Why Choose Process Goals? (Over Outcome-Based Goals)

Are you tired of setting goals and never achieving them? Are you compulsively buying goal planners that you fill with ambitious projects, but sadly they never see the light of day? Are you reading a bunch of articles on habits, but you are still somehow not able to have good habits? Are you desperately trying to feel humble and inspired by the ongoing success of others, but you somehow always end up swarmed by negative emotions…

Fret about the lack of continuous progress no more!

Behold the easy-to-understand but progressively hard-to-do power of process goals. These “you have to do them till you are alive” type of goals offer a sure way to rid you of your uneventful and unprogressive life.

Must be tried to be believed, and must be believed to be tried.

By using process goals, you’ll go from potentially healthy for a brief moment in your life to undeniably muscular for the majority of your existence.

“How is this possible in our complicated world full of irresistible distractions?” And, “Are these positive changes guaranteed even if you are incurably lazy?” you might ask?

Absolutely! (But do read the full package insert)

OK, enough fooling around…

Clearly, we know what goals are. You can’t go through school, a particular project – nor walk across the street. Without your ability to conceptualize the idea of goals.

But our current usage of goals is limiting us from making substantial progress.

That is, we see goals as mental planning that aims to get us from point A to point B. Surely, this variation of goal-setting is acceptable for a wide range of desires. For example, simple things like driving from Colorado to Massachusetts while stopping in Iowa and Buffalo. Or more intense things like painting a picture. Or, wanting to run a marathon.

But many times, we fail to see our real intentions when we set goals. Yes, we probably do want to create a canvas or sweat for 42 kilometers straight without even stopping to go to the restroom. Oftentimes, though. Our real desire is to become an artist or become healthier and athletic.

Plainly, we focus on setting outcome-based goals. Goals that, once achieved, are no longer pursued.

Unable to see past these one-time milestones. We quite often reach these goals only to return to our previous state of being – not drawing, not running, or in sum, not being the person we ought to be.

What Are Process Goals?

Instead of watching in sorrow as everything you’ve worked for crumbles to dust after you’ve reached your outcome-based goal. Process goals are a different beast altogether.

Process goals are goals that require continuous action. The purpose of setting process goals over outcome-based goals is to maintain long-lasting change instead of momentary success.

We can even label process goals as the more general: continuous goals.

Let’s throw an example into the mix to make things less abstract.

You have a pair of denims in your wardrobe that were once perfectly fitted to you – uniquely mirroring the curves of your body. You desperately want to put them back on. Sadly, your disruptive habit of going to the refrigerator every 15 minutes led to a substantial increase in your physic, which makes it impossible for you to cover your bottom with the said denims. Now, in a burst of rebellious excitement triggered by a random article about weight loss online. You want to cut the fat and successfully clothe with the jeans that are seemingly making fun of your current weight.

Ahh, the struggle!

Using what you have in your head as mental models. You descend into the valley of vagueness by firmly stating that you’ll lose some weight. How much? Who cares. You just need some – enough to fit into the jeans.

Contrary to what your horoscope said about your ability to commit to a project. You manage to reduce your weight and even place yourself inside the jeans after a couple of weeks.

“Take that, you jeans!”, you loudly remark and award yourself with a trip to a fancy restaurant, completely forgetting about the regime that led you to the slimmer you.

Since the goal was reached. You no longer think that you should keep eating properly. So, you return to your previous state of eating unproperly.

Soon enough, you’re back where you’ve started. Wanting to wear the jeans but unable to do so.


If you see yourself in the elaborate example above. You’re not alone.

The “jeans” story is how we typically set goals – outcome-based goals.

We state that we want to lose weight. But what we should be actually doing is committing to a type of behavior that will help us maintain a certain body weight. Or in other words, we should set process goals.

In the case above, instead of saying “I want to lose some weight” or even the more descriptive “I want to lose 15 pounds”. I much better alternative that has the potential of keeping us well-fitted into the jeans for years is the following: “I want to become a healthier person.”

Suddenly, you’re no longer rushing to get to a certain weight. You are designing your lifestyle to fit the identity you want to mold.

But why do we primarily set outcome-based goals?

Process Goals vs. Outcome-Based Goals

Far too many people set goals using the following format: Rush > Reach > Rest.

