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With the new year coming up, there’s a good chance you’re coming up with some resolutions. Personally, I like the idea of coming up with a few really easy New Year’s Resolutions just to make it easier when I bomb in another area. I think I might make a New Year’s Resolution to binge-watch at least one new show on Netflix. Pretty sure I can do that in the next 365 days.

Anyway, one of the things I’ve noticed is that most New Year’s Resolutions focus on a specific, tangible outcome. Run a marathon. Write a novel. Lose a certain number of pounds. You get the idea. While there’s nothing wrong with these types of goals, there’s another type of goal that is just as important: process goals. These are the goals that allow us to develop habits and rituals.

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The Two Types of Goals

Here’s a brief overview of the two types of goals:

  • Product goals focus on the destination while process goals focus on the journey.
  • Product goals tend to be short-term but process goals tend to be long-term.
  • Product goals are project-oriented while process goals are designed to build habits.
  • Product goals stick to firm deadlines while process goals stick to consistent routines.
  • Product goals define success by the completion of great work. By contrast, process goals define success as growth in one’s skills and abilities.

So, what does this look like? If your goal involves running, a product goal might be finishing a marathon while a process goal might be committing to run for 45 minutes every day. If you’re a writer, a product goal might be publishing a novel while a process goal might be a daily habit of 500 words per day. Neither approach is wrong. Both product goals and process goals are important for success. We need to get finish projects and build lasting habits.

Here’s a video explanation:

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Missing the Process-Oriented Goals

For the longest time, I focused on product-oriented goals. These goals were outcome-based, with a strong emphasis on finishing specific tasks by specific dates. An example might be, “Write one chapter every three days” or “post four blog posts per week.” Just to clarify, these goals were not extrinsic. They weren’t based on the success or failure of something I made (such as “write a best-seller”). Instead, they were deeply internal.

These product-oriented goals worked on some level. I was highly productive. However, when I focused entirely on finishing a task, I didn’t enjoy the journey. Also, when a task took longer than anticipated, I would rush through the next phase and the quality would diminish.

On a more personal level, when I experienced unexpected interruptions, I found myself feeling irritated by the “unproductive” moments of life. Stare at the stars? There’s no time. I’ve got a chapter I promised myself I’d finish by tomorrow. Play an impromptu game of Uno with my kids? I have a project to finish.

About five years ago, I embraced process-oriented goals. Instead of saying, “I’m going to run 25 miles this week,” I said, “I’m setting aside 40 minutes five days a week to go running.” If I run slower, fine. If I run faster, okay. If something comes up and I can’t get it done, that’s fine. It’s not about mileage. It’s about setting a routine and forming a habit.

Instead of saying, “I’m going to make two videos per week,” I’m saying, “I want to spend about a half an hour a day working on sketchy videos.” I had weeks last year when I knocked out 2-4 videos and other stretches when it just didn’t happen. But it didn’t matter. My goal was to improve my craft.

In other words, I’m being less disciplined about specific results and more disciplined about my schedule. Because I am doing fewer projects, I have more flexibility when urgent tasks come up and I have to change my plans. Moreover, I am able to work more leisurely on creative projects. There’s no pressure attached to it. When I placed the journey above the destination, I discovered that my goals were not destinations at all. They had become habits. They were sacred rituals that enabled me to do the creative work that I love without thinking too hard about results.

Product Goals Still Matter

For a few months, I focused solely on process-oriented goals. Within a few weeks, I felt less motivated. True, there was less pressure. But there was also less focus. I learned something about myself. I need project goals. I thrive on deadlines. I enjoy the satisfaction of finishing specific projects. I was the most motivated to run when I trained for a marathon and I am more motivated to write when I am writing a book. 

Most projects require some kind of planning. There are times when specific tasks need to be finished, such as the syllabus for an upcoming course or the prep work for an upcoming keynote. In these moments, I still set product-oriented goals. But I also have process-oriented goals that help me form habits. In other words, these two types of goals are actually complementary. When I am doing long-term work with flexible deadlines, I am going to stick to process-oriented goals. However, there are moments when I have an exciting short-term project and I need to allow for a chaotic schedule where I throw myself into the project for a short time and passionately finish the tasks.

In the past, however, I had packed my schedule with these product-oriented goals and I set deadline-driven goals for every creative work I tackled. In the process, I failed to create the routines and habits that would allow me to thrive. Now, as I continue to focus on process-oriented goals, I have the space to occasionally take on a product-oriented goal and pursue a creative work quickly, with reckless abandon.

What Does This Mean for the Classroom?

