, we become obsessed with the results and forget about the process that will get us there.  The thing that initially motivated us to take action can end up putting us in the wrong mindset and encouraging the wrong behaviors.

When you become too focused on the future result you want to achieve, you can actually thrust yourself backwards into a negative mindset.  For example, if your goal is “to lose 25 pounds”, rather than “to lose 25 pounds in the next 6 months”…  you are subconsciously directing your focus to the result, and diverting your attention away from the small victories. Self-fulfillment comes when you stop to acknowledge the steps you’ve taken along the way to achieve what you’ve set out to do.

This vague outcome goal has essentially convinced you that you won’t be happy until you lose 25 pounds (in record time, most likely). Thus, you are choosing to focus on what you don’t have, rather than what is within your control. You’re so busy looking ahead that you don’t appreciate what is right in front of you… the process goals.

By setting SMART and tangible goals for yourself, you’re increasing your chances of success… while also convincing yourself that following a simpler path will still lead you to where you want to go.

At the end of the day, nobody is going to ask you how long it took you to make it out to the clearing… they will just applaud the fact that you did. And so will you.

5 Examples of Process Goals

Now that you’ve got a good grasp on what process goals are, let’s go over some examples to help really drive the point home.  We’ll start with the one we just talked about.

Example #1: I will lose 25 pounds in the next 6 months.

Your process goals:

  • Walk 25 or more minutes 5 days per week.
  • Cut down carbohydrates to 1 meal per day, eating none after 6pm.
  • Eat at least 3 servings of fruits and/or vegetables each day.
  • Limit alcohol to weekends only, within moderation.
  • Weigh myself at the same time each day, celebrating every pound lost.
  • Each time you lose 5 pounds, allow yourself one “cheat day”.
  • After 6 weeks, evaluate how things are going and journal how you’re feeling.

Example #2: I will increase my GPA this semester.

Your process goals:

  • Download a calendar app to help me stay organized.
  • Schedule blocks of time to study, starting with 15-minute increments per subject. 
  • From a study group.
  • Eliminate all distractions while studying.
  • Get enough sleep each night.
  • Get fresh air 30 minutes each day.
  • Do a social media detox for the semester.   

Example #3: I will spend more time with my family this year.

Your process goals:

Example #4: I will change jobs within 18 months.

Your process goals:

Example #5: I will quit smoking in 3 months.

Your process goals:

How to Create a Process Goal in 4 Steps

Step #1: Take the original goal and make it smaller.

Write down your goal in a journal and then break it down. Start by setting a timeline and work backwards. Think about what needs to be done over time to reach your goal.

Step #2: Have a margin for error.

You need to leave room for “detours” along the way. Again, life doesn’t always go according to plan. That means, you may experience some setbacks… but they should not derail your efforts entirely.  Take things one day at a time and don’t be afraid to make adjustments that work for you. 

Step #3: Come to terms with your imperfections.

Nobody is perfect. This means, you will make mistakes. You will “fall off the wagon” now and again, or be tempted at times to give up. That is ok.  What is not ok is to blame yourself for your shortcomings. You are human.  Remember that! You have set these goals with the best of intentions and it was a choice… which means you want to improve and will eventually do so.

Step #4: Celebrate the small “wins”.

Process goals are meant to guide you on your path to success. They are the stepping stones along the way, which means each one you reach should be acknowledged. Stop to pat yourself on the back and look at how far you’ve come. Every step taken is a step forward and deserves to be celebrated. 

Final Thoughts on Process Goals

Outcome goals have little to no margin for error.  Think about it… would you attempt to run a marathon at a full sprint? If you did, you’d never make it to the finish line. But if you train properly along the way, increasing your endurance and stamina over time, you’ll get there.

This is where process goals come into play. Here’s another bit of imagery for you: Outcome goals the finished puzzle. Process goals are the pieces you need to put it together.  There is no crime in setting large goals, only in demanding too much of yourself to make them happen. Any goal that is unrealistic or vague is nearly impossible to achieve.  

Learn more about setting and reaching your goals in our article on SMART goals for improving your communication.

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Process Goals: 5 Examples & How to Write These Goals