Let’s unpack that:

  • We rush towards the goals we set. We do the unthinkable to get to that reduced body weight.
  • We reach the goal at some point in our lives. Thus, we enter a state of awe and joy. But after that, we…
  • We rest. We abruptly stop the activities that led to our triumph, only to find ourselves in starting position – e.g., gaining weight again.

But why is that?

Why don’t we act like grown-ups and decide what type of person we want to be – by setting identity-based habits – and commit to this persona?

Well, young padawan, simply because it’s much easier to pursue outcome-based goals.

If we use again the losing weight example. Stating that you want to lose 15 pounds means that you don’t want to stop consuming junk food. You just want to experience the momentary pleasure of seeing yourself again in a slimmer outfit. Once you do reach the goal – the state of weighing 15 pounds less. You reactivate the former lifestyle.

A graph showing that when we reach an outcome-based goal, we stop making efforts.
Outcome-based goals mean that when you reach the goal – get the result. You cease the efforts. In some occasions, this is, of course, good enough. But when our desire is to maintain a certain result. We need process goals.

Technically, you want to stay healthy. But you probably still don’t possess the willpower required to commit to a life without tables covered with chocolate puddings and soda fountains.

Conversely, process goals require continuous efforts. Thus, they are less desirable by the mind that wants to bathe in items that bring immediate sensations and doses of revolutionary pleasure.

A graph showing that when we set process goals we simply reach milestones. The effort is not reduced when a milestone is reached.
When setting process goals, you still get results but they are more like milestones. The effort continuous onward.

Outcome-based goals focus you on becoming healthy – one time. Process goals focus you on the ongoing process of maintaining good health – all the time.

Simply put, process goals not only help you become healthier. They also tackle the more pressing question: staying healthier.

Setting Process Goals Like a Pro in 3 Steps

So, how do you set process goals?

Or should we state, how do you keep looking spectacular 10 years from now in just about any piece of clothing?

Well, very different from the other type of goal setting we’ve discussed.

People who set outcome-based goals not only don’t consider what will happen after their goal to lose a couple of pounds is reached. But they also don’t think it’s needed to think about after the goal. They live a life of blissful ignorance. Thinking that their weight will somehow magically sustain itself.

Alas, habituation happens, and we are back to where we started. Identifying as someone who occasionally – or not so occasionally – feels fat.

With process goals, we still think about how to lose weight. But the difference is that there is an absence of completion (i.e., you focus on the process). Not that you progressively lose weight till you become a tiny particle and suddenly evaporate. But you embrace the ongoing process of maintaining a healthy regime to refrain from being oversized.

So, the first step in setting process goals is to…

1. Think About The Person You Want To Be

Empty sheet with text: What do I want to change for good?

What do you want to change for good in your life?

Instead of marking a random date on the calendar that you’ll help you reach X. Think about what type of life you want to live.

No, you don’t have to hire a spiritual advisor to answer this question.

This step simply requires a bit more long-term thinking. It’s a question that goes beyond having something and focuses on being someone.1

You can have a well-toned body today, but that doesn’t mean that you are a healthy person. And not being a healthy person will surely lead to a point where you are looking for intermittent fasting tips online.

2. Think About What Can Disturb Your Flow

Empty sheet with text: What hindered my progress in the past (or might in the future)?

Probably, you’ve tried to keep a low-carb diet in the past, but you failed. Or, you did try to transition from your current career as an office clerk to the more prestigious Software Ninjaneer but your lack of focus during the learning program lead to not completing the course.

What happened?

Analyzing your past failed attempts. Examining temptations that contributed to a lack of progress can surely help with better planning.

Once you know what factors are responsible for your failures in the past. You can take these into account and create better routines.

Plus, of course, also think about possible obstacles that can sabotage you in the future and prepare for them in advance.

3. Think About What Needs To Happen (What Needs To Change?)

Empty sheet with text: How exactly I'll make this happen?

As they say, “The only certain thing in life is change.”

But do we want to change?

Not exactly.

Your Insta feed might be bloated with people doing Pilates and running outdoors, but that’s probably the closest you ever get to exercising.

That’s actually a thing, and it’s called living vicariously. The elaborate definition of living vicariously is that we live life through the experiences of someone else, rather than stepping outside our comfort zone and doing something.

Strange, I know. But it does happen. Your brain, like a nasty parasite, feeds from the achievements of others and completely ignores the fact that we need some achievements in our life as well.

