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Process Goal vs Outcome Goal: How To Use Them To Achieve Success

Goals, goals, goals. Everyone’s talking about the need to set goals. It’s as if we’re expected to set goals around setting goals, otherwise we might not accomplish anything, right?

Well, yeah. Kind of.

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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 for using them!

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

One of the ways, known as outcome goal, is we view our goals is by knowing and stating clearly what we want. This is a “big want,” like getting a specific job or selling a house.

Another way, known as process goal, is to look at 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 goal viewpoints operate, 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 gowns 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.

Process goals are 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 outcome and process goals. 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] If you haven’t, it’s definitely a good one with which to get acquainted. 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 to process is the sum of all the descriptions.

What Do Outcome Goals Accomplish?

“The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.”

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. How do you choose?

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 one every day. A lot of people felt this way during the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020. Remember that?

What Do Process Goals Accomplish?

Once settled on a desired outcome, now we can decide how we 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.

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 one? And what do you major in? Those are choices you get to make along the way, and no choice is more correct than another. Choosing which medical school you want to attend is another step in the process. Again, there’s choice involved!

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. Does that mean you can’t become a doctor? Nope. You just have to apply to multiple schools. That might be a slightly different path than you wanted, but the outcome goal will still be within your reach.

Again, process goals are 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 be to figure 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 lead us to the final destination.

Obstacles will likely arise. But as long as your process 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. Well, 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


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