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.

Be DUMB in ’21

With Christmas past and 2021 around the corner, it’s a time when New Year’s Resolutions are being mulled over and decided upon then invariably they’re broken before January is out. In the sporting world we talk about goal-setting which is the same thing, it just isn’t confined to 1st January.

A typical New Year’s Resolution is to “Get fit”. The SMART acronym has been around long enough that most people know “Get fit” fails to be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timed. It’s certainly not any SMARTER because it’s not Exciting and probably not Recorded (or wRitten down).

Personally I’m a fan of DUMB goals – these are “Doable, Understandable, Manageable, Believable”. Alternatively they can be “Dreamy, Uplifting, Methodical, Behaviour-driven” or even “Dangerously Unattainable, Monstrously Big” goals.

The difference between SMART and DUMB goals is inspiration.  SMART goals are simply a project plan – a typical SMART goal could be to “Run three times every week in 2021”. You’ve specified what you’re going to do, how it’s measured, when it’s done by, it’s realistic and achievable. But oh my, how boring. For sure, you’ll be into that goal for January and even for February but by springtime what’s going to keep you going?  Running three times each week has become part of your standard routine. And if you start to miss runs, what’s going to get you going again? The excitement of setting that goal back at New Year is gone, down the road you’ll be looking for new goals to liven up your life.

Now let’s look at the DUMB approach – it looks something like “Run a marathon in under 3 hours” or “Run sub-18 at parkrun” or even “Finish in the top ten of my local 10K race”.  Ouch – those are seriously tough goals but they’re also goals which would put you in the upper echelon of runners and bring lots of spoils and glory. (I’m assuming you’re not someone who has run 3hr01, 18:05 or finished 11th! But if you are then start thinking sub-2hr30, sub-15 and winning) For the average person these goals look difficult and that’s the point.

  • What sort of commitment would you have to make to achieve them? A big one.
  • How much effort would you have to put in? Lots.
  • Would you be guaranteed to achieve it? Certainly not.

The uncertainty of success and risk of failure avoids complacency (providing the stick) for achieving something special (the carrot). But notice also these DUMB goals aren’t impossible, I’m not suggesting you try to set a world record or win the Olympics, only that you embark on achieving something special. It’s a special that has to be something you consider special – not something you hope will impress others on social media, at work or at home. It has to be a special that impresses you and would make you happy or glow with pride to achieve. The more personal and special you make it to you, the more driven you‘ll be to complete it.

When you set big goals – you have to commit and work hard. Setting goals that are out of your comfort zone, forces you to get out of your comfort zone. You can’t continue to simply do what you’ve done before. You have to get creative, maybe investigate hiring a coach, following a training plan, joining a running club and getting out on the cold, winter’s nights. But notice that it also means you have to run three times every week to have a chance of achieving it – you’ve automatically integrated what was a SMART goal to help on the journey to achieving the DUMB goal.

I used to say “Plans have to be realistic, dreams don’t”. You allow yourself to dream then create a realistic plan to get you there. Like any journey to a far off place, you keep checking the roadmap to ensure you’re on course. If things are going awry you take stock of where you are, reset your plan and then go onwards again. Of course your dream may be something you know will take many years to achieve but it’ll always be there in the background inspiring you; the thought of achieving it keeps energising you to take action. But you do have to buy-in and commit to it, it’s no use saying “I’d love to run a sub-4 marathon” and forget about it by the next day. That’s unproductive day-dreaming – it’s good to spend some quiet time thinking about what truly matters to you and evaluating how committed you’re really willing and able to be.

“Plans have to be realistic, dreams don’t”

A word of warning though. When you allow yourself to dream big and begin to get excited about what you might achieve, don’t go telling other people about it. If you’re a thirty minute parkrunner, who decides to run a three hour marathon; other people will want to be your voice of realism. All but a few will be quick to point out the flaw in your plan –you can barely run a parkrun at ten minutes per mile, let alone complete a marathon over three minutes per mile quicker. Limit conversations to telling people about your easily achieved SMART stepping stones such as “to go running three times per week” or “to join a running club” because their realism can handle that. Only start to tell other people about your big goals when they’re incredulous about how well you’re progressing and wondering why your parkrun times are tumbling. But even then, exercise caution in who you tell – keep it to people you know who will be supportive rather than crushing.

So dream big, find something that inspires YOU, but also something you’d be proud and excited one day to tell your friends and family you attempted. Ultimately it’s not about whether you achieve the goal, it’s about the journey and process of committing to something meaningful to YOU. When you find a goal that excites YOU, you’ll find yourself feeling alive and vibrant. Once you’ve got that big DUMB goal, figure out the specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, timed steps you can take on your way to achieving it. You’ll find the success or failure of the SMART goals doesn’t matter any longer because they’re simply steps along the way as you try to achieve your something special.

What DUMB goal will you set for 2021?