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As a language learner, do you sometimes wish you could speak more languages?
I want to be a polyglot. I want to speak French, German, Italian, Greek, Japanese, and Tagalog in addition to English and Chinese. And I want to speak them all fluently.
Or perhaps there is just one language that has captured your interest, and you want to be able to speak it.
I want to speak German fluently.
I want to pass the C1 French exam.
Usually, when we think about goals, it is easier to think about goals that are outcome-based. These arise naturally out of our desires.
I have never been one to set outcome goals. I pretty much led a directionless life.
But then I started to develop some good habits.
And then I fell into the trap of setting too many process goals.
Habits and Process Goals
When I started building my habits, the focus was on doing what I could each day.
I started with Duolingo. Simple, just 1 exercise a day for Italian. Then, I started to add French, which I had knowledge of.
Then, I added some Memrise courses to my daily list. I added more, until eventually I spent about 50 minutes (2 Pomodoros) per day.
At the time, I didn’t even realise that I was setting process goals for myself.
I just knew that I wanted to do X number of Duolingo exercises, and get Y number of points for a Memrise course.
Process Goals vs Outcome Goals
Process goals tell you what you have to do, and the result of success or failure is something that you can control.
For example, is I said I wanted to do 1 exercise on Duolingo, whether I achieve this goal is my choice.
I can do it, and succeed, or don’t, and fail.
Outcome goals, by contrast, are those whose results are not completely within your control.
An example would be to pass the C1 French exam.
I could work hard and study every day to increase my chances, but even with my best effort, I might still fail.
Dangers of Outcome Goals
With outcome goals, you focus on the outcome. There will always be things that are outside of your control.
This feeling of lack of control can lead to feelings of anxiety and unhappiness. Worse, it can encourage the wrong behaviour.
Let’s say you really want to pass that C1 exam. Instead of studying every day, you might decide to cram in the 2 days leading up to the exam.
Perhaps you end up passing, but then you would have forgotten just about everything.
I would think that for a serious language learner (who is not being forced into taking the exam), that completely defeats the purpose.
What’s the Problem with Process Goals?
In short? There is nothing inherently wrong with having process goals.
Rather, it’s the imbalance between process goals and outcome goals.
If you have too many process goals (or worse, only concretly setting process goals like I did),
you might end up frustrated when your progress starts to slow.
This slow progress is inevitable. At some point, it will feel like you hitting against a brick wall.
What happens then?
You might become so unmotivated that you stop what you have been doing, destroying everything good that you have built up. Then you would feel guilty and unsatisfied.
Or, if your habits, developed by your process goals, are strong enough, you might soldier on.
Either way, you’d be miserable.
That was what happened to me, and I didn’t even think to stop until I fell sick and literally could not continue.
At that time, I was forced to reevaluate everything.
So Why Are Outcome Goals Needed?
Outcome goals give you the big picture perspective. Process goals don’t provide a big picture perspective. They are meant to be the actual tasks you have to do, as you work towards some bigger goal.
This bigger goal is an outcome goal.
Outcome goals give you the strength to continue when things get tough. They are usually sustained by very personal reasons that matter to us emotionally.
Perhaps you want to learn a new language so that you can talk to friends or family in theirs. Or perhaps something about the country where the language is spoken has touched you.
Having a compelling reason that resonates with us makes it much easier for us to find the strength to continue when things get tough.
Process goals, on the other hand, are usually sustained by the reason of having to reach some outcome goal.
In my case, I didn’t have a well-defined outcome goal to help me continue.
Sure, at some level I knew that the outcome was that I wanted to be able to speak the language.
Beyond that? I couldn’t easily recall all the reasons why it mattered when I needed it most.
This is why you need both outcome and process goals.
But not all outcome goals are created equal. Next time, I will share some tips for setting more better outcome goals for more effective language learning.
Do you set goals? Which kind of goals do you usually set – outcome or process?