Should You Set Progress or Product Goals?

"I want to lose 20 pounds."
"I want to run a marathon."
"I want to feel better."

No matter your reason for making lifestyle changes, you most likely have one or more goals you're working towards. Maybe you've jumped in with both feet with little planning or preparation and you're just going for it. Perhaps you've been down this road before unsuccessfully, so this time you're taking your time and setting thoughtful goals to ensure success. Should you aim high, setting ambitious, long-term goals? Should you be more reasonable and set small goals to work toward one at a time?

Here's a curveball: What if you're asking all the wrong questions? Perhaps your success is actually more about the path you're taking to get there and less about the ultimate outcome.

Product Goals Versus Process Goals

If you've ever hired a personal trainer or health coach, one of the first things they will do in your initial consultation is learn about why you're there and what you're hoping to achieve. This will lead into a discussion of your product and process goals. Product goals are the end result you're trying to achieve, while process goals are the action steps necessary to complete the goal successfully. While product goals are important for motivation and give you something to work toward, they can become a source of discouragement if you don't meet the goal by your desired deadline. For instance, if your goal is to cut all sugar out of your diet by August 1st and you don't do it, you will have failed if you're only focusing on the end result.

On the other hand, process goals are about making positive changes, regardless of the outcome. To use the aforementioned example, a process goal to help you cut out sugar might be to stop drinking soda and other sugary beverages. If you're doing that, even if you haven't cut out all sugar by August 1st, you've still been successful because you're taking the necessary steps that will eventually lead to your success. Think of process goals as the building blocks leading toward your product goals, building healthy habits one step at a time. The more process goals you work to complete, the more healthy habits you develop that become a part of you. Then it becomes even easier to accomplish your product goals because you're continually adding the tools to your arsenal that you'll need to be successful. 

Do you tend to jump from one weight-loss program to the next when you don't see the results you were promised? Is it keto this month and Paleo next? Do you find yourself scanning your favorite magazines, always looking for the next big thing? Perhaps that's because you're too focused on the product goal (weight loss) and less focused on the process. If you can shift to a more equal balance between the two, you might find that you can stick with a specific program longer. When you do that, you get a better idea of what is working, what isn't and then make educated adjustments.

One type of goal is not better than the other, so ideally, you'll use both types in combination for maximum success. Think of it like planning a vacation: Of course you need to select a destination, but you also need a roadmap for how you'll get there. The most successful goal-setters, regardless of the type of goal or who is setting it, use both process and product goals.  

Putting It Into Practice

In order to conceptualize exactly how you'd combine these goals in practice, let's take a look at a few simple examples.

Scenario #1: Bob wants to walk his first 5K in May.   

Completing a 5K in May is Bob's product goal, but he needs to create actions steps (process goals) that will help him be successful. His process goals could include:
  • Follow a 5K training program, walking four times a week for eight weeks.
  • Cross train twice a week. This could include weight training and/or some other type of cardio exercise.
  • Track food daily, staying within recommended calorie and nutrient ranges as fuel for optimal performance.
By breaking his big goal into smaller goals, he can incrementally progress toward longer training distances, increase strength and give his body the proper nutrition to complete the race successfully.  

Scenario #2: Jane wants to lose 20 pounds by January 15th.

Losing the weight by a certain date is Jane's product goal, but leaving it as is leaves her without a plan of action. She would most likely find herself frustrated along the journey without a clear direction or day-to-day objective.
  • Track all food daily, staying within her recommended calorie and nutrient ranges.
  • Exercise three times a week for at least 20 minutes.
  • Drink more water.
  • Get more movement throughout the day whenever possible.
While they might not look like much to start, each process goal is intended to set her up for success and help her achieve her ultimate weight-loss goal. As an added bonus, even if she doesn't meet the January 15th target, she can still feel successful because she's completing the necessary process goals to help her eventually reach that final product goal.  

5 "Tricks" for Goal-Setting Success

  1. Set SMART goals. Increase your chances of success by setting goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely. "I want to lose weight" is a good intention, but not a good goal. Instead, decide how much you want to lose, set a target date for completion and then think through the process of making it happen.
  2. Create a reward system. Rewarding hard work regularly helps create healthy habits and consistency. The "hard work" is the process goals you're using to help you reach your ultimate product goal. Just because you didn't lose three pounds this week doesn't mean you weren't a success, for example. Reward the fact that you went to the gym for each scheduled workout and stayed in your calorie range, regardless of what the scale says. 
  3. Prepare for setbacks. No one is perfect, so you can expect that things won't always go as planned. Instead of beating yourself up, learn from what went wrong so you choose differently next time. Consider revising your process goals to maximize your strengths and minimize your shortcomings. 
  4. Frame your goals in a positive manner. Using negative words such as "no," "never," "stop" or "quit" automatically cause you to focus only on negative behaviors. Begin to make a habit of using words like "start," "continue," "learn" or "explore" to reinforce positive behaviors and the development of new habits
  5. Don't attempt too many things at once. There's nothing wrong with a little ambition, but keep in mind that a little goes a long way. For instance, if you're currently inactive and want to run a marathon next year, it's going to take a significant number of process goals (involving an aggressive training program) to make it happen. If you can't imagine following through with all of the process goals it will take to reach your product goal, then maybe you need to rethink the plan.
Goal-setting takes time, but it's a valuable process designed to increase your chances of success. By setting the right kinds of goals, framing all of your actions in a positive light and being prepared for the ups and downs, there's nothing you can't accomplish!