Are goals good?

When talking about goals, it's good to draw a distinction between outcome goals and process goals. Outcome goals are usually what we think of when we talk about goals: "I want to put on 10 pounds of muscle." They're easily quantifiable and obviously beneficial. Process goals are a little more slippery: "I want to do strength training exercises four times a week." Like outcome goals they are easily quantifiable, but they're not a benefit to their pursuer in and of themselves. Nevertheless, there is little debate that it's better to aim for process goals whenever possible. Outcome goals depend on factors outside our control and thus drain our motivation, muddle our ability to track our progress, and are not always possible.

I'm not here to talk about process goals. Everyone agrees it's great to have them.

Outcome goals, on the other hand, have a bit of a bad rap in the self-help community. We all grew up focusing on outcomes and failed to reach them over and over. People talk about six packs, not sit-ups. So we all set our goals, made up a way to get there, and tracked our progress toward that goal.

Day 1: I don't have a six pack. I want a six pack. Do sit-ups until my abs hurt.
Day 2: Do I have a six pack yet? Whoa, not even close. Do sit-ups until my abs hurt.
Day 3: How about now? Nope? This is taking forever! Watch TV until my eyes hurt.

It's easy to get discouraged when you can't track your progress in any real way. The first signs of muscle definition in the abs take at least a month and they never really show up if you have any fat on your stomach at all. Surely outcome goals have benefits, though?

If you don't use outcome goals, you can lose sight of what the prize actually is. And when that moment inevitably comes when you're flat out of motivation and you just want to go back to sleep for half an hour instead of doing marching planks or whatever to get your core in shape, process goals may not be enough. Would I really forgo sleep just so I can tell myself I worked out today?

I answered that question in the negative yesterday. I just slept right on through. So I'm starting to rethink the value of keeping my eye on the prize. There must be a way to secure the motivational benefits of both types of goals.


Photo is of the Stewart Avenue Bridge over Fall Creek Gorge in Ithaca, NY. Gorges, like habits, take several million years to to form.