And why you need to set process goals

The holidays are over and your tan has never looked better. Now it’s back to school. This time of year, the word ‘goals’ gets thrown around a lot. If it hasn’t hit you through New Year’s resolutions, it’s about to through smack you in the face when you go back to school. Setting goals is… interesting. We all know we should do it. You know, to get stuff done. But half the time setting a goal is followed by this sinking feeling… like, sh*t, now I actually have to go and DO that stuff? Really?

Let’s change that.

Goals are supposed to help you get to where you want to be, not make you feel bad. But a lot of the time, we skip ahead and miss out some pretty essential parts of the goal setting process. The parts that actually help us succeed at what we want to do. Because of this, we often end up in this nasty cycle. You know the one – set a goal, fail, write off setting goals as pointless and boring.

But done right, goals can get us where we want to be. So what are we missing?

Many of the goals we set are “outcome goals”. They are the end point, the final destination (hopefully less gruesome than the movies). Get all Excellences, pass my maths exam, move up an English class – these are all outcome goals. And often, they don’t work. In 2011, New Zealand was just scraping in with a win against France in the World Cup final. LMFAO was releasing Party Rock Anthem. And I was failing organic chemistry. It came as a surprise – sure, chemistry was hard, but doable. And so when that red N/A grinned back at me from the mock exam, it felt like I had been punched in the stomach by a carbon chain. Unconsciously, I had set an outcome goal – probably “get an M”. Definitely not “get a N/A”. Now, I didn’t know about outcome goals back then. But I did know that something had gone wrong, and I needed to go back to the beginning to figure it out. So how did I do it? Basically, I started looking at my process, and setting goals around that. It became less about focusing on a specific mark, and more about how I was approaching study and the exam.

Process goals are not about the outcome.

They don’t focus on end of year exam results, credits achieved, university admission obtained… none of that. Not even my N/A in organic chemistry. Process goals are about what, exactly, we’re going to do to perform well. In short, they’re about creating the right conditions for success. An example of a process goal might be to summarise your notes in a mindmap after each class, or to always make an essay plan before you launch into writing an essay. Why should we be focusing on these first? Well, they’re great for a few different reasons:

  • Process goals are totally within our control – what everyone else does doesn’t mess with your process. Outcome goals are often influenced by others’ results – if you get the scholarship for P.E., that makes it less likely that I will. If you move up a Maths class, my chances of doing the same becomes smaller. Not so with process goals.
  • Success is doing. Even if your essay plan is terrible, or your mindmap looks more out of control than an episode of Geordie Shore, you’ve succeeded at your goal. Win.
  • If exams make you nervous, this type of goal is your friend. Process goals reduce anxiety because having a process to focus on puts the emphasis back on things you can fully control. They can be the difference between freaking out in an exam and tackling it systematically.

Process goals don’t just improve your actual results, they also make you feel better about how you’re doing. Studies show that when you focus on processes over outcomes, you believe in yourself, can see how you’re improving and want to keep going. Motivating much??

If we set down some solid process goals and meet them, we’ve created the conditions for success. It’s almost like… it’s the most likely thing to happen!

In Summary

Is there anything wrong with setting outcome goals? What if you really do want to achieve University entrance, or kick some serious ass in your physics exam? What if you’d actually like to pass Chem? (hello, past me!) Awesome. Outcome goals are a fact of life, but the key is to focus on process goals first. Have them be the solid base from which you achieve your outcome goals. So how did process goals pan out for me in Chemistry? I got all Excellences in the end of year exam. The science says process goals beat outcome goals, and apparently Chemistry agrees.