How to Avoid The Hidden Risk of Outcome Goals

The Big Lie of Outcome Goals

You’re probably familiar with the phrase “fake it ’til you make it”. That saying embodies the can-do spirit of ambitious people the world over. But while having the confidence to live that ethos is unquestionably valuable for success in all areas of life, taking that approach has its drawbacks too. In this post, I’ll explain why “faking it” (also known as pursuing outcome goals before you have the knowledge or skills necessary to succeed) can delay your success or lead to failure altogether.


If you read or listen to any fitness blogs or podcasts, you've likely heard the idea before that you need to set process or behavior goals rather than outcome goals (also known as performance goals). Basically, process goals are ones that specify the behaviors you will exhibit every day or week, whereas outcome goals specify the end result you want to achieve. To use weight loss as an example, you could have an outcome goal to lose 20 pounds this year or a process goal of exercising for one hour, four times a week.

There are literally hundreds of blog posts on this topic, and they all talk about why it's important to use process goals. The basic idea is that you can’t always control an outcome, but you can control your actions and your behavior, so you should focus on them and let the outcome take care of itself. That way, you’re much less likely to get frustrated, upset or disappointed when you don't achieve an outcome that's out of your control. If you achieve it, great. If not, you can take satisfaction in knowing that you did everything you could. In this post i'm going to discuss a different, but very important reason why process goals are a key factor that determines whether you succeed.

I've got good news and bad news

More than thirty years of psychology research has shown that setting outcome goals is a good way to improve performance and motivation. Outcome goals work well because they help you focus on the steps or actions that will move you toward the desired outcome. They also give you a barometer to determine whether your level of effort is sufficient to achieve the goal, based on your progress toward the goal. Finally, they help you to persevere in the face of adversity or boredom because you know there is a "goal line" you need (and hopefully want) to cross.

But for all their benefits, outcome goals are not a one-size-fits-all solution to achieving anything you desire. The same studies that reveal the powerful effect that outcome goals have on your motivation also have a fundamental flaw. Most of that research is based on the underlying assumption that the person choosing or being given the goal has the ability to achieve it (presumably with a high level of effort). In the real world that you and I live in, that's not always the case. In fact, for anyone who is regularly learning new skills in a variety of different domains (like someone building a business), it may be the exception rather than the rule.

The downside of outcome goals

The reality is, in situations where you do not have the necessary skills to succeed, setting outcome goals can backfire. Outcome goals distract you because you can't focus on learning while you're trying to focus on achievement at the same time. And they demotivate you because they constantly remind you that you're not making progress. That’s because, in our society, where motion is often confused with progress, the quiet, cerebral process of learning is not viewed as productive. Pursuing outcome goals is also demotivating because doing so highlights your ineffectiveness (even though it may be perfectly acceptable and even expected). This constant reminder of your inadequacy diminishes your self efficacy and decreases your motivation.

In those situations, a better approach is to set a specific kind of process goal known as a learning goal. A learning goal is simply a goal to acquire the skills necessary to achieve the outcome goal. You can view it as an interim goal that ultimately allows you to successfully pursue the outcome goal. It seems counterintuitive, but adding a learning goal as an interim step can actually yield faster results than jumping directly to the outcome goal. That’s because, when you pursue outcome goals without the necessary skills or knowledge, you end up wasting a lot of time being frustrated by your perceived lack of progress.

But that's not all

There is another downside to pursuing outcome goals when you don’t have the skills necessary to succeed. The stress created by your perceived lack of progress physiologically narrows your focus, reducing your ability to absorb new information and to think creatively. It’s like putting a set of cognitive blinders on your brain, all of which diminishes your ability to learn the very information you need to be effective. And when it takes you longer than expected to become competent, your stress level increases even more. It’s a vicious cycle of perpetual stress and frustration.

