Focus On the Process, Not the Outcome (or You’ll Keep Quitting)

Focus On the Process, Not the Outcome
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When you are setting your goals and outlining your next steps, your ideal outcome is likely at the front and center of your planning. Your desired result will shape how you decide to approach your goal and how you will measure your progress. While being result-focused during the planning process is ideal, it is not so beneficial when you start to pursue your goals.

To achieve a major outcome goal, such as buying a house or getting a promotion, you will need to complete a series of process goals [1]. Acknowledging and celebrating the achievement of process goals is key to maintaining your motivation, willpower, and discipline.

The case for focusing on the process rather than the outcome is compelling.

Why are outcome goals demotivating?

Focusing on your end results is far less motivating than focusing on the processes that get you there. One of the major reasons is that doing so ties your satisfaction and sense of achievement purely to your outcome [2].

This leaves you vulnerable to emotional fluctuations because outcomes are rarely within your direct control. So while reaching or exceeding an outcome goal can lead to immense pride, failing to hit the benchmark can feel like total failure.

Even if you’ve improved in many ways on the journey to your goal, you may not register this progress if you define only a specific outcome as “success.”

Outcome vs. Process Focus
Focusing solely on the outcome (a job offer in this example) causes emotions to fluctuate widely based on events that are outside one’s direct control. Further, the consistent improvements in job-search skills that are making success increasingly probable remain largely unnoticed.

The tendency to link emotions with outcomes (also known as outcome dependence) can lead to several problems, such as:

  • Setting goals that are too easy
  • Avoiding risk
  • Difficulty navigating obstacles and giving up too easily
  • Sticking with goals we are not passionate about

All the above defeat the purpose of goal setting, which is to stretch ourselves and achieve our full potential. Focusing on the process helps us get more out of our experiences, whether or not we reach our desired end goal.

Benefits of focusing on the process, not the outcome

There are many reasons why prioritizing our processes is essential to effective goal attainment.

Goals work best when they are flexible

Getting from point A to point B rarely happens in a linear fashion. Even the best-laid plan is vulnerable to life’s curveballs. This doesn’t mean that we should abandon our plans at the slightest hint of trouble.

In fact, the opposite is true. By being less rigid about the specificity of our outcomes, we increase our odds of actually achieving them.

Focusing too much on the end result can make goals static. While remaining steadfastly committed to an outcome is important for achieving difficult long-term goals, it can also be detrimental to your progress [3].

Here is an example. Imagine you are preparing for a professional exam in your field. You envision yourself passing on the first try with flying colors and moving on to work in the company of your dreams.

However, after taking the first practice test, you fail miserably. You realize that you may have to take the exam several times before passing. If you believe your initial goal is the only acceptable outcome, you may decide that this industry isn’t the right one for you and drop your ambitions completely.

If you had a more flexible approach, you could change the goalposts and instead focus on improving your score with every retake. Now, your focus has shifted to your process. You decide to devote more hours to studying and celebrate every time your score gets closer to the passing mark.

By following a process-focused approach, you eventually pass the exam and go on to work with your dream company. You arrive at the same destination, despite taking a detour.

When you focus on the process, not the outcome, you increase intrinsic motivation

Redirecting your attention to your process not only improves your chance of achieving your outcomes but also makes the entire journey more fun!

Process goals are more likely to elicit intrinsic rewards, such as internal feelings of satisfaction, mastery, and creativity. That is because, unlike outcome goals, we have far more control over our process goals [4]. We can decide what success means to us and how we get there. We can use this flexibility to create process goals based on our values and actions that we find intrinsically motivating.

To illustrate this, let’s compare the outcome goal of getting a new job with the process goal of applying to job advertisements. Getting a job requires securing an interview and being selected by the hiring manager. Both of these actions are out of our control. While getting a job offer will feel amazing, we cannot control when or how that will happen.

For the process goal of sending out applications, we can set our own target goal. For example, we can start by compiling a list of target companies, then crafting a cover letter for each. This exercise allows us to express our passion for the industry and have a better understanding of our strengths and how we can apply them in our dream position.

Here, success is defined by learning more about yourself and sticking to your self-directed goals. According to the Self-Determination Theory of Motivation, these types of outcomes are intrinsic because they allow us to meet any of our three core psychological needs [5]:

  • Autonomy – Independence and choice
  • Relatedness – Connection with others
  • Competence – Knowledge and skills

Here are a few ways to make process goals more intrinsically rewarding:

ProcessExample
AutonomyUse your personal best rather than a standard outcome as a benchmark for improvement.
Identify multiple processes that can bring you closer to your goals and alternate between these approaches.
RelatednessIncorporate your values into your process (e.g., if you value competition, add a competitive element).
Find peers or a mentor who can support you.
CompetenceCreate learning goals that measure progress in your skill/knowledge.
Document your process. For example, create a visual scrapbook of your work or record your thoughts in a journal.

