How to Set Useful Goals

The Show-Down:

Process Goals vs Outcome Goals

I’ve talked a fair bit about goals on this blog in the last year.

I told you why they sucked here and here.

I explained one critical thing you need to consider, before you blindly set a goal, here.

I’ve also indicated why rewards often don’t work as motivators, here.

I’ve dedicated a lot of time to developing a better understanding of goals in the last 2-3 years.

Well recently in my search, I stumbled across some interesting information about what kind of goals you should bother with at all.

Meaning, if you are going to set goals, which type should you use?

I read some research information into goals this week, that I’m going to share with you in a minute here, that sheds some light on the useful application of goals.

But first, I need to explain the difference between these two ‘types’ of goals.

Process Goals

Process goals are little goals, specific (but don’t necessarily factor into the SMART approach discussed in other articles) to skill acquisition as a process.

They break down the small steps needed to achieve big things in an activity and eventually lead to an outcome, but are not the outcome itself.

I like to call these type of goals, ‘Little Wins,’ as they provide constant and immediate feedback into a process of execution.

As an example, a process goal would be to break down the steps of an exercise at the gym and to attempt to execute that exercise in the correct process.

Let’s use the body weight (prisoner) squat exercise as an example:

1) Starting with tall posture, my hands behind my head, and my weight on my heels.

2) Lower my hips to the floor under control by pushing my hips behind me like I’m sitting in a chair, and breaking at the knees to bend down towards the ground.

3) Maintaining a neutral spinal position the entire way, I’m going to push my knees away from one another so they track in straight alignment with my hips and ankles.

5) Lower myself to my achievable depth, keeping my center of gravity over my heels, the largest percentage of weight on my heels (ideally until my hips are at or below my knees in height but that’s something I’m going to continue to work on, if I can’t already).

6) Once I achieve my lowest depth possible, push through my heels and accelerate my body up to the starting position, keeping my weight on my heels, my knees in alignment, a big chest with tall posture and my spine in a neutral position.

Process goals often break down more complicated but necessary skills that people need to learn in order to achieve success or an outcome.

These could all be examples of a process goal while performing the squat, yet most people in my experience, try to skip this process by blindly executing this exercise while giving no thought to it’s execution.

The best performers (in any discipline), as the research I’m going to discuss points out, always break down actions/behaviors into processes in an aim to deliberately practice them and execute them.

Outcome Goals

Outcome goals are the SMART or RUMBA type goals that most are familiar with.

They are the goals that most fitness professional recommend their clients make in their weight-loss journeys.

You need to have an end goal, or a light at the end of the tunnel, they may say.

As an example, you desire the outcome to say, lose 35 lbs by December 1st or to weigh 200 lbs 3 months from now.

It could also be a body image goal, a body composition goal, or a performance goal (bench 315 lbs or squat 275 lbs).

The realization that occurred to me in my research is that outcome based or ‘result-driven’ goals are merely the rewards of process goals.

The biggest mistake that we make, is setting an outcome based goal — I want to lose 10 lbs before the wedding — without ever breaking that outcome goal down into process oriented goals or actionable steps.

In essence, without working towards mastering the steps of the process that develops a more encompassing skill, and consequently outcome, we don’t provide the right environment for our outcome based goals to flourish.

If we only create outcome goals and never create process goals, we set ourselves up for failure in a big way.

“Failing to plan, is planning to fail.” ~ Sir Winston Churchill

In effect, Process Goals = Desired Outcome. 

The reverse however, is not true, we cannot achieve success merely by building an outcome goal, because it will not automatically contribute to the development of process goals.

The Research

When studied, average volleyball players set goals to improve things like ‘their concentration,’ an outcome based goal.

Whereas top volleyball performers set goals to improve their service skill, by breaking down and understanding the entire process of the serve.

Top performers work on elbow and foot positioning, wrist follow-through and their toss.

These same top performers in volleyball set process based goals emphasizing the development of their dig, their set, spike, block, and so on.

Average or below average players set goals to obtain so many points, win awards, win a certain number of games, or sets and even garner applause.

Similarly when we analyse free-throw shooters in basketball, those who shoot 70% from the line or greater tend to set goals and practice much differently than those shooters that shoot 55% or less from the line.

Better shooters set technique oriented goals, such as, ‘keep my elbow in’ or ‘follow-through.’

The weak shooters tend to focus and set goals around results, such as, ‘this time I’m going to make 10 in a row,’ or ‘I’m going to make all of my free throws in this game.

This approach differs greatly.

When these basketball players were interviewed after games about missed shots, master shooters were capable of describing in detail the exact process they were unable to fulfill during the shots they missed.

Meanwhile, poor shooters interviewed, offered vague suggestions like, ‘I lost my concentration,’ or ‘I just wasn’t feeling it tonight.’

What it Means

Outcome based or results-driven goals are near useless in the absence of process driven or skill/behavior-related goals.

Or as legendary basketball coach John Wooden would say:

If you take care of the the process, the outcomes will take care of themselves.

The problem with results-oriented goals, is that they are completely beyond your immediate control, instead they are the sum of repeated actions, leading up to a desired outcome.

Obviously then, in our pursuits to achieve an optimal body composition, our focus needs to lie on process driven or skill based goals and NOT on the results. Things that we have direct and immediate control over, right this moment.

It is a common misconception that simply ‘making a goal’ is the first step towards achieving it, or that by simply setting a goal you can provide yourself with the motivation to fulfill it.

Obviously this isn’t true, mostly because results based goals are really just the rewards of many, smaller actionable steps in a successive process that lead to success.

Talk to anyone you would view as a ‘success story’ in any discipline, they will be sure to tell you that they were not an overnight success, even if they appeared to be.

Rather, their success was formed through a foundation of quality habits, skills and behaviors, they acquired over a long period of deliberate practice.

They went through a process to get to where they are today, that when accomplished in little actionable steps, ultimately led to their success, often years after they started.

This is not to say that you can’t set an outcome based goal, — though I discourage leaving your focus on it — it just means that you absolutely must set process-based goals if you are going to actually achieve a desired result.

This crucial difference in focus may be what is setting you back in your fitness or weight-loss pursuits too.

It effectively tells us why the simplistic norm of the fitness industry to ‘set-goals’ leaves 8-9 out of 10 people unsuccessful in their weight-loss pursuits.

And the last and final thing that it means is that actionable process driven goals also set you up for immediate feedback and a positive loop process.

When you see yourself making progress in small steps and focus on the positive outcomes of those small steps, it is far more intrinsically motivating than the extrinsic motivation of the big result at the end of the tunnel.

Ultimately you should focus on picking small consistent daily or weekly practice goals that will inch you closer step by step to your desired outcomes no matter what they are. Here is a weight loss example:

  1. Start with something small, meaningful but almost too easy, that you know will accumulate to a desired outcome. (i.e. eat veggies with every meal)
  2. Practice the habit, skill or behavior every day until you unconsciously do it (21 days+, as much as 66 days generally).
  3. Pick a new, small, almost easy but meaningful behavior to adjust that will accumulate towards your desired outcome. (i.e. cycle 15 minutes a day)
  4. Repeat until you have adopted several positive lifestyle adjustments into your lifestyle on a routine basis, and be shocked when you suddenly get to your desired outcome without having to think about the outcome.

Do you have an example of this working for you?

Tell me about it, in the comments below.

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