Outcome Goals vs. Process Goals

by Mark on November 9, 2014

Most people agree on the importance of goals, but few people put much thought into the types of goals that they set. There are two basic types of goals:

  • Outcome goals – the outcome is known, but the process is unknown, and
  • Process goals – the process is known, but the outcome is unknown.

The type of goal that you should set should really be determined by the situation. It is very common for people to choose the wrong type of goal for what they want to accomplish.

Outcome Goals

Let’s say that you are getting married soon and you want to lose weight so that you will look good at your wedding. You decide to set an outcome goal: “Lose 15 pounds by February 14, 2015.” In this case, you don’t know the exact process that will be required to achieve your goal, and your process will likely have to be flexible.

If you aren’t losing weight fast enough to meet your weigh loss goal by your wedding, then you need to change your process (possibly eat less and exercise more). The process might not be sustainable (and if you are starving yourself, it won’t be), but it doesn’t need to be sustainable. You just need to look good for your wedding.

If your desired result is short-term and of a nonrecurring nature, then an outcome goal is generally appropriate. The reason is because the result is very important to achieve by the deadline, and so you will have to be flexible about the process and potentially choose a process that would be unsustainable over the long run.

You might put in excessive hours at work to complete a short-term project by a deadline because you know that it is only temporary. Outcome goals can be great for achieving quick results in short bursts, but they should be used carefully since they can deplete your reserve of willpower.

Process Goals

Let’s say that instead of wanting to lose 15 pounds by a short-term deadline, you want to lose 15 pounds and keep it off. You could set an outcome goal to lose 15 pounds by a certain date and then try to maintain that weight, but the problem with outcome goals is that the process used to achieve them is often not sustainable over the long run.

Sustainable results require a sustainable process. If you have ever lost weight only to gain it back again, there is a good chance that the process wasn’t sustainable. To keep the weight off, you need to find ways to eat and exercise that will achieve the result and be sustainable. This requires a process focus.

What are some process goals that people typically set when trying to lose weight? Sometimes they will set goals about the frequency, duration, and type of exercise that they will do each week. Sometimes they will set goals for the number of Weight Watchers “points” that they consume each day. These are process goals because they focus on the process rather than the outcome.

If your desired result is long-term and of a recurring nature, then a process goal is preferable. Since you will be performing the process over a long period of time, you need to make sure that it is sustainable. In other words, it shouldn’t be an excessive drain on your willpower because this will cause you to just give up.

With process goals you are under no pressure to achieve an outcome by a deadline, so you can give the process time to work and notice the long-term results. This means that you can experiment with different process goals and continually improve and optimize your processes.

What about combining outcome and process goals?

Another possibility is to set an outcome goal and a process goal for the same desired result. You could set a short-term outcome goal to lose 15 pounds by February 14, 2014 and also set a process goal to exercise to help you lose the weight and keep it off long-term. In order to achieve your outcome goal, you would adapt your other processes (such as dieting), but you would maintain your process goal of exercising.

The challenge with this is that your willpower is limited. Dieting to achieve your outcome goal could deplete your willpower and make achieving your other goals more difficult.

It is important to manage the demands that you place on your willpower wisely, so choose your goals carefully.

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