This is the 2nd chapter on a series on goal-setting. Here, we examine the 5 roles process-oriented goals play, and how much more reliable and empowering they are compared to result-oriented goals. Read the previous chapter
In a hurry? Read the digest version.
In the 1st installment of this series, we identified 7 unhealthy motivations for goal-setting. Those result-oriented goals reveal your benefit-centered nature, one ultimately rooted in the belief that you have to produce and accomplish something in order to prove that you are a good person, justified to exist.
Instead of those common yet ultimately unreliable grounds, we need to explore a different set of reasons why we need to set goals in life. As I said before, I am not making an argument saying that one should not set goals, or that goal-setting is completely ineffective and counter to your desire to have a satisfying life. There is a different paradigm, an approach that can secure and enhance our sense of well-being, instead of tying it down to a do-or-fail paradigm.
Let’s explore the better terrain of process-oriented goals.
5 Roles of Process-Oriented Goals
Sometimes we take a walk without identifying destinations. We stroll around the neighborhood, potentially not even paying attention to where we’re going, just to enjoy the experience. There is nothing wrong with this free-spirited approach to life. However, if you are really paying no attention to where you’re going or where you came from, you run the risk of getting lost and you also have no control over where your destination is. You may end up in places and paths you’ve been to already.
Having a goal, or at least a loose idea of your destination, can give you a sense of direction. It assures that while you’re enjoying your path, you are also on the way to somewhere. You are not walking around in circles or getting lost, ending up in neighborhoods that you don’t like.
However, unlike the action-oriented goals, this type of goal is simply a direction to walk toward, not a finish line where you don’t earn points until you reach it. The most important matter here is not whether you reach the goal or how fast you get there. Rather, the emphasis fall more on the progress, and the path. You enjoy every step of getting there. You may even take a scenic route or back track a little. No matter what you do, you know that you are making progress, you are on the way to some destination you intend to pursue. This goal is completely fail-safe. You win by simply being on the road.
The great Stephen Covey says that every outcome is manufactured twice. Once in your mind and once in the reality. It’s actually impossible for any of us to live an intention-free life. Most of our actions have a pre-determined objective, from basic actions like breathing to eating to sleeping to more complex tasks like performing a job duty or earning a degree.
Life is made up of a series of tasks. Life can’t sustain itself without at least some of the tasks being effective. And for some of our tasks to be effective, you need goals.
Let’s say, a boy has a very vague idea that he just wants to live a decent life. The idea of decency gets a bit more refined as he thinks about it, and he says he wants to have enough income to have a big-enough residence, a car that works, and no need to worry where his next meal is going to come from. To this end, he realizes that he better have means to obtain income. To get income, education is a useful tool in the society he lives in. So he goes to schools to become educated.
Notice how larger objectives lead to smaller, more specific ones. But also notice that it’s just one of the many ways to accomplish the larger goal. There is no need to prove or justify anything here. He simply wants to ensure that the larger and more fundamental needs are met, and he picks a reasonable method to accomplish that. But if he sees a different path, one with more effectiveness built-in, then he can change his mind. The goals here are simply indication of effectiveness, how it contributes to the larger goal. It neither binds the boy to a specific method nor renders him as a failure when he drops one way and opts for another.
You are overweight and you decide to lose weight. You set a goal of losing 15 pounds. But instead of keeping your eyes on the number 15, you just focus on the first 1. You celebrate each day you exercise and stay off junk food. You celebrate each pound that comes off. It doesn’t matter that you haven’t hit 15 yet. You are enjoying the progress.
In the previous article, I identified that setting goals as milestones that you must achieve as an unhealthy goal-setting. So what is the difference here?
The difference is that here, your goal to shave off one pound is simply a measuring unit. You just divided your big goal into 15 smaller chunks, simply to identify and celebrate small steps. But they are not, once again, meet-or-fail deadlines. You know that even on the days when you don’t reach a milestone of one more pound off, you still are making progress in an invisible way. You don’t rely on the milestones to validate your efforts. You just use them to recognize progress. Each milestone is still a cause for celebration. But not making one will not threaten the validity of your efforts, either.
When you’re looking for a new job, it’s a common exercise to write down your ideal job description. Not just the job itself, but the type of company or people you want to work with, office culture and environment, commute situation, and so on.
Why do we do this?
It’s not so that we can kick ourselves when we don’t land the job that matches what you wrote down.
It’s so that we can recognize a good match when we see it.
In many processes, it is helpful, if not downright necessary, to articulate your goals. It ties back to the goal’s role in effectiveness. A sharply defined goal, you can articulate to yourself and to others. It’s easy to understand. It’s clearer to recognize.
Once again, not meeting this goal won’t dub you a dud. It’s just a tool to help you visualize your objectives, sharpen your focus. You are better off with this type of goal, than without.
In addition to clarifying your objectives, a well-defined process-oriented goal will motivate you to take action. Let’s stay with the above job example. So you have a description of a dream-come-true job. Just looking at your description, you can’t help but be excited. The more you live with your dream job in your head, the more you visualize and imagine what it’s like to have that job, the more energy your goal gives you. You are not expecting your dream job to materialize verbatim. But the view of it is so good that you can’t help but be energized, willing and eager to make steps toward landing such a job.
A process-oriented goal energizes you to take action, to get on the path to that destination. There’s less of a need to work yourself up to it — efforts will not feel like tiresome labor. An action-oriented goal is a burden, a must-achieve. It overwhelms you and contributes to your lethargy and procrastination. Ironic how it creates a force of inaction, when your objective demands action. A goal that is set on the correct ground produces the exact opposite effect. When you have this kind of goal, you can’t help but take actions.
The Main Distinction between Result-Oriented and Process-Oriented Goal-Setting
Looking at these 5 roles, it’s easy to draw out the common themes among them.
Result-oriented goals are mandates. They require your achievements. The focus is on efficiency, rigidity, and measurable results. They set you up in a win-or-lose predicament, where your loathing of the non-success scenarios weighs you down. The last thing you want to do is to enjoy the path — for your time on the path must be as short as possible. To make the path shorter, you look for vulnerabilities in systems and others around you. You becomes self-centered and your achievements lose their satisfying impacts. To fill the void, you strive to produce more results, thinking that the longer the list of your success, more satisfied you’ll be. But it doesn’t work out that way. Every milestone gives you a brief elation, but you immediately have to move on to the next. You work at an increasingly frantic pace, when you’d rather actually get off the rat race and take it slow.
Process-oriented goals are symbols. They are simply markers to identify, direct and measure your efforts. It is a tool to focus your efforts into a singular direction. The focus is not on the destination, but on the path. There is no failure in this scenario, except for complete inaction. Even set backs and detours aren’t perceived as negative. And it will be hard to stay inactive, when your goals provide so many reasons to get going. Pursuing process-oriented goals is always fun, relaxed and flexible.
With result-oriented goals, you either succeed or fail, but even success will not bring you true satisfaction. With process-oriented goals, you don’t have any alternative except for thoroughly satisfying success. Though your goals may end up looking quite similar after the rebuilding, change the paradigm from the end result to the path changes the goals’ impact radically.
Does this entice you to re-evaluate all your goals? I hope so. In the next installment, we’ll look at how to set process-oriented goals.