Process or Outcome goal?

Back at the New Year I wrote all about SMART and DUMB goals which are acronyms for remembering the parameters to use when setting your goals. Today I’m explaining the difference between two types of goal – process and outcome. At their simplest, a process goal is one that focus on actions you take in the journey to becoming a better runner; an outcome goal will show you are a better runner.

Typical examples include:

Process goal

  • Run three times each week for thirty mins.
  • Eat banana after every run.
  • Buy new running shoes every 500 miles.

Outcome goal

  • Finish first at my local parkrun.
  • Break forty minutes for 10K.
  • Beat my rival at next half marathon.

I’m a big fan of setting Process goals because they’re within your control and if you complete them you get a sense of satisfaction from ticking them all off. They’re very motivating because of all the ticks you see. Completing them can be good for your mental health because ticking off the goal reminds you of how you’ve just seen a goal through to completion and celebrating that success.

In some ways, they’re like a “Gratitude Journal”, those diaries which people keep to remind themselves of five good things that happened to them that day. The secret behind the Gratitude Journal’s success is that it keeps you focused on the present and good feelings, not looking into the future for what you wish or think you need to make you happy.

The downside of Process Goals is it’s possible to get bogged down with routine never achieving anything of substance. You can end up living in the process of getting better without ever testing yourself in races to find out whether you’re actually better. It’s like teaching your kids to save money for the future, it’s a good habit to learn, but what good does it do if the money just sits in the bank unspent?

On the other hand, the success of Outcome goals can be dependent on factors beyond your control.

  • What happens if Mo Farah turns up and runs your local parkrun the day you were targeting to finish first?
  • What happens if your target 10K race falls on a day with 50mph winds?
  • What happens if your rival gets a coach, starts training hard, buys the latest shoes with carbon fibre footplate?

But this can also work in your favour – you may be able to achieve your Outcome goal through judicious selection of circumstances. Want to be First Finisher at parkrun? Go to a small one where the turnout is low and the finishing time is slow. For many years, Pymmes parkrun regularly had less than thirty runners, sometimes only single figures. There’s nothing wrong per se with selecting enabling circumstances but it can become a hollow victory if you’re too focused and selective, rather like challenging your five-year-old to a game of chess.

Sometimes there’s a crossover between Process and Outcome goals e.g. aiming to run 40-minutes at the 10K to be first female finisher. But usually Process goals are defined as manageable steps along the way to your Outcome goal. Tick off all the Process goals and you’ve got a good chance of hitting your Outcome but there can always be things beyond your control to stop you succeeding.

Process goals should be achievable as long as you put in the effort or hardwork; with an Outcome goal you can fail irrespective of how hard you work. This isn’t to say Outcome goals are a bad idea, only that if you set genuinely stretching goals rather than what I call pat-on-the-back goals*; you have to be able to handle the possibility of failure and accompanying disappointment. So my belief is to use Outcome goals more sparingly as too many failed goals sap belief and confidence. All elite runners have a mix of both types with Outcome goals being used as the measure across their career.

* A Pat-on-the-back goal is one which has so little stretch or difficulty about it that with the smallest of effort, you’re going to achieve it. It’s the person who can run 26min38 at parkrun saying I’d like to break 26min30, or setting a process goal of “Running once per fortnight”. Of course there could be people for whom this represents a genuine challenge and I’m making no judgement about that, please just understand the general principle of setting goals that are so unchallenging, that really it’s just the person giving themselves a pat-on-the-back.

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