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Actions vs. Outcomes: Why Setting the Wrong Goals Can Easily Prevent Your Success

07/10/2015 05:56pm ET | Updated December 6, 2017
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"If you don't know where you're going, any road will get you there."

You've likely heard this saying used to emphasize the importance of setting goals. Whether fitness-related, for your career, or focused on personal pursuits, setting concrete goals is key to success. Isn't that right?

As a weight loss coach I regularly help clients define and refine their goals. Recently one client reminded me that setting a goal can actually be counterproductive, while setting the right goal is crucial.

Why Some Goals Do More Harm Than Good
Amanda had been working hard for several months to lose the baby weight gained during her second pregnancy. She had just about reached her pre-pregnancy weight but was still feeling discouraged.

Her goal was to be able to fit into an old pair of jeans, which meant losing a couple of inches around her hips. She had given herself 4 weeks to reach that goal and had committed to doing whatever it would take -- she was exercising daily and had really cleaned up her diet. Amanda meant business!

Four weeks came and went and her jeans still didn't fit. Amanda was discouraged and expressed how de-motivated she felt: "All of this work with no reward makes me question whether I want to keep trying."

Her disappointment is understandable and is exactly how so many people feel when they aren't able to lose weight or fail to reach an objective that they've been working hard to achieve.

At first thought, Amanda's goal sounds like a good one. Using the trusty S.M.A.R.T. acronym for goal setting, she seems to have checked every box. "I want to fit into my jeans in 4 weeks" is specific, it's measurable (the jeans will fit or they won't!), in theory it should be attainable and realistic, and she made it timely by setting the 4-week deadline.

So what's the problem?

Despite her best efforts to be physically active and to eat healthy meals, Amanda had no control over whether or not she would actually achieve her goal. In other words, the actions she took did not determine whether or not the desired outcome would happen.

The Problem with Outcome-Oriented Goals
People often get caught setting goals based on a "prize" that is unfortunately controlled by factors that they cannot always influence.

In Amanda's case, she had recently given birth to her second baby and her body had significantly adapted for pregnancy and the birthing process. Her hormones were also dramatically shifted since she was still in the breast-feeding stage. Those are some pretty critical factors that will influence her ability to lose weight and reduce the size of her hips. Her desired outcome was something that her actions didn't control.

Establishing outcome-oriented goals is a dangerous proposal. Since you don't have direct control over your ability to reach the goal, there is a high likelihood of failure. This can be especially damaging if you blame yourself instead of recognizing that the goal was faulty.

As another example, imagine you are an aspiring author and have set a goal of publishing your first book within the year. Again, this seems to be a realistic goal that will help you dedicate to writing consistently and improving the quality of your work.

Unfortunately, this is another outcome-oriented goal that is out of your control. Unless you own a publishing company that can guarantee any book you finish will be published, there is no certainty that your actions will lead to the desired outcome. This goal can quickly result in another failure.

How to Use Action-Oriented Goals
The solution to the goal-setting problem is to develop goals based on actions that are within your control.

Working with Amanda, she identified an action-oriented goal to replace her objective of fitting into that pair of jeans: "I will exercise for 30 minutes per day, five days per week. Two of those workouts will be in the pool since I really enjoy swimming. I will follow this schedule for one month."

This goal is packed full of actionable "wins" that are within her control. She can choose to exercise for 30 minutes each day; She can choose to do this 5 days per week; She can choose to buy a swimming pass at her local pool so that she can incorporate swimming workouts. This goal is completely actionable, therefore Amanda will dictate whether or not she is successful in achieving it.

What about her goal of fitting into those jeans?

Switching to an action-oriented goal doesn't mean that the jeans are forgotten. The actions Amanda is taking may help her achieve her original goal (I think she will get there!), but fitting into the jeans is no longer the only prize.

There are many "prizes" included in her new goal, and it is important that she sees them as good reason to keep moving forward. In our discussions she identified that she wants to be physically able to play with her kids -- exercising will help her achieve this. She also chose the swimming aspect of her new goal because this is a reward in itself -- she enjoys swimming.

Imagine yourself back in the role of an aspiring author. Instead of having the book's publishing serve as your goal, why not allow the book's completion to be the desired outcome?

This can be followed up with more action-oriented goals that include creating artwork for the book cover, contacting a certain number of publishers to pitch your work, and even self-publishing online or in a small print run. The end result may be the same as the original outcome-oriented goal, but each step along the way is controllable.

Being in control means that you will never face a mysterious failure: "Why didn't my goal happen?" If it doesn't happen, you know that there is something within your control that was missed and you can work on finding a solution. When your goal does happen, you get to take the credit!

Goals can inspire you to take on new challenges and can motivate you to keep pressing on even when quitting seems more appealing. Just be sure that your goals are within your control so that you dictate your own success.