If you want to achieve sustainable, meaningful, long-term benefits from your training, you should be setting goals. You may have heard or read about the importance of goal setting in fitness programs before. It’s true, goal setting is very important, but many people who set goals fail to achieve them. That’s often because they aren’t setting effective goals, ones which can set you up for a lifetime of physical activity. Before you start thinking about what you want to achieve and setting your goals, first make a simple but extremely important mindset adjustment: focus on the process, not the outcome. Rather than setting goals to achieve results, set goals which will help you become a better exerciser. Like many mindset shifts, this may seem trivial but it will make all the difference.
There are two types of goals: outcome goals and process goals. I believe that both types of goals are important, but the key to success is setting and focusing on process goals. Outcome goals are the desired end-result of your training. An example of a performance-based outcome goal is completing a half marathon. Process goals are the steps you take in your exercise program. Think of process goals like habits or activities that you build over time. A performance-based process goal could be to go running for at least 20 minutes, 3 times per week. Outcome goals are what you plan to achieve, and process goals are how you are going to achieve it.
By setting process goals, you use goal-setting as a tool to build intrinsic motivation, develop habits, and put yourself on the path to becoming a skilled, effective exerciser. This is how you will get the results you want.
Outcome goals are important, but process goals are your secret weapon. They should be the focus of your training. They are small, specific behaviors that you repeatedly perform, and they add up to big improvements over time. The idea is to stack up little wins by achieving one small process goal at a time, then building on them.
Process goals are vitally important for several reasons. First, they promote intrinsic motivation and exercise adherence. A major factor in developing intrinsic motivation and adherence is “competency” (also known as “self-efficacy”; Huberty et al., 2008). This is a person’s confidence in their ability to exercise. The better someone feels that they are at exercising, the more likely they are to consistently work out. On the other hand, if a person doesn’t feel like they are a competent exerciser, they are more likely to give up on their program or never start at all. This makes sense because it’s not very pleasant to regularly do something that you’re bad at. Setting small, achievable process goals is a great way to build your competency.
In fact, research on this topic has found that process goals are associated with increased intrinsic motivation and short and long-term exercise adherence compared with outcome goals, or not setting goals at all (Wilson and Brookfield, 2009). The same study also found that outcome goals were associated with higher levels of intrinsic motivation and short-term adherence compared with not setting any goals, but that long-term adherence was similar between outcome goals and no goals, and that outcome goals were associated with increased feelings of pressure compared with process goals or no goals.
These findings support the idea that process goals are more effective than outcome goals at driving behavior. Still, I have an issue with the basis for this study; the idea that process goals and outcome goals can’t work together and that you should use one or the other. I think process and outcome goals are two sides of the same coin, and that it’s important to use both to set yourself up for success in your training. I like to think of outcome goals as tools which help structure your process goals.
How to Use Outcome Goals and Process Goals:
Let’s say you want to get stronger. That’s your outcome goal. Choose a few strength exercises to include in your training program, and set some more specific outcome goals, with process goals for each of them. Let’s use the squat as an example, since it’s a great strength builder.
Start by setting S.M.A.R.T. goals for your squat training. S.M.A.R.T. stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound.
Specific: “Get better at squatting” is too general. Decide on a specific outcome such as “squat with a barbell that weighs the equivalent of my bodyweight”. As a side note, I prefer to set strength goals in terms of relative (as a percentage of bodyweight) rather than absolute (a number of pounds) strength because they tend to be more realistic and meaningful.
Measurable: This is extremely important to goal achievement and self-improvement. Your goal should be measurable so that you can objectively track your progress. It’s critical to keep a log or journal of each training session. Record exactly what you did, the number of sets, repetitions, resistance, and how you felt during and afterwards (rate how hard you worked or how tired you were after the work out).
Achievable: Be honest and realistic about your abilities and willingness to work towards your goal. Don’t set yourself up for failure by deciding, for example, to aim to squat 3 times your bodyweight if you have just started learning proper bodyweight squat form. It’s ok for your outcome goal to be ambitious, since we will also be setting smaller process goals to achieve it, but make sure it is realistic.
Relevant: Think back to your overall objectives and motivations. Make sure your goals will help you achieve the lifestyle you want. Don’t waste your time with goals that aren’t useful to you. It’s important to be honest with yourself and not compare your situation to others or get sucked in to irrelevant fads. If you want to get stronger, focus on activities that will help you achieve that, like squatting. Don’t decide you want to get stronger and then set an outcome goal of climbing a mountain.
Time-bound: A goal needs to be grounded within a time frame to give it a sense of urgency. Decide on a reasonable deadline. Keep your starting point in mind. You may decide that you want to achieve your squat outcome goal in 6 months.
So, now you have an outcome goal of squatting the equivalent of your bodyweight in 6 months. Write that goal down. If you stop here, though, you’re making a mistake. The vital next step is to set process goals, which will help you actually achieve your outcome.
Here’s a list of process goals you can use to achieve your squat outcome goal:
- Practice squats at the gym twice per week.
- Learn how to perform a bodyweight squat with good form and a full range of movement.
- Work your way up to the ability to perform 3 sets of 10 good bodyweight squats.
- Learn how to perform a barbell back squat, starting with an empty barbell, with good form and a full range of movement.
- When you can perform 3 sets of 10 good barbell back squats with an empty barbell, add 10 pounds to each side of the bar. You should have to drop the number of repetitions when you add weight to maintain good form.
- Work your way back up to 3 sets of 10.
You can break these process goals down even farther if you want, specifying aspects of your form which you need to practice, for example.
Now here’s the trick: take that original outcome goal that you wrote down and put it in a drawer somewhere. Don’t forget about it, but push it to the back of your mind. You don’t need it anymore. Your focus is on your process goals. Work on those, week in and week out, and guess what will happen. You’ll get stronger, but more than that, you’ll ingrain some essential skills and develop habits that are sustainable. If you can achieve your process goal of practicing squats at the gym twice per week, you will have made huge strides towards making regular exercise an automatic part of your lifestyle. If you can achieve your process goal of learning to perform a bodyweight squat consistently with good form, you will have improved your motor control and coordination, which will benefit you in countless other ways. Each time you achieve your process goal of being able to perform 3 sets of 10 barbell squats and are ready to add some weight, you will have stacked up a little win and improved your exercise competency, which will then increase your intrinsic motivation to continue exercising. By training consistently and progressively increasing your strength, you will also improve your body composition. Mastering the process is the real goal of training, because it’s what sets you up for a lifetime of exercising and it forms the foundation for being able to achieve any other goals you have in mind.
Outcome goals are exciting, they hold the promise of big results and drastic changes. Unfortunately, that’s not how exercise works. You don’t go through a tunnel and come out the other side, suddenly having gained defined muscles or the ability to run a marathon. Results appear gradually over time, and only if you put in the daily work they require. That daily work is your process goals. They require you to show up, day after day, week after week, and put in the effort. They’re a grind, and that’s the beauty of them. All you have to do is that day’s work, then the next one, and the next one, and along the way you’ll realize you’ve gotten to where you wanted to go.
When designing or following a training program, set outcome goals for a handful of exercises (no more than 1 or 2 to start with) and then use those outcome goals to guide the establishment of your process goals. Also remember that lifestyle factors will have a profound effect on whether or not you make gains in your fitness, so set 1 or 2 outcome goals involving nutrition, sleep, or stress as well. Take your time, and remember that changes don’t happen overnight. Good luck!