Everyone’s talking about the need to achieving goals and how to set goals: a long-term goal, short-term goal, process goal, outcome goal. It’s as if we’re expected to set goals around setting goals; otherwise, we might not accomplish anything, right?
Goal setting is an important part of getting to the life we say we want. They are the tools we can use in building that life. As with any tool, however, it’s important to know the purpose for which they’re used and techniques to use them correctly.
There are a couple ways goal setting can be perceived. Looking from these vantage points, we get a more holistic picture of how we want to go about achieving our life successes using outcome goals and process goals.
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Outcome Goal vs. Process Goal
With an outcome goal, we view our goals by knowing and stating clearly what we want. This is a “big want,” like getting a specific job or selling a house.
A process goal focuses on how you might go about positioning yourself for success in acquiring your “big want.” In order to get to the outcome, there will inevitably be smaller goals, or milestones, you will pass along the way. These little goals accumulate and keep you going in the direction of your outcome goal.
To demonstrate how each of these goals operates and you would go about reaching your goal, let’s use the example of going to college.
The outcome goal for going to college is getting a degree. We specify which degree we want to earn and even visualize ourselves in our cap and gown on graduation day, holding the degree in the field of our choice. The goal in this case is specific and tangible.
In order to get a degree, we have to look at all the factors that go into earning one. If we want a bachelor’s degree, we will likely need to plan on being in school for around four years. Each year is divided into semesters or trimesters (depending on the school), and in each semester/trimester, there will be a handful of classes we have to take.
The classes will need to be chosen depending on what the degree requirements are, and each class will have its own requirements. As you can see, getting a degree is a process that can be broken down into smaller and smaller goals.
A process goal is somewhat flexible. There are multiple ways in which you can construct your process, but the outcome goal will remain the same.
When to Focus on an Outcome Goal or a Process Goal
Ultimately, no decision is necessary when it comes to an outcome or process goal. We need them both, and we need them to work together.
You have likely heard the parable about the blind men and the elephant. It basically outlines the idea that if you surrounded an elephant with blind people who had no idea what an elephant was, and you asked them each to describe the elephant to you, you would get vastly different answers as each of them would only be able to touch a small portion of the animal. If you put all of their descriptions together, you might have a complete picture.
This is how we can think of process and outcome goals, too. The outcome is the description of the elephant while the process goal is the sum of all the descriptions. A process goal will, unsurprisingly, focus on the process and performance that will help you achieve your outcome goal.
What Do Outcome Goals Accomplish?
“The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.” -Igor Stravinsky
This was great advice from 20th century composer Igor Stravinsky that we can apply to goal setting, as well. What Mr. Stravinsky was suggesting is that we are more creative when we have fewer options.
Imagine yourself walking down the cereal aisle. There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of cereals staring back at you, and the choice feels impossible.
You remember that your doctor has just told you that you need to cut down on your sugar intake (bummer). At the same time, you now have a constraint that you can use for choosing a cereal. Now you can focus only on the cereals that don’t have refined sugar as an ingredient.
You begin looking at cereals you never before noticed! This makes it easier to narrow in on which cereal appeals most under the constraint you have been given, and you’re able to do this because your outcome goal was to stop eating sugar.
Because outcome goals are so specific, they help us clarify what direction we want to go in life. Without an outcome goal, life can lack meaning. And without meaning, there’s no reason to get out of bed and put pants on every day.
What Do Process Goals Accomplish?
Once you’re settled on a desired outcome, you can decide how you want to achieve it. Think of it like choosing a road trip destination. Once you know where you’re going, you can then map out which roads you want to take.
The process goal is less specific than the outcome, although, as the name implies, it sets up a process. This can help you avoid procrastination as process goals feel more obtainable than outcome goals. If you struggle with procrastination, you can also check out Lifehack’s Fast Track Class – No More Procrastination.
Let’s go back to the college degree analogy. You decide that you want to become a doctor (outcome goal).
There is a step-by-step process to becoming a doctor that outlines all of the things you need to do along the way (process). One of the first steps is to get a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university. Which university will you go to, and what will you major in? Those are choices you get to make along the way, and no choice is more correct than another.
Sometimes there may be elements that are not completely in your control. For example, you might not be accepted to your first-choice medical school. That doesn’t mean you can’t become a doctor; you just have to apply to multiple schools as part of the goal setting process. That might be a slightly different path than you wanted, but the outcome goal will still be within your reach.
Again, a process goal is not so rigid. They set up directions on how to get to your desired outcome, but your process doesn’t have to look the same as anyone else’s.
Another benefit of process goals is that they can reduce overwhelm and anxiety that could come with contemplating a big outcome goal. Process goals break down the larger goal into bite size pieces. They help us focus on one task at a time while reassuring us that each step adds another drop into the bucket of accomplishing the outcome goal.
What If You Don’t Know What You Want?
One of the biggest challenges for anyone to face is not knowing what they want. It can be nearly impossible to figure out your process if you don’t know what you want your outcome to be.
If this is the case, consider making your new outcome goal figuring out your outcome goal. Then, you get to decide on the process for how you want to discover what you want your outcome goal to be.
Some ways to sort through this process might include:
- Reading books and blogs
- Writing a brainstorm list
- Working with a coach or mentor
- Discovering your core values
The only certain thing in life is the uncertainty of life. And yet, as human beings, we work toward some measure of certainty by deciding on big goals and then filling our time with accomplishing all the little goals in the process that leads us to the final destination.
Obstacles will likely arise, but as long as your process goal allows for small detours, you will be as certain as you can possibly be that you will achieve your overall outcome.
As much as it may be bothersome to hear that goals are a necessary part of life, they certainly do help us get stuff done. Perhaps it would be helpful to notice how you naturally set goals for yourself without thinking about it. For instance, an outcome goal you might have right now is to develop a success mindset. Congratulations, because you just completed a small process goal by reading this article!
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Featured photo credit: Ante Hamersmit via unsplash.com
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