Focusing on the process enhances The Winner Effect

Focusing on the end result gives you one finish line to race towards. This can be motivating when the end goal is in your eye line. However, if you are miles and miles away, you will need some additional markers to let you know that you are on the right track.

Focusing on the process gives you infinitely more finish lines to cross. This means more moments to celebrate and, most importantly, more opportunities to experience the Winner Effect.

The Winner Effect is a psychobiological phenomenon that appears in all species, even humans. After winning a competition, no matter the difficulty or stakes, the brain undergoes biological changes that induce positive and powerful feelings. These changes also make us more likely to win against a more difficult opponent.

Neuropsychologist Dr. Ian Robertson, the author of the book The Winner Effect, breaks down the concept in this short video:  “The Winner Effect” by Ian H. Robertson.

In humans, the Winner Effect can be triggered by any action we consider a win. In fact, if we reframe how we look at failure, even rejections can be interpreted as a win and promote the Winner Effect.

Here’s a common example used amongst sales agents. In most industries, less than 15% of leads convert to sales. In order to meet their sales targets, agents must experience nearly ten times more rejections than conversions. For this reason, agents measure their success by both metrics, as a higher number of rejections correlates with a higher rate of conversions.

Sales agents also set process goals, such as reaching out to a certain number of leads on a daily or weekly basis, to maintain control over their progress.

When you focus on the process, you can harness the Winner Effect by multiplying your milestones, reframing failures as indicators of progress, and setting up easy wins to boost your confidence.

Focusing on the process takes less discipline

One of the biggest problems with remaining end-goal focused is that you may not take time to analyze your processes.

If you continuously fail to reach your goal, you may think that the goal is unachievable. In reality, your processes may not be setting you up for success.

Behavioral psychologists have noted the importance of traits like self-discipline and willpower in goal setting and achievement. However, both of these characteristics need to be developed over time. If your goals require you to exert enormous amounts of discipline to maintain progress, you are very likely to give up.

Process goals reframe your time horizon to more manageable short-term time chunks. Instead of needing the discipline to eventually run for 5 miles without stopping, you only need to worry about having the discipline to beat your best record in 10-minute increments. 

Atomic Habits author James Clear describes your processes and approaches as your “system.” In this video, he talks about how improving your system can lead to more progress: Forget About Setting Goals. Focus on This Instead.

Process-focused goals are more sustainable

One of the most obvious downsides of outcome goals is their lack of durability. Once you’ve achieved the goal, most likely you do not have to achieve it again. Even if you want to achieve a similar goal, you will probably have a different set of circumstances and experiences that will affect how you will work toward your goal.

Process goals, on the other hand, can be repurposed to help you achieve multiple types of goals. For example, many process goals fit into the following formula:

Complete X action Y times per day/week/month over a Z time period

This type of process goal can be modified to help you achieve different types of outcomes.

Here are a few examples:

GoalProcess Goal
Pay off debtPay $500 per month towards the debt over 10 months.
Make new friendsAttend 2 meetups per month in 2023.
Find a new jobComplete 10 applications per week until a job offer.

Remaining process-focused gives you the tools to create a sustainable goal-attainment strategy that can be adapted according to your needs and situation.

Summary

Outcome goals are great for narrowing down your focus and creating an action plan. However, in order to make continuous progress, you must also pay attention to your processes. Having a process-focused approach gives you the flexibility and motivation needed to stick to your goals over the long term.

Sources

[1] Future Learn. (n.d.). Outcome goals, performance goals, and process goals. FutureLearn. https://www.futurelearn.com/info/courses/mental-skills-training-sport/0/steps/98129

[2] Latham, G. P. (2004). The Motivational Benefits of Goal-Setting. The Academy of Management Executive (1993-2005), 18(4), 126–129. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4166132

[3] David B. Feldman Ph.D. (2017, September 25). Why Giving Up Can Sometimes Be Good | Psychology Today. Www.psychologytoday.com. https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/supersurvivors/201709/why-giving-can-sometimes-be-good

[4] Acha, K. (2018, May 8). Three types of Goals. KENNETH MD | DR. KENNETH ACHA, MD, MA. https://www.kennethmd.com/three-types-of-goals/

[5] University of Rochester Medical Center. (2022). Self-Determination Theory of Motivation – Center for Community Health & Prevention – University of Rochester Medical Center. Www.urmc.rochester.edu. https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/community-health/patient-care/self-determination-theory.aspx

Alisha Verly Jensen
Alisha Verly Jensen
I am a freelance wellness writer passionate about positive psychology and gentle productivity. I enjoy studying personal development and sharing what I’ve learned to help others create a balanced and fulfilling life. When I am not writing, I am tending to my garden.