Okay, so what does this have to do with teaching? Here are a few thoughts I have based on my own experiences and what I’ve observed when I look at teachers who have embraced both types of goal-setting:

  1. Encourage students to set both process and product goals. Often, schools focus on setting academic goals (increasing reading fluency scores) but there’s value in helping students set goals around habits. For example, you might have students set some goals for how many minutes they want to read each day.
  2. Take on a few major projects that require some product goals you want to focus on. But keep these limited to just a few projects. This will give you more room to focus on process-oriented goals.
  3. Choose a few process-oriented goals that you can monitor on a regular basis.
  4. Set a few product and process goals as a class and then find ways to monitor these goals collaboratively each week. There’s power in setting goals as a community.
  5. Start out smaller with process goals and then gradually increase it. In working out, it’s common to start out with a small goal of running five minutes a day and then, two months later, moving to fifteen minutes and then increasing it again later.

It also helps to gamify the goal-setting process.

Video games are addicting. Whether you’re playing a simple game on your phone or a complex game with rich world-building on a gaming console, there is something inherent in video games that draw us in. This is by design. Game designers have crafted the user experience to make gameplay habitual. And it’s not just game designers. Social media apps use notifications, badges, and metrics to get us to spend more time on their platforms. Health apps use these game elements to get people to get active and eat right. What if we used principles of game design to gamify creative habits in real-life?

Here are a few ideas. Make it easy to start. Games work because the barrier of entry is low. Similarly, in developing creative habits, you might want to start with an easier goal. So you might be ten minutes a day learning to play a new instrument or you might start out writing just 100 words per day. You can also start off with smaller projects that allow you to hit the finish line faster. There’s actually a strong rationale for this approach. By making our goals easier to attain and experiencing some “big wins” early, we gain confidence and are then able to stick with a habit over time. As you improve, you can increase the challenge incrementally. Here you create “levels” for yourself where you can hit benchmarks and increase the challenge level. This allows you to keep the challenge level just above your skill level.

According to the Flow Channel model, if the skill level is too low, you’ll often experience worry and anxiety. But when the challenge is just above the skill level, you are more likely to hit a state of flow.

As you go, you can track progress. You might have a progress bar or a series of tally marks. You might create badges for yourself. Another option is to use three jars with marbles and move the marbles from a “haven’t started” to “started” to “finished.” You can also create a streak that builds with each day you have participated in the habit. If you’ve ever played Pokemon Go, you’ve seen how they keep track of consecutive days. Runners will often do a “run streak.” The same can be true of writing, painting, or reading.

When you keep track of a streak, you build momentum. As you succeed, you might even create small rewards or celebrations for yourself as you hit key benchmarks. You might also need to create visual cues. On phones, we have alerts and notifications for games. But you can also create notifications by creating visual cues in your physical environment. For example, if you want to read 50 books in a year, leave books throughout your home; on the coffee table by your nightstand, by your computer and maybe a few other places, just make sure things are sanitary. You might also put a book in your car or in your backpack. The point is to put these cues everywhere. You might also use sticky notes with reminders of your commitment to a creative habit.

Finally, you might want to join a community. Gaming often includes social interaction. As a maker, you might create a mastermind group with fellow makers who nerd out on their craft. This can give you a sense of belonging and help you take creative risks. In the end, there is no single formula for developing creative habits. By using elements of gamification, you help make these habits stick. 

So, what are your process and product goals for this year? What goals would you like to pursue with your students? Feel free to share yours in the comment section below.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


  • John Bennett says:

    Process-oriented resolutions for sure. In fact, I am thinking New Years VISION after reading and Considering deeply the book, “Full Steam Ahead” by Blanchard and Stoner. It clearly demonstrates the impact of (process-oriented) visions.

    Great post as usual, John! Happy New Year to you and your family!!!

  • Stephanie Cruz says:

    Love this! I chose my #oneword2018 to be balance. This post is absolutely what I needed to read.

    I have been truly inspired by your blog and youtube videos-thank you for doing what you do and for sharing it. I received my first masters degree in Design Based Learning 8 years ago and have been passionate about sharing this process with students and now colleagues. Your books, videos, and ideas have been instrumental in making the ideas behind design thinking tangible to many. I believe we, educators, place a heavy emphasis on product and often lose sight of the importance of the process. If students solely focus on the product, which is typically predetermined by the teacher, they are missing so much. Placing value on the process empowers students and promotes a continued desire to learn.

    Cheers to creating a culture of thriving independent thinkers and doers who are able to work passionately and fearlessly with reckless abandon-and to teachers knowing its ok to be uncomfortable with the process-because the product, the end result, is seeing the extraordinary potential in ALL students.

  • Virgil says:

    This post was truly worthwhile to read. I wanted to say thank you for the key points you have pointed out as they are enlightening.
    Setting goals can indeed help you in so many ways. Our mind is a powerful thing. If you fill it with optimism, you can conquer anything. To help you out, the following tips Goal Setting Process: Tips to Improve Focus will help you formulate goals that you want to accomplish.

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