Learning goals, on the other hand, support and enhance your self efficacy by focusing your mind on the fact that you're growing and developing new skills, rather than the fact that you aren’t advancing toward your desired outcome (at least not directly). It takes the focus off your (temporary) inadequacy and allows you to fully immerse yourself in the learning process.

Setting a learning goal also allows you to tap into the power of expectations. When you don't possess the ability to achieve an outcome goal, your expectations will understandably be low. However, when you pursue a learning goal, it’s reasonable to expect that you can acquire the requisite knowledge that will then enable you to use that knowledge to do something "productive" with it.

In our modern economy, where the technology landscape is shifting so rapidly, it's unrealistic to expect anyone, even subject-matter experts, to be up to speed on all of the skills or knowledge necessary to sustain success. Consequently, adopting learning goals should be considered a vital strategy for anyone to continue their growth and effectiveness, and ultimately success.

How do you know when to use learning goals instead of outcome goals?

While there is no clear dividing line to indicate when you should use learning goals rather than outcome goals, there is a simple test that can give you a pretty clear indication. When you first think about an outcome goal and what it will take to achieve it, pay close attention to the feelings you experience immediately. If your primary emotional response is anxiety or fear, it’s a pretty good indicator that you view the goal as a threat to your well being. Operating in this threat mindset is what causes the negative physiological effects I discussed previously.

If, on the other hand, your immediate emotional response is one of excitedness and anticipation, then you likely view the outcome goal as an opportunity to learn, grow and achieve something you desire. This response is what’s known as operating from a challenge mindset. While there are some things you can do to reframe a threat mindset, it won’t always be possible. In those situations, a learning goal gives you a greater chance of success than an outcome goal. You just need to learn to tune in to your emotions and make the choice that best fits your situation.

So, how do you use learning goals?

When creating a learning goal, your objective is not simply to acquire knowledge or skill. Instead, you should take a structured approach that maximizes the effectiveness and efficiency of your learning. Take some time to develop a high-level overview of the topic before diving in, to ensure that you adequately cover of all the essential material. Doing so will minimize your urge to cut your learning short and jump to the outcome goal before you’re ready. I've included links to some excellent resources below if you want to learn how to get better at learning.

The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin
Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III and Mark A. McDaniel
How We Learn and Why It Happens by Benedict Carey
The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything...Fast by Josh Kaufman

You can also check out this post by world-famous meta-learner Tim Ferriss: The Art and Science of Learning Anything Faster.

Once your learning plan is in motion, you should actively seek feedback from mentors, and periodically review your progress, making adjustments as necessary. The psychological benefit of a learning goal is that challenges are viewed as a natural part of the learning process, rather than obstacles to success. This change in perspective eliminates (or at least minimizes) the cognitive blinders I discussed earlier and makes the learning process more enjoyable.

A Tip About Using Learning Goals

I need to stress the idea that your learning goal must be viewed as its own, independent goal, not just something you have to do to get to the “real” goal. This isn’t just mental trickery, either. Or at least it can’t be if you want to get the full benefit of a learning goal. But it doesn’t need to be, and here’s why. For one thing, once you’ve developed those new skills, they can be used to pursue other, even more ambitious goals. They’ll be part of your “toolkit” for the rest of your life; long after your current outcome goal is forgotten. Second, serendipity is, by definition, unpredictable, and you never know what doors the new learning will open up for you. So the learning goal truly is independent and, one could argue, even primary to any outcome goals you may want to pursue.

What about the need for S.M.A.R.T. goals?

I need to make one other point about learning goals. One of the key tenets of goal-setting dogma is that your goals need to be S.M.A.R.T. This mnemonic is a tool to help you remember the characteristics of an effective goal: Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, and Time-Bound. Learning goals can be S.M.A.R.T. too. You just need to clearly define the behaviors you need to perform every day or week so that you make progress toward your learning objectives.

I’d love to hear what you think of this idea, and how you’re applying it in your life. Let me know by leaving a comment below.

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