We all know that it's important to set goals. Whether the desired outcome of your efforts relates to getting in shape, progressing at work, or getting better at your hobby, setting concrete goals is key to success, right?

The answer is: it depends on the type of goal. While having a goal is great motivator for getting started, when it comes to fitness-related goals, most people are inadvertently setting themselves up for failure, because their focus is on the outcome rather than the process.

Setting a weekly goal of working out three times a week (for example) is fantastic, because it’s a process-oriented goal that helps you build consistency (which is the actual key to success). Psychologically, process-oriented goals encourage us to focus on, and derive satisfaction from, the journey, rather than the destination, whilst also retaining full control over whether we're successful or not. In this scenario, good outcomes (e.g. losing weight) are a by-product of the process, rather than the main focus.

This is quite different from outcome-oriented goals, like “I will lose 20 pounds in 3 months” or “I have to get to 20 push-ups in a row by July”. While these types of goals can be initially motivating, they can actually become pretty insidious over time. Here’s why.

Why outcome-oriented fitness goals aren't optimal

1. Outcome-oriented goals can be stressful

Until you achieve your goal, you feel like an underachiever. You think about it in the morning, you think about it before bed, and every missed, incomplete, or non-maximal-effort workout frustrates you. You’re on a strict schedule because you’ve got a ‘completion date’, and if you mess up at lunch, you feel like you’ve messed everything up. If you’re a busy person with a lot on your plate, do you really need this additional stressor in your life?

2. Outcome-oriented fitness goals can lead to an adversarial relationship with exercise and food

“Lose 30 pounds by December”. Yes, it’s probably possible, and yes, we’ve heard the success stories too. But we all also know people who feel they have to ‘punish’ themselves with exercise because they ate noodles over the weekend, and we all probably also know a few people who are literally afraid of carbohydrates.

It’s not that outcome-oriented goals are evil—they can work very well in a business context, for example—it’s just that in relation to exercise and nutrition, unnecessarily strict outcome-oriented goals set the stage for developing extreme and myopic shifts in perspective over time. If the mere sight of a cupcake scares you, there's probably a better way.

3. The focus is on the short term

Even if you’ve got a 6-month goal, it’s still short term compared to the rest of your life. And if you’re trying to get back in shape, or stay in shape, your intention really should be to get and stay fit for the rest of your life, don’t you think?

Unfortunately, it’s all too common to see people train really hard and get great results for an event like a wedding, photo shoot, or half marathon, and then fall off the wagon spectacularly once the event is over. “Lose 10 pounds by August” often leads to beer and donuts by October.

4. You don't have full control over your outcome goals

With outcome-oriented goals, it's all too easy for the desired result to be (at least in part) controlled by factors that you can't influence. Let's say your goal is to shed some post-pregnancy weight and within exactly eight weeks be able to once again fit into your favourite pair of jeans. You can force yourself to crush workouts, prioritize protein, eat all the veggies, and end up a lot healthier after 8 weeks, yet still feel disappointed for reasons beyond your control (e.g. lack of sleep and stress make it harder for your body to shed fat right now, so you can't quite fit into those jeans yet).

When you don't have direct control over your ability to reach a goal, there's a high chance of failure, which is only going to leave you demoralized—why go through all this effort if you only end up failing? Even worse, you can end up blaming yourself for not hitting an arbitrary goal instead of realising that you set the wrong goal in the first place.

Of all the factors determining the success (or otherwise) of a goal, your own behavior is the only one you have full control over, so setting a goal based on behaviors not outcomes is a much better bet.

5. The connection is with the goal, not your physicality

Okay, this one might sound a little woo-woo, but every single person who has figured out how to sustain a reasonable level of fitness throughout their adult life will tell you that they not only enjoy exercise, but that they need it to function at their best (it's totally okay if you hate those people right now, you're definitely not alone).

People like this appreciate the gifts of health, resilience and sharpness, and are willing to keep working for it. Why? Because they’ve developed a positive relationship with their physicality. They actually like to sweat and move.

You don’t need to be at that point now (or ever, if you don't want to, for that matter)—it’s just that you’ll be far more likely to have that on the cards for your future if you focus on process-oriented goals over outcome-oriented goals.

Setting the right goal for you

To be really explicit about it, outcome-oriented goals can work well to get people lean and fit. A lot of people have found success this way, at least over the short to medium term. But if your goal is lifelong fitness, which by definition is a long-term goal, focusing on outcomes is probably not the best, or healthiest, approach—especially for busy people who’ve got a lot of other things on their plate.

Sticking to process-oriented goals like “do HIIT 3 times a week” or “show up to yoga class once a week” have a much higher chance of success, and are way easier to weave in to your life without having it feel like an overhaul.

A process-oriented goal should sort of look like the example we gave earlier: "I aim to exercise 3 times a week." To take it a step further, you might want to add, "I will try to do this for at least a month before I make any changes to it, so I can give this new habit the time it needs to stabilize in my life."

Here's how you know you're on the right track with your process-driven goal:

  • It feels like a goal that motivates you to be consistent with something, so you can get used to it and maybe even enjoy it, despite there being no hard finish line in sight.
  • It feels adjustable. In our example above, a month isn't the finish line—it's the time you allot before you can start tweaking things. Once you tweak, you keep going!
  • It feels digestible and doable. It might be a little challenging, but you feel you can accomplish this without feeling too stressed out about it each week. Ritual session? Check.

As you can see, process-driven goals are geared towards habit formation. It's why we talk about 'consistency' all the time: whether your goal is to lose weight, get stronger, or do your first pull-up, showing up to sweat a few times a week, week after week, is where the magic happens. This is one of the reasons why we called our company Ritual.

About the author
Ian Tan

Ian Tan is the Co-Founder of Ritual. He’s got an MSc in Strength and Conditioning, a background in psychology, and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS).