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Goal Getting

Process Goal vs Outcome Goal: How to Use Them for Success

Written by Tess Miller
Life transition coach who helps professionals who love what they do but aren't sure where it's going
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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.

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[1]. 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.

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.


The Problem with Outcome Goals

Having the ability to commit to large goals requires immense emotional and mental energy. While it’s easy to decide on an outcome goal, sticking to it is another story. Outcome goal setting is one of the most important ways to achieve self-development, but if you focus too much on these goals, you’ll end up feeling burnt out.

Regardless of what you want to achieve, whether it’s to get a degree, become a professional athlete, or build a business, you need to be aware of the negative side of becoming too centered on your outcome goals.

The major problem outcome goals can bring is unnecessary pressure on yourself. When you have a goal that seems far to reach or hard to achieve, you’ll end up feeling stressed all the time until you achieve that goal. This could take days, weeks, months, and even years. If you are not well-versed in handling pressure and stress, you’ll end up giving up.

Another issue with outcome goals is it can make you feel like a failure. Outcome goals are a double-edged sword because while it sets you up for big victories, it can also make you feel like you have no direction. If you do not hit your goal, you may get an urge to compare yourself with others.

Just because you did not get the results you want does not automatically mean you are a failure. Going back to the degree goal, if your outcome goal is to become a lawyer in five years, but by the end of your timeline, you’re still in law school, how would that make you feel?

Whenever you set an outcome goal, you need to remember that success does not just have one definition. It is normal to change your goal or create a different game plan to achieve it.


Why Process Goals Are Better

One of the best places you can see the power of process goals is through video games. For example, in the game Pokémon, you start with a single Pokémon, and from there, you build your roster by fighting other trainers, catching other Pokémon’s, and making your team the best it can be. Each process goal you hit makes you more motivated to aim higher and keep working hard.

Just like in Pokémon, you don’t start by giving yourself the biggest challenge you can face. You start with a small and achievable challenge that you can easily win. Even better, a process goal can help you know what you exactly need to do to progress.

What many people don’t understand is when they are setting an outcome goal, they are actually about to undertake hundreds or thousands of process goals. Instead of starting with something overwhelming and feeling like you need to climb up Mt. Everest, simply put one foot in front of the other. Before you know it, you’ve already achieved the outcome goal you want.

While outcome goals have an important place in your life, and it’s vital to set this type of goal every once in a while, it would be better for your mental health to start with something smaller and not push yourself too quickly.

Pros and Cons of Process Goals

Having clear process goals will truly make it easier for you to assess where you are and keep yourself accountable. However, you shouldn’t have an unrealistic view of process goals. To help you make the most of goal-setting, here are the advantages and disadvantages of process goals.


It is easier to achieve

It’s no secret that outcome goals take a long time to achieve. Meanwhile, process goals do not need much discipline and patience. When you see yourself achieving your goals constantly, your self-confidence will increase.

It gives you clearer direction

Imagine if you wanted to start a restaurant. You don’t simply launch your menu and wait for customers the next day. You need to register your business, get a team, and develop your recipes. This will take months.

When you simply tell yourself to build a restaurant, you don’t have a clear outline of the steps needed to achieve that goal. Without direction, you may end up wasting your money and time.


It’s not overwhelming

Outcome goals can be very complex and overwhelming. In comparison, a process goal is simpler to achieve since it’s already stripped down. Therefore, results can be seen in no time.

For example, joining a marathon seems unattainable for someone who is not athletic. Before your race, set realistic process goals like finding an athletics coach, joining a track club, and running five times a week. Having these easy targets is an awesome strategy to accomplish your goal, and maybe even earn a medal.



You’ll have smaller wins

While you will see results in process goals, the rewards won’t be life-altering, and they won’t give you the same level of gratification as an outcome goal would. However, they are enough to push you forward.

You will stay in your comfort zone

You need to get out of your comfort zone to grow. However, process goals won’t challenge you enough to propel you out of your comfort zone. What’s worse is it can even limit your mind.

No room for reflection

Another downfall of process goals is you will be too focused on results to deal with reflection. It’s either you get past your small goals or not. This can easily make you feel defeated. On the other hand, outcome goals have more weight so it’s easier for you to pick yourself back up.

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:

Final Thoughts

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!


More About Goal Setting

Featured photo credit: Ante Hamersmit via unsplash.com


[1]American Literature: The Blind Men and the Elephant
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