Process Goals vs Outcome Goals: How to Decide

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We all have results we want to achieve.  We want to make more money, lose weight, or have stronger relationships. 

These are all positive things, and they motivate us to take action toward our goals.

But not all goals are the same. In fact, most people get better results when they focus on process goals instead of outcome goals. In this article, we talk about the different between the two and why it's important to create goals based on the actions that you can control.

Let's get to it…

What are Process Goals and Outcome Goals?

Process goals are the milestones that you can completely control. A process goal is an outcome that is based on specific actions and tasks that you complete.  Setting a process goal means you have to identify what you actually have to do achieve a larger goal.

As an example, a you could set a process goal of going to the gym 4 times a week.  This is goal is easy to measure. You either complete the gym habits or you don’t.

Outcome goals focus on a specific milestone that might be out of your control. The truth is even if you are a 100% dedicated to a goal, you might hit an unforeseen obstacle that prevents you from achieving success. 

For instance, a few outcome goals could include earning a $100K in a year, beating your friend in a local 5K race, or losing 20 pounds in three months.  Sure, it’s good to set ambitious goals, but sometimes even if you do all the right things, you might not achieve what you want.

Now, let's talk more about the difference about these two types of goals…

RELATED: 21 Examples of SMART Goals

Want to set goals you can actually achieve? Then watch this video that provides a quick overview of SMART goals with 21 examples.

The Problem with Outcome Goals

The problem comes when we become obsessed with the results we want 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 result you want to achieve, you can actually program yourself into a negative mindset

For example: If your goal is to lose 20 pounds and you become consumed with that goal, you subconsciously tell yourself “I won’t be happy until I lose 20 pounds”.

These are outcome goals.

Now you are focusing on what you don’t have rather than what is under your control. 

The thing that you’re unhappy with dominates your thoughts, and you can end up being unhappy while you are trying to reach your goal because you think you don’t “deserve” to be happy until you lose the weight.

When you value results over the process that gets them, you can end up measuring your progress too frequently to get any meaningful feedback.  If you weigh yourself 5 times a day, you aren’t getting any information that can be used to help you. 

Every measurement gives you an emotional high or low even though it’s more indicative of a normal daily fluctuation than anything else.  It’s exhausting; you’re wasting more energy on measuring and stressing than on taking positive actions.

[What is the difference between a fixed mindset and growth mindset]

This mindset can also encourage the wrong kinds of behaviors.  If you only care about losing weight by the end of the month, then you won’t see any difference between weight-loss habits that are sustainable or a crash diet that can temporarily move the scale at the expense of your long-term health.

Reaching your goals can cause other problems if you haven’t been following a good process.

Why Process Goals Are Better

Process goals, on the other hand, are all about the process. They are about doing the right thing, regardless of the outcome, knowing that the right activities will lead you to ultimate victory.

A process is entirely under your control.  Continuing with the example goal of weight loss, you might make a “process goal” of going to the gym 4 times a week or starting a habit of walking every day.  This is easily measurable and doable; you are totally in charge of whether or not you reach your goal.

Outcomes are not so predictable following outcome goals.  They can be made up of many factors, some of which are completely out of your control, and they also don’t always come evenly and consistently.

If you successfully lost 2 pounds last week, it may be attributable to your new exercise regimen, but it may also be caused by sleep patterns, stress levels, or several other things.  It is likely a combination of many different things that caused your results.  If you overreact to results, you might attribute your success and failures to events that didn’t actually cause them.

Focusing on process over results is also important to reduce the frustration that comes from inconsistent results.  Results can vary from month to month and person to person.  You might have lost 2 pounds this month while your friend who is following the same diet lost 10 pounds.

This can cause frustration, but inconsistent results often happen, especially over short time periods.  You may be set up to have much better outcomes the following month, but you’ll never know if you get frustrated and decide to switch to a different diet.

People who jump from one diet or exercise program to another every week are clearly focusing too much on results and not respecting the process.  Without sticking to one program for a longer period of time, they will never actually know which one works.  Any results achieved over a short time period should be viewed skeptically anyway.  You need to follow a given process for a while to gain any meaningful insight about whether or not it works.

Process Goals Avoid the Highs and Lows

It’s well known that some people who lose massive amounts of weight in short periods of time later go on to regain much of the weight they had lost, yet we are still fascinated with dramatic before and after photos and other quick-fix results.

No one is excited by the prospect of following a process for months or years and making slow but steady progress.  The story of the guy who lost 100 pounds in a year is much easier to sell, even if he later ended up gaining back all the weight.

Follow the process” is a phrase commonly used by coaches and players in many different sports.  They have learned that it’s far too easy to become ecstatic after a win or depressed after a loss.  Either one can cause you to lose your discipline and forget about the process.

[Get 4 Free Goal Setting Worksheets to Help you Plan your Goals]

Don’t tie your emotions to results.  The highs can be just as dangerous as the lows because you want to keep repeating your great results indefinitely even though it’s not possible.

Building daily habits give you something consistent to focus on.  Results will vary, but the process stays steady no matter what.  Every day you get the satisfaction of knowing that you’re getting a little better.

Spend most of your time just following the process and not worrying about results.  Only measure results after enough time has passed that you can actually draw some conclusions about what is or isn’t working.

Final Thoughts on Process Goals

Follow the process, and the results will usually come.

Look for ways to turn your desired results in process goals.  Focus on the things you can control and that will set you up for long-term success.  Stick with a process for long enough to be sure if it works or not. (Learn the difference between being task-oriented vs goal-oriented.)

Instead of waiting to celebrate until you achieve your results, celebrate every time you follow the process.  Every day you work to get better is a successful day.  Know that even if your results take years to achieve, each step you take towards them is just as important.

Finally, if you want to take your goal-setting efforts to the next level, check out this FREE printable worksheet and a step-by-step process that will help you set effective SMART goals.

2 thoughts on “Process Goals vs Outcome Goals: How to Decide”

  1. I can really relate to this article, as in the past I’ve made the mistake of constantly checking my results on projects I was working on, and of course they can vary wildly in the beginning. I have learnt from that and now stick to a daily routine of tasks that will work in the long term. It’s still tempting to check on progress, but I know it’s working everyday on small tasks that bring long term results. Of course, focus and a positive mindset is important as well:)

  2. What a brilliant read. Thanks for sharing this 🙂

    I also wrote about why is the process of learning so important? If we are getting the result, why do we have to do things in a better way?

    Do read my article and let me know if you like it 🙂

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