“Process vs. outcome: What’s the difference? And which is better?”
This is an interesting issue that has come up frequently in my personal life and in my work with my psychotherapy clients. Given that it’s an issue that shows up in an infinite number of life arenas, it continually shows up in our yoga practices. What is the difference between these two concepts? The words “outcome” and “process” describe two different approaches for organizing oneself around accomplishing any goal. These are conceptual terms that frame our perspectives about what is involved in executing any task and what motivates and energizes us to work toward the completion of said task.
An outcome-oriented perspective is one where we have our “eye on the prize.” We are in this mindset when we are thinking about the proverbial carrot dangling in front of our face…when we are thinking about the finish line of the race…when we are thinking about the final product…when we are thinking about the complete execution of a task…when we are focused on being “done” with something. The value of an outcome-oriented approach is that we can see the horizon…we can see where we are going…we can see the distance between where we are and our ultimate goal. This information or feedback loop can increase motivation by giving us crucial information about what needs to be done in order to get from “point A” to “point B” (e.g., “I have just 3 more dishes to wash, and then I can go watch TV,” or “I have 5 more miles to run, and then I can finish the race,” or “I have just a half-inch to go, and I can catch that bind on the left side of Marichyasana A.” The problem with an outcome-oriented approach is that we often stay in that mindset far too long, and in many cases (particularly for those of us with high expectations of ourselves), we are frequently left with the sense of NOT having accomplished anything or met any of our goals. The proverbial “bar” gets set very high, and therefore, we often do NOT meet our own expectations and, as a result, we experience a litany of negative emotions (e.g., frustration, helplessness, sadness, disappointment, anger, worry, powerlessness, and despair). This is fuel for our hungry egos. In small doses, this phenomenon may not necessarily be a problem. In fact, this emotional response, in certain cases, can work in a useful way by motivating us to “try harder” next time, to “stick with it,” or to “learn about what might be blocking us,” etc., This process can actually help cultivate an “emotional heartiness” or psychological resiliency in the long run. However, if this emotional response is prolonged and goes unchecked, it can wreak emotional (and behavioral) havoc and be very damaging to morale. It’s one thing to have the thrill of completion dangling just in front of you, but it’s another to be continually “striving and never arriving.” I would even go so far as to say that ignorance of this phenomenon is a common ingredient in the process of getting injured in yoga. If we neglect some important aspect of our experience in the present moment and push ourselves beyond our limits in order to achieve “the finished product” before we are really ready to arrive there (e.g., forcing your legs into lotus position before you have the available access in your knee and hip rotation), we are vulnerable to injury for no good reason other than feeding our egos and striving for outcome.
This provides a nice segue into the language of the process-oriented approach to behavior change. The process-oriented mindset is one where we are focused on, what I like to call, the “i-n-g” part of the verb – e.g., the clean”ing,“ the runn”ing,” the wash”ing,“ the study”ing,” or the practic”ing.“ A process-oriented approach to goal setting and behavior change involves being in the present. It involves mastering the delicate art of keeping one’s attention in the present, bringing full awareness and concentration to the present moment and the acts in which you are engaged. In process-oriented thinking, there is still an awareness of the “finish line” or the ultimate goal (otherwise, our behaviors would take us into random, unknown directions and we might never get anything done). However, the main and primary focus here is what is occurring IN THE PRESENT MOMENT. What is actually happening NOW? What am I doing? What am I experiencing? What am I seeing, hearing, thinking, doing, feeling, sensing, noticing, etc.? This approach is, essentially, the living application of mindful awareness.
Naturally, both an outcome- and a process-oriented approach to any kind of behavior change is helpful. They are friendly bedfellows, so to speak, and one cannot functionally exist without the other. One informs the other. But in yoga (and in many other life endeavors), I have discovered that there is much to be gained by not only understanding the differences between these two styles of thinking (and, hence, behaving), but also being able to consciously shift from one mode to another when necessary. I personally believe that our culture fosters a tendency toward “outcome-oriented” thinking (just think about all the familial and societal influences we are vulnerable to that suggest the value of achievement and accomplishment). These are, indeed, prosocial and adaptive forces, but they also lead to an emphasis on OUTCOMES. Therefore, more often than not, this becomes our “default” mode of thinking. The message, then, that I am wanting to convey here is that many people will benefit from being able to shift into “process” mode in order to cultivate the ability to be present with what they are doing – to study, witness, understand, explore, appreciate, and fully experience what is going on in the present moment. Mindfulness experts teach us that not only is the present moment the ONLY moment over which we have any domain (i.e., there is no such thing as past or future), but that it is IN THE PRESENT MOMENT where all of our wisdom, power, and resources exist. So even though it’s good to see the horizon to make sure we are headed in the right direction, it’s also invaluable to keep our heads down, gazing at our feet as we proceed on our journey, and to notice fully where we are, what’s going on, what we are thinking, feeling, sensing…IN THE PRESENT…and to carry that wisdom of the present moment into the next.
— David M. Wolgin, Ph.D.