To be more creative, don’t set traditional goals, set “process goals”

Takeaway: A process goal is what you will actually have to do to achieve a larger goal. For example, instead of setting a goal to win a boxing title, you might set a goal to keep your hands up throughout an entire boxing match. Process goals will make you a lot more likely to achieve your creative (and larger-scale) goals.

Estimated Reading Time: 2 minutes, 19s.

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Every morning I have a ritual of deciding the three outcomes I want to get out of every day, but I’ve recently noticed something interesting about setting creative goals (like writing and brainstorming): the more concrete I make my creative goals, the less likely I am to achieve them.

Since I set three goals every day, that’s given me a lot of chances to experiment with how goal-setting impacts my creativity. The cure that has worked wonders for helping me meet my creative goals? Setting “process” goals instead of traditional goals.

A process goal is what you will actually have to do to achieve a larger goal–process goals focus on the process of achieving your goals, instead of on the big, ugly goals themselves.

Here are a few examples of process goals (with their corresponding higher-level goal in brackets):

  • Eat and drink no more than 1,500 calories a day (Goal: Lose 15 pounds before summer)
  • Lift weights for 45 minutes 4 days a week for a month (Goal: Gain 5 pounds of muscle mass in three months)
  • Call 5 potential clients before lunch every day this week (Goal: Increase your sales by 25% this quarter)

Process goals work so well for your creative goals because instead of setting specific outcomes you want to achieve–an approach that often leads to demotivation, procrastination, and other -ation’s–you set goals that will create the conditions you’re likely to achieve your outcomes in.

Process goals also help you reduce your big, ugly goals into something easier for you to action and understand. For example, if you have a goal of winning a boxing title, reducing that goal to a process you can perform to achieve it–like keeping your hands up throughout an entire boxing match–will let you act in the right direction so you can be a lot more effective in reaching your goal.

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Here are a few process goals I’ve set for myself recently, all of which have worked very well:

  • Write 1,000 words every day for a week, regardless of how good they are (Goal: Write 5 articles over the course of a week)
  • Every night for a month, recall three things I’m grateful for (Goal: Become happier and more positive)
  • Every morning, leave for the gym at 6am (Goal: Drop to 10% body fat and gain 10 pounds of muscle mass)

Focusing on the outcomes you want to get out of every day is important, but outcomes can often be intimidating, ambitious, and at their worst, downright discouraging. Process goals will get you thinking about what you actually have to do to achieve your outcomes, and I think make you a lot more successful in achieving your large and creative tasks.

As David Allen put it in my interview with him, it’s easy for your “motivation [to] die if you don’t have the actual activity that you need to engage in that will improve your golf score, lose weight, or run faster”.

  • How do you think this lines up with SMART goals? When I was reading it I thought this seemed like a really good way to make it easier to set SMART goals. Same outcome, much easier process =)

    • Agreed! I’ve found it way easier to make my goals SMARTer by using process goals. Both are still goals at the end of the day, even though process goals obviously focus more on the lower-level elements of objective-based goals.

  • How do you think this lines up with SMART goals? When I was reading it I thought this seemed like a really good way to make it easier to set SMART goals. Same outcome, much easier process =)

    • Agreed! I’ve found it way easier to make my goals SMARTer by using process goals. Both are still goals at the end of the day, even though process goals obviously focus more on the lower-level elements of objective-based goals.

  • It’s interesting how my perception of goals has changed over the last months, because the way you describe process goals is just how I fundamentally think about goals now. I want to do this and this daily, and this and this weekly, and then I know that over time it fits into the bigger picture of this bigger goal. I’ve internalized something important for long term success, which caught me by surprise, but hell, I can’t complain!

  • It’s interesting how my perception of goals has changed over the last months, because the way you describe process goals is just how I fundamentally think about goals now. I want to do this and this daily, and this and this weekly, and then I know that over time it fits into the bigger picture of this bigger goal. I’ve internalized something important for long term success, which caught me by surprise, but hell, I can’t complain!

  • Tomas

    I hadn’t thought about goals like this before Chris. Process goals could be exactly what I need to start meeting my short term goals.

  • Tomas

    I hadn’t thought about goals like this before Chris. Process goals could be exactly what I need to start meeting my short term goals.

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