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Process Goals: Keys To Performance

Why and how to set and achieve weekly process goals that get you to your performance goals.

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  • Run 1200 meters of long intervals twice a week and 1000 once a week.
  • Strength train with three sets of 10 kettle bell swings, goblet squats, weighted bridges and 3 X 1 minute planks three times a week. 
  • Run at least 30 minutes at least 4 times per week.

Those are process goals. Given that many, including elite athletes, are not clear as to what they are, here are definitions of three kinds of goals:

Process goals are weekly tasks like those above to focus on as you strive for performance or outcome goals. Process goals are under your control.

Performance goals, by contrast, are performance standards that are independent of others. Performance goals might be to run the 400 meters in under 58 seconds or a 10K in under 40 minutes.

Outcome goals are competitive goals that involve competition with others and are not under our control. Winning a gold medal or wanting to finish in the top ten of an age division are examples.

Process goals are essential for performance. In the 1960s industrial psychologists Drs. Edwin Locke and Gary Latham found that setting process goals increases motivation and enhances productivity by 11% to 25%. Their studies included 40,000 employees in industry. Goal setting encouraged them to be resilient – to persist through obstacles – and also to develop strategies to achieve goals.

Research on excellence in the 1990s by Dr. K. Anders Ericsson shows that deliberate practice – a kind of process goal – is critical to world-class performance. Deliberate practice is practice done repeatedly, focused on weaknesses as well as strengths, performed with feedback from a coach, and then tweaked. At times deliberate practice is not fun. It’s work. It’s been found to be key to high performance in fields as diverse as music, chess, and athletics.

Writing and Sharing

Still more research on process goals shows that we should take them seriously if we’re intent on training for an important event. My doctoral research in the late 1990s on over 100 national- and world-class masters runners found that 94% of them wrote down their process goals. Ninety percent of them had a coach who provided feedback.

More recent goal-setting research published by Dr. Gail Matthews from Dominican University found that the combination of writing down goals, writing action commitments for them, sharing commitments with a friend and sending weekly progress to a friend predicts goal achievement much more than just saying goals out loud and not including specific follow-up plans.

Dr. Matthews divided her subjects – people who were setting all kinds of goals, including finishing projects and starting new routines – into five groups. The groups were assigned five different levels of commitment. As an example, the least committed group was asked just to think (not write) about their goals. The most committed group was asked to write down goals, write action commitments for each one, share the written goals and action commitments with a friend, and send weekly progress to a friend. Of the original 267 participants, 149 completed the study.

At the end of the study, only 43% of the least committed group achieved their goals as compared with 76% of the most committed group. Sending weekly progress reports to a friend mattered. In addition, those who sent weekly reports were 12% more likely to achieve their goals than those who just wrote down their goals and action commitments.

Photo: 101 Degrees West

Picking Positive Peers

Other research suggests that process goals are easier to achieve if you live with others who have habits which you admire. UCLA neuroscientist Dr. Marco Iacoboni, author of Mirroring People: The Science of How We Connect to Others, has done extensive research on mirror neurons, brain cells in the premotor cortex and inferior parietal cortex.

Mirror neurons, said Dr. Iacoboni (Scientific American, July 1, 2008), “are the only brain cells we know of that seem specialized to code the actions of other people and also our own actions. They are obviously essential brain cells for social interactions… When I see you smiling, my mirror neurons for smiling fire up, too, initiating a cascade of neural activity that evokes the feeling we typically associate with a smile.”

So if your process goals include strength training a few times a week, you’re more likely to achieve them if you are around others who also strength train a few times a week. Those mirror neurons are watching all kinds of behaviors around you.  Are you aware of others’ habits and if so, do you spend time with those whose habits you emulate?

What steps might you take if you’re not lasered in on process goals?

Ideally set process goals with a coach over a short time period. My practice focuses on successive six-week goals for weekly review and tweaking. (A 2007 study by psychologist Richard Wiseman showed that 88% of people who make New Year’s resolutions fail. The reason? No structure. No follow-up.)

And if you don’t want a coach, find a similarly committed friend. It’s more important that your friend is committed to a process than that the friend is an athlete. An artist, executive, chef… anyone can be a powerful goal setting partner. (If only pets could talk….)

Excerpted from “High Performance in Midlife and Beyond: Champion Masters Women Runners and Other Experts,” a collection of articles on achieving athletic excellence and stories of 39 masters women, detailing their training and exploring their strategies for overcoming setbacks, dealing with challenges, and excelling in competition.