Goals: Process Versus Outcome

CoachOiseau Life & Leadership Coaching

A well-constructed goal can change your life

Goal setting is a topic that gets a lot of attention in the personal and professional development space. It was one of many areas of focus when I was becoming a certified coach, and goals themselves often become key points of importance for leaders of teams and organizations.

It makes sense, right? Goals can help to move people in a certain direction that aligns with the interests of the greater good.

But goals often end up being better in theory than in practice. And part of that often comes from not understanding the difference between outcome and process goals.

The greatest goal ever set?

The late US president John F. Kennedy is famous for (among many other things), pledging in 1961 to have an American on the moon by the end of the 1960’s. It was a lofty goal that the US succeeded in completing in 1969.

“We choose to go to the moon,” he said. What an incredible, overarching outcome goal.

It was a goal that rallied an entire nation. It saw tens of billions of dollars of government funds go toward NASA, and the advancement of hundreds of different technologies – many of which are still used every day.

And as Kennedy declared it, it was also a perfect example of a SMART goal. It was very specific, measurable (you either get there or you don’t!), attainable/realistic and time-bound (a 9-year window was set as the deadline for the project). I’ll stop here though, as SMART goals will be the topic of a future post. 😉

What is a process goal?

The outcome that JFK wanted led to the creation of many process goals, which can be viewed as smaller steps toward a larger outcome goal. In the case of NASA’s Apolla Program, for example, they might have looked like the following:

  • create a rocket that can power a large load up and out of Earth’s atmosphere
  • design and build a lunar landing spacecraft
  • create computers that will allow spacecraft to operate without direct human intervention

Back in the 1960’s, these would have been considered massive undertakings. They were possibly so large that each one of them could’ve been viewed as miniature outcome goals. But simplicity’s sake, let’s consider them process goals, aligned with the larger outcome of landing on the moon.

Each one of these smaller projects were critical elements in the Apollo Program. When brought together, they allowed the US to “win” the so-called “Space Race” against the Soviet Union.

(In my humble opinion, the feeling of superiority over their Cold Way rivals was almost certainly the real motivation behind the development of the Program in the first place).

Process goals support outcome goals, whatever they may be

Virtually all outcome goals, such as losing weight, earning a promotion at work, or mastering a new hobby, can be broken down into process goals.

For example, if you were to set an outcome goal around weight loss, some of the process goals might be:

  • work out three times a week
  • reduce daily caloric intake to 1400-1600 calories
  • engage in 30 minutes of daily physical activity

All of these actionable tasks would lead you forward in your desired direction toward a lighter frame.

How this helps you

As I mentioned earlier, the goals you set can often go unaccomplished, and this is for a variety reasons. While writing down a plan or objective is certainly a good start to creating change, the real secret to goal execution is taking action.

Think about it for moment. If you want to change something in your life, but aren’t physically doing anything differently, how can anything in your life actually change?

How can you gain twenty pounds of muscle if you do nothing in support of this goal?

How can you grow your career if you never take the time to deepen your skill set?

And how can you go from being totally single to married in eighteen months if you don’t go out and meet potential mates (like, right now, because eighteen months can fly by!)?

Nothing changes without action! If you want to achieve your goals, but are struggling to get closer to your desired outcomes, it’s time to look at the processes you’re using to move yourself forward.

How to set better goals

There are three areas that I commonly see people struggle with when setting goals. Could one or more of these elements be missing in your own portfolio of objectives?

Lack of specificity: “get a job” is way less precise than “find an entry-level job in the local finance industry.” If I were to set the former goal for myself, I wouldn’t know (at all!) where to begin my job search.

Lack of a measurable endpoint: if your end result can’t be pinpointed in some way, how will you know when you’ve arrived at your desired destination?

Lack of a well-considered time frame: without a distinct time frame, your goal might end up taking your entire life to complete. I’m a big fan of Parkinson’s Law, which suggests that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” If you don’t give yourself a deadline, you’ll probably be dead before you reach your goal.

Address one or more of these three areas, and there’s a strong chance that your goal will be reached. If you’re still struggling to reach your goal after tackling these issues, then you’re likely lacking an emotional investment in the goal (which I’ll write about next week).

One bold goal away

As JFK taught us all, it only takes one incredible objective – executed brilliantly – to create substantial change.

Winning the Space Race in 1969 was followed up roughly twenty years later by their “victory” over the USSR in the Cold War.

This has shaped the world tremendously. US culture has become a dominant force in many countries around the world, and their leadership in science and industry have brought the country to the top of the global economic food chain (although we’ll see if that can be maintained).

What’s the one big goal that will change your life? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below!

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