So, during this third and final step. After overcoming the initially erupting agony caused by the realization that, “indeed, something needs to change.” You craft a plan for what exactly and at what proportion you should change in your life, depending on your desired new and improved you.

For instance, you can replace some time usually dedicated to online scrolling with reading a book on health, or on finances, or whatever your new you needs. Then, state exactly when you’ll do the activities related to your ongoing goal.


Whatever you form as an action plan in the last step. There is one thing that will certainly happen: A subtle but powerful internal conflict will emerge. A serious disagreement between who you are and what you currently do (probably a procrastinator and an idler) and who you want to become (an efficient productivity machine).

When you undoubtedly reach this phase. Regardless of your level of motivation, things rarely get easier. The pull towards your old self – a lay back way of living – is usually quite strong. From my experience, what helps me shift from not doing to doing, are a couple of strategies that I’ll call process goals boosters.

Process Goals Boosters

If the above is still not enough to help you transition from goals that have an ending to such that are with infinite character. Perhaps these boosters will do the trick:

  • Gradual change: Envisioning a gargantuan shift in your lifestyle is hardly reachable. A much better alternative is to embrace a gradual change to avoid cramps – and fizzling out. Less exciting, but evidently more manageable way to use process goals is to focus on low doses of the desired new behavior. For example, if you identified that you want to become a healthier person. Starting with 60 minutes of daily workouts is hardly sustainable. Probably a better idea is to start with 10 minutes workouts every other day and gradually increase the dosage – do check this for help: micro habits.
  • Habits: A large thermos filled with Red Bull can help with maintaining your energy levels high. But a much better alternative is to embed good daily habits and take advantage of habit stacking. In fact, habits are routines you can’t not add if you want to make a lifestyle shift.
  • Mental toughness: Regardless of what you’re aiming to do. Lasting change requires the hard-to-obtain keep-going attitude. Not only that it’s difficult to transition from not exercising to exercising regularly. But what makes it uniquely challenging is that you should always be surprisingly comfortable with the lack of progress in the early days. You see, we desperately want to see results in exchange for our efforts, but the paradox is that impressive results rarely show quickly. We need to wait. But waiting (a.k.a. patience) is not our strong side. Thus, you not only have to be physically strong to make a change. But mentally resilient to convince yourself to keep going even when there is seemingly little evidence that what you do is impactful.
  • Revisions: Your first plan is hardly the best plan. Once you jot down the new daily schedule that will move you closer to your “best version”. Instead of feeling the pinch of shrinking motivation towards the lifestyle you desire. Revising this document based on the feedback you’ve gathered through living is another key point. Probably you can’t work out every single day. Or probably totally blocking sugar from your life is not something you can live with. Make the necessary updates to stay on course.
  • Staying sane while staying on course: I cannot pretend that there is a simple set of instructions that will move you from a state of laziness to a state of continuous almighty productivity in just 3 (or 5, or more) steps. There are far too many things out of our control – our level of motivation being one of them as well. You can’t expect that since you now have process goals in place to help you become healthier, smarter, whatever. Like Sisyphus, you’d keep pushing that boulder uphill without any rest. Maintaining sanity- that is, accepting that there will be good days and bad days, and also resting when you have to. Is an important component that will keep you on track.

Some Closing Thoughts

The premise of goals is that when we reach them. We no longer have to pursue them.

No wonder why that is. Here are two definitions of the word goal:

  • “A result that one is attempting to achieve.”
  • “The end toward which effort is directed.”

But exactly reaching the result – reaching the goal – is that barrier that gets in the way of maintaining the result.

Sure, there are times when reaching a goal is exactly what we need – e.g., arriving at a particular destination. But often enough, we want to get the result and keep having it.

So, the next time you’re staring at the blank page of your yearly planner. Think about what type of change you want in your life.

Do you want to do something one-time? Get from point A to point B. Something that will require setting an outcome-based goal.

Or…

Do you want permanent change? You want to commit to a certain way of living.

The way you define your goal will define the way you live your life.2

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Footnotes:

  1. The concept of being over having is something I’ve adopted from the eye-opening book: To Have or to Be? by Erich Fromm.
  2. For those who have chased goals for a while and they didn’t quite work. You might consider the concept of systems over goals. In other words, do check this: Systems vs Goals: Why You Need Systems, Not Goals.
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